Pope Francis, Jane Goodall speak on ‘what it means to be human’ at Vatican health conference

By Courtney Mares for CNA

Pope Francis greets a child in St. Peter’s Square during the general audience on April 20, 2016. Daniel Ibanez/CNA

Vatican City, May 8, 2021 / 10:30 am (CNA).

Pope Francis and Jane Goodall both offered perspectives on “what it means to be human” on the final day of an online Vatican health conference on Saturday.

In a video message to the virtual conference on May 8, the pope said that Saint Augustine’s words in “The Confessions” are timeless: “Man is himself a great deep.”

“The Scriptures, and philosophical and theological reflection in particular, have employed the concept of ‘soul’ to define our uniqueness as human beings and the specificity of the person, which is irreducible to any other living being and includes our openness to a supernatural dimension and thus to God,” the pope said.

Pope Francis said that “this openness to the transcendent” is fundamental and “bears witness to the infinite value of every human person.”

Anthropologist Jane Goodall, famed for her work with chimpanzees, also spoke at the Vatican conference on “mind, body, and soul,” giving a talk entitled “What does it Mean to be Human?”

“I think where we fit in into the picture of primates is we are the fifth great ape, and our closest relative among the other great apes… Well, there’s two of them, actually, the chimpanzee and the bonobo. We differ from each other genetically by only just over 1%,” Goodall said.

She offered examples of how chimpanzees can be taught sign language, use the computer, and make drawings. During evolution, she said, humans learned to communicate with words, language, and writing that enables people to be distinguished by their ability to make plans for the future and invent rockets.

“But then when you realize how like us chimpanzees are, and yet how we differ with this explosive development of the intellect, this development of the intellect has not given us a reason to label ourselves as Homo sapiens, the wise ape. We’re not wise. We’ve seen what Mars looks like. We don’t want to live there. We’ve only got this one planet, at least in our lifetimes, and we’re destroying it,” Goodall said.

“All the major religions share the golden rule, do to others as you would have them do to you. If we can apply that to animals, as well as to each other, then I think we shall be coming closer to being able to define ourselves as Homo sapiens,” she added.

The Vatican health conference taking place May 6-8 on “Exploring the Mind, Body & Soul: How Innovation and Novel Delivery Systems Improve Human Health,” has featured more than 100 speakers including Dr. Anthony Fauci, chief medical adviser to U.S. President Joe Biden, as well as Clinton Foundation vice chair Chelsea Clinton and New Age guru Deepak Chopra.

It is the fifth conference of its kind organized by the Pontifical Council for Culture and the Cura Foundation, which describes itself as a “nonsectarian, nonpartisan” group “with a mission to improve human health globally.” This year is the first time that the conference is taking place virtually.

“I am pleased that students from various universities throughout the world, Catholic and non-Catholic, are taking part in this event. I encourage you to undertake and pursue interdisciplinary research involving various centers of study, for the sake of a better understanding of ourselves and of our human nature, with all its limits and possibilities, while always keeping in mind the transcendent horizon to which our being tends,” Pope Francis said.

The pope said that when interdisciplinary research is applied to the medical sciences it “translates into more sophisticated research and increasingly suitable and exact strategies of care.”

“We need but think of the vast field of research in genetics, aimed at curing a variety of diseases. Yet this progress has also raised a number of anthropological and ethical issues, such as those dealing with the manipulation of the human genome aimed at controlling or even overcoming the aging process, or at achieving human enhancement,” he said.

Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin also addressed the conference via video message on May 8.

The cardinal said that human beings are distinguished from animals by rationality, “a high degree of self-understanding” and reflection on others and the universe.

“Another unique feature is the moral conscience that allows us to act by distinguishing between what is good and what is bad. This fundamental reference causes us to ask ourselves ethical questions about our actions, about society, about the use of the tools that we develop and make socially usable,” Parolin said.

“A strong moral sense pushes us to denounce and take actions that put an end to injustices through philanthropic and solidarity actions that counteract the manifestations of evil.”

He also noted that humans are capable of contemplating beauty and artistic expression in many different forms, as well as possessing “the openness to the transcendent horizon which in the lives of many of us leads to religious experience, but which also prompts us to question ourselves about the ultimate questions.”

“The ancient thinkers encapsulated this specificity and uniqueness of the human being in a single term, humanitas, which from Cicero onwards became the category with which to indicate the objective principle of a complex system of exquisitely human moral values,” Parolin said.

“Now, this day seals the three days full of content, and is also the final moment of a complex itinerary of reflection. However, it is also an openness to a constant search for human natures conducted by the philosophers and men of culture of the past. My wish is, therefore, to continue to deepening the mystery of our being with enthusiasm and determination, to discover and be fascinated by what makes us truly human,” he said.


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8 Comments

  1. Scientific advances by this Vatican are dazzling. Following discussion with conference consultant anthropologist Jane Goodall, who said man is the fifth great ape, the closest the chimpanzee. She added development of the intellect has not given us a reason to label ourselves as Homo sapiens, the wise ape. We’re not wise. We’re destroying the planet. Chimps are not. And that the genetic difference of chimpanzees from man is just 1%. Will Academy president Archbishop Vicenzo Paglia consider appointing a chimpanzee, a mature candidate of course to the Academy for Life? Or are there sufficient comparable primate representation?

    • There are sufficient numbers–perhaps an over-representation–at present. We have heard the loud and clear purveyors of science speaking within the Vatican.

      • Yes, given their gyrations while listening to trash music at the Youth Synod a few years ago, it’s safe to say over represented. But do primates also suffer from moral dementia give their dumbfounded confusion and ultimate non-response when a reporter asked how they could remain morally indifferent to the practice of burying children alive among the native peoples they were so busy lionizing at the subsequent Amazon Synod?

  2. Excellent comments by Pope Francis and by Cardinal Parolin, but on two details—what more about Parolin’s “complexity,” and what about Goodall’s reductionist “one percent”? Two comments:

    FIRST, what does it mean when St. Augustine clarifies that the divinity is a Trinity rather than a Quaternary? Namely, that by assuming our human nature in the Incarnation, rather than forming a hybrid fourth party, instead, the Second Person elevates us into his own divine and eternal life in the Trinity. Categorically more than complexity, the splendor and simplicity of supernatural grace.

    “God made the angels to show him splendor—as he made animals for innocence and plants for their simplicity. But man he made to serve him wittily in the tangle of his mind!. . .And no doubt it delights God to see splendor where He only looked for complexity. . .” (Robert Bolt, A Man for All Seasons,1960). Splendor, as in the “Splendor of the Truth” (Pope St. John Paul II, 1993).

    SECOND, Isaac Asimov, the science fiction writer, understood best the meaning of fractals as unfolding microcosms: “I believe that scientific knowledge has fractal properties; that no matter how much we learn, whatever is left, however small it may seem [in the genome, Goodall’s one percent], is just as infinitely complex as the whole was to start with. That, I think, is the secret of the Universe” (attributed by Stratford Caldicott, Second Spring, 2011).

    That the human genome is found to be so nearly identical to that of some primates, but not quite, and is instead irreducibly different, is cause for greater wonder, not less: the capacity to know the Other—and to opt in, or not.

    • The point that is overlooked, intentionally or otherwise, is that the critical difference between man and chimp is not to be found within the insignificant “1%” of Ms. Goodall, but the metaphysical connection to God that has been gifted specifically to man, especially through the Incarnation. However, the 1% difference is appreciated, mostly regarding our lack of fur and, of course, the opposable thumb.

  3. Aside from humor I’d be entirely remiss if I did not fully agree with Peter Beaulieu that both Pope Francis in defense of Catholic ethics on scientific research and Secy of State Cardinal Parolin on the distinct superiority of human intelligence and moral awareness necessary to rationally save the planet, and Mankind were both quite excellent responses to Ms Goodall, who obviously prefers more chimps and less men on the planet.

  4. As a follow up, Man possesses “a high degree of self-understanding” and reflection on others and the universe” (Parolin). We don’t often hear this essential point of reflexive knowledge except when lectured from texts. Man apprehends himself in the act of perception, an awareness as Cardinal Parolin suggests that opens up the realm of ethics, of right and wrong – how he should respond to the object. It defines our humanness enabling only Man to be as Saint Albert the Great proposed a moral as well as rational animal.

  5. Anthropologist Jane Goodall, “What does it Mean to be Human?”

    “…we fit in into the picture of primates…the fifth great ape — We differ from each other genetically by only just over 1%.”

    Between Chelsia’s goal of coercing the entire human population into vaccination acceptance and Jane positioning the mensch as being the ultimate destroyer of this one planet “at least in our lifetimes” and that we can come to apply to each other and to animals the golden rule, then we can finally(maybe) “define ourselves as Homo sapiens” Then we have the pontiff and Parolin in the “the transcendent horizon mode. I didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry over the direction of this entire health conference.

    Both the pontiff and Jane ask, “What does it mean to be human?” Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, in his God and the World, says that:

    “…man is constructed from within, in the image of God, to be loved and to love.” Further in Romans 2:15 St. Paul says:

    “They show that the demands of the law are written in their hearts,* while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even defend them”

    Yes indeed, “man is constructed from within, in the image of God, to be loved and to love.” Maybe that is the “a little more than 1%” this “Mind, Body and Soul Conference” is looking for… or maybe not.

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