While Boethius famously defined the person as "an individual substance of a rational nature," this definition turns out to be more a hindrance than a help today. The problem is not in the definition, but in our modern understanding of it. Because Catholic adults know more biology than they do theology, they do not entirely understand the definition, and they therefore tend to misunderstand everything associated with the relationship between God and man.
That is, we accept the definition without considering the theological context in which it was given. We see and understand the individual words, we find the distinguishing characteristic of man’s definition in the word "rational," and we associate the ability to be "rational" with a specific stage of brain development. This has far-reaching consequences. It results, for instance, in the spectacle of Catholics who attempt to defend abortion as something that assaults human beings but not human persons, because they incorrectly believe rationality to be a function of a physiological brain process when it is actually a quality of man’s spiritual soul.
Men and women who would never think to argue that God is anencephalic and therefore cannot be as much as one Person, much less three, are happy to draw that exact conclusion concerning human beings. In fact, the possession of a rational nature is independent of brain development. The brain is merely the tool through which rationality expresses itself. The rational nature of the human soul exists even when the tool through which it is meant to express itself is damaged or not present. Thus, it would be as absurd to say Michelangelo is only an artist while he uses his brush as it is to say a child is only a person if he has a fully-developed brain.
The Heart of the Problem
This misunderstanding outlines the heart of the problem uneducated Catholics face. We are persons because God calls us into relationship with Himself. The Boethian definition tells us the "what" in a superlative and explicit fashion, but the theological context of the "why" has been lost. We know the Three Persons of the Godhead are distinguished only by their relations: nothing else distinguishes the Three. Since we are made in the image and likeness of God, we are therefore likewise persons only because of our relations. Specifically, we are persons only because God calls us into relationship with Himself, into relationship with His own divine Personhoods.
If He did not call us, we would be human animals, not human persons. Our personhood depends on His call to us, not on something innate to ourselves. If it were otherwise, Christ would indeed be two persons: one human and one divine. He is not. Thus, the rational nature that Boethius refers to is the gift God gives us so that we can participate in the call He makes to us. That is, the Boethian definition is the result of a relationship already established with, for and by God, it is not the cause of that relationship.
But this leads to another realization. Since we are given rationality in order to be persons, this rationality must have substance on which to work. That is, we must have knowledge of God (revelation) and knowledge of how to derive more knowledge of Him (logic). Because He calls us into personal relationship with Himself, He must reveal Himself to us, and we must turn all that we are towards knowing Him. In short, God made us to know Him.
Three Ways to Know
Thus, it is no surprise to find the three theological virtues - faith, hope and love – are all just different ways of knowing. Faith is our response to who a person is, hope tells us about the person’s message, and love is intimate knowledge of that person.
Faith is the sure knowledge that someone can be trusted. When we are speaking of God, faith is two things at once: it is the ability or power to know one fact about God: He can be trusted. It is also the daily choice to act on that fact. God sends us the power as a free, unmerited gift, but it is never a blind leap. It requires evidence, facts.
Accurately predicting what someone will do based on what we know of him: this is an act of faith. For human relations, our knowledge is founded in other people’s testimony. We don’t know whether the banker is honest or the mechanic reliable. Someone told us. We trusted that person to know. "Faith is the evidence of things not seen" (Heb 11:1).
Likewise, prophecy, or "unseen" knowledge, only works if the universe is orderly and consistent. The universe’s order implies design (Rom 1:19-20). Thus, the gift of God’s power lifts our reason to a larger Truth: He exists, He made the universe, and He is perfectly reliable. I have faith in God because God lifts me up to see more than I normally could. The old saw is true: knowledge (faith) is power.
But, while Faith looks at the messenger’s reliability, Hope looks at message content. Good words from someone I trust: this breathes hope.
God’s message is simple: through His Church and sacraments, He gives Himself entirely to me so that I may have eternal joy. This promise, joyful communion with divinity, breathes hope. Unlike any hope we have in man, the source of our hope is the very Word of the absolutely trustworthy God. The Scripture, the Word of God, tells us about the Logos, the Word of God. But the knowledge of God’s message penetrates even more deeply.
The Kisses of Your Mouth
"Adam knew Eve..." The fullest form of knowledge is complete intimacy, the intimacy of Bridegroom and Bride. It is one person giving self entirely to another. God says He gives Himself entirely to me.
Unlike Faith, which looks at "the evidence of things not seen" (Heb 11:1), Love stands naked before the beloved and is not ashamed (Gen 2:25). Faith is knowledge without sight, Love is knowledge through full sight, but not just sight. Love is palpable, He can be touched. Love is the gift of self to another, with no wall, no barrier, nothing to impede full, total, intimate, penetrating knowledge.
Paul describes heaven, "At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then face to face. At present I know partially; then I shall know fully, as I am fully known." (1 Cor 13:12). Moses describes one foretaste of heaven, "Adam knew Eve and she bore Cain" (Gen 4:1).
Man needs these three forms of knowledge. This culture understands that need. It does not understand it fully, but it does understand. The culture has become permeated with sex because it is not permeated with doctrine.
You see, sex between husband and wife is a pale foretaste God provides us in order to help us understand how He intends to live with us in heaven - He gives Himself entirely to us, we give ourselves entirely to Him. We are made to know God. Since we have not received the doctrines we need to know Him, we pursue the only other avenue of knowledge available: "Adam knew Eve." Put another way, when we lack Him, we pursue His images.
Every human person is an image of the uncreated eternal Persons within the Godhead. We need to know Him to the fullest extent of our being. Adults need to know Him at an adult level. When the Church, the primary means of knowing God, has marginalized herself by focussing most of her energies on children, adults will blindly seek out what they need on their own, wherever they can.
But those same adults know in their gut that the Church’s refusal to engage them as adults is unjust at best, cowardice at worst. They will respond to entreaties to return to her with derision and scorn. In America, the problems in the Catholic Church are problems she created for herself. She will not solve them until she decides to engage adults as her primary mission instead of leaving them the dregs of her attention.