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Design and Destiny: Catholic Holistic Healing Series

Updated: Jul 7, 2020

Health is more than a lack of disease. Health is full and vigorous functioning. Similarly, as Christians, we are called to more than avoiding sin; God desires for us to share divine life. If we orient our aim by the standard of fallen humanity, our goals will fall short of God's hope. By understanding God's original plan and design for salvation, we can align our sights on Christ.

Every treatment plan has a goal. What is the hoped-for outcome of the healing process? Is the goal to alieve symptoms, to remove the disease, or to create full health? If we are undergoing some medical treatment, we might not even consider our doctor's goal. This goal and our ability to carry out the plan to reach it may have a dramatic impact on what life looks like after treatment.

What kind of treatment plan is the Gospel? Is the goal to alleviate symptoms? Does the Gospel only offer us the ability to behave acceptably in public while sin remains in our hearts? The Gospel provides much more than this. The Gospel is more than relief from sin. The good news is that our calling is to become like God.

"So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect." Matthew 5: 48

Christ carries out God's treatment plan. The divine physician has full health in mind for us. Our calling is more than moral perfection; "God Likeness" is the offering of the Gospel. (1) Christ is both the treatment and the treatment plan: (2)

"Christ, the final Adam, by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love, fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear." Gaudium et Spes, 22 § 1.

Christ is the plan, the prototype of full humanity. The second person of the Trinity, the eternal Word of God, becoming human, is a mystery called the Incarnation. The Incarnation is not an imposition on human nature, but a super-abundant restoration of humanity.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus is introduced as the "Word of God." The author emphasizes the Word's involvement in creation:

"All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be. What came to be through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race;" John 1: 3 - 4

"The Word" is a translation of the Greek word "Logos" (λόγος). "Logos" could also be translated as "reason," "meaning," or "logic." (3) Creation happens through the Logos. So when the Word becomes flesh, it is not incompatible with humanity. The Word incarnate is the ultimate fulfillment of human nature.

In the Image of God

"Let us make human beings in our image, after our likeness." Genesis 1: 26

From the beginning, God makes his intention for us like him obvious. The thought by which God makes us is God-likeness. In this God-likeness, humans are persons, a body-soul composite:

"Being in the image of God the human individual possesses the dignity of a person, who is not just something, but someone. He is capable of self-knowledge, of self-possession and of freely giving himself and entering into communion with other persons. And he is called by grace to a covenant with his Creator, to offer him a response of faith and love that no other creature can give in his stead." Catechism of the Catholic Church, 357.

The capacity for self-knowledge comes from the power of reason. Reason is the capacity for wisdom and the ability to discover universal concepts. The faculty of reason enables the person to transcend their physical impulses because it provides insight into non-empirical realities. (4) This ability to choose is free-will.

St. Thomas Aquinas called the will the "rational" or "intellectual appetite." The attraction to the perceived good makes it an appetite. Free-will is not equal to cold, emotionless judgment. The will elects whatever seems best, but it receives input from the insights of reason, the perceptions of the senses, and the internal senses of memory, imagination, and judgment.

The ability to will freely makes it possible to enter relationships of love. (5) This kind of love is choosing the other for their own sake, not for convenience, safety, or attraction alone. We can transcend our instincts for the good of another. Charity is loving like God, and it makes us capable of friendship. In this way, we are also in the Image of God as a communion of persons.

Original Justice

The state God intended for humanity is sometimes called "Original Justice."

"By the radiance of this grace all dimensions of man's life were confirmed. As long as he remained in the divine intimacy, man would not have to suffer or die. The inner harmony of the human person, the harmony between man and woman, and finally the harmony between the first couple and all creation, comprised the state called 'original justice.'" Catechism of the Catholic Church, 378.

In God's original plan, humanity experienced harmony with the rest of creation, with each other, and with God. Harmony is the sound of two musical notes that sound pleasant together. Musical notes put together are called a "chord." The chord that was sung by the harmony between humanity, the rest of creation, and God was the Logos. God's Word reverberated throughout human life.

Beyond this original harmony, God also provided gifts of grace to humanity. These gifts are called the "Preternatural Gifts." The expressions "preternatural" refers to the fact that, while these gifts surpassed human nature, they did not exceed angelic nature. They are not "supernatural" in the strict sense because angels are a part of creation and are "natural."

The Preternatural Gifts were bodily immortality, the integrity of flesh and spirit, and infused knowledge. (6) Physical things eventually decay, decompose, or die. The gift of immortality was that "Even though man's nature is mortal, God had destined him not to die." (8) The integrity of flesh and spirit was a gift that enabled the human reason and will to direct actions according to the highest good without interference from conflicting attractions. Finally, infused knowledge gave humanity unearned insights into God and creation to direct their lives.

Design and Evolution

Can God's design be reconciled with the theory that the human body is the result of an evolutionary process? I believe so. (8) Fr. Nicanor Austriaco, O.P. theorizes that original humanity would have had "preteradaptive gifts" from God. These gifts enabled them to live by God's design despite evolutionary adaptations not necessarily supportive of this higher end.

"These preteradaptive gifts would include gifts, among others, to counter the evolved adaptations we inherited from our primate ancestors, to infidelity, to violence, and to biased and false knowledge. These gifts would have given the first human beings the capacity to love faithfully, to peace, and to know truth." Fr. Nicanor Austriaco O.P., Thomistic Evolution, 167.

If we hold a theory of theistic evolution, meaning that God uses the evolutionary process as a means of creation, we do not need to claim that the result of an evolutionary process is divine revelation. The states of affairs found in nature are morally neutral and contribute to good or evil only in relation to human actions. Human evolutionary biology may, at times be helpful to live God's will and at other times be unhelpful. The theory of preteradaptive gifts would have provided original humanity the same ease as the preternatural gifts to live God's design and harmony with creation when evolved instincts would not have been supportive.

Sin and the Body

In light of the preternatural and preteradaptive gifts, the effects of the fall could be considered the logical consequences of sin. We will work through the impact of the original sin one part at a time.

God does not damage the body in punishment for sin; it retains its natural state without the preternatural and preteradaptive gifts. When the desires of the body seem to be betraying our goals, it is easy to assume that the body is evil or corrupt. I do not think this is the case. Without the unique gifts of grace, there is, at times, dissonance between the passions of the body formed by environmental adaptation and survival instincts and the higher calling to love and communion. These passions are morally neutral and, at times, may support the life of grace.

By sin, humanity forfeited the infused knowledge and the integrity of flesh and spirit. Sin does not destroy human reason and free will, but reason is darkened, and the will is weakened. Now, the human intellect is prone to error and can only achieve wisdom through effort. The lower passions strongly influence the will and often draw it to the self-destruction of sin.

The effects of sin shed light on God's heart in Genesis 3. When God encounters Adam and Eve, he proclaimed the following consequences: (9)

  1. Intensified pain in childbearing

  2. A propensity to dynamics of domination in relationships

  3. Labor to obtain food

  4. Eventual physical death

  5. Expulsion from the Garden of Eden

We could read these effects as cruel punishments or curses, but I believe they are all logical consequences of sin and in humanity's best interest. God has the heart of a father for Adam and Eve. The punishments are in hopes of their growth the way that a parent hopes that their punishments will give lessons to their children.

Adam and Eve have died spiritually. They have forfeited Original Justice and the gifts God had given them, thus, they will die. Their interaction with God has a therapeutic character, but there is no return to incorruptibility. Eternal life in their disordered state would be a condemnation to ongoing struggle and frustration. With their redemption foretold by the "seed of the women," their eventual death is a mercy.

In light of the disorder in the human heart, the dissonance between flesh and spirit, and their propensity to sin, the garden is dangerous for humanity. The abundance of the garden was fitted to original justice, but its limitless sustenance would provide endless temptation to excess. It is no longer in their best interest to live in the garden. The built-in limits of life outside the Garden of Eden are supportive of their flourishing because it places natural boundaries on excess.

The new dynamic of suffering is a result of the loss of grace, but the places of toil are also opportunities for redemption. Childbearing, human relationships, and stewarding the earth for food are all ways we imitate God. For example, God creates and brings forth life, and we participate in this by bearing and raising physical and spiritual children. By toiling in these areas, humanity is re-ordered to God-likeness.

Sin in History

In Jesus' time, people misunderstood the relationship between sin and the body. They believed that God struck people with illnesses in reaction to sin.

"As he passed by he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, 'Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?' Jesus answered, 'Neither he nor his parents sinned; it is so that the works of God might be made visible through him.'" John 9: 1 - 3

Jesus' disciples believed the two possible explanations for the man's blindness were his sin or his parent's sin. They considered disease a punishment by God for personal sin, meaning, in response to an offense, God struck this man blind. Jesus explains that, while God is involved in this man's blindness, it is not a punishment. It is an opportunity to show the world God's glory. I take this to mean that the man's blindness was due to natural causes, and God did not prevent it. God allows evil when a greater good can be achieved by not preventing it.

In this case, the man's blindness was not due to his or his parent's sin, but does this mean that there is no causal relationship between sin and disease? Sin causes disease because if there were never sin, humanity would have retained the preternatural gifts. Original sin causes illness in this way.

Additionally, personal sin may or may not cause disease. Every sin damages our inclination to virtue:

"since the inclination to the good of virtue is diminished in each individual on account of actual sin, [...], these four wounds [(ignorance, malice, weakness, concupiscence)] are also the result of other sins, in so far as, through sin, the reason is obscured, especially in practical matters, the will hardened to evil, good actions become more difficult and concupiscence more impetuous." St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I-II 85.3

Simply put, each sin makes it more challenging to do the good later. Every sin diminishes human freedom. If the will is the rational appetite, then the more reason is obscured, the less free is the will. Attractions to the sinful activity are augmented, and the weekend will is less apt to overcome these instincts.

Sometimes sin does lead to disease:

"Two things may be considered in actual sin, the substance of the act, and the aspect of fault. As regards the substance of the act, actual sin can cause a bodily defect: thus some sicken and die through eating too much. But as regards the fault, it deprives us of grace which is given to us that we may regulate the acts of the soul" St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I-II q.85.5 ad.3

Aquinas gives an example of overeating causing illness. In this case, the sin of gluttony damages the body. Considered this way, his parent's sin could have caused the man's blindness. For instance, while his mother was pregnant, she could have committed the sin of drunkenness and caused damage to him in her womb. If this had happened, her actual sin would have caused his blindness. This was not the case, but it does demonstrate that Jesus is not establishing a principle that no sin causes disease.

While each sin does not damage the body, I would propose that every sin makes it more likely that our choices will harm the body in the future because of the four ways sin wounds human nature. Many sins do damage the body, albeit not in ways that the symptoms match defined diseases. The damage would be evident if we could more easily see the cascade of effects in the body.

As an example, let's consider gluttony again. An example of gluttony may be having a second bowl of ice cream after a sufficient meal. As the body is attempting to digest the meal, the first bowl has wreaked some havoc on the system. It adds additional glucose to the blood resulting in another insulin spike. The body may handle the first challenge with some time to rest and digest, but the second bowl takes it over the top. The additional insulin pushes the extra energy into fat storage. Sugar and dairy also cause inflammation throughout the body. The toxicity from the caloric excess could cause the body to be less sensitive to insulin in the future, augmenting the sugar, insulin, fat storage effects of the next bowl. Increasing insulin resistance can eventually lead to the body's inability to regulate blood sugar, a condition called type two diabetes.

There are many other potentially harmful consequences to the second bowl of ice cream. It may damage the lining of the gut, allowing unwanted substances to enter the body. Chronic excessive gut permeability can contribute to the development of conditions like Multiple Sclerosis or Irritable Bowel Syndrome. The ice cream may also affect blood lipids that, along with inflammation, could damage the vascular system, contributing to a heart attack or stroke.

Beyond some of the ways the ice cream may damage the body, the body adapts to the behavior of eating it. The collection of microorganisms in the digestive tract, called the gut microbiome, is affected by the food we eat. This colony of microscopic creatures can cause cravings and changes in mood. Behavior also changes the brain through a process called neuroplasticity. So the ice cream physically inclines the person to more ice cream in the future. (10)

Sin After Redemption

Why do we still sin after having a conversion and receiving the sacraments? The glory of the new creation in Christ surpasses the state of harmony in original justice. (11) Still, the glory of the new creation manifests in limited ways before Christ's second coming. (12) In day to day life, we experience this glory through progressive growth in holiness, spiritual experiences, and graces flowing through us to others.

We begin to experience the new creation through the conversion of heart and the Sacrament of Baptism:

"The fruit of Baptism, or baptismal grace, is a rich reality that includes forgiveness of original sin and all personal sins, birth into the new life by which man becomes an adoptive son of the Father, a member of Christ and a temple of the Holy Spirit. By this very fact the person baptized is incorporated into the Church, the Body of Christ, and made a sharer in the priesthood of Christ." Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1279.

The Church uses strong language about the effects of Baptism. It forgives all sin, meaning it absolves everything that disconnects us from God and the Church. Baptism effects divine adoption, reception of the Holy Spirit, participation in the Body of Christ, the Church, and a share in Christ's mission. What remains undone in us that we would sin after these profound effects? Baptism does not entirely reverse the inclination to sin described above. The propensity to sin that remains is part of what is called the "temporal effects of sin." (13) This inclination is also called affection for sin.

The affection for sin is a symptom of the four wounds from sin: sin obscures reason, so the will mistakes the evil for good, and, in the face of disordered attractions, the will is no longer strong enough to choose the known good. Every sin inclines the whole person, body, and soul, to sin again in the future. The remedy for these wounds is actual grace.

Actual grace comes to us in two forms: elevating and healing. (14) Elevating grace is given in the form of the Theological Virtues of faith, hope, and charity. These virtues are theological ("theós" [θεός] = God) because God gives them, they are lived out in God-like actions, and they direct us to the supernatural end of heaven. The supernatural gifts of elevating grace mirror the preternatural gifts with two distinctions. First, the end of the theological virtues is supernatural (above nature), but, on the other hand, sinful humanity is imperfectly capable of receiving them, so remains more prone to sin than before the fall.

The second type of actual grace, healing grace, gradually removes the four wounds of sin. The effects of healing grace are intellectual and cardinal virtues. The cardinal virtues are prudence, justice, courage, and temperance. Some healing will be immediate on conversion, while much of it is a process of cooperation with God. This process includes receiving the sacraments, seeking God's will, prayer, learning, and discipline. (15)

Grace heals the whole person, body, and soul. (16) But, physical health and holiness do not always go hand in hand. God heals the body with our cooperation to the extent that it is helpful for salvation. (17) Although they always entail suffering and difficulty, with grace, illnesses can be an opportunity for Christ-likeness. Many saints lived and died with grave illnesses, and, until the second coming, our bodies will all die from something.

Sometimes we place obstacles in the way of God healing the body. Let's reconsider the example of gluttony given above. If excessive eating damages the body, would God supernaturally heal these wounds only for the wounds to be re-inflicted by the continued vicious eating? He may, but a natural process of healing, inspired and empowered by grace, could heal the body and the vice that lead to the damage simultaneously.

The body is not bad, and the body does not want to sin. The body wants to survive. Sometimes these survival instincts are helpful to virtue and, sometimes, they urge us to sin. Growing in virtue will often include physical changes, healthy living, and healing. We should not neglect the body on our journey to do God's will. (18) The next series of articles on Becoming Gift will explore different aspects of how the body functions and how utilizing these processes can prime the body the support holy living.

God wants to manifest his glory in our lives. God designed us to be like him from the beginning. God gave special graces to our first patents to empower them to fulfill his plan, but they forfeited them in the tragedy of original sin. Sin continues to damage us, but God, the divine physician, sent his only son to "fully reveal man to himself and makes his supreme calling clear." This calling is to the supernatural glory of heaven, and God gives us a foretaste of this glory as he redeems and heals us in this life.



(1) "The Word became flesh to make us "partakers of the divine nature": "For this is why the Word became man, and the Son of God became the Son of man: so that man, by entering into communion with the Word and thus receiving divine sonship, might become a son of God." "For the Son of God became man so that we might become God." "The only-begotten Son of God, wanting to make us sharers in his divinity, assumed our nature, so that he, made man, might make men gods." Catechism of the Catholic Church, 460.

(2) "Jesus said to him, 'I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, then you will also know my Father.'" John 14: 6 - 7a.

(4) "But man acts from judgment, because by his apprehensive power he judges that something should be avoided or sought. But because this judgment, in the case of some particular act, is not from a natural instinct, but from some act of comparison in the reason, therefore he acts from free judgment and retains the power of being inclined to various things. [...] and forasmuch as man is rational is it necessary that man have a free-will." St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I 83.1.

(6) Please note that the preternatural gifts are not doctrines of the Church. They are one orthodox approach to explaining Original Justice. For a fuller explanation, please see Fr. Hardon's article - and

(8) For an initial consideration of this question, please see

(10) The physiological processes described in this section will be the focus of the next series of articles on Becoming Gift.

(11) "The first man was not only created good, but was also established in friendship with his Creator and in harmony with himself and with the creation around him, in a state that would be surpassed only by the glory of the new creation in Christ." Catechism of the Catholic Church, 374.

(12) "Though already present in his Church, Christ's reign is nevertheless yet to be fulfilled 'with power and great glory' by the King's return to earth. This reign is still under attack by the evil powers, even though they have been defeated definitively by Christ's Passover. Until everything is subject to him, "until there be realized new heavens and a new earth in which justice dwells, the pilgrim Church, in her sacraments and institutions, which belong to this present age, carries the mark of this world which will pass, and she herself takes her place among the creatures which groan and travail yet and await the revelation of the sons of God.'" Catechism of the Catholic Church, 671.

(13) "Baptism, by imparting the life of Christ's grace, erases original sin and turns a man back towards God, but the consequences for nature, weakened and inclined to evil, persist in man and summon him to spiritual battle." Catechism of the Catholic Church, 405. See also, "The forgiveness of sin and restoration of communion with God entail the remission of the eternal punishment of sin, but temporal punishment of sin remains. While patiently bearing sufferings and trials of all kinds and, when the day comes, serenely facing death, the Christian must strive to accept this temporal punishment of sin as a grace. He should strive by works of mercy and charity, as well as by prayer and the various practices of penance, to put off completely the "old man" and to put on the 'new man.'" Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1473.

(14) For a more detailed exploration of actual grace and healing see

(15) "Whoever wants to remain faithful to his baptismal promises and resist temptations will want to adopt the means for doing so: self-knowledge, practice of an ascesis adapted to the situations that confront him, obedience to God's commandments, exercise of the moral virtues, and fidelity to prayer." Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2340.

(16) "Jesus has the power not only to heal, but also to forgive sins; he has come to heal the whole man, soul and body; he is the physician the sick have need of." Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1503.

(17) When discussing the Sacrament for the Anointing of the Sick, the Catechism states that this sacrament always accomplishes spiritual healing, and physical healing can be a special grace of the Sacrament. But, physical healing only occurs when it is conducive to the salvation of the person. "The special grace of the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick [...] - the restoration of health, if it is conducive to the salvation of his soul;" Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1532. We might extrapolate this as a general principle for all healing.

(18) "Though made of body and soul, man is one. Through his bodily composition he gathers to himself the elements of the material world; thus they reach their crown through him, and through him raise their voice in free praise of the Creator. For this reason man is not allowed to despise his bodily life, rather he is obliged to regard his body as good and honorable since God has created it and will raise it up on the last day. Nevertheless, wounded by sin, man experiences rebellious stirrings in his body. But the very dignity of man postulates that man glorify God in his body and forbid it to serve the evil inclinations of his heart." Vatican II, The Church in the Modern World, 14.

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