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The Return of the Heresy of Angelism

Back when I was growing up in the 1960s there was a vague feeling in the air that in the previous decade, the 1950s, the legitimate demands of nature, specifically of the human body and sexuality, had been to some degree disvalued, downplayed, treated as something to be ashamed about, instead of as something natural. One recalls the TV shows from the 50s and early 60s that showed married couples sleeping in separate beds, for example. Although this sense that sex and the body were disvalued was inchoate, poorly grounded in first principles, and quickly became little more than a justification for unchastity, nevertheless I have long thought that there was a certain amount of truth in it. The 1950s had been guilty, I think, of that sin of angelism, as Jacques Maritain labeled it in his book, Three Reformers. In its Cartesian form, angelism treats man as essentially a soul, with a body awkwardly attached. But this is false. Human beings are rational animals, not angels. We are, wrote Maritain, “a transitional form between the corporeal world and the spiritual world,” dependent on matter and the senses even for our knowledge. The sexual revolution, then, was not merely a revolt of unbridled sensuality, but like most revolutions included some element of truth.

In the particular iteration of angelism based on Descartes’ thought, there is another twist. This is his effective abolition of nature altogether. By reducing matter to a featureless extended mass, Descartes did away with the natural differences among material things, the unique qualities that make one thing differ from another and give each thing its prerogatives or responsibilities. This angelism has been a recurring intellectual error of Western civilization, and since Descartes has most often served as the more or less “official” post-Enlightenment understanding of man.

The Sexual Revolution Wins all

It is standard wisdom that the sexual revolution pretty much triumphed. In the 1970s the ideas and the artistic and expressive modes that in the previous decade had been mostly confined to college campuses were extended into the wider culture. The mass media happily appropriated them, and big business found them a fertile source of advertising ideas. But along the way something strange happened. The protest on behalf of nature and the body was hijacked by a revived Cartesian angelism and transformed into an assertion of the supremacy of the will and the ultimate irrelevancy of the body.

This happened early on with homosexuality, where the very logic and shape of the body was ignored and the mind was given a precedence that should have been seen as utterly inconsistent with nature. It is curious that the public debate, such as there was, during the 80s and 90s on acceptance of homosexuality, and later of same-sex “marriage,” was conducted, for the most part, not on the level of a discussion of the obvious unnaturalness of homosexual acts, but by means of disputes about the meaning of often obscure texts from the Old Testament.

After the confused acceptance of homosexuality as normative came the even more bizarre phenomenon of transgenderism. If the 1960s was characterized by an intuition that the human body and human sexuality were natural and hence good, transgenderism is one more step toward an utter disvaluing of the body in the interests of the will. It would be hard to find a more perfect example of Cartesian angelism in practice.

Where will all this lead to? In C. S. Lewis’ novel, That Hideous Strength, the third volume of his space trilogy, we can see where the anti-nature attitude of Professor Filostrato has led.

In us organic life has produced Mind. It has done its work. After that we want no more of it…. We must get rid of it…. Slowly we learn how. Learn to make our brains live with less and less body: learn to build our bodies directly with chemicals, no longer have to stuff them full of dead brutes and weeds. Learn how to reproduce ourselves without copulation.

In the novel Filostrato is simply the dupe of demons and of those directly in touch with demons. For the Devil, in spite of all his promotion of sins of the flesh, hates the human body, if for no other reason than that the Eternal Logos has assumed a human body as part of his complete human nature. This must be intolerable to that proud, pure spirit, Satan. Hence his relentless attack on our bodily nature.

Descartes All Over Again

While Catholics hardly noticed, if fact, while we were gleefully dismantling so much of our traditional and hence anti-Cartesian liturgy, Western culture returned fiercely to its Cartesian trajectory. If we are to oppose that we must do so from the Catholic understanding of the essential goodness of things, of human nature, including human sexuality, and of the many concrete created things and acts which we once incorporated so abundantly into our worship. It may be too late in the current epoch, since the minds of our contemporaries seem strangely unreachable. But any hope of reaching them must lie, I think, in pointing out again and again that we are not angels, and that if we truly appreciate the essential goodness of humanity, that appreciation must include as well our bodily selves, our bodily whatness. In this, perhaps, we do have a point of agreement, which, if we follow it up with both charity and careful logic, may be of some effect, at least something to start a conversation about.


Readers are invited to discuss essays in argumentative and fraternal charity, and are asked to help build up the community of thought and pursuit of truth that Ethika Politika strives to accomplish, which includes correction when necessary. The editors reserve the right to remove comments that do not meet these criteria and/or do not pertain to the subject of the essay.

  • brians

    When I interview an applicant for my small business, I often hear, “I’m a very spiritual person.” I always say I’m looking for someone a bit more physical.

    GKC says “a man without a body is a ghost,” & we sadly live in a society largely composed of would-be ghosts, especially our young people.

    A fine article, Mr. Storck, and I benefit often from your work and wisdom.

    • Thomas Storck


      Thank you for your kind remark.

  • This certainly enlarged my scope of understanding. Thank you.

  • john

    The author got me thinking about three things: 1) whether souls have a gender and, if so, if there is any reason why a soul’s gender could not differ from the physical body housing it; 2) religious communities frequently named religious with names such as “Sr. David” and “Fr. Jose Maria;” and 3) homosexuality can’t be “against” nature when not only have gays and lesbians always been part of the human community but homosexuality itself is prevalent in non-human animals, as well. Ultimately, I better understand why society evolved the way it did on issues like homosexuality and transgenderism — rationality won!

    • NDaniels

      The marital act is Life-affirming and Life-sustaining, and can only be consummated between a man and woman, united in marriage as husband and wife.
      A sexual act, or the desire to engage in a sexual act, is not a person, it is an act, or a desire or an inclination.
      The desire to engage in a demeaning act of any nature, does not change the nature of the act.
      No one should be condoning the engaging in or affirmation of demeaning sexual acts of any nature, including between a man and woman, united in marriage as husband and wife, because acts that deny the inherent Dignity of the human person as a beloved son or daughter, are not, and can never be, acts of Love.

      • pbecke

        ‘A sexual act, or the desire to engage in a sexual act, is not a person, it is an act, or a desire or an inclination.’

        You mean, like a dog trying to copulate with your leg ? Simply, imcontinent lust.

      • taliesin319

        Anyone who has ever workef in an Emergency Ward has seen at close hand the terrible devastation of the body secondary to the repeated acts of sodomy upon the lower GI tract and subsequent damage done to the urinary tract abd bladder. This damage is occuring at earlier ages since kids are becoming sexually active with grown men. These kids are invariably the Catchers not the pitchers. Fungal infections and a host of problems before reaching 20 years old. The schools tout this as just another lifestyle. Who tell these kids the other side of the picture. LGBT etc, ?

    • DomineNonSumDignus

      The chosen namesake of a professed religious is almost always in honor of Our Blessed Mother, patron saint or name of the professed’s birth father or mother. Many Dominican nuns, for example, took the name of Mary in honor of Our Blessed Mother and the name of their birth father, i.e. “Sister Mary Norbert.” This wasn’t in any way a presumptive denial of their gender/nature. Just because some non-human animals exhibited homosexual tendencies doesn’t necessarily equate normalcy. Disorder is also quite commonly documented within the animal kingdom.

    • mjb881

      in a fallen world animals are as
      off kilter as man, but man has
      reason, conscience, will to discern

      our soul is as our body, male n female,
      period ( aquinas).

      creation was twisted with the fall,
      death was born with sin

      homosexual sin has been around
      all history, because sin opened
      the wreckage

      nothing stupider than ‘ i think
      therefore i am”
      essence comes before existence
      thought does not confirm it

    • Thomas Storck


      Let me address your points.

      “1) whether souls have a gender and, if so, if there is any reason why a
      soul’s gender could not differ from the physical body housing it;”

      According to St. Thomas Aquinas, it is the body which differentiates one soul from another, because matter is the individuating principle that makes one thing of the same kind different from another instance of the same thing.

      religious communities frequently named religious with names such as “Sr.
      David” and “Fr. Jose Maria;'”

      See Domine Non Dignus for his reply on this point.

      “3) homosexuality can’t be “against”
      nature when not only have gays and lesbians always been part of the
      human community but homosexuality itself is prevalent in non-human
      animals, as well.”

      If you understand what nature means, then it’s simply not possible that same-sex acts or inclination could be congruent with our nature. And as regards behavior, as someone else already pointed out here, “in a fallen world animals are as off kilter as man.”

      But in any case, natural refers not to what might happen in a fallen world, but to what is according to the totality of an organism’s structure. E.g., although some people unfortunately are blind – obviously not a moral fault in them, btw – it’s still natural for all humanity to be able to see. If I am blind, or tone-death, then I’m deprived of something natural to a human being, as such.

      Thus a same-sex inclination, though a flaw in human nature, is not a moral fault unless one willfully acts upon it. But it’s still an unnatural orientation.

  • DomineNonSumDignus

    Excellent article!

  • When God created Adam and Eve, it was very good; but it didn’t stay that way. The law of sin is now part of every human being that is and has been born into this world; except for Christ. It sounds like the essential presence of the law of sin exists in humanity along with the “essential goodness of humanity”.

    “There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death” (Romans 8:1-2).
    Don’t know how this fits in with the thinking of all of these philosophers.

    • brians

      Perhaps I presume too much, but your comment implies that you interpret Saint Paul through a Calvinist filter. Incarnation heals the Spirit/flesh division, conquering death, & Paul would certainly decry the Cartesian and Calvinistic dualism that has so thoroughly secularised the West, America in particular.

      • I go by what I read in the Bible. Not sure what Calvinists believe.

        • brians

          Well you, like all we Americans, have unknowingly ingested the zeitgeist, so you’re reading Cartesianism back into St. Paul. Maybe look into what the epistle to the Romans meant to first century Hebrew converts in Rome, rather than what it means to a 21st century Anglophone. Verily, easier said than done, I know.

          • We all try to be as objective as possible. When Paul describes the law of sin (original sin) in Romans 7:14 thru 8:2, he gives an accurate description of our human weakness which we all have to deal with. We do the things that we don’t want to do, and not do the things that we should, even though we know better. Who is not guilty of that?

            When we present our views, others may be able to categorize them into some theological camp. When I developed my spiritual outlook, I didn’t know where it fit in. I later noticed that it was similar to Wesleyanism. I just picked things out of the Bible that spoke to my need for peace and strength to deal with my personal manifestation of human weakness. My Catholic upbringing didn’t guide me in any way for what I needed in this area; but it was in the Bible all along.
            Cast all of your care on the Lord and be anxious for nothing. It’s just as valid today as it was 2000 years ago; and it still works. I don’t know if this is Cartesian or Calvinist. I wasn’t interested at the time.

          • brians

            My friend, it was in the Bible all along because the Catholic Church put it there. Your CCD teachers and parents were subject to the same human weakness we all are, but only the Church provides the standard of human wholeness, the wholeness of all creation, and Incarnational union with the Creator. Few cradle Catholics ever come to realize the holistic richness of Catholic Christianity. I often find myself wishing they understood just what it is they so carelessly take for granted.

            Incidentally, Wesley turned American Protestantism a bit toward catholicity. But as Ignatius of Antioch pointed out long ago, paraphrasing of course, separation from the trunk will eventually cause the branch to die. Modern Methodism bears old Ignatius out on this.

            In any case, Paul’s epistle to the Romans, interpreted rightly, supports the Church’s denunciation of Angelism. Even the Ethiopian eunuch, likely a smarter fellow than either of us, needed someone to rightly interpret the scriptures for him.

          • I know that the Catholic Church compiled the Bible in the fourth century. What I quoted was from Peter and Paul’s epistles (see 1Peter 5:6-7 and Philippians 4:6-7). I learned my Catholic Christianity directly from the Bible. Some of us need to go to the source documents to find what we are looking for. Fortunately, I went that route early on. If I hadn’t done this, I would be of those cradle Catholics who would have remained agnostic after my early Catholic upbringing.
            I like what Vatican II says about Scripture in Dei Verbum 21: “Therefore, like the Christian religion itself, all the preaching of the Church must be nourished and regulated by Sacred Scripture.”
            Scripture also regulates my personal Catholicity.

          • brians

            The question for you, then, as for all of us, is the same question Phillip asked the eunuch.

            Die Verbum doesn’t “ring of sola scriptura” unless you are reading with no understanding. For we as Catholics, the Church is a binding and unerring guide, infallible by the protection of the Holy Spirit. Under sola scriptura, every individual’s interpretation is infallible, so every interpretation is equally legitimate. So much for the faith once and for all delivered, huh?

          • I have never heard of Sola Scriptura described as moral relativism. It has more to do with the degree of use and the importance that is placed on Scripture. V2 clarifies this. None of us are infallible or have a perfect understanding . Paul says in 1Corinthians 13:12: “For now we see
            through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.”

            Teaching, in the Church, isn’t only confined to the hierarchy. We can all contribute, even to tradition. V2 states in Dei Verbum 8: “This tradition which comes from the Apostles develop in
            the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit. (5) For there is a growth in the understanding of the realities and the words which have been handed down. This happens through the contemplation and study made by believers, who treasure these things in their hearts (see Luke, 2:19, 51) through a penetrating understanding of the spiritual realities which they experience, and through the preaching of those who have received through episcopal succession the sure gift of truth”.

            The effects of the Holy Spirit aren’t confined only to the hierarchy.

          • brians

            Now you’ve heard it. Historically, western moral relativism is a direct result of sola scriptura. Everyone becomes infallible but the Pope. For a historical perspective, I suggest a book by the author of the above column: From Christendom to Americanism and Beyond. Or, maybe Hilaire Belloc’s How the Reformation Happened. For a simple, well reasoned argument against sola scriptura, well, take a look around at the house that the Reformation built.

            It doesn’t follow that the action of the Holy Spirit among we laypersons places Scriptural authority over the authority of the Church. The Bible gets its authority from the men who wrote it, not vice-versa. Jesus breathed on the apostles, not on a book of epistles, and authority follows “episcopal succession.” You read V2 as a radical break with an infallible magisterium rather than in continuity. Dangerous ground, indeed, to set scripture above Church.

            You are right, none of us are infallible, and that’s why St. Peter tells us scripture isn’t for one’s own interpretation. But we do have a guide, a single interpretation, here in the world, binding on all Christians: the bulwark and pillar of the truth.

            We’ve come far off the subject of the original piece, but you asked how your post-Cartesian hearing of Romans 8 fits into the picture of the writer’s view. The answers are there if you’re willing to question some presuppositions, and if you have ears to hear. I enjoy these conversations, & hoping we cross paths again I wish you the best on your journey. I’m happy to continue the conversation privately if you’re interested.

          • The Catholic house has also been getting a bit disorderly, as it also was in New Testament times.

          • brians

            Disorder: Cultural fruit of the reformation making its way into the Church. How disorderly was 13th century France? That’s what 10 centuries of Catholic Culture can produce. An agrarian economy of justice, and cultural and architectural achievements never matched elsewhere or elsewhen. Destabilized, and ultimately destroyed, by the logical implications of sola scriptura and sola fide (that is, the cultural formation of modernity).

          • The cat’s out of the bag. The Church has had a difficult time coming to terms with Gutenberg. The easy access to Scripture can’t be undone even within Catholicism. I wouldn’t blame the Protestants for Catholic disorder. Sola fide can be deduced from the Bible itself.
            2Peter 1:20-21 is interesting. The meaning changes depending on the translator. The old Catholic Bible renders it: “Understanding this first, that no prophecy of scripture is made by private interpretation. For prophecy came not by the will of man at any time: but the holy men of God spoke, inspired by the Holy Ghost”.
            The old King James says: “Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation. For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost”.
            The Catholic version of the Living Bible says: “For no prophecy recorded in Scripture was ever thought up by the prophet himself. It was the Holy Spirit within these godly men who gave them true messages from God”.
            It looks like the passage has nothing to do with not be being able to interpret Scripture for ourselves. It refers to the writers of Scripture; not us. The word “interpretation” can also be translated “unloosing”. The Living Bible and the old Catholic Bible translations make more sense because of verse 21. Anyway, how can you read something without interpreting it?
            Looks like Vatican II has made the Catholic Church more sola scriptura. I don’t know how you can read Dei Verbum 21 without concluding that the Church has ceded authority to Scripture. It says: “Therefore, like the Christian religion itself, all the preaching of the Church must be nourished and regulated by Sacred Scripture.”
            With sola scriptura, no one is infallible. It is dangerous ground only for those who want to maintain the present power structure. Saint Paul says in 2Corinthians 1:24: “Not for that we have dominion over your faith, but are helpers of your joy: for by faith ye stand.”
            I think that a certain amount of disorder is a given. It was there in the New Testament Church.