Love and Responsibility

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

The initial reaction of a non-Catholic to John Paul II’s treatment of sex is likely to be: “How can he say anything credible about it if he is celibate?” The author (then Bishop Wojtyla: he wrote the book eighteen years before becoming Pope) anticipated this question in the Preface to Love and Responsibility. What a priest may lack in immediate experience, he argues, he makes up for in breadth of secondhand experience and scholarship. A scholar need not be a soldier to write about war, nor must a scientist be an astronaut to write about space. Indeed, the priest is in an opportune position to write an ethics of sex: purposefully detached, he can describe, without the fog of immediate self-interest, the character of sexual relations, and he can prescribe, because of his immersion in a tradition rich with values, that behavior which is best for those who choose not to be celibate. To ignore this book because of John Paul II’s celibacy, then, is to act on thoughtless bias. It is also unfortunate, because despite some weaknesses, the book is often insightful, challenging, and even inspirational.

Like all mainline Catholic moral philosophy following Thomas Aquinas, Love and Responsibility is based on natural theology. Put simply, natural theology says that people behave morally when they act in accord with the natural order. That which is natural, though, is not simply that which is physical or biological, but rather that which follows God’s activity in creation. The order of nature, writes John Paul II,

is generally confused with the “biological order” and so deprived of all importance. It is much easier to understand the power of the natural order (and its constitutive significance for morality, and for the development of the human personality) if we see behind it the personal authority of the Creator.

To understand John Paul II’s moral reasoning, then, it is necessary to understand that the natural is evident in but not reducible to the environment. The natural is God’s revelation through nature in accordance with sacred scripture, the historical Church, and reason.

From this base in natural theology, John Paul II identifies personhood as the beginning and end of all moral behavior. Human beings are different from all other animals because of their rationality, their unique inner life. Human reasoning capabilities allow them to transcend urges and instincts; that is, they have a free will, and with this freedom comes responsibility. Unlike animals which must obey their instincts, humans can will their behavior. Because they have the power of choice, their actions can be good or evil. Good deeds occur when people choose to behave in accordance with the created order.

Behavior toward humans is good when they are treated as persons rather than as objects. Using people as the means to an end denies them their intelligence and creativity; it usurps their freedom. God did not create people as a means even toward His ends. Instead, He endowed people with the ability to determine their own ends. Treating others as persons rather than as the means to an end is to allow them to work toward their own personal goals.

To treat others as persons is to love them. Love means consciously seeking a good together with others, never putting oneself above others or the mutual good. On the contrary, the person acting in love may subordinate himself or herself in service of the good or of others. Love as a virtue is the ultimate good toward which people should strive; experienced love is a process, and as such never is, but rather is always becoming.

Moral sexual behavior can only occur when the natural purpose for sex fuses with the personalistic norm, according to which people are never to be used as the means toward an end. John Paul II argues,

In the sexual relationship between man and woman two orders meet: the order of nature, which has as its object reproduction, and the personal order, which finds its expression in the love of persons and aims at the fullest realization of that love.

According to John Paul II, the natural purpose of sex is procreation, so the possibility of childbearing must always be present in the sexual act. This simple maxim precludes two types of behavior. Sex not between a man and a woman, whether homosexual relations or masturbation, is wrong because God designed human sexual organs for union between genders for the purpose of procreation. Artifical means of birth control are likewise misdirected, because they too do not follow the natural order. Sexual partners must always be willing, if they are physically capable, to produce and rear offspring. The only forms of birth control that should be exercised are those that nature herself provides: abstention in relations outside of marriage, since the partners are unwilling to rear children, and rhythm, since it follows the fertility cycle that the female body goes through naturally. Contraceptive devices unnaturally prevent the created goal of sex, and premature withdrawal stops the natural climax of the sexual act.

Following the order of nature is but one criterion of good sexual behavior; sex must also...

(The entire section is 2146 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

Booklist. LXXVII, June 1, 1981, p. 1280.

Choice. XIX, November, 1981, p. 392.

Kirkus Reviews. XLIX, June 1, 1981, p. 730.

Library Journal. CVI, June 1, 1981, p. 1231.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVI, September 20, 1981, p. 13.

U.S. Catholic. XLVI, November, 1981, p. 48.