Dr George KarakunnelAnthropology

Theological Anthropology

Theological Anthropology

The Contribution of Vatican II


George Karakunnel

(Professor, Institute  of  Theology, Aluva & Member of the Pontifical Academy of Theology, Rome)



The human person and society are central themes which always challenge our thinking and vision. Contemporary theology features an anthropological approach which has had an authoritative articulation with the Second Vatican Council in its Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes. Anthropology or the doctrine of man presented by Vatican II makes this conciliar text unparalleled when compared to previous official documents by a Council. “It is man himself”, says the Council, “who must be saved: it is mankind that must be renewed. It is man, therefore, who is the key to this discussion, man considered whole and entire, with body and soul, heart and conscience, mind and will.”[1] Again, the Council says: “Believers and unbelievers agree almost unanimously that all things on earth should be ordained to man as to their centre and summit”[2] The anthropological concerns of Vatican II are not just speculative or theoretical, but practical and concrete. The present essay will try to show the importance and influence of this vision in the ongoing thinking and vision of the Church.

The Actual Human Situation


The situation of man in the world today is the starting-point of the Council’s theology. A picture of man as individual person and as member of the society, living in the world and history is what Vatican II tries to draw by analyzing the human condition.  The present context of the world is the frame of the Council’s thinking. The scrutinization of the signs of the times is part of the task here. “At all times the Church carries the responsibility of reading the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel, if it is to carry out its task.  In language intelligible to every generation, she should be able to answer the ever recurring questions which people ask …”[3]  This approach of the Council in the Pastoral Constitution shows the attempt to do theology in the context of the stark realities of the world. The Constitution’s theme itself being an entirely a new one required a new methodology. Reading the signs of the times and interpreting them forms an important aspect of this new methodology. One of the great signs of the times as seen by the Council is rapid change which has given rise to a new age of history bringing critical and swift upheavals.[4]

Change has its impact on man as individual and as society. Man is both subject and object of change. “Triggered by the intelligence and creative energies of man, these changes recoil upon him, upon his decisions and desires, both individual and collective, upon his manner of thinking and acting with respect to things and people.”[5] The perception of the Pastoral Constitution is important here. The human situation as shown by Vatican II is paradoxical. In the very progress of which humanity can be proud, there is a breakdown. Human welfare promoted by governments and social bodies often does not materialize. True, there is greatness. But at the same time there is misery. Victory and defeat characterize the modern phase of human history. Gaudium et Spes has shown the polarities that constitute the human situation: “Since all these things are so, the modern world shows itself at once powerful and weak, capable of the noblest deeds or the foulest. Before it lies the path to freedom or to slavery, to progress or retreat, to brotherhood or hatred. Moreover, man is becoming aware that it is his responsibility to guide aright the forces which he has unleashed and which can enslave him or minister to him.”[6]

According to the Pastoral Constitution human situation is a locus theologicus, a theological resource. Both the human achievements and setbacks with their accompanying uncertainty, ambiguity and confusion in the individual and social living call for a theological discernment. Theology which is based on the Scriptures not only can account for the fact of human experience, but also can point to the way of well-being and happiness. But this work of theology has to take seriously the human situation. The novelty of the approach of Gaudium et Spes is precisely this. A theological anthropology rooted in human experience as well as guided by the scriptural vision is what emerges in the Second Vatican Council’s Pastoral Constitution.

Man, the Image of God

What is man? This is a fundamental question. The analysis of the human situation raises this fundamental question. Gaudium et Spes after analyzing the human situation brings the question like this: “But what is man? About himself he has expressed and continues to express many divergent and even contradictory opinions.”[7]  The human person and society are engaged in a relentless search for better living. But unless the identity of the human person is correctly visualized there would be no clear idea about what one wants to achieve for the individual and community. The Bible interprets human being as the image of God.

Then God said, ‘let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’ So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”[8]

The Second Vatican Council has used the biblical notion of image of God as the key to understanding what man is and developing its anthropological vision. The Council tries to show the implications of the divine image showing its different dimensions. First of all it means that every human being stands in direct relationship with God. It des not mean that man is equal to God. The divine image in man implies human being’s relational capacity for God. Classical theology as in St Augustine has shown man’s capacity for God as that which enables him to know and love God.[9] This basic teaching of Christian anthropology affirms that human beings cannot seek fulfillment apart from God. The intellectual and spiritual quality in man makes him different from other living beings, whom God has created. However man must make his way to God by a conscious and free choice.

The relational character of human being is also seen in his social orientation. The creation story in the Bible brings man’s relationship to others. Basing on scriptural sources, Gaudium et Spes says:

But God did not create man as solitary. For from the beginning male and female he created them (Gen.!:27). Their companionship produces the primary form of interpersonal communion. 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.[10]

According to the vision of Vatican II man is a being who exists in relationships. If he stands vertically related to God, the designer and creator of all, on a horizontal level he stands related to his fellow-human beings. Biblical anthropology, from which Vatican II draws, has interpersonality as its basic character. Family is the primary form of interpersonal communion which is open to building up of larger human communities and ultimately contributing to one human race and one human family. It is significant to observe that the document says “man is a social being and unless he relates himself to others, he can neither live nor develop his potential.” But the relationship with God stands as the centre of all interpersonal relations among human beings. Communion among human beings is ordained to God himself. The foundation and the goal of human existence cannot be separated from God. As Ratzinger has said commenting on the conciliar text, “the circle of human solidarity is open to a third, who is wholly other, God. And that, for the Council is the content of the doctrine that man is made to the image of God, he does not merely have to do with God indirectly through his work and his relations with his fellowmen. He can know and love God himself.”[11]

The Disfigured Image


The image of God in man has undergone a breakdown, though the basic reality of the divine image still remains. The biblical term that speaks about this is “sin”. Every aspect of human life is affected by the fact of sin. In man’s personal life and social life the consequences of sin become manifest. It has created estrangement from God and disharmony at all levels. If image of God in man is the theological reason for man’s greatness, disfiguration of the image by sin is the reason for man’s misery. Both the bright and dark aspects of human existence are brought under the light of revelation in Gaudium et Spes.” The call to grandeur and the depths of misery are both a part of human experience. They find their ultimate and simultaneous explanation in the light of God’s revelation.”[12]

Sin which causes the disfiguration of the image comes from the abuse of freedom. The manner of man’s abuse of freedom is described as “setting himself agaist God and desiring to find his goal apart from God”.[13] This way of going agaist God in fact is a simultaneous contraposition against fellow human beings as well as the entire creation. Biblical story telling on sin in the book of Genesis drives home the alienation and enmity developing in the human community. Ever since the first disruption by the sin of Adam there has been further increase of evil. The whole book of Genesis shows this. The enmity among brothers, Cain and Abel flares up into murder.[14] Lemech not only commits crimes against human fellowship but also boasts of his savage deeds.[15] The men at Babel who do not understand one another present a classical example of the repercussions that sin causes in the social sphere.[16]

The whole human history, due to sin, shows itself as torn by hatred and war.

In a world that is caught by the destructive power of sin, man’s work, becomes futile, even after spectacular achievements. The history of great civilizations and cultures demonstrate this. This does not say that there is nothing good in history. It once again makes it clear that the actual human situation one of ambiguity and uncertainty often bringing unexpected turn of events bringing much disappointment and suffering. All this give rise to a “dramatic struggle between good and evil, between light and darkness”.[17] The important question in Christian anthropology is not how bad the human situation is but how it is possible to find liberation from the breakdown and chaos experienced by man. Christian anthropology believes that in following God’s will and design a better world can be created. The re-creation of the divine image in man is basic to this project. This re-creation of the divine image in man and renewal of humanity has already taken place in Jesus Christ. Christ himself is the image of God. He is the new man and the promise of renewed humanity.

Christ, the Normative Man

The perfection of the human person and fulfillment of the entire humanity come from Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is the liberator of man. He is the new man and the normative man. The Pastoral Constitution, Gaudium et Spes acknowledges the need of a liberator and points to Jesus Christ: “Indeed, man finds that by himself he is incapable of battling the assaults of evil successfully, so that every one feels as though he bound in chains. But the Lord Himself came to free and strengthen man, renewing him inwardly and casting out the prince of this world (Jn 12:31) who held him in bondage to sin (Jn8:34)”.[18] Here the anthropology of Vatican II meets with Christology. In the Christian view it is not possible to speak meaningfully about man without introducing Jesus Christ. Anthropology is completed and perfected only in Christology. This was acknowledged in the Second Vatican Council when the document, Gaudium et Spes was introduced with the following words: “To speak about man is also to call upon Christ, the origin and source of human perfection and at the same time the supreme exemplar.”[19]

In the Bible Adam, the first man symbolizes the old humanity which stands in need of liberation. Jesus Christ is the second Adam who was prefigured by Adam, the first man. Gaudium et Spes says, “For Adam, the first man was a figure of him who was to come. Christ the new Adam, in the very revelation of the mystery of the Father and of his love, fully reveals man to man himself and brings to light his most high calling”.[20] The image of God could not find fulfillment in the original creation because sin entered into the human family and the disruption caused by sin continued in its history. In Christ the image of God shines in all its perfection. Christ as the image of God is part of New Testament Christology.[21] Christ being the perfect image of God is capable of recreating the image of God in man. “To the sons of Adam He restores the divine likeness which had been disfigured from the first sin onward.”[22] Jesus Christ does this because he is “the normative image” for humanity.

Christ, the perfect image of God is also the perfect man. Jesus Christ is not far removed from the human world. He is of our human flesh and blood. He has in him the fundamental structures of every man. The divinity of Christ does not set aside his humanity. Jesus has full human existence. He has all the genuine features and qualities of being human. Because he has in him all that being human means, he is the exemplary man.[23] The document makes this affirmation: “Born of the Virgin Mary He has truly been made one of us, like us in all things except sin.”[24] As Scripture says, he “learned obedience through what he suffered”.[25] He had our dilemmas and underwent our trials. Yet he is different. He is united to God the Father in the unbreakable bond of his sonship, obedient and trusting. In the Christian vision the vocation of man is to be conformed to the image of Christ. The fulfillment and perfection of man is in Jesus Christ. Christ is the perfect human person and the normative man for all humanity.

Towards a New Humanity


Every one in the world hopes to see a better tomorrow. The coming of a glorious era for humanity belongs to a collective dream. The Kerala poet Kumaran Asan has written the following lines:

Breathing truth, observing equality

Enjoying the elixir of love and feeling elated

Let men march forward in the path of Dharma

Let this earth be heaven[26]

The noble aspirations of humanity are given expressions in Asan’s poem. Christian anthropology drawing from human wisdom and divine revelation envisages the building up of a better world. All human values cherished by people everywhere find their realization in Christ. The word and work of Jesus Christ show the beginning of a new humanity.

The greatest teaching of Jesus is love. The building up of the human society is possible only when interpersonal relations are characterized by unselfish love. “Love one another” is the command that Jesus gave (Jn15:16). The great economic theories and political systems though allegedly stand for social welfare are not primarily based on love. In fact it is in contemporary discussion, as with the great economist Amartya Sen, that the importance of ethical concerns has surfaced in economic welfare. Christian anthropology based on the teaching and example of Jesus gives emphasis to love as the basis of interpersonal relations and building up of society.  Drawing from the teaching of the New Testament Gaudium et Spes says:

Love of God and one’s neighbour, then, is the first and greatest commandment. Scripture teaches that love of God cannot be separated from love of one’s neighbour: Any other commandment is summed up in this sentence: You shall love your neighbour as yourself…therefore love is the fulfilling of the law (Rom 13:9-10; cf1Jn 4: 20). It goes without saying that this is a matter the utmost importance to men who are coming to rely more and more on each other and to a world which becoming more unified every day[27]

Christian anthropology is based on the vertical and the horizontal dimensions of human existence. The first is concerned about the relation between the human person and God. The second dimension is about interpersonal relations. Both these are interrelated. The first is in fact based on the second. More than ever today there is an increase of reciprocal ties and mutual dependencies among human beings. But despite this the Pastoral Constitution observes that “people are often diverted from doing good and spurred towards evil.”[28] “Social order and its development” says the Constitution, “must unceasingly work to the benefit of the human person.”[29] To all the basic things necessary for leading a truly human life, such as food, clothing and shelter, should be made available. Moreover the right to choose a state of life freely and to found a family, the right to education, to employment, to good reputation, to respect, to appropriate information, to activity according to the norm of one’s  conscience etc are to be protected.[30]

The Council has shown the example of Jesus who showed his solidarity and fellowship with all especially for the poor and deprived.[31] “Being for oneself” and “being for others” are expressions that speak two attitudes in life. Jesus’ attitude may be characterized by the latter.  The anthropology of the Council is concrete. Basing on the fundamental principle of love it shows that reverence for the human person, whoever he may be: an old person abandoned by all, a foreign worker unjustly looked down upon, a refugee, a child born of unlawful union, or a hungry person.[32] The Christian vision is related to the practice of love and the demands of the principle of justice.


A New Heaven and A New Earth

Christianity is eschatological. It is in that way future-oriented.  Based on the biblical vision of “a new heaven and a new earth” it looks forward with hope to a better tomorrow for the entire human race. The Christian eschatological hope is not unrelated to the world and history. It has thorough-going demands for the present. These are demands of love and justice. The Constitution wants to show that “every one must consider his neighbour without exception as another self, taking into account first of all his life and the means necessary to living it with dignity.”[33] The practice of justice demands an end to discrimination. “Every type of discrimination” says Gaudium et Spes, whether based on sex, race, colour, social condition, language or religion, is to be curbed and eradicated as incombatible with God’s design.”[34] The need to work for fairer and more humane conditions, removal of excessive economic and social disparity are required to bring about a united and peaceful world.[35]


The anthropological vision of the Council has an integral character.  It includes not only the human person and society but also the earth which is the natural habitat of man. The image of God that man is carries a responsibility for the entire creation. The human beings are entrusted with the duty of stewardship. Building up the human community is impossible without the care for the entire creation. Environment has suffered at the hands of man. The biblical concept of “rule over the earth” has been misinterpreted especially by Western theology to suit the colonial greed of peoples and nations. Ecological concern is today recognized as concern for man.

Theologically the entire creation is the subject matter of redemption. “The new heavens and new earth” to which Christian faith looks forward has continuity with the present. The works of love, justice and peace will endure and go into the perfection of the new age. “Far from diminishing our concern to develop this earth, the expectancy of a new earth should spur us on; for it is here that the body of a new human family grows foreshadowing the age which is to come”[36]



Theological anthropology is not marginal to Christian doctrine. Man created in the image of God is at the centre of Christian faith and practice. If presentday theology is not only oriented to man but also centred on man it is right to be so. Karl Rahner said: “If we come down to fundamentals a theocentric theology is not opposed to what is called anthropocentric theology.”[37] The contribution of Vatican II in the Pastoral Constitution shows this. The Church’s relation to world has its basis in man. “The living man”, said Irenaeus “is the glory of God.”[38] That is the vision of Gaudium et Spes which showed the way to fulfillment for the human person and community.

[1] GS, 3
[2] GS, 12
[3] GS, 4
[4] GS, 4
[5] GS, 4
[6] GS, 9
[7] GS,12
[8] Gen. 1:26-27; cf Wis. 2:23; Ps. 8:
[9] St Augustine, De Trinitate XIV, 8, 11.
[10] GS,12
[11] Joseph Ratzinger, “The Dignity of the Human Person,”   Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II (London 1969), pp.122-123.
[12] GS, 13
[13]  GS,13
[14] Gen. 4: 8-16.
[15] Gen.4: 23-24.
[16] Gen.11: 1-9.
[17] GS, 13
[18] GS, 13
[19] The Acts of the Second Vatican Council, IV, I,  p. 555
[20] GS, 22
[21] Col.. 1: 15.
[22] GS 22.
[23] Joseph Ratzinger, Introduction  to Christianity (New York 1969), p.179
[24] GS,22
[25] Heb. 5: 8
[26] Kumaran Asan, “The Song of Freedom”, The Selected Poems of Kumaran Asan (Trivandrum 1975), stanza 7, p.76.
[27] GS, 24
[28] GS, 25
[29] GS,25
[30] GS,26
[31] GS,32
[32] GS,26
[33] Acts of the Council IV, VI,  p.455.
[34] GS, 29
[35] GS,29
[36] GS,39.
[37] Karl Rahner, The Theological Investigations Vol XVII (London 1976), p.55
[38] Adversus Haereses !V, 20: PG7,255.

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