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Humans Are a Subject of Knowledge and Freedom

1986, April 23

General Audience

"God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them" (Gen 1:27). The man and the woman were created with equal dignity as persons, as units of spirit and body. They are differentiated by their psycho-physical structures. The human being bears the mark of masculinity or femininity.

While it is a sign of diversity, it is also an indication of complementarity. That can be deduced from a reading of the "Yahwist" text, where the man exclaimed upon seeing the woman just created: "This at last is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh" (Gen 2:23). They are words of gladness and also of enthusiastic rapture of the man on seeing a being essentially like himself. The diversity and, at the same time, the psycho-spiritual complementarity are at the origin of the particular richness of humanity, which is proper to the descendants of Adam through their entire history. From this, marriage takes its origin, instituted by the Creator from the beginning: "Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh" (Gen 2:24).

To this text of Genesis corresponds the blessing of fruitfulness mentioned in Genesis 1:28: "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it...." Contained in the mystery of man's creation, the institution of marriage and the family seems to be linked with the command to "subdue" the earth, entrusted by the Creator to the first human couple.

Man is called to "subdue the earth." But note well-to "subdue" it, not to devastate it, because creation is a gift of God and, as such, it must be respected. Man is the image of God not only as male and female, but also because of the reciprocal relation of the two sexes. This reciprocal relation constitutes the soul of the "communion of persons" which is established in marriage and presents a certain likeness with the union of the three Divine Persons.

In this regard the Second Vatican Council tells us: "God did not create man a solitary being. From the beginning 'male and female he created them' (Gen 1:27). This partnership of man and woman constitutes the first form of communion between persons. For by his innermost nature man is a social being, and unless he relates himself to others he can neither live nor develop his potential" (GS 12).

Thus creation implies for man both a relationship with the world, and a relationship with the other human being (the man-woman relationship), as well as with others like them. "Subduing the earth" delineates the "relational" character of human existence. The dimensions "with others," "among others" and "for others" are proper to the human person as the "image of God." They establish from the beginning man's place among creatures. To this end man is called into existence as the subject (as the concrete "I"), endowed with intellectual consciousness and freedom.

Man's capacity of intellectual knowledge radically distinguishes him from the entire animal world, where the cognitive capacity is limited to the senses. Intellectual knowledge ms man capable of discernment, of distinguishing between truth and non-truth. It does this by opening before him the fields of science, of critical thought, of the methodical search for truth about reality. Man has within himself an essential relation to truth which determines his character as a transcendent being. The knowledge of the truth permeates the whole sphere of the relationship of man with the world and with other human beings. It is the indispensable premise of every form of culture.

Bound by an intrinsic relation to the good, the freedom of the human will is joined to intellectual knowledge and to the relation to truth. Human acts bear within themselves the sign of self-determination of the will and of choice. The whole sphere of morality derives from this. Man is capable of choosing between good and evil, sustained in this by the voice of conscience, which impels him to good and restrains him from evil.

Like the knowledge of truth, the capacity of choice-that is, free will-permeates the whole sphere of the relationship of man with the world, especially with other humans, and ventures even beyond.

Thanks to his spiritual nature and to his capacity for intellectual knowledge and freedom of choice and action, man is, from the very beginning, in a special relationship with God. The description of creation (cf. Gen 1-3) permits us to observe that the "image of God" is manifested above all in the relation of the human "I" to the divine "You." Man knows God, and his heart and will are capable of uniting themselves with God (homo est capax Dei). Man can say "yes" to God, but he can also say "no." He has the capacity to accept God and his holy will, but also the capacity to oppose it.

All this is contained in the meaning of the "image of God" presented to us by the Book of Sirach, among others: "The Lord created human beings out of the earth, and turned them back to it again.... He endowed them with strength like his own, and made them in his own image. He placed the fear of them in all living beings, and granted them dominion over beasts and birds. He made for them tongue and eyes; he gave them ears and a mind for thinking. He filled them with knowledge and understanding, and showed them good and evil.... He set his eye upon their hearts [note the expression!] to show them the majesty of his works.... He has set before them knowledge, a law of life as their inheritance. An everlasting covenant he has made with them, his commandments he has revealed to them" (Sir 17:1, 3-7, 9-10). These words contain a wealth of richness and depth which make us reflect.

The Second Vatican Council expressed the same truth about man in language which is both perennial and contemporary. "Only in freedom can man direct himself toward's dignity demands that he act according to a knowing and free choice..." (GS 17). "For by his interior qualities he outstrips the whole sum of mere things. He plunges into the depths of reality whenever he enters into his own heart; God, who probes the heart, awaits him there; there he discerns his proper destiny beneath the eyes of God" (GS 14). "Authentic freedom is an exceptional sign of the divine image within man" (GS 17). True freedom is freedom in truth, inscribed from the beginning in the reality of the "divine image."

By virtue of this "image" man, as the subject of knowledge and freedom, is not only called to transform the world according to the measure of his rightful needs. He is not only called to the communion of persons proper to marriage (communio personarum) from which the family begins. He is also called to the covenant with God. He is not merely a creature of the Creator, but also the image of God. He is creature as image of God, and he is image of God as creature. The description of creation in Genesis 1-3 is joined with that of the first covenant of God with man. This covenant (just like creation) is a competely sovereign initiative of God the Creator. It will remain unchanged throughout the history of salvation, until the definitive and eternal covenant which God will make with humanity in Jesus Christ.

Man is the suitable subject for the covenant, because he was created "in the image" of God, capable of knowledge and freedom. Christian thought has perceived in man's "likeness" to God the foundation of man's call to participate in the interior life of God-his opening to the supernatural.

In this way, the revealed truth about man, created "in the image and likeness of God," contains not only all that is humanum in him, and therefore essential to his humanity, but potentially also what is divinum, and therefore gratuitous. That is to say, it contains also what God-Father, Son and Holy Spirit-had de facto foreseen for man as the supernatural dimension of his existence, without which man could not attain all the fullness destined for him by the Creator.