A Lifeboat for a Sinking Society

April 2015By Stephen J. Kovacs

Stephen J. Kovacs, a regular contributor to the NOR, serves on the humanities faculty of Western Governors University.

Society and Sanity. By Frank Sheed.

Frank Sheed had many rare gifts that combined to make him one of the great Catholic apologists of the twentieth century. Among his many noteworthy achievements is an extensive list of books on all major areas of Catholic thought, each written with his characteristic clarity, wit, and academic expertise. Society and Sanity, an overview of Catholic anthropology and social and political philosophy, is perhaps his most acclaimed work. First published in 1953 and recently re-issued by Ignatius Press, it is just as relevant today as it was sixty years ago. Then as now, a major cause of our social problems is that we are ignorant of the fundamental principles of human nature and society. In this book, a true classic, Sheed explains these principles so that we can learn once again “how to live well together.”

The central thesis of the book is that in order to treat man correctly we must first know what he is. To see man as anything other than what he is would be insanity. As individuals and as a society, we must strive for sanity, which consists in “seeing what is, living in the reality of things.” This sounds simple enough, and in a sense it is, but unfortunately insanity is the norm today. We take others for granted and try desperately to avoid having to answer the question of what man is, but the question is unavoidable. In our current state of insanity, the human person is exceedingly vulnerable to abuse. It is fashionable these days to appeal to an endless list of human rights for our own protection, but until we know what man is, who is to say that we actually have these rights? Thus, Sheed says, “The first of the rights of man is to be treated as what he is.”

Our ancestors had a much better understanding of what man is. They knew that man is made in the image of God, possesses an immortal spirit, and is redeemed by Christ. These fundamental ideas about man are what truly civilized the Western world and earned it the name “Christian.” Our only hope of restoring some sanity to society, and rebuilding our civilization, lies in a return to these ideas.

Man is made in God’s image and is therefore a spiritual being; he has permanence and an unchangeable identity, having been made by God for eternal union with Him. While man is spiritual, he is also bodily. It is a perennial difficulty for man to accept himself as a composite of body and soul, and he usually overemphasizes one element to the detriment of the other. Although the spirit of man is primary, the body too is essential and sacred. Only Christianity truly embraces the total reality of man as an “organic compound” of spirit and matter.

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