Lecture on Ontological Poverty

Susan Selner-Wright, PhD

8 March 2017

Annual Lecture of the Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, OFM cap. Chair of Philosophy

St. John Vianney Theological Seminary

Ontological Poverty and Our Attitude toward the Dependent and Disabled

Today I want to talk about ontological poverty, a very precise term capturing our situation as creatures. We do not independently possess the “means” to begin to exist or to continue in existence. Creation is viewed in our tradition as the gift of all gifts, the expression of God’s infinite generosity. But for many of our contemporaries, the idea of creatureliness is something to be resisted as a threat to our dignity.

Contemporary philosopher Thomas Nagel speaks of a “fear of religion” which he thinks is common among intellectuals. He writes, “I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.”[1] What is the root of this “cosmic authority problem,” as Nagel himself calls it? When he says, “I don’t want the universe to be like that,” what does he mean by “that”? Clearly Nagel wants the universe not to be created, not to owe its existence and order to a power beyond the universe. In his most recent book, Mind and Cosmos, Nagel posits that in order for mind to have developed in human beings, it must somehow have been present from the very beginning of the universe. A successful understanding of the universe will, he thinks, need to show “how the natural order is disposed to generate beings capable of comprehending it,”[2] and will allow us to see that “[e]ach of our lives is a part of the lengthy process of the universe gradually waking up and becoming aware of itself.”[3]

To Nagel’s credit, he has consistently resisted reductive materialism, the most common route to denying any authority beyond the universe itself. He proposes instead a naturalism which maintains that the universe is self-sufficient and somehow bears within itself from the beginning the latent active potency to develop not only materially but also, somehow, mentally. But even if this were true, he would still be faced with the metaphysical question, Where did all that latent active potency come from? Anything which manifests composition of act and potency (which Nagel’s posited universe surely does) is still subject to the principle of sufficient reason and requires a cause beyond itself. Complexifying the potency of the universe itself is interesting and makes for really cool science fiction, but it ignores the most basic metaphysical question. Why would Nagel do that?

He himself has answered the question. In order to avoid even the possibility of an authority over the cosmos itself, certain lines of questioning are simply being ruled out of bounds in advance. Edward Feser points out that Nagel is unusually open about the fact that his atheism is rooted in wishful thinking. The majority of academics in the English-speaking world are less self aware. Like a teenager who has learned to yell, “Hater” to shut down any difficult conversation, too many academics have learned to treat the possibility of God as something embarrassing, taken seriously only by uneducated people. The taboo is enforced socially and its consequences are far-reaching. As Chesterton probably didn’t say, “He who does not believe in God will believe in anything.” And the anything has arrived in spades. In The Last Superstition, Feser lists some of the things that have become thinkable for the intellectual elites in our terribly grown-up no-need-for-an-authority-beyond-ourselves world: professional “ethicists” arguing for infanticide, euthanasia, bestiality, necrophilia, same-sex “marriage,” animal rights superseding human rights, and that was the list Feser made in 2008. In the nine years since, we have learned that biological sex has nothing to do with gender and that it’s perfectly reasonable for a father of seven to suddenly realize that he is not a man after all and settle instead on an identity as a six-year-old girl.

What is going on here? How can any responsible person suggest that we “celebrate” these things? And how in the world did the rainbow, the sign of God’s promise that he would never again use his “restart” button on the earth—how did this sign come to be adopted by the purveyors of this madness? It’s as though they are saying, We’re pushing the restart ourselves. We will destroy the people of the earth in order to remake man in no image at all.

A lot of things are tangled up here. Things have been separated that belong together and our response to the ensuing unravelling has been to tie things up in every which way.   Soul has been separated from body. Power has been separated from teleology. Indoctrination has displaced education. Expressing a judgment out loud has become hate speech. Freedom has become license. We are in such a mess that it’s very difficult to figure out where to start—in fact I started and re-started this paper at least six times! But I think what’s at the root of it all is that human dignity and human creaturehood have become mutually exclusive notions for the modern mind. Dignified creaturehood is an oxymoron. Fidelity to a law not of one’s own devising indicates immaturity, a failure to reach an adult state. The natural law, which St. Thomas understood as a great gift to man, now is perceived as a burden imposed from without, and voluntary subjection to that law a co-operation with our own humiliation.

As so often is the case, our tradition holds a “both/and” which has been confused into an “either/or.” As creatures, we are both utterly indebted and entirely endowed. We have been effected by the action of the Creator, but by that very act endowed with our own efficacy. Creation is God’s project but not his puppet. The Catechism puts it this way: “God has not willed to reserve to himself all exercise of power. He entrusts to every creature the functions it is capable of performing, according to the capacities of its own nature.”[4]   The Catechism immediately goes on to articulate the principle of subsidiarity as one that we are to follow in imitation of God’s respect for secondary causes. [Q&A develop application to parish, seminary—our drive for efficiency can get in the way of letting subcommunities and the individuals in them function, analogy to parenthood]

Our many, many failures in subsidiarity make it clear that we have a very hard time acting as though there can be more than one “real” power at a time. Given our failures in this regard, it is not hard to understand that people would extend to God the mistrust earned by human beings. So we need to do two things. First, we need to act more like God so that people can find God’s generosity more plausible. That’s everybody’s assignment for the rest of our lives. Second, we have to help people think more clearly about God as he is, not as we fail to represent him.

The both/and of creaturely indebtedness and efficacy is mirrored in the Creator’s immanence and transcendence. St. Thomas addresses the mode of God’s immanence early in the Prima Pars, asking very simply whether God is in all things. Thomas answers that God is in all things in the way that “an agent,” an efficient cause, “is present to [inest] that upon which it works.”[5] So , Thomas says, just as the light of the sun illuminates the air for as long as the air is illuminated, the source of our being makes us be for as long as we be.   The sun’s presence to the air can come and go: it affects the air but does not effect it. But when the sun is illuminating the air (or, in my house, all the dust in the air) think about what an intimate relationship that is: the sunlight is right there, right with the air. The Creator’s presence to the creature is even more radical, not only affecting the creature but effecting it. Thomas says, “Esse is that which is innermost to anything and most profoundly present to [inest, Shapcoate: inherent in] everything. … Hence it must be that God is in everything and innermostly [intime].”[6]

If someone thinks of creation as an imposition from outside the creature, he is making a metaphysical error: existence is within the creature, not without. Instead of saying, “God created me without my consent,” it actually makes more sense to say, “God created me and my consent.” My capacity to give or withhold permission is itself God’s gift. And I have it precisely because he gave it to me as my own, as a being other than himself. Resentment of God is actually a manifestation of the fact that the gift he’s given me is real—if I were simply an extension of God, not authentically other than God, I could not resent God.

In creation, God gives finite being not only existence but order. The intelligibility of the universe itself cannot be accounted for otherwise. This is not an order maintained from outside but one that arises integrally from within creation itself: it is not the universe being manipulated, it’s the universe being itself—a version of the integral universe that Nagel thinks a successful theory will show! But Nagel wants that mindful universe to somehow arise on its own. He is failing to process the existential situation that John Paul Sartre so resolutely articulated: either there is God who creates and thereby orders the universe or there is no authentic order and the only appropriate, “realistic” response is nausea. Josef Pieper refers to this as Sartre’s “meritoriously clarifying radicalism.”[7]

In creation God causes something authentically other than himself. He did not have to do that, but he willed to do so. I am utterly indebted to my Creator and yet the gift he has given me is now my own. This is true for every creature, but even more acutely true for the rational creature, who receives not only existence and order, but the capacity to become aware of those gifts. All of creation is subject to God’s ordering, the eternal law, but as a rational creature I have the capacity to participate in my own ordering. Like every other creature, I am God’s project but I have been given the capacity to co-operate in that project, to understand my own ordering and that of the world around me and, to a lesser extent, to assent to that order freely. Pope Benedict says, “[i]n contrast to the animals our life is not simply laid out for us in advance. What it means for us to be human beings is for each one of us a task and an appeal to our freedom.”[8] While both Scripture and metaphysics assure me that, “You are not God, you did not make yourself, you do not rule the universe,”[9] because of the gift of reason and free will, I can rule myself and choose to act in accord with my own given nature.

To refuse to acknowledge the order given in creation is to deliberately blind ourselves. A hearty “Non serviam!” may earn me some knowing nods from my peers, but it also makes me unable to know the truth of things or to order my own actions in a way conducive to my own happiness. This is exactly the state of nausea Sartre points to. If I reject a mindful creator who orients me toward my own fulfillment, the result is not freedom but disorientation, a compass that points everywhere at once. Pieper paraphrases Sartre, calling this the “kind of freedom to which man is not called, but condemned and which is almost identical with despair.”[10]

Although the teenager in every one of us wishes we could do whatever we want whenever we want, in our maturity we realize that that isn’t actually freedom at all. Radical autonomy, freedom for freedom’s sake, is an emperor with no clothes—people act like it’s terrific but there is a very deep unease covered over with frantic activity or medicated relaxation. In our FIPIs we have contrasted freedom as autonomy with freedom for excellence. But in preparing this talk, I’ve decided that it might be better to call the mature freedom “freedom to be ourselves.” It’s the freedom that comes with acknowledging who we really are, creatures willed to be and to have a certain order by an infinitely wise and loving God. The call to excellence is, at its root, a call to become more and more fully ourselves. Far from a threat to my dignity, my identity, it’s a call for me to fully live my own dignity, my own identity. Just as the order of the universe is given to it to be its own, my dignity, my identity, my integrity – all these are both given to me and owned by me. God wants us to be and to be ourselves. Acknowledging our dependence on him is not a humiliation but a realistic appraisal of the situation. And if we really understand what it means for an infinite being who needs nothing to desire to be in community with puny beings like us even knowing exactly how much trouble we will be, we realize—Gosh, he must be really be crazy about us! He wants us to exist! Sometimes we can barely put up with each other, but he continuously renews, re-approves, the existence of even the most irritating among us! Our dependence on God is a direct result of his love for us. God says, “I want you to be and to be yourself.” The approval that we’re seeking on facebook showing off for our friends is NOTHING compared to the radical thumbs up, the MAN DO I LIKE YOU manifested by our continued existence.

When people live like they really believe in their own creaturehood, they manifest a gift of the Holy Spirit called Fear of the Lord. Once when I was giving a talk about the gifts of the Holy Spirit, an older woman got very agitated and insisted that because we now understand that all fear is psychologically damaging, we should not use the word fear at all in thinking about our relationship with God. But this is another either/or that has degenerated from a both/and. The truth is that fear can be both good and bad. Advocates of radical autonomy think that all fear is bad because is represses my choices. Actually, a good parent teaches her children to be afraid of fire in order to protect them and help them to protect themselves from getting burned. Fear is bad when it impedes our acting appropriately. Fear is good when it helps us to act well, to act in accord with the integrity of our own being.

St. Thomas says fear of the Lord is a form of filial fear, which is so-named because it is the kind of fear a flourishing child would have with regard to disobeying a truly excellent parent: it’s not that the child fears punishment, but that he knows his father loves him and that the rules his father makes for him are good, so he does not want to disobey those rules and wound himself and his relationship with his father. Now, as we know, human fathers and mothers do not always merit the kind of confidence that this idealized flourishing child would have. But that is the flawed side of the analogy. God, as the author of our existence and our order, is the only one whose “rules” we can be supremely confident are always to be followed as being for our good. Far from manifesting weakness, adherence to the Creator’s ordering is a sure sign of wisdom: of knowing reality as it is. Thomas says, “[F]ilial fear is the beginning of wisdom in the sense that it is the first effect of wisdom. For since the regulation of human life by the Divine law belongs to wisdom, in order to make a beginning, man must first of all revere God and submit himself to Him: for the result will be that in all things he will be ruled by God.”[11]

Filial fear, Thomas says, does not decrease as we grow in charity but rather it increases—the more vividly we respond to God’s love for us, the more averse we are to anything that would disrupt that relationship, the more convinced we are that this would not be good for us. Thomas follows a line of thought, already established by the Fathers of the Church, according to which filial fear is perfected in the blessed just as charity is, and in heaven filial fear continues as, in Augustine’s words, “a fear that holds fast to a good which we cannot lose.”[12]

In his discussion of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, Thomas reflects on how each gift is connected to a particular beatitude. Given the connection between acknowledgment of our ontological poverty and the gift of fear of the Lord, it isn’t surprising that Thomas connects this gift to the first beatitude, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”[13] Poverty of spirit (paupertatem spiritus) is the correct “affective” response to the reality of our ontological poverty. Thomas says, “Now from the very fact that a man subjects himself to God [aliquis Deo se subiicit] it follows that he ceases to seek greatness either in himself or in another but seeks it only in God.   … [P]overty of spirit … denotes either the emptying of a puffed up and proud spirit [exinanitio inflate et superbi spiritus] as Augustine says, or the renunciation of worldly goods which is done in spirit, i.e. by one’s own will, through the instigation [per instinctum] of the Holy Spirit, as Ambrose [re: Luke 6:20] and Jerome [re: Matt 5:3] say.”

I’d like to reflect on poverty of spirit as the emptying of a puffed up or proud spirit. Acknowledging our own creaturehood allows us to be open and receptive to God, to ourselves and to others.[14] It allows us to be open to our own limitations in a way that the “Non serviam” simply can’t. It lets us have a sense of humor about ourselves, something the prideful can only feebly imitate. And it enables us to be receptive to both God and our fellow human beings in a way that the prideful can only pretend. When we acknowledge our dependence on God and are able to experience that dependence with the humble dignity of a beloved child, our ability to depend on and be depended on by others also is transformed. Simplistic notions of reciprocity, of keeping count that I’m getting as much as I’m giving, simply fall away in the face of the magnitude of what God has done for each of us. There is no room for “pay as you go” relationships if we are aware of our own indebtedness. At the same time, a vivid sense of creatureliness helps us to be aware of the capacity each of us has to fall short of what we ought to be. We are less shocked by our own failures and less scandalized by the failings of others when we have our common creatureliness firmly in mind.

Awareness of our own dependency forces us to get over wrongheaded notions of self-sufficiency, and inoculates us against the sort of pride that looks to help the neighbor but refuses to expose any need of our own. In fact, facing our own dependency can help us to understand what we receive from relationships in which we may, at first, think that we are primarily giving. Seeing our fellow human beings as having been deliberately called into existence by God helps us to encounter them in a way that expects them to be gifted in themselves and potentially gifts to us. This is true of all the people we encounter, but to take what is the most counter-intuitive instance for the modern mind, let us reflect on the fact that through this lens it is possible see the profoundly disabled person as potentially commensurately gifted. If we encounter them expecting only to discover what they are not, we will never appreciate what they are!

  • Physically disabled but mentally fine woman trapped in an institution – absolute fruition of this nurse’s work
  • Cognitively disabled and happily dependent — manifest the real humble dignity that we should all have.
  • Self-reports of happiness among people with Down Syndrome


This is very different from the view of the cognitively disabled that a rigid emphasis on autonomy generates. If you understand freedom as autonomy, the ability to independently choose and then carry out one’s choice, then the cognitively impaired person is not very free. But if you think freedom as the freedom to be yourself, these are some of the freest people on the planet. And yet, pre-natal diagnosis of chromosomal abnormalities associated with cognitive disability is greeted with great fear and all too frequently results in abortion. Unlike God’s “I want you to be and to be you,” too many of these littlest among us are told, “I don’t want you because you will be you.” In his book, Reconsidering Intellectual Disability, Jason Reimer Greig observes, “A culture trained in a human telos of eliminating contingency and maximizing choice easily projects its own fear of the / limitation of creatureliness onto people with intellectual disabilities. In a society that is deeply afraid of death and dependence, people with cognitive impairments embody the suffering inherent in a life not of one’s own choosing.”[15]  The more invested we are in the myth of our own autonomy the harder it is for us to welcome people who give the lie to that myth, who remind us how very contingent we all really are.

And that is precisely what makes them such important prophets for our time.   Living with and caring for the cognitively disabled allows the cognitively able to experience the possibility of a mutuality which is so much more than reciprocity. Eva Feder Kittay, a feminist philosopher who is herself the mother of a disabled child, writes movingly of making that discovery during the first months of her baby’s life. She recounts that once she and her husband realized their baby was seriously disabled, “[Our] worst fear was that her handicap involved her intellectual faculties. We, her parents, were intellectuals. I was committed to a life of the mind. … How was I to raise a daughter that would have no part of this? If my life took its meaning from thought, what kind of meaning would her life have? … Yet, throughout this time it never occurred to me … to think of her in any other terms than my own beloved child. … Her impairment in no way mitigated my love for her. If it had any impact on that love it was only to intensify it. She was so vulnerable. … We did not yet realize how much she would teach us, but we already knew we had learned something. That which we believed we valued, what we—I—thought was at the center of humanity, the capacity for thought, for reason, was not it, not it at all.”[16]   Through her encounter with her daughter, Kittay learned that there was so much more to her own life than her own rationality. Her daughter’s incapacity forced her to move out of her own narrow comfort zone and realize that there was more to being human than being rational.

  • My own expectations of attending graduation, helping pick a wedding dress, esp. books with Rachel. Looking for her to be the like as me so we can have a reciprocal relationship. But realizing that there’s so much more to her than not being able to read books, and so much more to me than being able to read them.


Rachel and I have a lot of mutuality but very little reciprocity. And isn’t that exactly like our relationship with our Creator? Reciprocity is impossible. I cannot give to him as he gives to me. But that isn’t what he wants! He actually wants me to be puny little me and to be me with him. Pope Benedict writes that to be made in the image of God means to be made for relationality,[17] not mere rationality.

God’s relations with us are marked by a profound respect for us. In our relations with people who depend upon us, it is important for us to image that same respect. The person who is poor in spirit, who “ceases to seek greatness either in himself or in another,” is able to be depended upon without mistaking himself for God, is able to see the other as equally the creature of God, endowed with a nature that must be respected despite the ways in which it might be hidden. The helper who is poor in spirit helps in a way that does not humiliate and moves at the speed of the one helped, never confusing efficiency with care. This is the person who looks to not only help but be helped by the dependent, never undermining, isolating or excluding them, but welcoming them. Such care-givers are also prophets whose witness we desperately need. Their example makes it easier for us to believe in our hearts what we know in our minds: that God loves us and has no in interest in our humiliation. That the humbling moments that come our way are gifts to help us understand ourselves better and so better co-operate in the project each one of us is. Pope Benedict puts it this way: “Human beings can only be healthy [sane!] when they are true …. The Holy Spirit … convinces the world and us of sin—not to humiliate us but to make us true and healthy, to ‘save’ us.”[18] That salvation requires that we acknowledge our ontological poverty. In Benedict’s words, “We can only be saved – that is, be free and true—when we stop wanting to be God and when we renounce the madness of autonomy and self-sufficiency.”[19]

Thank you very much.

[1] Thomas Nagel, The Last Word (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 130-31.

[2] Thomas Nagel, Mind and Cosmos (Oxford: Oxford Univeristy Press, 2012), 86.

[3] Mind and Cosmos, 85.

[4] CCC 1884. It cites St. John Paul’s definition of subsidiarity from Centesimus Annus 48: “a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to coordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good.”

[5] ST I q. 1, a. 8: Deus est in omnibus rebus … sicut agens adest ei in quod agit.

[6] ST I q. 8, a. 1: Hunc autem effectum causat Deus in rebus, non solum quando primo esse incipiunt, sed quandiu in esse conservantur; sicut lumen causatur in aere a sole quandiu aer illuminatus manet. Quandiu igitur res habet esse, tandiu oportet quod Deus adsit ei, secundum modum quo esse habet. Esse autem est illud quod est magis intimum cuilibet, et quod profundius omnibus inest, cum sit formale respectu omnium quae in re sunt, ut ex supra dictis patet. Unde oportet quod Deus sit in omnibus rebus, et intime.

[7] “The Concept of ‘Createdness’ and Its Implications,” in Tommaso d’Aquino nel suo VII Centenari atti del Congresso Intl., Vol. 5 (Napoli: Edicioni Domenicane Italiane), 24.

[8] “In the Beginning …”: A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and the Fall, trans. Boniface Ramsey, O.P. (homilies) and Helen Saward (appendix) (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 42.

[9] “In the Beginning …,” 42-43.

[10] “The Concept of ‘Createdness’,” , 26-27.

[11] ST II-II q. 19, a. 7.

[12] ST II-II q. 19, a.11, citing De Civ Dei, xiv, 9.

[13] Matt 5:3; Cf. Luke 6:20.

[14] Cf. “In the Beginning”, 95.

[15] Reconsidering Intellectual Disability: l’Arche, Medical Ethics, and Christian Friendship (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2015), 72-73.

[16] Love’s Labor: Essays on Women, Equality, and Dependency (New York, Routledge, 1999), 150.

[17] “In the Beginning,” 47.

[18] “In the Beginning,” 64.

[19] “In the Beginning,” 73.