As the literary output of Pope John Paul II has accumulated, expanding almost beyond the assimilative powers of any one reader, and as he celebrates the silver jubilee of his pontificate, I have been asking myself, as I am sure that many others have: What lies at the very heart of his message? Is there some one concept that could serve as a key to unlock what is distinctive to this pope as a thinker? My thesis will be: the mystery of the human person. As pope he is of course bound to the whole dogmatic heritage of the church, but he presents it in a distinctive way, with his own emphases, which are in line with his philosophical personalism.
I. Years as Professor and Bishop
In his early years as a professor of ethics at the University of Lublin in Poland, Karol Wojtyla, the future Pope John Paul II, like other members of the philosophical faculty, identified himself as a Thomist. While enthusiastically affirming the teaching of Thomas Aquinas on most points, he took note of one weakness. St. Thomas paid too little attention to the human person as experienced from within. In a paper on “Thomistic Personalism” delivered in 1961 he declared:
[w]hen it comes to analyzing consciousness and self-consciousness—there seems to be no place for it in St. Thomas’ objectivistic view of reality. In any case, that in which the person’s subjectivity is most apparent is presented by St. Thomas in an exclusively—or almost exclusively—objective way. He shows us the particular faculties, both spiritual and sensory, thanks to which the whole of human consciousness and self-consciousness—the human personality in the psychological and moral sense—takes shape, but that is also where he stops. Thus St. Thomas gives us an excellent view of the objective existence and activity of the person, but it would be difficult to speak in his view of the lived experiences of the person.
Wojtyla was satisfied that St. Thomas correctly situated the human person in terms of the general categories of being, as an individual subsisting in an intellectual nature. But he wished to enrich Thomas’s doctrine of the person by reference to our experience of ourselves as unique ineffable subjects. Each person is an “I,” an original source of free and responsible activity.
Wojtyla’s experience as a young bishop at the Second Vatican Council confirmed and deepened his personalism. He was particularly involved in writing the “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World” (Gaudium et Spes), which speaks of “the exalted dignity proper to the human person” and of universal, inviolable human rights (GS, No. 26). In another of John Paul’s favorite passages, Gaudium et Spes states that human beings are the only creatures that God wills for their own sake, and adds that they cannot rise to their full stature except through a disinterested gift of self (GS, No. 24).
Bishop Wojtyla enthusiastically accepted the council’s teaching that the human person is “ex-centric” rather than egocentric. Paradoxically, we cannot fulfill ourselves except through transcending ourselves and giving ourselves in love toward others. Sometimes John Paul II calls this the “law of the gift.” He thus provides an anthropological grounding for the paradoxical sayings of Jesus in the Gospels about how we can find true life by dying for his sake and unintentionally find spiritual death by clinging selfishly to life.
At Vatican II Wojtyla entered vigorously into the debates on religious freedom. The council opened its declaration on that subject with sentences that could almost have come from the pen of Bishop Wojtyla, had he been one of the authors: “A sense of the dignity of the human person has been impressing itself more and more deeply on the consciousness of contemporary man. And the demand is increasingly made that men should act of their own judgment, enjoying and making use of a responsible freedom, not driven by coercion but motivated by a sense of duty” (Dignitatis Humanae, No. 1).
At the council and many times since, John Paul II has quoted from Jn 8:32: “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (e.g., Redemptor Hominis, No. 12; Veritatis Splendor, Nos. 34 and 87). Throughout his pontificate he has never ceased to be a firm champion of human freedom, including religious freedom. He is on principle opposed to physical and moral coercion as infringements of human dignity.
While glorying in freedom, the pope insists that it is not an end in itself but a means of personally adhering to the true good, as perceived by a judgment of conscience. “Authentic freedom,” he writes, “is never freedom ‘from’ the truth but always freedom ‘in’ the truth” (VS, No. 64). When freedom is abused, it diminishes itself, falling into chains. As he told the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1995, “Detached from the truth about the human person, freedom deteriorates into license in the lives of individuals, and in political life it becomes the caprice of the most powerful and the arrogance of power. Far from being a limitation upon freedom or a threat to it, reference to the truth about the human person—a truth universally knowable through the moral law written on the hearts of all—is, in fact, the guarantor of freedom’s future.”
The pope is quite aware that this concept of freedom is not widely accepted and understood. “The essential bond between Truth, the Good, and Freedom has been largely lost sight of in present-day culture” (VS, No. 84). Libertarianism erroneously severs the bonds between freedom and responsibility. Because freedom is inevitably linked with responsibility, we are accountable for the use we make of it.
In his continuing struggle against Marxism in Poland after the Second Vatican Council, Cardinal Wojtyla identified the doctrine of the person as the Achilles’ heel of the Communist regime. He decided to base his opposition on that plank. In 1968 he wrote to his Jesuit friend, the future Cardinal Henri de Lubac:
I devote my very rare free moments to a work that is close to my heart and devoted to the metaphysical significance and the mystery of the PERSON. It seems to me that the debate today is being played on that level. The evil of our times consists in the first place in a kind of degradation, indeed in a pulverization, of the fundamental uniqueness of each human person. This evil is even much more of the metaphysical than of the moral order. To this disintegration, planned at times by atheistic ideologies, we must oppose, rather than sterile polemics, a kind of “recapitulation” of the mystery of the person.
As pope, John Paul II would continue to insist that the extraordinary brutality of the 20th century was due to an unwillingness to recognize the inherent value of the human person, who is made in the image and likeness of God, who confers upon it inalienable rights that can neither be bestowed nor withdrawn by any human power. “The human person,” he proclaims, “receives from God its essential dignity and with it the capacity to transcend every social order so as to move toward truth and goodness” (Centesimus Annus, No. 38.1).
In The Acting Person, a work first published in Polish in 1969 before he became pope, Cardinal Wojtyla expounded a theory of the person as a self-determining agent that realizes itself through free and responsible action. Activity is not something strictly other than the person; it is the person coming to expression and constituting itself. Persons, moreover, are essentially social and oriented to life in community. They achieve themselves as persons by interaction, giving to others and receiving from them in turn. To reconcile the good of the community with that of its individual members, Wojtyla proposed a theory of participation. All must contribute to the common good, which then redounds to the benefit of the individual members. This teaching on participation and the common good contains an implicit critique not only of Marxist collectivism but also of libertarian individualism and anarchist alienation.
II. Themes of His Papacy
Since becoming pope, John Paul II has used personalism as a lens through which to reinterpret much of the Catholic tradition. He unhesitatingly embraces all the dogmas of the church, but expounds them with a personalist slant.
As a first example of this personalism one might select the pope’s conception of the Christian life itself. In his closing homily at World Youth Day in August 2000, the pope told his hearers: “It is important to realize that among the many questions surfacing in your minds, the decisive ones are not about ‘what.’ The basic question is ‘who’: to whom am I to go? whom am I to follow? to whom should I entrust my life?” In another message to youth he declared: “Christianity is not an opinion and does not consist of empty words. Christianity is Christ! It is a Person.”
In his encyclical on the theology of missionary activity, Redemptoris Missio, John Paul speaks of the kingdom in personalist terms. “The kingdom of God,” he writes, “is not a concept, a doctrine, or a program subject to free interpretation, but it is before all else a person with the face and name of Jesus of Nazareth, the image of the invisible God” (RMis, No. 18). The face of Jesus is for this pope almost a synonym for the person. His apostolic constitution on the church in America begins with a stirring chapter “On the Encounter with the Living Christ.” In his program for the third millennium, Novo Millennio Ineunte, he declares that the church’s task is to make the face of Christ shine in every historical period, a task that requires that we ourselves first contemplate his face (NMI, No. 16). The ancient longing of the Psalmist to see the face of the Lord (Ps 27:8) is surpassingly fulfilled in Christian contemplation of the face of Jesus (NMI, No. 23). The pope’s apostolic letter on the rosary speaks at length of contemplating Jesus, as it were, through the eyes of Mary.
Personalism permeates the ecclesiology of John Paul II. “The Church,” he teaches, “wishes to serve this single end: that each person may be able to find Christ, in order that Christ may walk with each person the path of life” (RH, No. 13.1). He goes on to describe the church as “the community of disciples, each of whom in a different way—at times not very consciously and consistently—is following Christ. This shows also the deeply ‘personal’ aspect and dimension of this society” (RH, No. 21). The pope often asserts that the ultimate reality and model of the church is the divine communion of persons realized eternally in the Holy Trinity (see his Sources of Renewal: The Implementation of Vatican II, 1979, p. 121).
In various documents John Paul II exhorts us to find the face of Jesus not only in the Gospels but also in the sacraments. “The risen Jesus accompanies us on our way and enables us to recognize him, as the disciples of Emmaus did, ‘in the breaking of the bread’ (Lk 24:35)” (NMI, No. 59). John Paul II’s recent encyclical on the Eucharist, Ecclesia de Eucharistia, has the same personalistic dimension. The Eucharist, he says, forms the church because it brings the baptized into full communion and friendship with Christ. When we receive him devoutly in Holy Communion, he abides in us even as we abide in him (EE, No. 22). The encyclical ends by recalling that the bread we receive is the Shepherd who feeds us. It quotes the eucharistic hymn of Thomas Aquinas: “Bone pastor, panis vere...” (“Come then, good Shepherd, bread divine...”) (EE, No. 62).
A profound personalism undergirds Pope John Paul’s theology of ecumenism and interreligious relations. “If prayer is the soul of the ecumenical movement and of its yearning for unity,” he writes in his encyclical on ecumenism, “it is the basis and support for everything the council defines as ‘dialogue.’ This definition is certainly not unrelated to today’s personalist way of thinking. The capacity for dialogue is rooted in the nature of the person and his dignity.... Although the concept of ‘dialogue’ might appear to give priority to the cognitive dimension (dia-logos), all dialogue implies a global, existential dimension. It involves the human subject in his or her entirety; dialogue between communities involves in a particular way the subjectivity of each.... Dialogue is not simply an exchange of ideas. In some way it is always an ‘exchange of gifts’” (Ut Unum Sint No. 28). A little later he asserts: “Dialogue does not extend exclusively to matters of doctrine but engages the whole person; it is also a dialogue of love” (No. 47).
These statements on ecumenical dialogue apply analogously to interreligious dialogue. In his encyclical on missionary activity, John Paul II teaches that dialogue is an essential part of the church’s evangelizing mission. Christian proclamation and dialogue are not opposed to each other but are inextricably interlinked (RMis, No. 55).
The personalist theme shows up almost everywhere in the teaching of this pope. Think, for example, of his apostolic constitution on Catholic higher education, Ex Corde Ecclesiae. Because of its essential connection with Christ as the way, the truth and the life, the Catholic university is imbued with a kind of universal humanism (ECE, No. 4). It enables people to rise to the full measure of their humanity, created in the image of God and renewed in Christ and his Spirit (ECE, No. 5). Quoting from his Unesco address of 1980 and Vatican II’s Gravissimum Educationis, No. 10), the pope adds:
It is essential that we be convinced of the priority of the ethical over the technical, of the primacy of the person over things, of the superiority of the spirit over matter. The cause of the human person will only be served if knowledge is joined to conscience. Men and women of science will truly aid humanity only if they preserve “the sense of the transcendence of the human person over the world and of God over the human person.” (ECE, No. 18)
Personalism also permeates the pope’s teaching on social matters. In the first of his social encyclicals, Laborem Exercens, he expounds a highly original theology of work, based on the relationship between the person and activity. Human beings, he asserts, are called to participate in God’s own creative activity by productive labor. The pope censures economism as the error of “considering labor solely according to its economic purpose” (LE, No. 13.3). Since workers are persons, they are of more value than their products. Through their labor they should be able to transform nature, making it serve as a more fitting habitation for humankind, and at the same time perfect themselves as persons rather than suffer degradation. To the extent that labor is onerous and painful, this may be seen as a just penalty for human sin and may be spiritually fruitful when patiently accepted and united to the sufferings of Christ (LE, No. 27).
Some commentators thought that Laborem Exercens was anticapitalist and that it advocated a kind of socialism, not doctrinaire or ideological but moral. But this interpretation cannot stand in view of the pope’s other social encyclicals, which call for a free participatory society. His encyclical on economic development, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, illustrates this position. Building on notions already sketched in Laborem Exercens, the pope defines solidarity as a virtue, whereby people firmly commit themselves not to exploit others but to work for their good and even to “lose themselves” for the sake of others. The virtue of solidarity applies analogously to corporations and nations, which must responsibly contribute to the general good of society and of humanity as a whole (SRS, Nos. 38-40).
The theme of development provides John Paul with an occasion to speak again of personal initiative and participation. “Development,” he states, “demands above all a spirit of initiative on the part of the countries which need it. Each of them must act in accordance with its own responsibilities, not expecting everything from the more favored countries.... Each must discover and use to the best advantage its own area of freedom” (SRS, No. 44). While opposing all kinds of exploitation of the poor and marginalized, the pope affirms the right of human initiative in undertaking new economic ventures.
The pope’s experience of living under a Marxist regime in Poland turned him against the welfare state. The controlled economy, he maintains, “diminishes, or in practice absolutely destroys, the spirit of initiative, that is to say, the creative subjectivity of the person” (SRS, No. 15.2). The notion of creative subjectivity moves to center stage in John Paul II’s third social encyclical, Centesimus Annus. “The free market economy,” it states, “is the most efficient instrument for utilizing resources and effectively responding to needs” (No. 34.1). At one point the pope pointedly asks whether formerly Communist nations seeking to rebuild their economies should be advised to embrace capitalism. His answer is a carefully qualified yes. He is in favor of the business economy, the market economy, the free economy, but he is convinced that the energies unleashed by the market need to be contained within a strong juridical framework and a public moral culture so that the economy is kept in service to the common good (No. 42).
Whereas his predecessors had tended to look on wealth as an accumulation of material possessions, John Paul II as a personalist adds a new factor. He points out that the primary source of wealth today is the human spirit with its fund of knowledge and its creative capacities (No. 32). Wealth, therefore, consists more in what we are than in what we have.
III. Tensions With Previous Tradition
I could say a great deal more about the pope’s personalism as illustrated, for example, in his concept of the priest as acting “in the person of Christ” in consecrating the host and chalice at the altar and in giving absolution in the sacrament of penance, which he refers to as “the tribunal of mercy.” But the examples already adduced should probably suffice to establish my thesis about the importance of the personalist perspective in the thought of John Paul II. But before concluding, I should like to reflect on several points at which this perspective stands in tension with previous Catholic tradition.
1. Natural Theology. At least since the time of Thomas Aquinas, the Catholic tradition has insisted that the existence of the one personal God, creator and goal of all things, can be established by human reason on the basis of things seen. The standard arguments have been based on the principle of causality, contingency, the degrees of perfection and the principle of finality. The present pope nowhere rejects these arguments, but he is curiously silent about them. Instead he takes his point of departure from the longings of the human heart for personal communion with others and with the divine. For personalist philosophers such as Martin Buber and Emmanuel Levinas, he writes, “the path passes not so much through being and existence [as in St. Thomas] as through people and their meeting each other” in co-existence and dialogue. We encounter God as the ultimate Thou. This approach is highly suggestive, but the pope does not develop it in detail. And so we are left with questions such as these: Can a rigorous and convincing proof be erected on a personalist foundation? If so, is it to be preferred to the traditional ontological and cosmological arguments? Have these other arguments been exposed as deficient? I believe that the thought of John Paul II can be integrated with the tradition.
2. Natural Law. When he writes on natural law, the present pope speaks more of the human person than of human nature. As Janet Smith points out, he wishes to integrate the natural law into his personalist framework, thus avoiding the charge of “biologism” sometimes directed against standard presentations. “The true meaning of the natural law,” says the pope, is that “it refers to man’s proper and primordial nature, the ‘nature of the human person,’ which is the person himself” (VS, No. 50.1).
The Oxford professor Oliver O’Donovan objects that the pope seems overindebted to the idealist tradition, which “understands the rationality of the moral law as something grounded in the human mind.” But in his work as a professor, Karol Wojtyla anticipated this objection and sought to answer it. In an essay on “The Human Person and Natural Law,” he firmly rejected the view of Kant and the idealists, who would allow reason to impose its own categories on reality. For Wojtyla reason discerns and affirms an objective order of reality and value that is prior to reason itself. The freedom of the human person is not to be understood indeterministically, as though it meant emancipation from all constraints. Although the mind must conform to the real order, law as a moral obligation is not something merely mechanical or biological. It presupposes a subject with personal consciousness.
3. Contraception. The question of natural law comes up concretely in the pope’s writings on contraception. Following Pius XI and Pius XII, Paul VI in his encyclical Humanae Vitae argued primarily from natural law, contending that contraception is intrinsically evil because the generative faculties are intrinsically ordered toward the raising up of life (HV, No. 13). But the present pope, in his various writings on the subject, says nothing about the intrinsic ordering of the faculties. He speaks of sexual union as a tangible expression of love between a man and a woman who generously and unreservedly give themselves to each other. Contraception, he maintains, is “a falsification of the inner meaning of conjugal love,” since it turns sexuality into a means of hedonistic satisfaction (Familiaris Consortio, No. 32.4). Paul VI in Humanae Vitae had already spoken of conjugal love as a reciprocal personal gift of self and had warned that the practice of contraception could easily lead to the lowering of the partners into mere instruments of selfish enjoyment (HV, Nos. 8, 17).
Some authors contend that if Paul VI had more consistently followed the personalist rather than the legalist approach, his condemnation of contraception would have been more warmly received. The question therefore arises: Does John Paul II intend to correct Paul VI by substituting a superior argument, or does he mean to leave intact all that Paul VI said about the ontological dimension of the moral law, adding only a further reflection on the subjective or psychological dimension? I suspect that he intends to support the tradition, not to supersede it. But he wants to induce people to be open to life from a motive of love, not just as a matter of submitting to law.
4. Death Penalty. In a McGinley Lecture several years ago I spoke at some length of the pope’s views on the death penalty. Although he does not hold that the death penalty is intrinsically evil, his deep respect for human life inclines him to reject capital punishment in practice. He allows for it when there is no other way to defend society against the criminal, but he also holds that in advanced societies today there are alternatives more in accord with human dignity. When convicts on death row are about to be executed, the pope regularly sends messages to governors asking them to grant clemency.
Earlier official teaching, up through the pontificate of Pius XII, consistently supported capital punishment. Catholic moral theologians regularly quoted St. Paul to the effect that secular rulers do not bear the sword in vain; they are God’s ministers or instruments in executing his wrath upon wrongdoers (Rom 13:4). Thus the authority of the state to put criminals to death does not conflict with the maxim that God alone is the master of life. But John Paul II, to the best of my knowledge, never quotes this text. Why not, I wonder. Does he believe that governments in the modern democratic society still rule with divine authority or that they enjoy only the authority given them by consensus of the governed? Can retributive punishment be a valid reason for the death penalty? Some Catholics interpret John Paul II as opposing the mainstream Catholic tradition and therefore as perhaps teaching unsound doctrine. Personally I am not convinced that he wishes to break with that tradition. In my earlier McGinley lecture I contended that his statements can be read in a way compatible with the tradition on the death penalty.
5. Just War. Similar issues arise with respect to just war. John Paul II, while denying that he is a pacifist, deplores military action as a failure for humanity. In the encyclical Centesimus Annus he called attention to the success of nonviolent resistance in bringing about the overthrow of Communism in Eastern Europe. He then pleaded eloquently for a world order in which the need for war would be eliminated. “Never again war,” he writes, “which destroys the lives of innocent people, teaches how to kill, throws into upheaval even the lives of those who do the killing and leaves behind a trail of resentment and hatred. Just as the time has finally come when in individual states a system of private vendetta and reprisal has given way to the rule of law, so too a similar step forward is now urgently needed in the international community” (CA, No. 52.1).
In his World Peace Day message of Jan. 1, 2002, John Paul II declared that there is no peace without justice and no justice without forgiveness. Does he mean that the pursuit of justice and forgiveness ought to banish all thought of war? Some astute critics believe that the pope is preparing the way for a doctrinal development that would greatly restrict the conditions of a just war. Is he discarding the just war tradition in favor of what George Weigel calls “a species of functional or de facto pacifism”?
Personalism undoubtedly favors the use of persuasion rather than force. It makes for a reluctance to admit that negotiation can at a certain point become futile. But realism may sometimes require the use of military force. The pope has several times countenanced what is called “humanitarian intervention” to put an end to bloody massacres (e.g., in Rwanda, East Timor and Bosnia). He made no objection to the American military action in Afghanistan in 2002. In essentials, I suspect, the classical just war doctrine is still intact, but new and difficult mediating principles are needed especially in cases where the belligerents are not sovereign states with mercenary troops but factions or terrorist organizations.
6. Social Order. I have already commented on the social and economic teaching of the present pope. Michael Novak sees this teaching, especially in Centesimus Annus, as supplying the rationale needed for building a new order of society. The key concepts in this new synthesis, Novak finds, are those of the acting person, the right to personal economic initiative, the virtues associated with entrepreneurship, and human creativity grounded in the imago Dei implanted in every woman and man by the Creator himself.
Not all commentators share Novak’s enthusiasm. James Hug, S.J., for example, ruefully writes of Centesimus Annus, “Some of the language suggests that U.S. neoconservatives helped to shape its content.” He looks forward to the day when he and “the progressive segment of the church justice community” will be able to have comparable input into papal social teaching.
These varying reactions leave us with the question: Is the social teaching of the present pope a passing deviation or a permanent shift? I would hazard the opinion that his personalist slant will continue to enrich Catholic political and economic theory for the foreseeable future.
7. Kingship of Christ. In his talks and writings, Pope John Paul II speaks frequently of Christ’s threefold office as prophet, priest and king. While he elaborates on the first two members of this triad, he has relatively less to say about Christ’s kingly office. The Feast of Christ the King was instituted by Pius XI in 1925 to make it clear that Christ “holds all nations under his sway” (Quas Primas, No. 20). “Nations,” wrote Pius XI, “will be reminded by the annual celebration of this feast that not only individuals but also rulers and princes are bound to give public honor and obedience to Christ” (QP, No. 32, italics supplied).
John Paul II, by contrast, speaks of Christ’s lordship as a triumph of humble submission and of his kingdom as a “kingdom of love and service.” He says relatively little about Christ as lawmaker and judge, perhaps because these themes fit less well into his personalist scheme. The Second Vatican Council’s “Declaration on Religious Freedom,” with its accent on the mutual independence of church and state, has made it more difficult to speak with the boldness of Pius XI. But we should not allow ourselves to forget that Christ, who lived humbly as a servant in our midst, has been crowned with glory and that he reigns as sovereign Lord at the right hand of the Father.
8. Last Judgment. John Paul II of course accepts the article of the Creed that Christ “will come again to judge the living and the dead.” But he quotes by preference from the Fourth Gospel that “God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him” (Jn 3:17). “Only those who will have rejected the salvation offered by God in his boundless mercy,” he writes, “will be condemned, because they will have condemned themselves.” A little later he adds that eternal punishment is not to be attributed to God’s initiative, because in his merciful love God can only desire the salvation of the human beings he has created.
Damnation, according to the pope, means definitive separation from God “freely chosen by the human person and confirmed with death.” Paraphrasing the parable of the sheep and goats, he says that the Lord Jesus will come to “question” us when we appear before him. But in the parable itself, the Son of Man actually sentences some to hell with the words: “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire that has been prepared for the devil and his angels” (Mt 25:41). The shift in imagery betrays the pope’s reluctance to speak of Christ as judge.
9. Purgatory. The Catholic tradition has depicted purgatory as a place where the debt of temporal punishment for forgiven sins is paid. The classical proof text from Scripture (2 Mc 12:41-45) speaks of sacrifices being offered to atone for the sins of slain Jewish soldiers. The Second Council of Lyons taught that the souls in purgatory undergo cleansing punishments. Paul VI in 1967 reiterated the doctrine that even after sins have been remitted, a debt of expiation may remain to be paid in purgatory. But John Paul II, in texts familiar to me, makes no mention of punishment or expiation in purgatory. Instead he speaks of it only as a state of “purification” or cleansing preparing the soul to en