Pope John Paul II Critical Essays

Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Pope John Paul II 1920-

(Karol Wojtyla; also wrote under pseudonym Andrzej Jawien) Polish theologian, nonfiction writer, essayist, dramatist, critic, and poet.

The following entry presents an overview of Pope John Paul II's literary career through 1998.

The first non-Italian pope in 455 years and the first Slavic pope ever, Pope John Paul II is internationally renowned as a devoted missionary for peace and the dynamic spiritual and moral leader of nearly one billion Roman Catholics worldwide. Ordained as pontiff in 1978, the former Cardinal Karol Wojtyla of Krakow—also a poet, playwright, and professor—is regarded as a formidable intellectual and radical conservative whose religious perspective is equally informed by Thomism and twentieth-century philosophy, particularly Marxism, existentialism, and phenomenology. A firm proponent of traditional theological strictures against sex out of wedlock, contraception, abortion, homosexuality, and the ordination of women, he has elicited much controversy for his uncompromising stand against the secularization of the church and strong criticism of moral degradation under both communist and capitalist economic systems. As “the strong conscience of the whole Christian world” and “the greatest of our modern popes,” according to the Reverend Billy Graham, John Paul has attracted millions of Catholic and non-Catholic admirers through his warm personal style, his devotion to the cause of social justice and human dignity, and dedication to direct ministration before mass congregations around the world.

Biographical Information

Born Karol Wojtyla in Wadowice, Poland, John Paul was the younger of two sons raised by devout Catholic parents. His mother, of Lithuanian descent, died when John Paul was nine and his father, a retired army officer, died in 1941. As a child John Paul excelled at school and athletics, developing lifelong passions for skiing, hiking, and canoeing. In 1938 he began studies in literature and philosophy at Jagiellonian University in Krakow, where he wrote poetry and participated in semiprofessional theater productions as an actor and playwright. During the Nazi occupation of Poland, John Paul worked as a laborer in a quarry and at a chemical factory while continuing his artistic activities. He wrote his first (now lost) play, David, in 1939 and two others, Job and Jeremiah, in 1940. He cofounded the underground Rhapsodic Theater, or “theater of the word,” with Mieczyslaw Kotlarczyk and appeared in more than twenty productions during the Second World War. In 1942 John Paul began clandestine studies for the priesthood at a seminary in Krakow. Following his ordination in 1944, he earned a doctorate in theology from Jagiellonian University in 1948 and continued postgraduate study under conservative French theologian Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange at the Pontifical Angelicum University in Rome; he completed a thesis on St. John of the Cross in 1950 and a habilitation thesis on the philosophy of Max Scheler in 1957.

John Paul worked as a university chaplain and professor of moral philosophy at Catholic University in Lublin, Poland, until his appointment as auxiliary bishop of Krakow in 1958. He was elevated to vicar capitular of the archdiocese of Krakow in 1962, archbishop of Krakow in 1964, and bestowed cardinalship by Pope Paul VI in 1967. During the 1960s and 1970s, John Paul participated in the Second Vatican Council and rose to prominence at international bishops synods. He also published several plays, including Sklep Jubüerski (1960; The Jeweler's Shop), and the noted ethical and theological works Milose i odpowiedzialnosc (1960; Love and Responsibility), Osoba i czyn (1969; The Acting Person), and Znaki sprzecznosci (1976; Sign of Contradiction). John Paul served continuously as archbishop of Krakow until his appointment as Supreme Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church on October 16, 1978. He succeeded Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul I, both of whom died only months apart in 1978, to become the 264th pope in Church history and, at age fifty-eight, the youngest of the twentieth century. In 1979 he initiated the first of numerous international pilgrimages with a trip to Latin America. In 1981 John Paul survived a near fatal assassination attempt in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican. During the 1980s, he was an important catalyst in the democratic reforms that swept Eastern Europe, particularly the Solidarity movement in his native Poland, and met with numerous world leaders and heads of states. Despite weakened physical health since the early 1990s—it is widely reported that he suffers from Parkinson's disease—John Paul maintains a rigorous travel itinerary and remains an active proponent of world peace. His fluency in multiple languages, including Italian, English, German, French, and Spanish, in addition to Latin and his native tongue, has enabled him to speak directly to a large international audience.

Major Works

John Paul wrote six plays between 1939 and 1964, five of which are contained in The Collected Plays and Writings on Theater (1987), along with several essays on drama. His early dramatic works, Job and Jeremiah, are written in verse and draw upon biblical themes to portray the suffering and martyrdom of the Polish nation during the Second World War; the first is modeled on Greek tragedy, the second on Symbolist theater. Our God's Brother, written during the late 1940s, centers upon the life of Adam Chmielowski (1845-1916), a Polish artist, political dissident, and advocate for the homeless known as Brother Albert whom he greatly admired. Characteristic of John Paul's “inner theater,” this work exhibits a minimum of external dramatic action, focusing instead on the protagonist's spiritual conflicts and philosophical concerns in non-linear progression. His last two dramas, The Jeweler's Shop and The Radiation of Fatherhood (1964), are comprised of long, interrelated monologues and meditations that resemble mystery plays in their archetypal themes and characterizations. The Jeweler's Shop, published under the pseudonym Andrzej Jawien, focuses on the separate relationships of three couples and their struggles with love, alienation, and parenthood.

Easter Vigil and Other Poems (1979) and Collected Poems (1982) contain English translations of his poetry, much of which was published in Catholic periodicals under the Jawien pseudonym. John Paul's overarching ethical, philosophical, and religious principles are put forth in The Acting Person, a culmination of a decade's research and reflection in which he synthesizes elements of Thomism, existentialism, and phenomenology into a complex foundation for moral action. While defending the free will of the individual and maintaining that human experience is essentially understood in terms of action, he rails against Cartesian subjectivism and dismisses the existentialist notion that action itself defines the person. Drawing upon Aristotelian metaphysics, John Paul attempts to establish objective principles of right and wrong action by which the individual acts autonomously to qualitatively improve or degrade his or her life. According to John Paul, the highest order of self-determination and personal fulfillment is achieved through integration with others and participatory activity toward the common good. Sign of Contradiction consists of discourses presented to Pope Paul VI and the Roman Curia during a 1976 Lenten retreat. Drawing upon a wide array of scriptural, literary, and philosophical sources, including the early church fathers, St. Augustine, Shakespeare, Martin Heidegger, and Albert Camus, John Paul condemns totalitarianism, Western consumerism, and Third World poverty as primary sources of human suffering in the contemporary world. He also asserts that Jesus did not intend for his disciples to engage in overt political action, reflecting his disavowal of the Liberation Theology movement of Latin America. John Paul presents his views on love, marriage, and sexuality in Love and Responsibility, which derives from his university lectures, and Fruitful and Responsible Love (1979), based on an address delivered at a Milan conference on birth control in 1978. While extolling the sanctity of conjugal love in each, he condemns contraception, premarital and extramarital sex, and divorce. In Love and Responsibility he underscores the importance of transcendent love as a prerequisite for physical communion and warns against the exploitative objectification of one's partner for the sake of carnal gratification. Pleasure and procreation may coexist, he contends, but only among married partners who share a profound loving connection that supercedes the sex act itself.

In addition to his numerous addresses and apostolic letters, John Paul's major theological pronouncements are contained in his papal encyclicals. His first, Redemptor Hominis (1979; The Redeemer of Man), introduces John Paul's characteristic personal tone and international concern for the collective well-being and salvation of humanity, particularly the poor and disenfranchised in communist, capitalist, and Third World countries. In subsequent encyclicals he addressed spiritual aspects of labor (Laborem Exercens, 1981; On Human Work), the prohibition against the ordination of women as priests (Mulieris Dignitatem, 1988; The Dignity and Vocation of Women), the vying ambitions of Marxism and capitalism (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, 1988; The Social Concern of the Church), the need for social justice in free market economies (Centesimus Annus, 1991; On the Hundredth Anniversary), the reunification of the Christian church (Ut Unum Sint, 1995; That All May Be One), and reaffirmed Catholic moral tradition against relativism and revisionists (Veritatis Splendor, 1994; The Splendor of Truth). John Paul also offers insight into his religious and historical perspective in “Be Not Afraid!”; (1984), an interview with French journalist André Frossard, and the international bestseller Crossing the Threshold of Hope (1994), which consists of John Paul's responses to questions on personal, theological, and metaphysical topics posed by Italian journalist Vittorio Messori.

Critical Reception

John Paul is admired throughout the world for his universal message of hope and numerous diplomatic peace missions. His literary experiments, moral philosophy, and papal writings have earned him recognition as a profound thinker who is equally at home with the modern philosophy and social theories of Scheler, Camus, John-Paul Sartre, and Paul Ricoeur as with the Bible and medieval theology. Though the revered figurehead of the Roman Catholic church, he has generated considerable controversy among both clergy and laity due to his unwavering opposition to abortion, birth control, artificial fertilization, homosexuality, and the ordination of women. His progressive detractors within the church, particularly in Holland and the United States, view his stand on these issues as archaic, sexist, and unnecessarily exclusionary. However, both supporters and critics alike praise his exceptional moral courage and integrity, for which he was honored as Time magazine's “Man of the Year” in 1994. As many critics note, John Paul's experiences under Nazi and communist regimes forged his abiding personal stake in the defense of political freedom and human rights. Commenting on John Paul's “prophetic humanism,” Avery Dulles writes in America, “He is conscious of speaking to a world that is in the throes of crisis—a crisis of dehumanization. Like most prophets, he senses that he is faced with enormous opposition and that his is perhaps a lonely voice. He is not afraid to confront others in his struggle to salvage human dignity.” John Paul has also won respect for his impressive erudition and intellectual rigor. Noting the sophistication of his commentary in Crossing the Threshold of Hope, a book ostensibly intended for a mass audience, Peter Steinfels writes in Commonweal, “it is justifiably satisfying that the current successor of Peter takes it for granted that serious questions demand not just piety and good will but also knowledge and intellectual effort.”