6.2.3 ‘Human flourishing’?

Back to 6.2.2

Unit 6 Contents



Before we turn to the second half of Hochschild’s chapter, in which he discusses what the natural law means for families, let’s address the question I raised earlier about ‘human flourishing’.

I said on 6.2.1 that I was using the term ‘human wellbeing’ rather than ‘human flourishing’.  However Hochschild presents his understanding in terms of ‘human flourishing’; he uses this expression four times on p. 118.  This is very standard in explanations of natural law.

You might be thinking, “What’s the issue here?  Surely those two terms mean exactly the same thing.”

There is actually a very interesting issue here, and one that’s much more significant than is obvious at first.  Indeed, by looking at this, we shall be able to see a way in which CST requires a critique of some natural law thinking.



What difference of meaning, or at least of connotation, do you think there could be between the following two, if any?

  • Human wellbeing, understood as ‘integral human development’
  • ‘Human flourishing’


How, then, does the concept of ‘flourishing’ fit with CST’s vision of ‘integral human development’?  Does it just give another way of saying the same thing, or is there a difference?  It turns out that addressing this takes us into what can be seen as the most significant and controversial issue in Roman Catholic theology in the past 100 years!

Let’s unpack the idea of flourishing.  This word is a metaphor from botany.  It comes from the Latin and French for ‘to come into bloom’ or ‘to flower’.  Therefore, as it is applied to human beings, it assumes that we can be understood in terms of this botanic metaphor.  Just as there is a specific way in which each kind of plant and tree flourishes, so there is a form of flourishing that is distinctly human.  In a way that can be compared with oak trees or sunflowers, we each flourish as we become fully human in the way that accords with our human nature.

That makes very good sense.  Yet there is a slight problem.  It is this: human persons are not wholly like plants and flowers, in that our wellbeing is not a matter only of the natural world but includes the transcendent dimension.  Our fulfilment, our integral development, includes what goes beyond nature, namely relationship with the triune God.

This means that the botanic metaphor of flourishing is not really ideal for describing specifically human wellbeing – because the ordinary meaning of flourishing is to do with fulfilment within the natural order. God creates us for more than this.  In fact, therefore, the term that actually is used in the documents of CST, ‘integral development’, is more appropriate than ‘flourishing’.

So ‘human flourishing’ and ‘integral human development’ don’t quite mean the same thing – or at least they don’t have the same connotations.

Of course, you could respond very sensibly to this by saying: “Certainly, human persons are different from plants and trees – so their flourishing will not be limited to a purely natural flourishing.  Rather, it will conform to the whole of their God-given nature, including its openness to transcendence.  We’re not talking about hyacinths but about human flourishing!  And humans flourish in right relationship with God.”

This would be a perfectly reasonable, common sense response.  Yet there is something deeper at stake here, which it really is worth being aware of.  Perhaps the most significant Catholic theologian of the twentieth century was a Frenchman, Henri de Lubac.  His thinking was highly influential at the Second Vatican Council and on Pope John Paul II among others.  In 1946, he published a book called Surnaturel in which he made an argument that is closely related to the question of whether it makes most sense to describe Catholic understanding of human wellbeing in terms of ‘flourishing’.

De Lubac’s thesis was vast in scope: he argued that most Catholic theology from the sixteenth to the twentieth century had been based on a misinterpretation of both St Thomas Aquinas and the whole of the earlier Christian tradition.  In this misinterpretation, purely natural human flourishing had been separated off from supernatural blessing.  In other words, the wellbeing of humans, as we are in this world, can be described entirely in terms of what is possible in the natural world – the fulfilment of purely natural capacities.  Yes, God saves us through Jesus Christ for eternal blessing, but this has no inherent relationship to human nature.  Notice that the botanic metaphor of ‘flourishing’ fits this view of human wellbeing very neatly – because, according to it, we are actually, in this life, only beings of the natural world.

As I say, De Lubac saw this view as deeply mistaken.  He supplied massive evidence, through extensive historical study, that throughout earlier Church history, from the beginning up until the late medieval period (the fifteenth century), the Christian vision of human wellbeing had consistently been one in which the very way in which God has made us, our created humanity, means that we cannot be fulfilled by things within nature but need, in addition, what transcends nature.  It is by God’s grace that we find true human wellbeing, in communion with the triune God.  The consistent teaching during that long period is summed up in St Augustine of Hippo’s famous statement: “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee.”1

If you would like to read a bit more about De Lubac, here is one good place to start:


Optional reading  (5pp)

Cardinal Avery Dulles SJ, ‘Henri de Lubac: In Appreciation’

Originally published in America, 28 Sep. 1991


Towards the end of this article, Dulles says that “the most controversial act of de Lubac’s career” may have been his critique of two sixteenth century interpreters of Aquinas, Cajetan and Suarez, for their view that “human nature could exist with a purely natural finality” – that is, a purely natural flourishing. “For de Lubac, the paradox of a natural desire for the supernatural was built into the very concept of the human.”


So there is a problem with the term ‘human flourishing’: its botanic root can suggest that human wellbeing is purely something natural.  In fact, as you know, the main term CST has used since Vatican II is ‘integral human development’.  The main point of ‘integral’ here is that it signifies that full human development is not possible without reference to the transcendent dimension.  This reflects De Lubac’s insight exactly.

Indeed in a few places in Vatican documents, we find this point being made quite plainly.  For example, in 1994 Pope John Paul wrote a lengthy Letter to Families which includes the following:

In God’s plan… the vocation of the human person extends beyond the boundaries of time. It encounters the will of the Father revealed in the Incarnate Word: God’s will is to lavish upon man a sharing in his own divine life… 

It might appear that in destining man for divine life God definitively takes away man’s existing “for his own sake” [here quoting from Gaudium et Spes]. What then is the relationship between the life of the person and his sharing in the life of the Trinity?  Saint Augustine provides us with the answer in his celebrated phrase: “Our heart is restless until it rests in you”.  This “restless heart” serves to point out that between the one finality and the other [i.e., natural and supernatural] there is in fact no contradiction, but rather a relationship, a complementarity, a unity.  (John Paul II, Letter to Families (Gratissimam Sane), 1994, #9, italics in original)

I hope you can see the way in which, in principle, the metaphor of ‘flourishing’ carries a small danger of seeing human wellbeing wholly in worldly or natural terms.  If so, you will be able to see also why it is preferable that CST presents its understanding of human wellbeing by using the clumsier expression, ‘integral human development’.

Nevertheless, this doesn’t mean that we should simply reject and not use the terminology of human flourishing.  It can certainly have a place, within the context of the wider, ‘integral’ vision.  Even though natural law, properly understood, directs people not only to a purely natural flourishing but also to what transcends this, it remains true and highly important that CST insists on the flourishing of people within nature.  Otherwise there is a real danger of downplaying the goodness of the material world and the importance of natural goods for human living as God intends.

Indeed the language of ‘flourishing’ fits very well with talking about ‘natural law’.  It is good and right that humans live in ways which fit with their God-given human nature and which, therefore, lead to its natural flourishing.  In other words, ‘integral human development’ includes the fulfilment of our (God-given) potential for flourishing within nature, as well as fulfilment of our (equally God-given) possibility for communion with God.

To make this point concrete, sexual relationship and family life are among the things that can enable our flourishing within the natural world.  So are doing good work, enjoying material things, and (thinking back to Unit 3) participating in human stewardship of the earth.   All these can contribute to human flourishing within nature.  But such flourishing within nature is only part of the larger picture of human wellbeing, which includes participation in prayer and worship of God.  The challenge for all Christians, in their distinctive vocations and contexts, is to hold together, on one hand, making the most of the goods of nature and, on the other, responding to what the grace of God opens up beyond them.



Look back at the final sentence in the reading from Hochschild’s chapter you have just done, on p.119 (beginning, “While the fullness…”).  Do you agree that this expresses a very similar point as I have just made in the text above?


There now follow two short readings from the Compendium’s chapter about the human person.  Both of these take further the main point made on this screen, that the challenge in understanding human wellbeing and ‘natural law’ is to do justice to both our flourishing in nature and our vocation to what goes beyond this, to “the communion of love that is God” (#34).

The first of these readings refers to the natural law that “God has inscribed in the created universe, so that humanity may live in it and care for in accordance with God’s will” (#37).  The second refers to a proper “autonomy” (literally, self-rule) that “earthly affairs” can have because of the natural law (#46), and also to the human person’s vocation that transcends such autonomy and is to God himself (#47).


Readings  (2pp + 2pp)

1. Compendium, ##34-37 (Chap 1, Part III.a)

2. Compendium, ##45-48 (Chap 1, Part III.d)


There is much more that can be said about natural law.  For example, the Church has long affirmed that the Ten Commandments are, as the Compendium puts it in an earlier passage, “a privileged expression of the natural law”:

They “teach us the true humanity of man.  They bring to light the essential duties, and therefore, indirectly the fundamental rights inherent in the nature of the human person”.  They describe universal morality. (Compendium, #22, quoting Catechism of the Catholic Church, #2070)

While we could spend longer exploring the topic of natural law, I think we have given enough attention to the most important aspects.  We need to move on to look at what it means for family life.  To sum up, the natural law sets standards for human action, gives guidelines to follow, enables us to know some of what we must and must not do, if we are to have the possibility of human wellbeing.


End of 6.2.3

Go to 6.2.4 Subsidiarity, work and family life


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  1. The outline I have given of De Lubac’s thesis in Surnaturel is indebted to the exposition in Fergus Kerr, Twentieth Century Catholic Theologians: From Neoscholasticism to Nuptial Mysticism (Blackwell, 2007), 72-75. 

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