J. M. Cameron (review date 3 May 1979)

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SOURCE: “Where the New Pope Stands,” in New York Review of Books, May 3, 1979, pp. 14-20.

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[In the following review, Cameron examines John Paul's leadership, social vision, and thought in Sign of Contradiction.]

Interest in the Papacy has increased since the short pontificate of John XXIII. The good nature and charm of John were irresistible. As a personality Paul VI was less expansive; the task of presiding over the consequences of the second Vatican Council was something he did with great ability, but he found it tormenting, and this was evident in the tone of his later speeches, plaintive, passionate, mournful. John Paul I was an instant success: it seemed as though Don Camillo had become Pope (just as John XXIII, in his humanity and holiness, seemed to have come out of the pages of I Promessi Sposi); but we had scarcely begun to enjoy his gentle belletrist approach to spiritual problems when death took him. (Illustrissimi, with its letters to Dickens, Scott, Saint Bernard, Goldoni, Figaro, Luke the Evangelist, and others, has a distinctively nineteenth-century charm).

Now, with John Paul II, we are presented with one who is altogether formidable: younger than his fifty-eight years, strong in body and mind, familiar with the political world of Eastern Europe, intensely masculine, a man of humble background and a former manual worker, well-educated, much better acquainted with modern philosophical thought than his immediate predecessors, a respectable poet, a weighty contributor to the Vatican II debates. The most immediately striking thing about him is that he is a Pole, a former archbishop of Krakow.

The Poles are a singular people in the contemporary world. Their national consciousness and their consciousness as Catholics are hard to prize apart. This is a fact so influential that the communist government finds itself, perhaps a little to its own surprise, giving the Church an amount of recognition without parallel in Eastern Europe or anywhere else under communist rule. Cardinal Wojtyla's own vivid feeling as a Pole—what it would scarcely be too strong to call his romanticism—overflowed into his first sermon as Pope, when, at the end, he turned to those who had come from Krakow to the Mass of his inauguration.

What shall I say to you who come from my Krakow, from the see of St. Stanislaus of whom I was the unworthy successor for fourteen years … ? Everything that I could say would fade into insignificance compared with what my heart feels at this moment. … I ask you: be with me at Jasna Gora and everywhere. Do not cease to be with the Pope who today prays with the words of the poet: “Mother of God, you who defend bright Czestochowa and shine at Ostrabrama.” …

Sign of Contradiction appeared first in Italian in 1977. It is a set of discourses given during a retreat held for the Pope (Paul VI) and some of his collaborators. As Cardinal Wyszynski noted in his foreword to the Italian edition, it is free from professional jargon. The standpoint is solidly traditional, the way of handling problems fresh and direct. The range of reference is what distinguishes it from other works of this genre. As well as the references one would expect to Scripture, Augustine, Thomas, there are many references to the early Fathers. Irenaeus is clearly a favorite: his “The glory of God is man alive” is one of the sayings to which he returns often. Of modern theologians the one he seems to find most sympathetic is Henri de Lubac, the leading figure among the Jesuits of the Lyon school; it is ironical that this group of men had a rough time under Pius XII. Then, there are references to Shakespeare and Goethe, to Feuerbach and to Rahner, Heidegger, Camus, Kolakowski, Ricoeur, and other contemporary thinkers. He has read much, and widely, and profited from his reading.

The following points in Sign of Contradiction seem of interest, as indicating John Paul II's style of thought.

He doesn't think that to be poor or to be oppressed by a dictatorship is the worst thing that can happen to a man. It is worse still to be “caught in the toils of consumerism and a prey to the hunger for status symbols that divides both the world and the hearts of men.” He is anxious to avoid any kind of clericalism (this also came out in his Mexican speeches). In social and political matters the leading role should in principle be that of the laity. He seems to stress, as the great human evils of our time, first, totalitarianism, “the age of the concentration camp and the oven,” then, the confusions and frustrations of men living in opulence in the liberal societies, lastly, the conditions of life in the Third World. Finally, there is an analysis of the policies of nominally Christian societies.

The great poverty of many peoples, first and foremost the poverty of the peoples of the Third World, hunger, economic exploitation, colonialism—which is not confined to the Third World—all this is a form of opposition to Christ on the part of the powerful, irrespective of political regimes and cultural traditions. This form of contradiction of Christ often goes hand-in-hand with a partial acceptance of religion, of Christianity and the Church, an acceptance of Christ as an element present in culture, morality and even education.

The man who has no illusions about the nature of the people's democracies has no illusions about Western Europe and North America.

Judgments on the Pope and his policy must necessarily be tentative and provisional. His striking personality, as it moves the masses on the television screen, in the images of the press, in St. Peter's Square or in Mexico, is something that hasn't been seen, in such an office, for a very long time. The image—the figure in a Mexican hat carrying a small child, the pastor who breaks the protocol of centuries to bless the marriage of the daughter of a Roman garbage collector, the Pope who says “I,” not “We,” all the time and eschews the bland, obfuscating rhetoric of the curial speechwriters—is not so much a creation of the media as a gift to them. It is certainly not fabricated by Vatican image-makers, who, as working journalists will testify, have no skill in public relations and almost always make a botch of important occasions. No doubt some of the force of Wojtyla's effect springs from his being the first non-Italian Pope for so long and from his being, as it were, a veteran of famous wars in Eastern Europe. The expectations are so great that some are certain to be disappointed from time to time and in connection with this issue or that.

The visit to the conference of Latin American bishops at Puebla, in Mexico, was the first major test of his sagacity. What he had to say baffled much of the press and no final verdicts have as yet come in. The early reporting seemed intent upon deciding whether or not the Pope was “for” or “against” Liberation Theology. It wasn't made clear what this theology might be or if indeed there is a single school to which the label rightly belongs. It was generally known that under many of the military regimes in Latin America the Church had become a major factor in opposing the repressive policies of these regimes, a refuge for those hunted by the secret police, a defender of the collective enterprises of peasants, a protector of the rights of the native Indians. And it was also known that a considerable number of priests and religious, and even an occasional bishop, had been arrested, imprisoned, roughed up, tortured, killed by the police of the military dictators. It was also known that Latin American Catholics, especially the bishops, were divided about the wisdom of the policies that had led to such confrontations between the Church and the military rulers.

What isn't known and what even close students of the region are not agreed upon is how the socio-political situation of the Latin American countries is to be analyzed and what the remedy for the social and economic evils may be. There is a large amount of what looks like paranoia. External forces are sometimes blamed almost exclusively for the horrors, though of course the actual interventions of the CIA and of Castro are indisputable. Middle-class groups, where they exist in strength (notably in Chile), seem to lack basic skills in sustaining parliamentary regimes, and, terrified of “communism,” place their liberties in the hands of soldiers and policemen. In some areas industrial and large-scale agricultural development is advancing at a great rate—Brazil is the obvious example—with all the suffering and social dislocation and inequality such development brings with it. The most evident sign of the dislocation caused by these changes and of the ineptitude of existing social elites is the growth, around all the great cities, of shanty towns, bidonvilles, with populations drawn from a countryside that has been neglected or given over to large scale farming.

The Puebla conference came ten years after the Medellin conference of the Latin American bishops. The Medellin conference, the conclusions of which were approved by Paul VI, though not by some of his Vatican advisers, has been described as “a decisive milestone in contemporary theology, inasmuch as it situated the full and integral liberation of mankind squarely at the center of Christian reflection and practice, not only in Latin America but in much of the rest of the world.” From Medellin came the confrontation of the Church with the regimes, deep changes in the structure of religious communities, a variety of impressive personalities who seemed to incarnate the plight of Latin America (Dom Helder Camara is the best known in North America and Europe), and a great many new theological tendencies all brought under the umbrella-term Liberation Theology.

Nothing could have saved Puebla from being anticlimactic after Medellin; progress was disappointing and patchy, bishops were still divided, there was a savage backlash from sections of the Catholic bourgeoisie who patronize terrorist movements dedicated to the rescue of property, family, country. Some liberation themes seemed to have run into the sand; and as so often in the contemporary climate of thought, the discovery that the overcoming of great evils is a slow process provoked rage in some. John Paul II's decision to go to Puebla didn't save the conference from all its difficulties, but it gave it the world's attention.

The Pope's speech to the Puebla conference is a complex but not an evasive statement. It has to be taken as a whole, but to stress the following points will, I hope, reflect without too much distortion the emphases of the speech. Against the type of liberation theology that tries to bring Catholicism close to Marxism, treating the moment of revolution as a surrogate for the day of judgment, he urges that the “idea of Christ as a political figure, a revolutionary, as the subversive man from Nazareth” has no connection with the Church's tradition and goes against the evidence of the New Testament. At the center of preaching is the truth that (he argues) is peculiar to Christianity:

The truth that we owe to man is … a truth about man. As witnesses of Jesus Christ we are heralds, spokesmen and servants of this truth. We cannot reduce it to the principles of a system of philosophy or to pure political activity. We cannot forget it or betray it.

(One remembers his moving Christmas Day sermon in which he invited us to attend, in the darkness of the first Christmas night, to “the wailing of the child,” as to the cry of suffering humanity taken into the mystery of God's love; and one recalls his picking out of Irenaeus's aphorism. “The glory of God is man alive.”)

He has, at the same time, a strong statement against the violation of human rights under all regimes. He links—doesn't divide—evangelization and social advancement and reaffirms what was said at Medellin about this. He argues that the Church has no business linking her mission to “ideological systems,” and should “stay free with regard to the competing systems, in order to opt only for man.”

Whatever the miseries or sufferings that afflict man, it is not through violence, the interplay of power and political systems, but through the truth concerning man that he journeys towards a better future.

He attacks the “mechanisms that … produce on the international level rich people ever more rich at the expense of poor people ever more poor”; and argues that no theoretical device for changing this situation is likely to be effective unless there is a passion for justice.

Finally, we sense in John Paul II, here as in other of his speeches and writings, a strong feeling against clericalism in any form—it seems he sees an incipient clericalism in some radical trends among the clergy. Priests are not as such political leaders, nor are they servants of the state. “It is necessary to avoid supplanting the laity. … Is it not the laity who are called, by reason of their vocation in the Church, to make their contribution in the political and economic dimensions, and to be effectively present in the safeguarding and advancement of human rights?” Here the Pope is surely endorsing the policy of forming basic lay communities able to function largely without clerical leadership and concerning themselves with giving actual help to the poor and raising questions of social justice. Such communities have flourished in Brazil and it is perhaps not an accident that some of the most resourceful bishops (notably Cardinal Lortscheider) come from that country.

There was one startling omission from the Puebla speech, and from the other speeches in Mexico. Nothing was said about the many Christians who have suffered in the prisons and torture chambers of Latin America, and have died in defense of human rights and their Christian faith. To compare perhaps, small things with great, though here comparisons are hateful, this is like talking about Hitler's Germany or Stalin's Russia without referring to the martyrs of the death camps. One can only conclude that in this matter the Pope was badly advised.

The temper of the Pope's mind and his intellectual and social concerns are amplified in his first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis. The style is personal and direct: “I” is generally employed; good will toward the non-Christian religions and toward unbelievers is strongly marked; and there are many pungent statements. For example, after remarking that the pattern of world development represents a “gigantic development of the parable in the Bible of the rich banqueter and the poor man Lazarus,” he adds:

by submitting man to tensions created by himself, dilapidating at an accelerated pace material and energy resources, and compromising the geophysical environment, [men] unceasingly make the areas of misery spread, accompanied by anguish, frustration and bitterness. We have before us here a great drama that can leave nobody indifferent. … The drama is made still worse by the presence close at hand of the privileged social classes and of the rich countries, which accumulate goods to an excessive degree and the misuse of whose riches very often becomes the cause of various ills.

The central concerns of John Paul II are far from those of “progressive” Catholicism in North America and in such European countries as Holland. These groups are concerned to transform Catholic tradition in such matters as sexual morality, to change the role of women in the Church, to temper or abandon what they take to be the unseemly claims of Catholicism to any kind of exclusive connection with the truths of faith, and to move the ethos of Christianity away from what is harsh, exacting, and ascetical (what Hume called “the monkish virtues”) to an ethos of self-fulfillment and self-realization. Hebblethwaite notes that a professor of theology at Boston College took the view (before the conclave that elected John Paul I) that a Pope who emphasized continuity with the pontificate of Paul VI would “only intensify the frustration of both left and right alike.”

There is in effect already a right-wing schism, or rather several schisms, with Archbishop Lefebvre's group the best known internationally. The same possibilities exist on the (ecclesiastical) left, though one suspects the left will cling as long as possible to the main body of the Church; they have, after all, captured many positions of strength, in the Catholic press and in publishing, in the religious orders, and in Catholic universities and colleges. In any case, the “left” covers very diverse groups of people, some of whom will rally to a strong and credible ecclesiastical leadership, even if it is conservative by their standards. Others would be happier, perhaps, in the now very relaxed atmosphere of mainstream Anglicanism or of other liberal Protestant groups. But these are the problems of middle-class Catholics in the rich societies and are not, could not be, serious problems for the man from Krakow. “The glory of God is man alive”: I suspect that for John Paul II man is man as we encounter him in the sobriety and realism of the Biblical tradition and in the classic tradition of the Gentile epic and drama. “The abdication of belief / Makes the behavior small,” wrote Emily Dickinson.

Karol Wojtyla, like the passionate Pole he is, sees man as large, heroic, with great pains and great joys. Some sense of the vastness of man's inner kingdom may pass from the Pope to many Catholics now dispirited by the times. The older among them were dispirited by Pius XII's great refusal when confronted with the Antichrist of National Socialism; John XXIII raised their spirits; John Paul II has the natural endowments and the intellectual formation to cheer and enliven them. May he prove to all men, believers and unbelievers, a point of light in the darkness of a naughty world.

Raymond A. Schroth (review date 24 June 1979)

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SOURCE: “The Vicars of Christ on Earth,” in New York Times Book Review, June 24, 1979, pp. 11, 44-5.

[In the following review, Schroth discusses John Paul's theological views in Fruitful and Responsible Love and Sign of Contradiction.]

It is almost a plunge into nostalgia now, only nine months after the events themselves, to relive the three months of the three Popes; when the television camera peered benevolently down like the eye of God on the wooden box holding the discolored corpse of the sad, sensitive, loving but not well-loved Giovanni Montini; when Dan Rather struggled to pronounce Castel Gandolfo and announced that the funeral mass was coming to an end though it had barely begun; when all those never-before and never-since-heard-of papal “candidates” popped full-color onto the covers of Newsweek and Time; and when the Roman Catholic Church—briefly and imperfectly embodied in the 111 mostly elderly Cardinal electors of the Conclaves—paused, examined itself and picked two comparative strangers to be Vicars of Christ and, for many outside the church as well, moral leaders of the world.

It was the news story of the year, perhaps of the decade, one the news media were poorly prepared to cover because few journalists know theology or church history and because, in the standard man-bites-dog sense, religion is only occasionally “news.” Then, when a right-to-lifer firebombs an abortion clinic, an anti-arms race priest digs a grave on the White House lawn, a bishop marries or a Pope dies, reporters must scurry around in search of a clerical spokesman (most of them are bland and noncommittal) to explain what is going on. Moreover, a certain kind of clerical mind prefers secrecy, knows little about journalism and is, at best, amused by what journalists call the public's “right-to-know.” Thus, a papal election is to the religious journalist what a big fire is to a cub reporter—the challenge of his career, the chance, as I. F. Stone says, to have a “helluva good time,” if he doesn't “forget it's really burning.” …

The election of Karol Wojtyla to the papacy, said a commentator in The New Statesman last fall, had been expected in certain European intellectual circles for some time—an observation that may tell us something about the isolation of some intellectual circles from the general religious press now digging through his published philosophical and spiritual works for clues to the future of his church. Those who still see Humanae Vitae as a shadow threatening the future credibility of the papacy can take little comfort from Fruitful and Responsible Love. It consists of an address Cardinal Wojtyla gave to the June 1978 Milan International Congress on the birth-control encyclical sponsored by the International Center for the Study of Family Life, supplemented by a series of mostly fawning comments from authorities on the family. He emphasizes the importance of mutual love, the necessary connection between conjugal love and its fulfillment in parenthood, and the parents' responsibility to determine their family size with a free and upright conscience. But he jumps to the conclusion that “they will not have recourse to contraception, which is essentially opposed to love and parenthood,” without explaining why, for couples who already have children, every conjugal act need necessarily be open to conception. Indeed, his personalist framework and emphasis on love is the argument many Catholics have used to practice contraception with a clear conscience.

Much of what John Paul II has said in his address to the Latin American bishops at Puebla, Mexico, and in his first, highly personal encyclical, Redemptor Hominis, he had already said to Paul VI and the Roman Curia in a Lenten retreat he preached to them in 1976. As Mr. Hebblethwaite remarks, “he became known to the Curia and the Curia liked what it saw.” These spiritual exercises have now been published as Sign of Contradiction.

One of the paradoxes of John Paul II may well be that, as much as Catholic progressive intellectuals tend to appreciate a versatile and highly intelligent scholar-pope, they may have in Wojtyla a man almost too intelligent, a man—unlike John XXIII, who captivated the world by his openness and almost careless boldness—whose learning and convictions in a few crucial areas are so deep that he will find it hard to be educated by broader experience and what Father Greeley calls “the enormous leap from Cracow to Rome.” “Karol Wojtyla,” says Father Greeley, “is going to have to draw back from the attitudes, opinions, and perspectives of a lifetime to be fully effective in his new job.”

Sign of Contradiction reveals a mind filled with the Scriptures and the Church Fathers, yet unfamiliar or uncomfortable with recent scriptural scholarship; at home with Thomistic philosophy, yet always reinterpreting it in existentialist or phenomenologist terms; absolutely convinced that the false gods of “progress”—consumerism, the hunger for status symbols, technology—diminish man's dignity and his freedom to love. John Paul II warns us that Jesus never intended his opposition to secular and religious authorities to have political implications, but he sees in Jesus carrying his cross the Jewish prisoners in Nazi extermination camps forced to bear quarry stones on their backs and workers ground down by their machines.

Whatever he may be, the new Pope seems a man thoroughly at home with himself. In the long run it will not matter much whether we have a pope who skis, jogs, canoes, sings, strums a guitar, writes poems and plays, tosses babies in the air, or even one who smiles. What matters is how well be reads the various spirits of his own time and can tell which movements enrich and complement Christian humanism and which the church must contradict. “It is the task of the church,” he says, “to fight on the side of man, often against men themselves. Christ fought like that, and be goes on fighting through the ages in men's hearts and in the human conscience.” With Karol Wojtyla's leadership, it will be a fight to see.

Andrzej Poltawski (review date 4 April 1980)

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SOURCE: “Objectifying the Subjective,” in Times Literary Supplement, April 4, 1980, p. 397.

[In the following review, Poltawski examines John Paul's moral and philosophical perspective in The Acting Person.]

This is the present Pope, Karol Wojtyla's, main philosophical work, in which he tries to give an outline of his philosophical anthropology. The point of departure is man as he is given to himself in and through his actions.

The author's position may be described as phenomenological realism. But this is not the realism criticized by Heidegger for introducing ready-made external things into the sense-bestowing human subjectivity; nor does it embrace the tendency of the traditional, cosmological approach to regard man as a thing among other things in the universe. If Wojtyla accepts the traditional Aristotelian metaphysics in its general outline, he at the same time shows its inadequacy when applied to human subjectivity. What the traditional approach could not give was precisely a direct access to subjectivity. It is not, therefore, the external point of view which he takes from tradition, but the vision of man as a dynamic unity. Being an organic unity acting in the world, man is in a sense objective in all his aspects. Nevertheless, according to Wojtyla, it is only the category of lived experience that makes possible the objectivation of human subjectivity and a genuine foundation of philosophical anthropology and ethics.

Consequently, we should not be deceived by the occurrence of traditional metaphysical terms (eg, suppositum) in the context of Wojtyla's considerations; they serve only as a general delimitation of the place where the genuine phenomenological work has to begin—the work which, in fact, gives those terms a new meaning. The starting point of the investigation is thus exactly opposite to that which is usual in school discussions, where ready-made categories are simply taken for granted. Moreover, Wojtyla's acceptance of the realistic attitude is motivated by his own analyses, in which he shows that originally and fundamentally man experiences himself as acting, and that it is only this experience which can give an adequate understanding of man.

Thus, the famous disagreement between Locke and Hume concerning the existence of “a clear and distinct idea of active power, as we have from reflexion on the operations of our mind”, decided by modern sensualism and transcendentalism against Locke, seems, on a more thorough examination, to be judged in his favour; but it is precisely the activity of the integral man, not that of his mind, which is here being shown as given. In this perspective, human subjectivity, one of the main concerns of contemporary thought, appears not only as bestowing sense on things, but in the first place as the subject of actions and processes that take place in man; and cognizing also is a real action or process.

Human consciousness, “mirroring” ourselves and the world in which we live and thus revealing to us, one might say, the scene on which we act, has another function also of subjectivation: it makes our image of the world, as well as our actions, our own. But consciousness itself does not give us the power invoked by Locke; its mirroring of the world is, on the contrary, a consequence of real acts of cognition. It is the whole man alone who acts and cognizes and who can develop and perfect himself (or deteriorate) on the strength of his action.

Conceived in this way, Wojtyla's philosophical anthropology opens the way to an objective treatment of moral values. The characteristics of right and wrong, applying in the first place to free human actions, qualify secondarily the acting person, who is made better or worse by his actions. In fact, Wojtyla wrote this book in order to understand better the foundation of ethics, which is his main concern in philosophy.

The original and rich analyses of experience, the gist of which I have tried to convey, constitute Part 1 of the work. The main problems treated are: the relation of consciousness to efficacy (ie, our experience of “being the agent” of our actions) and the distinction between two modes of human activity—the mode of something merely happening in us and, on the other hand, that of genuine free, responsible action. (It is interesting to note that these analyses, in their main features, if not in their vocabulary and point of departure, are parallel to the ideas expressed by the French psychiatrist Henri Ey in his book La conscience.) It is shown that efficacy demands a particular transcendence of the person towards his action, and Part 2 is devoted to an analysis of this transcendence; while steering his actions, man at the same time shapes himself and, if his actions are right, fulfils himself. This needs—and brings—integration, and Part 3 describes this integration on its two levels, of the living body and the psyche. But the fulfilment of man seems, on examination, to be possible only if he cooperates, of his own accord, with other people and makes, so to speak, a gift of himself to others. This attitude, called by Wojtyla “participation”, consists in a conscious acceptance of the common good and a striving to realize it. Part 4 of the book gives a sketch of this dimension of human existence (which is more fully developed in other works by Wojtyla).

If one wants really to understand what appears to some people as a surprising combination of conservatism and novelty in the teaching of Pope John Paul II, it is not enough to look at it from a pragmatical, sociological, political or other external point of view, or even from a purely theological one; we should also take into account Karol Wojtyla's perfectionist philosophy of man—a philosophy which, although in harmony with its theological prolongation, has an independent foundation and is deeply rooted in the problematics of our time.

The actual shape of the present English text needs some explanation. Translated by Andrzej Potocki from the second Polish corrected and enlarged edition and yet published), it was edited by A. T. Tymienieeka, who made many changes and rewrote some parts of the translation. The examination of these changes had only partly been made by the author before October 1978; it was subsequently passed by him to a committee of three people. However, the book was published before the results of this examination, as well as a great part of the translator's stylistic corrections, could reach the editor. And, while some sentences of the translation have been improved in the published version, some parts of the original have, unfortunately, been obscured and distorted. The editor often paraphrases the original loosely, occasionally introducing terms alien to the author's own vocabulary, like “constituting the object” and “noematic autopresentation” or “ideas”. Moreover, the Latin term suppositum, which plays an important role in the original text, is rendered by a dozen or so different, sometimes very complicated phrases.

Boleslaw Taborski (essay date 1981)

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SOURCE: “The ‘Inner Theatre’ of Karol Wojtyla,” in Polish Perspectives, Vol. XXIV, No. 2, 1981, pp. 64-70.

[In the following essay, Taborski discusses the style and major themes of John Paul's dramatic works.]

The plays of Karol Wojtyla constitute an unusual, and even in certain respects, unique phenomenon. The reasons for it are certainly far more complex than the fact that this particular playwright became Pope. It would be best (though, perhaps, not now possible), if one could forget about the election to the highest office in the Church of the author of those plays. The fact that these plays have only now been revealed to the world at large is understandable, considering that the author never bothered to have them published or performed. But the plays would sooner or later be noticed and discovered on their own merit. It could happen however, rather later than sooner. These plays are somewhat removed from our habits and theatrical tastes, maybe also from our everyday interests. They are difficult and complex, unconventional and … experimental. In the days when theatre is open to all superficial sensations, experiences and excesses, they reach deep into man's psyche and their action often develops within the mind. To achieve this the author uses interesting formal means, even though form is not his main concern. In the natural course of things, it is possible that we were not yet ready to receive these works. Maybe this was to be left to future generations, just as we discovered Witkacy, or Przybyszewska. However, due to the great events connected with the person of the author, our acquaintance with these plays has been speeded up, as it were. It is we who are discovering them and, I hope, will accept them.

Karol Wojtyla's dramatic works are closely connected with his poetry. His poetry consists as a rule of long poems, subdivided into a number of parts, often structured like drama, containing monologues, or even dialogue, not unlike plays in their intensity.

His dramatic works, on the other hand, have a poetic character, in varying degree and expressed in different ways. They show also a strong affinity with Romantic and Neoromantic drama and the Polish literary tradition. There is nothing strange in this, considering the author's background of studies and reading, as well as theatre activity in his school and student days. This is equally true not only of the first three plays, related to one another by their biblical subjects and poetic style, which he wrote in the first year of the war, but also of the later plays. These were written after a ten-year gap. Karol Wojtyla realized in them what I would call his ‘Inner Theatre’, modelled to a certain extent on Mieczyslaw Kotlarczyk's Rhapsodic Theatre, whose member he was during its wartime underground phase, and of which he remained a friend and follower to the end. Being a thinker and a poet, Karol Wojtyla felt the need to express himself also in drama, and he did this with amazing consistency.

His early plays were a result of intensive reading of the Old Testament in the first year of World War II. Wojtyla remained at that time in close contact with the great Polish actor and director, Juliusz Osterwa, for whom he made a new translation of Sophocles's Oedipus. At the end of December 1939, the nineteen-year-old Karol informed Kotlarczyk that he had written ‘a drama, or more precisely, a dramatic poem’, entitled David The text of that drama has not yet been found, but we know that it was written in prose, and in blank and rhymed verse. Just before Easter 1940, Karol informed his friend that he had written ‘a new drama, Greek in form, Christian in spirit, eternal in its essence … a drama about suffering’, entitled Job. Written entirely in verse, partly rhymed, partly blank, this earliest preserved literary text by Wojtyla (if we except a few cycles of early poems) is astonishingly mature in its structure and contents. The young author recreated the biblical story in an unpretentious and concise manner and endowed the title hero with great force of dramatic expression.

If, however, the figure of Job, as a prefiguration of Christ and martyred Fatherland imposed itself easily on Polish mentality—there were other plays written by Polish writers on the same subject during the war, such as Sprawiedliwy (The Just Man) by Jerzy Zawieyski—Wojtyla's next play expressed his thoughts on the reasons for Poland's downfall two centuries earlier. It was also an experiment in dramatic structure. In the summer of 1940, Karol, who had just turned twenty, wrote—as he himself confessed, ‘in a flash’—his next biblical play, Jeremiah. In spite of the title, the main action is set in the 17th century, and its protagonist is the visionary Jesuit priest, Piotr Skarga, who in his sermons repeatedly warned the Polish nobles that unless they mended their ways, Poland would fall. It is in his visions that the story of the prophet Jeremiah's argument with the elders of Israel is shown. The young playwright develops the analogy between the Biblical story and the fate of Poland as a stylistic tour-de-force. He uses different kinds of blank and rhymed verse, varies the length of the line, the number of accents and syllables, uses also prose and—for the first time—extensive stage directions (something that is to become an important element in his later plays), suggesting some scenes as tableaux. Statues of angels come to life on the altar, a chorus of monks changes into elders of Israel, etc. It is a more complex work than Job, ending with an image characteristic of its author's theatrical imagination: ‘Father Skarga takes up the Hetman's final utterance and throws it into the empty church, that is to say—into the filled auditorium’. A typical idea for a work dominated not so much by action as by spatially composed images. Within these images the characters express—in a poetic, though still somewhat flowery language—their inner experiences and visions. Such a structure is already a clear forecast of the author's later plays.

The period of nearly ten years since the writing of Jeremiah to the completion of his next play was of crucial importance in the life of Karol Wojtyla. During that time he worked as a labourer in a quarry, engaged in his most important theatre activity in the wartime underground Rhapsodic Theatre, carried on his clandestine studies first in philology than at the theological seminary, culminating in his ordination as priest, studies abroad and his first posting as an auxiliary priest in the village of Niegowiæ. It is significant that in spite of the radical turn his life took in another direction, his interest in the theatre did not wane and that towards the end of that period he returned to playwriting, making use of his many experiences and subordinating them to his main vocation. This does not mean that his work became ‘devotional’ in character. In his poetry and drama, Karol Wojtyla remained an artist, though he managed to use his talent to express things he considered close and important.

The person of Adam Chmielowski—Brother Albert—had fascinated him for some time. There is some evidence that while a student at the Angelicum in Rome immediately after the war, he recited for an international audience of students and professors fragments of a play about Brother Albert, not his own as yet, perhaps, but an earlier work by Nunsch. On the other hand, it could have been an early draft of his own work. The fact is that Our God's Brother exists in two versions. It is possible that the second draft resulted from his play not having been accepted by the Znak monthly, but he could have worked on it independently. I think that the final version emerged while the 29-year-old Father Wojtyla lived in Niegowiæ in 1949. He stayed there only a short time, but managed to establish a parish theatre and direct Zofia Kossak's Spodziewany Goœæ; (The Expected Guest). In that play he performed the title role—of the guest, who turned out to be a beggar, who turned out to be Christ. Echoes of this found their way into Wojtyla's play where Adam sees Christ in the homeless beggar.

The fascination with Brother Albert could, to a certain extent, have a personal significance for Wojtyla. An artist who gave up art and artistic life in order to devote his life to God and work for the poor was certainly someone very close to Karol Wojtyla who, in a way, took a similar decision. But though there are similarities, it would not be proper to see autobiographical elements in his play about Brother Albert. But it was not the author's aim to write a biographical play either. Although its characters are authentic, the external events have been condensed, transposed in time, and many have been left out (Adam's youth, his novitiate with the Jesuits, nervous breakdown and cure, almost all the details regarding his activity). It is even difficult to pinpoint in time the action of Acts I and II. It is after 1884, when Adam has finally settled in Cracow, and his decision to give up art and devote his life to the poor has matured in his mind. But at that time some of the characters in the play were not in fact alive: Maks (Gierymski—died 1874) and Lucjan (Siemieñski—died 1877), while Helena Modrzejewska emigrated to America in 1876 and returned to Cracow only as a guest, which is not at all clear in the play. Perhaps the action of Act III is most clearly defined in time, as it takes place in the last days of Brother Albert's life, ie. 1916. But even there the revolution, or disturbances, which break out at the close of the play, are a transposition of either earlier events (which did not take place mainly in Cracow) or later ones.

Such compression, selection and transposition in time has its origin in the fact that the author was not concerned with sketching out an external biography but—as he himself defined it in the introduction—with ‘an attempt to penetrate the man', reaching ‘to the sources of his humanity'. The author realized that as this ‘is bound to a certain extent to steer clear of historical details it will leave something to be desired'. Fortunately for us, he did not give up his ‘reaching', but followed his artistic instinct and the overall aims he set himself. Thanks to that, we have been spared a historical-biographical bore of a play, of which there have been plenty in the post-war period, and instead we have received an insight into the inner history of an unusual man, as Adam Chmielowski was; the history of his spiritual struggles and his progress to sanctity.

Those struggles are revealed on several levels. Adam's main problem of ‘overcoming the artist in himself’, of sacrificing art for the sake of life for the poor, is understandable and clear. It might seem surprising, though, that the problem of revolution has been extensively treated and assumes almost equal importance. It appears in Act I, in Adam's conversation with the Stranger, almost dominates the second half of Act II and finds its culmination at the close of the play. There is nothing strange in this. In the mind of an author so sensitive to these problems (as was later to be proved by his pronouncements in Mexico or Brazil), Adam had to tackle the question of social injustice and look for the means to abolish it, even to the extent of radical revolutionary solutions. It does not really matter whether the disturbances really erupted just before Brother Albert's death, and whether the character of the Stranger was really modelled on an authentic revolutionary. The problem lies within Adam, and the ‘dialogue with revolution’ is carried on in his mind. These struggles, too, go on till the end and lead to a significant conclusion: that there is no contradiction between great just anger ‘which lasts’ and the choice of a ‘greater freedom’ by Brother Albert. It is a positive synthesis at the end of the struggles within the hero of this drama and a still valid message for us.

Such an ‘inner’ approach to his hero by the author has in its turn important consequences for the style of the work. Not only has flat realism been rejected, but also the linear construction of the average play. For the first time the author introduces here the relativity of time, which makes it possible for characters and events from the past and the future to appear on stage in the present. (This relative use of time will become an almost basic principle of his later plays.)

The solution of this problem of performance lies in the mystery theatre. Mysteries have no limitations imposed by narrowly conceived realism. They take place within the limits of the Christian cosmos, as well as within the human soul; in the past as well as in the future, focussed into one point of stage present. From the vantage point of Providence human life is seen as a totality, not as a moment in time. And such a perspective in spite of remnants of other models and traditions, exists already in Our God's Brother, as a clear beginning of a new phase of Karol Wojtyla's ‘Inner Theatre’.

In 1960, the Catholic monthly Znak published, under his literary pseudonym Andrzej Jawieñ, Bishop Wojtyla's drama Sklep Jubiierski (The Jeweller's Shop). Four years later Archbishop Wojtyla wrote a drama entitled Promieniowanie Ojcostwa (The Radiation of Fatherhood), not published till 1980.

The first work was described by its author as ‘a meditation on the sacrament of matrimony, passing on occasion into a drama'; the second is now openly called ‘a mystery'. In both these works, modelled on the style of the Rhapsodic Theatre, all semblance of realism and linear development of action have been abandoned. All external theatre effects have been toned down, but human problems have been shown in an even greater close-up: the problems of loneliness, fatherhood (motherhood), childhood in The Radiation of Fatherhood. Both works are constructed on the principle of inter-related monologues, spoken in long lines of blank verse; there is also prose. In the first work a chorus appears a couple of times, there are excerpts from letters; in the second, even some dialogue and visual mime scenes suggested by the stage directions. External action diminishes, giving way to the journey to the interior of the human soul.

The Radiation of Fatherhood is fully expressive of inner theatre. No external and ‘material’ factors detract from the expression of the essentials. But it would be wrong to assume that these are not plays at all, but superficially dramatized treatises. This author writes treatises too, and would write a treatise in this instance if this were his intention. The last two works are not in the nature of abstract dissertations, but reveal a moving drama of human existence and the human soul. If the characters in The Radiation of Fatherhood have something of symbols or archetypes about them, the drama abounds also in lyricism and in dramatic statements on the basic problems faced by man. The Jeweller's Shop, on the other hand, is a moving story about three couples and three aspects of love: one love that has survived death; another which withered; and, yet another which is born in young lovers. The subject is treated with insight, warmth, understanding and delicacy. It is a highly imaginative work, which has proved itself, particularly in many radio productions.

It is remarkable to what extent the dramas of Karol Wojtyla, written over the period of a quarter century (1939-1964), for all their stylistic differences, are monolithic as far as their moral meaning and themes are concerned. They are consistent in what I would call their inner form. They appeal to the highest values in our culture, and also at a time when the word is totally degraded and devalued, they aim at its revaluation. Last but not least, they develop with amazing consistency a modern mystery theatre of the highest order. Even though the author of these works did not aim at theatre, they are a proposition which theatre ought seriously to consider. Karol Wojtyla has on a number of occasions stated that theatre has given him a great deal. But he too has certainly much to give to theatre, if only the latter will accept this gift.

I think that theatre has rightly made a start with Our God's Brother, a work none too easy, but, perhaps, closest to our theatre sensibilities. This significant link in his development as playwright is a discovery that widens our perception of drama. It increases also our knowledge of Brother Albert, still too little known. For that matter, many a problem raised in this work will sound topical and fresh, as if it were written for us today. And this, after all, is the test of good playwriting.


The above essay was written originally in connection with the first production of one of Karol Wojtyla's plays, Our God's Brother, at the Juliusz Slowacki Theatre in Cracow in December 1980 / directed by Krystyna Skuszanka/. In 1997 the Polish film director Krzysztof Zanussi made a movie based on my translation of the play, with Scott Wilson in the title role. It is also worth noting that in 1989 Pope John Paul II declared Brother Albert a saint / surely a unique event in the entire history of theatre in that the author canonized the protagonist of his own play/. I wish to add that although I expanded my thoughts on Karol Wojtyla's plays, notably in the introductions to his Collected Plays and Writings on Theater, published in my translations by University of California Press in 1987, my views have not substantially altered from those expressed in this essay.

B. Taborski

Kenneth Briggs (review date 9 September 1981)

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SOURCE: “Rejoinder to the Sexual Revolution,” in New York Times Book Review, September 20, 1981, p. 13.

[In the following review, Briggs discusses John Paul's views on love and sexuality as delineated in Love and Responsibility.]

Pope John Paul II has often spoken about sex and marriage during his nearly three-year reign. The impression left by these utterances, portraying the Pontiff as simply a pillar of traditional Catholic moral theology, does an injustice to the wider scope of his thinking. When he makes public statements, the well-developed conceptual underpinnings for his views unfortunately get left behind.

Moreover, the Pope is often a better teacher than disciplinarian, as this book, a revised version of a series of lectures on sexuality and love he gave over 20 years ago to Polish university students, aptly illustrates. A respected philosopher, he is at ease at the head of the class, carefully and rigorously building his case, projecting a positive stance against his intellectual opponents, such as Freud, who are often cited in support of a more sexually permissive standard. In no other book does he emerge more clearly as a thinker of independent bent, grounded in both an ethic that places the individual above rules and in a system of ideas that can affirm the church's doctrine with integrity.

When John Paul II made the comment at a Vatican audience that a man who lusts after his wife commits a sin, ridicule and scorn gushed forth from a variety of “liberated” critics. The essential idea behind his somewhat archaic wording was that exploitation in any form is wrong, a concept that presumably anyone could gladly endorse. He deserves a hearing, although the same difficulty that the Pope has had in translating complex concepts into the language of public pronouncements sometimes obscures his book's sensitive, though tough-minded arguments.

The theme that runs through Love and Responsibility is that although sexuality is God-given, it may be degrading unless it is transcended by love. The Pope suggests that there are many aspects to love between two people, including physical attraction, emotional attachment, tenderness and comradeship, but that sensuality is dominant unless these are integrated by a love for the “truth of the person.” People must learn that they are masters of their own sexuality, not slaves to instinct; unless they enhance love by ethical truth it lapses into “subjectivism,” an unreliable guide.

Though human love, in the Pope's view, cannot be reduced simply to any of its psychological or physical components, all the elements play a constructive role. Sexual pleasure, apart from procreation (which John Paul II, like his predecessors, sees as the supreme purpose of sexuality), can be good and necessary for married couples; the body serves more than only a utilitarian goal. He asserts that “there exists a difference between carnal love and ‘love of the body'—for the body as a component of the person may also be an object of love and not merely of concupiscence.” He further cautions against seeing “pleasure itself as evil—pleasure in itself is a specific good,” though he warns of the “moral evil involved in fixing the will on pleasure alone.”

On the subject of love, the Pope's romanticism often soars above the colder dictates of logic. At other points, his logic founders on the need to reinforce doctrine, and he can come across as a stern naysayer who trades only in prohibitions. As would be expected, he solidly supports Roman Catholic teachings against premarital sex, extramarital sex, artificial birth control and divorce. But his personalistic philosophy appears to put him in tension with at least the last two stands. He holds out an ideal of a totally self-giving, committed marriage that benefits from sex without being dependent upon it for a marriage's survival. He talks constantly and sensitively about the need to value the dignity of the other person. He sets forth, sometimes with poetic flourish, a picture of marital perfection that may seem far beyond the capabilities of most people.

In many respects, Pope John Paul II has written a courageous apologetic. Aware that some might question the conclusions of a celibate male, he goes ahead with aplomb and authority; he shies from nothing, but avoids arrogance. He ponders a range of issues, from the Old Testament's accounts of polygamy (the effect, he says, was to degrade women), to the need for men to better serve the sexual needs of their wives, to the case for chastity. Love and Responsibility is a high-minded rejoinder to the sexual revolution, pervaded by an implicit commandment: “Thou shalt not use another for thine own sake.”

Jaroslav Pelikan (review date 22 April 1984)

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SOURCE: “Conversations With the Pope,” in New York Times Book Review, April 22, 1984, p. 12.

[In the following review, Pelikan discusses John Paul's theological views in “Be Not Afraid!”;]

When the Pope speaks ex cathedra (literally, from the throne)—“that is, in carrying out his office as the pastor and teacher of all Christians,” as the First Vatican Council explained this phrase in 1870—he is believed to be preserved from any error in matters of faith and morals. But whatever someone's personal or theological views about this ex cathedra infallibility may be, it is in many ways more interesting and certainly more unusual when a pope elects to speak in public extra cathedram, that is, in a personal capacity.

That is what the current Pontiff has done in “Be Not Afraid!,”; a book whose title comes from the words with which Karol Cardinal Wojtyla greeted the people of Rome after his election to the throne of Saint Peter in 1978. The book came out of a series of taped conversations with the French journalist André Frossard, an adult convert to the Roman Catholic faith. The conversations consisted of Mr. Frossard's questions and the Pope's answers. But as a skilled veteran of many kinds of interrogation from many quarters, Pope John Paul II managed to turn the questions in the direction of answers he wanted to give. As Mr. Frossard says, “the Pope is not averse to walking round a question before stepping into it.”

Mr. Frossard's questions ranged from the conventional and catechetical—“Should infants be baptized?”—through the more controversial—”Can one deduce a political policy from the Gospel?”—to the plaintive—“Has [the world] got one last chance of escaping the logic of death in which it is gradually being enmeshed?” The Pope's answers also covered a wide territory, from a totally official recitation of the decrees of the Second Vatican Council of 1962-65 through an altogether personal comment on celibacy—“In this domain I have received more graces than battles to fight”—to observations on literature and philosophy—he likes to read Czeslaw Milosz and Rainer Maria Rilke and not only St. Thomas Aquinas but the phenomenologist Max Scheler.

No one will be surprised to find the Bishop of Rome declaring his allegiance to the continuity of the church, not merely the continuity of its institutions, moral teachings and theological doctrines but especially the continuity of its life of prayer and devotion. As the first Slavic pope, he is particularly devoted to Saints Cyril and Methodius, the ninth-century “apostles to the Slavs” whom he has designated as joint patron saints of Europe together with St. Benedict, the father of Western monasticism. As the first Polish Pope, moreover, he has found ever greater depths in that nation's dedication to the Virgin Mary, whose depiction in the icon of Our Lady of Czestochowa, the Black Madonna, hangs over the altar of his private chapel in the Vatican. “Our inner relation to the Mother of God derives from our connection with the mystery of Christ,” he told Mr. Frossard, and added, “The more my inner life has been centered on the mystery of the Redemption, the more surrender to Mary … has seemed to me to be the best means of participating fruitfully and effectively in this reality.” Carrying out a moral implication of this reality—he sees the entire human race as a family whose mother is the Virgin Mary—he called his would-be assassin, Mehmed All Agca, “brother.” Mr. Frossard writes, “All round, I should have preferred this brother to find another means of entering the family.” But his fraternal embrace of his attacker was also part of the Pope's continuing emphasis on the imperatives of the Gospel.

But this Pope, like any true conservative, is open to change. Believing as he does in those things that cannot be changed, he is able to be flexible about everything else; he is acutely aware not only of continuity in the church but also of the need for and inevitability of change. “We must,” he says, “constantly seek a form of faith adapted to a world that is being continually renewed” and not seek to live in a “pre-Copernican” or “pre-Einsteinian” or “even pre-Kantian world.” Despite his admiration for St. Thomas Aquinas, his own exposure to non-Thomist ways of thinking has helped him take time and history far more seriously, than some Thomists have; he sees that “man is a being involved in history,” and thus he recognizes that “the Church writes her truth on the curving, muddled lines of history,” a truth that is immutable in its divine origins but is obviously mutable in its human expressions.

The human and historical relativity of the absolute truth implies that the church's position on various practical issues must repeatedly be reformulated in light of the continuing progress of insight and understanding in scholarship and science. The Pope notes that the church's consideration of “usury and interest in connection with the development of the economic sciences” has been changing since the Middle Ages. And he suggests its position must change today as it formulates a view of “responsible paternity [parenthood] in connection with the development of the bio-physiological sciences.” It is not clear what that somewhat cryptic comment may imply for a greater scientific (and theological) refinement in the interpretation of parenthood and sexuality than has been evident in the encyclicals of some of his predecessors in this century.

On the entire problem of unity with other believers, the Pope has concluded that historical honesty compels us to recognize the presence in ourselves and others of “a mentality marked by centuries of divisions and separations,” but honesty also requires us to acknowledge that “what unites us is stronger than what divides us.” To put it mildly, that is a recognition and acknowledgment that could not always be heard in the declaration of popes in their response to the Protestant Reformation during the 16th century, when it was still possible to do something about it.

Interspersed among these many examples of the Pope's wisdom are occasional—too rare, for my taste—flashes of his well-known wit. One object of the wit is Mr. Frossard himself, whom the Pope “accused … several times of presenting him in too favorable a light, of making him ‘the hero of a romance.’” Elsewhere the Pope put question marks into the margin of the manuscript and charged Mr. Frossard with being too much of a “papalist,” more of a papalist, presumably, than the Pope himself. Even a sympathetic reader will sometimes find Mr. Frossard's breathless attitude a bit excessive. The Pope's friendship may well be, as he declares, his most precious possession, and he may find “his presence at the head of the Church” the only remaining basis for any optimism about the world, but it is in keeping neither with the official spirit of Vatican II nor with the personal style of John Paul II for an interviewer to engage in the kind of Byzantine fawning that occasionally peeks through the pages of “Be Not Afraid!”;

Yet even Mr. Frossard's deference cannot detract from the intellectual force, personal dynamism and spiritual authenticity that characterize the Pope when he converses extra cathedram as least as much as when he speaks ex cathedra.

Stanislaw Baranczak (review date 14 December 1987)

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SOURCE: “Praying and Playing,” in The New Republic, December 14, 1987, pp. 47-8.

[In the following review, Baranczak examines the style, central themes, and philosophical underpinnings of John Paul's plays.]

Two of the world's most powerful men were once actors. But only one of them was also smart enough to write his own lines. The appearance in English of The Collected Plays and Writings on Theater reminds us that before he became John Paul II, Karol Wojtyla's extraecclesiastic pastimes included not only philosophy, poetry, acting, skiing, and hiking, but also playwriting. To paraphrase Stalin, how many diversions does the pope have?

To be exact, Wojtyla stopped writing plays years before he moved to Rome. Between 1940 and 1964 he wrote six plays altogether, of which five have survived. Of these, three were written after he had become a priest. Only one, The Jeweler's Shop, was published (under a pseudonym) before his election to the papacy. Naturally all five were eagerly unearthed by the Polish Catholic publishing house Znak in the wake of the rejoicing in 1978, and were included in a volume of Wojtyla's collected poems and plays published in 1980. The poems have been available in English translation for several years; the present edition collects the plays and six brief essays on theater, all translated, annotated, and introduced with extreme care by John Paul's appointed English translator, the London-based poet and critic Boleslaw Taborski.

Though Wojtyla was virtually unknown as a playwright before 1980, dramaturgy was for him a more essential expression than poetry. As an eight-year-old he was involved with an amateur theater in his hometown of Wadowice; as a teenager he acted in some ten plays staged by his high school theater. After moving to Krakow and entering the university in 1938 (he majored in Polish literature), Wojtyla continued to perform with a semiprofessional theater group.

The outbreak of the war did not dissuade him from his literary and theatrical pursuits, even though the Nazi occupation forced Polish cultural activity underground. Working by day in a quarry and in a chemical factory, by night Wojtyla continued to study at the university, now clandestine, and to write poetry. In December 1939 he wrote his first play (eventually lost), David; in 1940 Job and Jeremiah followed. In these first years of the occupation he was also involved with an underground group of young actors, who staged plays in private apartments. These efforts were institutionalized, though still covert, after August 1941, when Wojtyla and his older friend Mieczyslaw Kotlarczyk founded the Rhapsodic Theater in Krakow.

The Rhapsodic Theater was not just another clandestine form of keeping Polish culture alive. It was an artistic experiment aimed at creating a special “theater of the word,” in which scarcity of visual theatrical effect (a natural scarcity, under the circumstances) was part of a deliberate aesthetic. The performances were based on recitation rather than acting, and the repertory consisted of poems rather than plays. As Kotlarczyk put it, it was an attempt “to revolutionize theater through the word.

Wojtyla took part in all 22 wartime performances of the Rhapsodic Theater. After 1946, when he was ordained a priest, his ties with the Theater became looser, of course, but they were never completely severed. On the contrary, he supported and defended the Theater throughout its postwar existence, which was particularly difficult during the years of Stalinism, until its final closure by the Gomulka regime in 1967.

The idea of a “rhapsodic theater,” or “theater of the word,” clearly informs Wojtyla's three later plays, Our God's Brother (1945-50), The Jeweler's Shop (1960), and Radiation of Fatherhood (1964). Compared with these works, his beginnings as a dramatist seem decidedly conventional. Job and Jeremiah, both written when he was 20, expose the workings of the young author's mind and show his familiarity with the Bible, and with the Polish Romantic and Neo-Romantic traditions, but they are not artistic feats in themselves. Job reflects on the problems of evil, suffering, and punishment, viewing Job's fate as a prefiguration of Christ's passion, and of mankind's martyrdom during the Second Word War. Jeremiah fuses biblical allusion with a segment of Poland's turbulent history in the early 17th century, thus creating a messianic vision of the nation's downfall and resurrection. Job is structured like a Greek tragedy, while Jeremiah is closer to Symbolist theater.

It is in their style, however, that both these plays are most marked by the future pope's attachment to a particular tradition, the choice of which was not exactly, well, infallible. Both plays, especially in the original, appear heavily influenced by the worst of the work of Stanislaw Wyspianski, the greatest Polish Symbolist playwright, namely his artificially elevated and pseudo-archaic language. These stylistic qualities are greatly toned down in Taborski's sensitive translation, but stiltedness remains. Job and Jeremiah were written by a 20-year-old sophomore, and in the Polish edition of Wojtyla's work both plays were listed as juvenilia.

The reader who opens this book in order to see the future pope's mind at work might well begin by reading Wojtyla's next play, Our God's Brother. As Taborski notes in his introduction, this play is unique if only because it doesn't happen very often that a playwright has the chance to beatify his play's protagonist. Wojtyla's lifelong fascination with the figure of the legendary Brother Albert (Adam Chmielowski, 1845-1916), a painter and political insurrectionist, protector of the homeless and founder of the order of Albertines, resulted first in his writing a play about him. More than 30 years later, his hero was finally beatified by the Church, and it was John Paul II who announced the event to one million people who came to hear him in Krakow during his second papal visit to Poland.

Our God's Brother opens the main chapter in Wojtyla's dramaturgy; it breaks with the conventions of Symbolist theater and offers a more innovative approach. The principles of “theater of the word” are already put into effect. The dramatic action and the stage movement are reduced to a minimum; the characters serve mainly as exponents of different ethical attitudes, presented in extensive philosophical exchanges. At the same time it is an example of what Kotlarczyk and Wojtyla called “inner theater.” As an attempt to “penetrate the man” rather than simply to illustrate the course of his life, the action takes place in the inner space of the protagonist's mind. The dramatic scenes (if that is what they are) occur as if they belonged to external reality, but in fact they are reminiscences played out on the stage of the hero's thoughts.

Wojtyla made a further step in this direction in his two plays written in the early 1960s, The Jeweler's Shop and Radiation of Fatherhood. These two plays mark a decisive shift toward the mystery play. Their protagonists are modern Everymen of both sexes, who meditate on the problem of their entanglement in the web of relationships with God and other humans, and ponder the fundamental mysteries of love, marriage, and parenthood. This is indeed a theater of the word, or an even more ascetic theater of ideas, one that tries to prove, as Wojtyla put it in one of his essays on theater, that “not only events but also problems are dramatic.”

Thus it is mainly the problem that “acts” here, while the actor serves mainly to “carry the problem.” The dramatic action is minimized even more than before; each play is actually composed of long monologues, which, though interrelated by their content, are monologues nonetheless. Taborski notes properly that these are not monologues of the Harold Pinter variety, where the isolation of utterances serves to stress the characters' inability to communicate. Rather, these are monologues merely because meditation can be done only in solitude. On another plane, though, these separate meditations form a universal dialogue that permeates the human and divine world, “a conversation of prayers,” as Dylan Thomas put it.

From a purely literary standpoint, Wojtyla's plays may provoke different reactions. Certainly not everybody needs this much seriousness and solemnity in art. But they should be required reading, along with his poems and philosophical writings, for anyone who wishes to understand the man, certainly for anybody who wishes to pass judgment on him. I don't mean that the plays clarify John Paul's specific ideas. (Although they do that too: Our God's Brother, for instance, contains a revealing discussion, of the problem of social injustice and revolution, which corresponds intriguingly with the pope's pronouncements in Latin America 30-odd years later.) I mean that they illuminate the character of this pope—particularly his open-mindedness, so seldom comprehended by those who are unwilling to see behind the rigid facade of the institution he represents.

Open-minded? The pope? I won't be surprised if I hear a roar of protest. The recent papal visit to this country, and its largely moronic coverage by the media, left behind two images of John Paul: a Great Communicator and a great guy, or a reactionary bogeyman who denies the benefits of progress to women and gays. Between the lawn sprinkler in the shape of the pope marketed by some fast-thinking entrepreneur (Let Us Spray, it was called) and the practice target of the left there is really not much difference: both are made of plastic.

Behind those flat images an infinitely more complex personality waits to be discovered. What we usually see is John Paul the former actor. We should also see John Paul the former playwright—someone for whom theater means not so much showmanship as dialogue. The mind of a man for whom the theater has been a primary means of expression can hardly be dogmatic. Even when he has shifted from plays to encyclicals, his outlook is still imbued with his recognition of the world's dramatic plurality. The playwright's natural element, after all, is dialogue, the confusion and conversation of our prayers.

Richard Viladesau (essay date March 1992)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6644

SOURCE: “Could Jesus Have Ordained Women? Reflections on Mulieris Dignitatem,” in Thought, Vol. 67, No. 264, March, 1992, pp. 5-20.

[In the following essay, Viladesau examines John Paul's historical and anthropological arguments against the ordination of women as delineated in Mulieris Dignitatem. According to Viladesau, Mulieris Dignitatem, “suffers from weaknesses of questionable theological presumptions and faulty logic.”]

A priest of my acquaintance tells a story of his visit to the home of parishioners in rural Ireland. During the conversation the man of the house broached the subject of women in the church and asked why they could not be ordained. The priest reached into the depths of his theology and replied, “We can't ordain them, Pat, because the Lord Jesus didn't.” At this point a strident female voice replied from the kitchen: “Sure, he would have if they hadn't killed the poor man so young!”

The issue of ordination of women remains significant in the church, despite or even because of reiterated rejections of its possibility by Rome. It raises not only the theological, exegetical, and historical questions implied by the woman in the anecdote—must the traditional prohibition of women's ordination in some way be linked to Jesus, and if so, on what basis?—but also philosophical and anthropological issues that go beyond the strictly theological realm and engage the interest and the competence of other thinkers.

Perhaps the most comprehensive official statement of the argument against ordination of women is found in the apostolic letter Mulieris Dignitatem of Pope John Paul II. This issue is not the principal focus of the document; it occupies a relatively minor place, and it would be a grave mistake to allow a concentration on this issue to overshadow the contribution the Pope's meditation makes to the cause of women in the church and in society. It is indeed a theologically ground-breaking statement on the dignity and complete equality of women, based on a reading of scriptural tradition in light of a philosophy of personalism. In this regard it has a significance beyond “women's” issues that bears on our vision of the human person.

Precisely because it is placed in such a positive context, however, the Pope's reasoning concerning the ordination of only males clarifies the principle he is defending and the theological method that underlies it. Pope John Paul makes abundantly clear that women are equal to men and share equally in the common baptismal priesthood of the faithful. Their exclusion from ministerial orders, therefore, is seen as based not on any intrinsic inferiority of women, but on the explicit will of Christ, which includes a differentiation of sexual roles in the economy of salvation. The essence of the argument is brief enough to be quoted at length.

Against the broad background of the “great mystery” expressed in the spousal relationship between Christ and the church, it is possible to understand adequately the calling of the “Twelve.” In calling only men as his apostles, Christ acted in a completely free and sovereign manner. In doing so, he exercised the same freedom with which, in all his behavior, he emphasized the dignity and the vocation of women without conforming to the prevailing customs and to the traditions sanctioned by the legislation of the time. Consequently, the assumption that he called men to be apostles in order to conform with the widespread mentality of his times does not at all correspond to Christ's way of acting. “Teacher, we know that you are true, and teach the way of God truthfully, and care for no man; for you do not regard the position of men” (Matt. 22.16). These words fully characterize Jesus of Nazareth's behavior. Here one also finds an explanation for the calling of the “Twelve.” They are with Christ at the Last Supper. They alone receive the sacramental charge, “Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22.19; 1 Cor. 11.24), which is joined to the institution of the eucharist. …

Since Christ in instituting the eucharist linked it in such an explicit way to the priestly service of the apostles, it is legitimate to conclude that he thereby wished to express the relationship between man and woman, between what is “feminine” and what is “masculine.” It is a relationship willed by God both in the mystery of creation and in the mystery of redemption. It is the eucharist above all that expresses the redemptive act of Christ, the bridegroom, toward the church, the bride. This is clear and unambiguous when the sacramental ministry of the eucharist, in which the priest acts in persona Christi, is performed by a man.

The argument presented here has two dimensions, which may be characterized as “historical” and “anthropological.” The historical argument is that the designation of males alone for ordained ministry was an explicit choice of Jesus. Jesus was free from the sexual role-conditioning of his time; thus he could have ordained women had he so wished; that he did not is proof of his positive will to exclude women from such office. However, the Pope does not see Jesus's choice as arbitrary, but as one that reveals something intrinsic about the theological meaning of being male and female, in the orders of creation and of grace. The Pope's “anthropological” argument thus posits a sense in which Jesus could not have ordained women: he could not have willed to do so, not because of any limitation or conditioning of his freedom, but precisely because he was conscious of and wished to reveal an intrinsic unsuitability of women for this role.

In the following sections I shall examine each of these arguments in detail, attending to the issues they raise for theologians and others. I shall attempt to show that the historical argument, as presented in Mulieris Dignitatem, suffers from weaknesses of questionable theological presuppositions and faulty logic. The document's anthropological argument, I shall suggest, is more fundamental and more powerful, being based on the claim of an intrinsic analogy between masculinity and God's relationship to the world as revealed in Christ and represented in ministry. Yet this argument, as stated in the Pope's document and in the theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar, poses a dilemma: for I shall attempt to show that it can only be logically compelling insofar as it implicitly claims an exclusivity for the male analogy of God, and that this in turn implies a general superiority of males over women—positions that the Pope himself explicitly rejects. If this is so, then the force of this argument for exclusively male ministry is undermined. Finally, I shall suggest that a consideration of the theological problem of the ordination of women on either historical or anthropological grounds necessitates the posing of questions that are not addressed by Mulieris Dignitatem.


The historical/Christological argument, as Pope John Paul notes, essentially repeats the reasoning of the 1977 declaration “Inter Insigniores” of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The main points of the argument can be summarized in the following propositions that are either explicitly stated or presupposed:

1. Jesus transcended the mentality of his times with regard to the treatment of women.

2. Jesus chose only men to form the group of the Twelve.

3. The exclusion of women from this group was purposeful and expressed Jesus's sovereign freedom.

4. This choice of males only was not an accommodation to the mentality of the times.

5. The Twelve alone received the “sacramental charge” to celebrate the eucharist.

6. The Twelve were thus explicitly constituted as priests by Jesus.

7. By choosing only the male Twelve for this priestly and apostolic service, Jesus intended to reveal a truth about permanent male and female roles.

8. The priesthood of the church is the continuation of the priestly function of the Twelve.

9. Therefore only men may be admitted to this ministry, in accord with the explicit intention of Jesus.

This argument is clearly Christological, in that it is centered on the explicit will and actions of Jesus. It seems also to hold together only on the basis of a Christology in which Jesus completely transcends normal human limitations, in which he has a full and supra-human knowledge and is aware of all issues and is completely “free and sovereign” in his actions, and in which he foresees, explicitly wills, and concretely establishes the structures of the future church.

However, this Christological picture and the reasoning it supports appear at odds with much contemporary Christian theology on historical and logical grounds. First, the foundation of a number of these historical/Christological assertions seems open to question. In some instances they go beyond the scriptural and historical evidence; in others they apply anachronistic concepts to the data. Second, even if the assertions are accepted as true, the conclusions do not appear logically warranted by the premises.

The first contention, that Jesus's treatment of women “constitutes an ‘innovation’ with respect to the prevailing custom at that time,” is clearly supported by a number of instances reported in the gospels, cited both here and in “Inter Insigniores” (John 4.27; Matt. 9.20ff.; Luke 7.37; John 8.11; Mark 10.2-11; Matt. 19.3-9), even if we must be cautious about attributing detailed historical accuracy to texts that clearly bear the stamp of the evangelists' theological purposes and contexts. Nevertheless, as “Inter Insigniores” admits, these texts give only isolated instances, and cannot be said clearly to demonstrate the contention. Taken together, they provide a kind of “convergence” that allows us to conclude that Jesus's attitude toward women was both liberated and liberating as compared with that of his contemporaries.

It would not be logically warranted, however, to generalize from this that Jesus must have been totally free of all societally conditioned attitudes regarding women, so that his every action regarding the female sex bespeaks a perfect freedom from the customs and ideas of his times. This position cannot be validly induced from the limited instances given in the New Testament, and drawing such a universal conclusion from such particular evidence could be warranted only on grounds of an a priori conviction that Jesus must have had a perfect attitude. This in turn seems grounded in the Christological position that holds Jesus's human mind to have possessed a superhuman and a historical mode of knowing that excluded all ignorance, limitation, and conditioning, at least in matters pertaining to salvation. This seems part of the Christological presupposition of the Pope's meditation: “‘the mysteries of the kingdom’ were known to him in every detail. He also ‘knew what was in man’ [John 2.25], in his inmost being, in his ‘heart.’ He was a witness of God's eternal plan for the human being. … He was also perfectly aware of the consequences of sin. …”

It is beyond the scope of this essay to enter into the classical theological problem of the consciousness of Christ, and in particular of the interaction between his fully human mind and the divine intellect. It must suffice to note that, in contrast to what is apparently implied in the Pope's statements, most contemporary theologians and scripture scholars hold that the human mind of Jesus was truly historically conditioned. That is, even though Jesus's humanity was inspired and transformed by his unity with God, the transcendent experience of that mystery (“hypostatic union”) always necessarily expressed itself in a mind that remained truly human and therefore necessarily expressed even its deepest intuitions in time-conditioned language and categories. This does not mean, of course, that Jesus was simply subservient to the received categories of his time and place. Even ordinary intelligent people can expand and reformulate their ways of thinking and have new insights that go beyond their social conditioning; a fortiori it is clear that Jesus was constantly breaking through the thought and behavior patterns of his day in the light of his inner experience of God and God's Kingdom. But such breakthroughs would of their nature be concrete and progressive, not total or systematic; they would still be subject to the intrinsic limitations of even the best available mode of expression, and would necessarily occur within a linguistic and social context that could not be completely transcended.

Furthermore, there would always necessarily remain areas that were unknown because unexperienced: aspects of experience not yet integrated into a new vision, ideas taken for granted as part of the historical setting, and the normal possibility of mistaken memory or understanding. Thus, as Raymond Brown shows in his Jesus God and Man, despite the gospels' emphasis on his “superhuman” knowledge, certain passages nevertheless portray Jesus as sharing normal human ignorance about concrete matters and as both able and needing to learn in the normal human way (Mark 5.30-33; Luke 2.46, 52); he is credited with mistaken citations of scripture (Mark 2.26; Matt. 23.35); he takes for granted certain mistaken ideas of his times, like the Davidic authorship of the Psalms (Mark 12.36) and the historicity of the Book of Jonah (Matt. 12.39- 41); he interprets the scriptures in the common rabbinic way, in violation of the sense of the texts (John 10.33-36; Mark 12.36); in many areas he apparently accepts without criticism the mythological world view of his times, with its demonology, its material conception of the afterlife, and its apocalyptic expectations (Mark 9.17-18; Matt. 12.43-45; Mark 9.43ff.; Matt. 9.48; Mark 13.24-25; Mark 13.7-8).

However, it remains true that Jesus appears to have made extraordinary breakthroughs on crucial religious issues, even if modern scholarship on the Judaism of Jesus's times forces us to be more cautious about attributing absolute novelty to all his teachings. Some of these breakthroughs regarded attitudes toward the Law, toward non-Jews, and toward women. Nevertheless, Jesus did not institute a program of complete liberation from observance of the Law, or of mission to the gentiles; these had to await the coming of the Spirit after his death and resurrection. His revolutionary attitudes were combined during his life with a certain acceptance of many prevailing attitudes of his context. In a Christology that acknowledges the true humanity of Jesus as one who was “like us in all things but sin,” this fact need not be explained away as a conscious and purposeful accommodation to others' mentality; it is to be expected that Jesus's own mentality would in many ways remain within the conceptual and moral framework of his times, even while he transcended it both in its essential dynamism and in particular dramatic instances that came within the purview of his mission. There would be many things, however, that did not arise as issues for Jesus, and on which he would presumably accept the prevailing customs and understandings.

The assertion of “Inter Insigniores” and Mulieris Dignitatem that Jesus's choice of males alone as members of “the Twelve” implies a deliberate and purposeful exclusion of women reveals a Christological perspective in which such normal conditionings and limitations of Jesus's mind and actions do not enter into consideration. Indeed, both documents seem to presume that the only possible alternative to a purposeful exclusion of women on Jesus's part would be an equally purposeful and knowing concession to the mentality of his times. They seem to assume, furthermore, that the latter represents the position of those who think that Jesus's action in this regard need not be normative today. Thus both documents take pains to refute the argument that Jesus avoided choosing women for the Twelve as an opportune concession to the customs of the day or “following the accepted mentality of his times,” but neither seems to envisage the possibility that this mentality might have been shared or at least never completely critically examined by Jesus himself, or even that other accidental or time-conditioned factors might have been operative in Jesus's concrete choice.

Similar Christological presumptions seem to underlie other critical assertions in the Pope's argument. It appears taken for granted that Jesus explicitly foresaw and instituted the actual priestly ministry of the church by conferring it on the Twelve apostles alone at the Last Supper. However, although the essentially historical account of Jesus's command to commemorate him certainly implies a community gathered in his name and memory (and this in turn implies some kind of ministry), few scholars today would attribute to the historical Jesus an explicit foreknowledge and intention of the church in its concrete later institutions. Indeed, Jesus (like the earliest Christians) appears to have expected an imminent arrival of the eschatological Kingdom of God, whose coming his own death would somehow bring about; it is difficult to reconcile this with a clear vision of a permanent institutional church.

Furthermore, our limited information about the earliest church does not support the presumption that only the Twelve or those appointed by them presided at the Eucharist. As Raymond Brown writes, “there is simply no compelling evidence for the classic thesis that the members of the Twelve always presided when they were present, and that there was a chain of ordination passing the power of presiding at the Eucharist from the Twelve to missionary apostles to presbyter-bishops.” It seems more likely that the very diverse early Christian communities took Jesus's charge to “do this” as addressed to the church in general, which the Twelve represent (an idea echoed in the present third Eucharistic prayer, in which we speak of Jesus commanding us to celebrate these mysteries), and that these communities designated ministers in different ways, according to their diverse structures. There is, Brown notes, at least some evidence that others than apostles and presbyters may at times have presided. Moreover, Brown shows convincingly that the episcopacy and priesthood of the church as they actually developed do not totally coincide with the notion or functions of the “apostles”; nor can an historical continuity of “ordination” from the latter be demonstrated.

Acceptance of such scholarship does not, of course, deny the emergence of the priesthood as the work of the Spirit in a church implicitly willed by Christ and in continuity with his mission, but it does seriously challenge the Christological foundation of the Pope's argument as summarized above, and in particular his conclusion that the norms for the present institution of the priesthood can be traced directly to an intent of Jesus to define masculine and feminine roles.

In summation, the Pope's historical-Christological argument against the ordination of women in Mulieris Dignitatem appears based on a “classicist” Christology that overlooks the findings of modern biblical scholarship and the theology that flows from them.

Even if one were to accept the Pope's Christological presuppositions, however, there is another difficulty with his argumentation, on the basis of logic. Another anecdote will perhaps serve to make the problem clear. In an episode of the British comedy series “Bless Me, Father,” set in a Catholic parish in the 1950s, a woman taking convert instructions asks a young curate why women cannot be ordained. His reply indicates that the priesthood derives from the Twelve apostles, and that Jesus chose that all his apostles should be men. The prospective convert thinks for a moment, and then says: “But all of the apostles were also Jewish. Are you Jewish, Father?”

We might clarify the logical issue further by expanding the analogy that the anecdote suggests and by accepting the presuppositions of the Pope's argument. Jesus was clearly beyond the mentality of his times in dealing with gentiles. He broke customs and traditions sanctioned by his religious background. Hence, in calling only Jews to be apostles he could not have been simply conforming to the mentality of his society, but must have been acting in a completely sovereign and free manner. Since in instituting the Eucharist Christ linked it to the priestly service of the Twelve, it is legitimate to conclude that he wished to express thereby the permanent relationship between gentile and Jew in the church's ministry. Therefore only Jewish Christians may be admitted to the priesthood.

The fallacy in this argument is immediately apparent. Although it is true that all Jesus's disciples were Jews, it does not follow that he called them simply because they were Jews, or that this is a permanent and essential condition for priesthood (even if one accepts a derivation of priesthood from the Twelve); there were other factors overlooked in the argument. Does not the same reasoning apply to the sex of the apostles? Even if one holds that Jesus completely transcended all historical conditioning, we cannot read his mind to know what was “intended” by his actions. How can we know that male sex was an intrinsic and not an accidental factor in Jesus's de facto choice?

With this question we come to the second, anthropological element in the Pope's Christological meditation; for he argues that there is in fact something intrinsic about the difference between the sexes that is operative in and shown by Jesus's choice of male apostles.


In Pope John Paul's mind, Christ's choice of only males for the ministry of the Twelve was not an arbitrary act of will, but reveals a basic anthropological principle inherent in the nature of humanity from the creation, as well as a basic Christological principle inherent in the economy of salvation. This point is of great significance, for it means that this element is in principle separable from the historical arguments discussed above. Although the Pope sees his anthropological position as connected with Jesus's historical attitude, its validity does not depend on the presumed de facto connection, but can be asserted on the basis of independent theological reasoning.

This anthropological-Christological element is where Pope John Paul most significantly expands the treatment of “Inter Insigniores”. The latter had enunciated the basic principle that the celebrant of the Eucharist must be male in order to provide a more adequate “natural” image of Christ, for whom he acts (“in persona Christi”) in relation to the church. The document however had not clearly answered the objection referred to above: why is sharing Jesus's sex crucial to representing him, rather than sharing his Jewish race (or for that matter any of a number of other features of his historical person: color, physiognomy, culture, psychology)?

Pope John Paul implicitly replies to this difficulty by placing the entire question of priestly ministry within the wider context of a “spousal” theology based on the analogy of bridegroom and bride enunciated in the Letter to the Ephesians (5.25-32). This idea is already present in “Inter Insigniores,” but Pope John Paul enlarges it and makes it central to his exposition. (It is to be noted that the treatment of “The Eucharist,” where the ordination of women is dealt with in Mulieris Dignitatem, is a subdivision of the major section entitled “The Church—The Bride of Christ.”) The male sex of the representative of Christ is significant because Christ's relation to the church is precisely that of bridegroom to bride, and this symbol, echoing the images of spousal love in the prophets, is in turn founded on the relationship of male to female established by God in creation. It is this that appears to lie behind the assertion that in establishing a male priesthood Jesus “wished to express the relationship between man and woman, between what is ‘feminine’ and what is ‘masculine,’ … a relationship willed by God both in the mystery of creation and in the mystery of redemption.”

Not surprisingly, John Paul's treatment of this topic contains a number of striking similarities to the writings on the subject by the Pope's favorite theologian, Hans Urs von Balthasar, who was elevated to the cardinalate shortly before his death. Specifically, we can find in Mulieris Dignitatem echoes of von Balthasar's Marian and “spousal” theology of the church, as well as his exegesis of Ephesians 5.21-33, a text that plays a major part in the Pope's considerations. Since the Pope actually quotes from von Balthasar's essay on the ordination of women (“Frauenpriestertum?”), these similarities are clearly not fortuitous. But there are also aspects of Mulieris Dignitatem that seem to take it beyond von Balthasar's thought. A brief reference to this aspect of von Balthasar's theology can therefore perhaps help to illuminate both the background of Pope John Paul's views and their originality.

Von Balthasar is strongly committed to the idea of difference and complementarity between the sexes, and believes that the modern feminist movement is mistaken in trying to overcome such differences. The forgetfulness of the femininity of women is for him one of the defects of an era characterized by technology and positivism; the Catholic church because of its structure is a countervailing force to this failing of our age, and is perhaps the last bulwark in humanity of a true appreciation of the differences between the sexes. The female is related to values of being and meaning rather than those of accomplishment; woman's essential role is to provide reserves of safety and home for the ever-wandering and task-orienting male.

The genetic sexual differences between male and female are for von Balthasar the basis of a natural theological symbolism necessarily reflected in the different roles of males and females in the church. In the sexual act, von Balthasar says, the man is the initiator and leader, and the woman, even though not passive, is truly receptive (“Ein Wort”). Analogously, the entire creation is female (radically receptive) to God, who, as the Origin and Source, is the male principle. This fundamental relationship is reflected and repeated in the relationship of Christ as the male principle to the church as his bride. Precisely as male, Christ represents the Origin, the Father, and the church is the woman made fruitful by him. In his meditation “The Conquest of the Bride,” von Balthasar portrays Christ speaking these words: “Being God, I am the Source and am before every being, and for this reason the man is the glory of God and the source of the woman, and God-become-human is the man, while the Church is a woman, since the woman is the glory of the man.” For this reason woman has the easier task, for “woman is being-created as such with regard to God and being-church with regard to Christ. She has nothing to represent which she is not herself, while the male must represent the Origin of all life, which he can never be.”

Von Balthasar sees the primary model for the church as bride in Mary, whose “yes” to God is the paradigm of receptive readiness. In the perspective of the fundamental Marian nature of the church, the equality of women is not something that needs to be painfully striven for, since it is already present. This does not mean identity of roles, however. Mary is Queen of Apostles, but does not have apostolic office; she has something different and better. Likewise, women in general have a more fundamental role in the church than that of holding priestly office. Woman in fact incorporates the essence of the church, so that every member of the church, even priests, must assume a female/receptive attitude with regard to the Lord of the church. On the other hand, by their office the members of the male hierarchy are representatives of the bridegroom Christ within this encompassing femininity of the church. Because it is the bridegroom who is represented in the male role of leadership, and especially in the Eucharist, in which Christ continually “begets” the church, the office of the Twelve and their successors is essentially and not accidentally masculine, although exercised within the wider context of the essentially feminine and Marian church. Thus a woman who sought this office would be seeking a specifically masculine role, and in doing so would be forgetting the essential primacy of the feminine aspect of the church over the masculine.

Whether or not von Balthasar's theology is a specific source of Pope John Paul's Christology and anthropology, it clearly manifests parallel ideas and concerns and represents a powerful statement of the argument that an exclusively male priesthood is based not on an arbitrary command but on an intrinsic connection between Christ's masculinity and his salvific function. The “separate but equal” roles of men and women in the church, on this thesis, are based on two diverse ways of being human, each of which reflects in a distinct way the relationship of humanity to God.

Can one then argue, as von Balthasar and Pope John Paul do, from the idea of God or Christ as “bridegroom” of the church to the necessity of a male clergy to “represent” him? There seem to be major difficulties with this reasoning. First, the notion of “representation” needs close examination and clarification. In exactly what sense does a priest in fact “represent” God or Christ, and precisely as “bridegroom”? Is this a necessary and adequate way of describing the function of the Eucharistic celebrant, for example? Furthermore, even granting a clear meaning to the idea of “representation,” could not the reasoning in fact be reversed: the priest “represents” the church and acts “in persona ecclesiae”; the church is female, and the bride of Christ; therefore, the priest ought to be female?

At the root of this difficulty is the fact that the argument attempts to draw specific conclusions from a metaphor. As Sallie McFague has shown, metaphors and models are crucial to theological thought, but by their very nature they demand plurality: there must be a number of complementary metaphors in order to express the richness and complexity of the relationships between God and God's creatures. When any single metaphor becomes so dominant as to be exclusive, or is implicitly thought to encompass every aspect of the human-divine relationship, then one ends by absolutizing certain aspects of that relationship, while losing others. In that case the transcendence of God is compromised by anthropomorphism, and the created term of the analogy is idolized. It is for this reason that Catholic theology rightfully insists on the negative moment in every analogy: God is like x, but is always more profoundly unlike x, and possesses the qualities in question in an eminent and unimaginable way. It is also for this reason that no single analogy can ever suffice.

In the case at hand, it is clear that the metaphor of God (or Christ) as bridegroom, world (or church) as bride, is a legitimate one, and leads to fruitful reflection on the nature of creation and salvation. Can it be claimed, however, that every aspect of these realities is determined by a metaphor in which God is male with respect to a female world, or in which Christ is the spousal “other” to the female church? If so (as seems implied by certain of von Balthasar's statements), then this amounts to a claim for universal male superiority, no matter what protestations to the contrary may be made; for if God is in every respect more like a man than like a woman, then it follows that the male sex is more like God, more in God's image. If, on the other hand, one does not claim absoluteness for this metaphor, then other analogies are possible, and the question of which aspects of our humanity and of our relation to God are represented by each metaphor remains open. (If, for example, one admits that God is to be represented as “active” with regard to a “receptive” creation, then it may be allowed to follow that God is more like the male than the female in the act of procreation. But is this sexual act to be taken as the sole determinant of what is “intrinsically” masculine and feminine? If one takes the act of bearing a child as the metaphor, then God is more like the actively giving mother than like the receptive child or the helpless father. In this instance, the female principle is active, not receptive: the mother not only gives physical existence, but shares her very life, nourishes, houses, and finally brings forth her child, while the father awaits passively. Could the metaphor of God's motherhood then apply to ministry? It is interesting that it was extensively so used in the Middle Ages.)

In Mulieris Dignitatem Pope John Paul II clearly avoids absolutizing the metaphors of God as male (Father or bridegroom) by adverting to the phenomenon of anthropomorphism and insisting on the negative moment in every analogy. Moreover, he explicitly refers to the possibility of female metaphors for God, in particular God as Mother. For the Pope, then, there is nothing intrinsically and exclusively masculine about the relationship of God to creation. In this John Paul goes beyond the texts cited above from von Balthasar. In doing so, however, he also weakens the theological case for the exclusivity of the bridegroom-bride metaphor with regard to Christ and the church; for this metaphor can no longer be regarded as grounded in a more basic analogy according to which humanity is always to be thought of as “female” with regard to God's (male) activity.

In fact, of course, there are other and more central metaphors for the relationship of Christ to the church that do not imply sexual differentiation: for example, the image of the church as the body or members of Christ, or the image of Christ as our “brother.” As noted above, there are even instances in medieval spiritual writers (including such not inconsiderable figures as Anselm of Canterbury and Bernard of Clairvaux) of a female image being applied to Christ: like God in the Old Testament, Christ is portrayed as Mother in giving birth to the church and nurturing it; and, significantly, this function is attributed also to those with office in the church, particularly abbots.

As was observed above, the signal innovation of Mulieris Dignitatem over “Inter Insigniores” with regard to exclusion of women from ordination is the placing of the question within the framework of the “spousal” theology of the bridegroom; this ostensibly answers the question why the maleness of Jesus, rather than other accidental aspects of his historical person, is crucial to “representing” him to the community. But once it is admitted in principle that the spousal analogy is simply a metaphor, and not the only possible one, the rationale loses its force, and the question recurs: why should this metaphor, in which there is a sexual element, be determinative for office in the church?

The whole context of Mulieris Dignitatem seems to suggest that the centrality of this metaphor in the case of priesthood is based on a prior conviction concerning “natural” sexual role divisions, based on God's disposition of humanity in creation. This would return us to von Balthasar's assertion that church office is intrinsically masculine; but not simply on the basis of “representing” the male Christ, or because every activity of God with regard to the world is analogously “masculine,” and must be so represented, but on the ground that some activities of the church on God's behalf—those specifically connected with sacramental leadership and order—de facto involve primarily masculine traits. Is there any anthropological basis for such an assertion?

It seems undeniable, in the light of contemporary studies, that there are significant genetically imprinted physical and psychological differences between men and women, and that some kinds of role differentiation stem from these. The degree of sexual divergence and the actual parameters of the sexual division of life and labor, however, seem to derive from cultural factors, and are to a large measure within the control of human decision. “Male” and “female” roles and characteristics are therefore not absolutely universal and static realities, but have a certain latitude of definition, even though grounded on a basic biological framework. Several questions then arise.

If there are roles at least indirectly sexually determined by innate genetic dispositions or tendencies, is the Christian sacramental priesthood among them, or is its association with the male sex determined purely by cultural and historical circumstances? Does the ordained ministry, in its essence, call for specifically masculine traits or simply for human traits? Are there aspects of such ministry that could call for specifically female traits? Has the ministerial priesthood been too narrowly realized because of its restriction to males? Until recently, none of the great world religions has admitted women to the clerical state. Is this because of something intrinsically masculine about the office, or because of the historical association of the so-called “higher” religions with Indo-European patriarchal societies worshipping a Father-god?

Positions of official leadership and power in the church and in society have historically been held by men, albeit with some notable exceptions in the secular world. Is there something intrinsically masculine about socio-political power? If so, should this be the model for office in the church, in which service and not lordship is supposed to be the norm for those who lead? Are the kinds of leadership and power exercised by men essentially or only accidentally unfeminine? Are they the only possible kinds? Women perform ministries in the church, and have a long history of leadership in certain aspects of Christian life (one may think of the orders of religious women in missionary and teaching roles, for example). How are these related to what is sacramentalized in ordination?

These and similar considerations seem to need examination if one is to attempt to examine the question of ordination of women on anthropological grounds.


I have examined only the two arguments against ordination of women that seem central to Pope John Paul II's thought. The historical-Christological argument seems not only to presuppose, but to depend on, certain positions that are (at least) questionable in light of contemporary scriptural and historical studies and of an adequate theological valuation of the true humanity of Jesus. Although some may deny the primacy of the historico-critical method in evaluating church doctrines and practices, such a method is certainly relevant to evaluation of an argument that purports to be based precisely on history. The anthropological-Christological argument as presented by von Balthasar and resumed by the Pope, starting from the “spousal” character of God's relationship to the world and Christ's relationship to the church, as well as the “Marian”-receptive character of the latter, seems based on the absolutizing of a particular metaphor. This appears inconsistent with the views on equality presented in earlier sections of the document, unless it can be grounded in another kind of anthropological argument, related to the Pope's analysis of a sexual differentiation willed by God from the creation. Such an argument, which goes beyond the scope of Mulieris Dignitatem, might attempt to draw support from the data of genetic and socio-biological studies. However, even if such support were found, this approach would still raise a number of questions about the very nature of ordained ministry that would have to be answered before any conclusions could be drawn on its basis. It is at least problematic that ordained ministry should a priori be restricted to aspects of service associated with “male” characteristics.

Of course, a critique of arguments for exclusively male ministry does not in itself constitute a positive argument in favor of the ordination of women. Moreover, it has been the purpose of this analysis to confine itself only to Christological/anthropological reflections raised by Mulieris Dignitatem. As was noted above, the case against ordination of women is not the central concern of this document; it is not to be expected, therefore, that every aspect of the question should be considered there. Aside from Christological and anthropological considerations there is also, for example, the important question of the church's long and constant historical tradition. This tradition might be argued by some to be normative, even if it is based on historically conditioned decisions that might per se have been determined otherwise. Such arguments, and the question of the criteria on which they might be judged, raise important methodological and ecclesiological (and hence also ecumenical) issues which go beyond the scope of present considerations. It is my hope, however, that these limited reflections may serve to advance the discussion by clarifying some critical issues, pointing out the more fundamental methodological problems which lie behind the explicit points at issue, and inviting further exchange of ideas in these areas.

Avery Dulles (essay date 23 October 1993)

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SOURCE: “The Prophetic Humanism of John Paul II,” in America, October 23, 1993, pp. 6-11.

[In the following essay, Dulles examines John Paul's humanist view of individual conscience, communalism, political participation, and transcendent order. According to Dulles, “John Paul II evidently sees himself and the church as divinely commissioned to be the advocates of authentic humanity.”]

For some time I have been asking myself whether there is a single rubric under which it might be possible to summarize the message of the present pontificate. I have thought about the Pope's concern for the inner unity of the Catholic Church, the new evangelization, the dialogue between faith and culture, and reconstruction of the economic order. All these themes are clearly important to John Paul II, but no one of them permeates his teaching as a whole. In seeking a more comprehensive theme, I have hit upon the idea of prophetic humanism.

In the case of this Pope, as in the case of any other, it is difficult to ascertain which of his statements are actually composed by himself and which are simply accepted by him after having been drafted by others. I have no inside information to help me in tiffs discernment. My method will be to rely principally on books and articles that he published under the name of Karol Wojtyla before he became Pope, and then inspect documents from his papacy that closely resemble these in style and in substance. Several of his encyclicals are so personal in tone that it seems safe to attribute them to himself, even though he presumably had assistants in the final process of editing. Most of his major documents are amply furnished with footnotes that he would scarcely have had time to compose.

1. The Concept of Prophetic Humanism

The concept of prophetic humanism requires some explanation. Any humanism must be a system of thought centered on the human person. The Pope himself generally uses the term “man,” which, at least in Latin, has no reference to gender. In quoting or paraphrasing his statements I shall sometimes use the English word “man” to mean an individual member of the human race. Near-synonyms such as “person” are not always satisfactory, given the Pope's understanding of personalization.

Humanism, moreover, implies a high esteem for the human as having intrinsic value. As we shall see, the defense of the dignity of the human person and the promotion of human rights stand at the very center of the Pope's program.

This program may be called prophetic for several reasons. A prophet is someone who speaks out of a strong conviction and with a sense of vocation. John Paul II evidently sees himself and the church as divinely commissioned to be advocates of authentic humanity. The prophet speaks with a certain sense of urgency. Karol Wojtyla, even when he writes as a philosopher, is never the detached academic. He is conscious of speaking to a world that is in the throes of a 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.

Yet the Pope is no pessimist. He is convinced that in the face of human needs God has provided an answer in Christ, who came that we might have life to the full. He sees the Gospel as a message of hope, love and truth, not for Christians or Catholics alone, but for every human being. The church, he believes, has an essential contribution to make to the task of making the world more human. He repeatedly quotes from Vatican II the statement that the church is called to be a sign and safeguard of the transcendence of the human person (“Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World,” No. 76).

The central and unifying task of the church, for John Paul II, is to rediscover and promote the inviolable dignity of every human person. “Man,” as he puts it in his first encyclical, is the way of the church—“man in the full truth of his existence, of his personal being and also of his community and social being” (Redemptor Hominis [1979], No. 14). The church's mission must therefore be carried out with a view to humanity, and for that very reason with a view to God. Following Christ, who is both God and man, the church must link anthropocentrism and theocentrism in a deep and organic way (Dives in Misericordia [1980], No. 1).

2. Human Dignity

The first point is to consider the Pope's understanding of what it means to be human. Especially in his major philosophical work, The Acting Person (1969, revised 1977, English version 1979), he develops an original anthropology that owes something to classical Thomism and something to modern personalist phenomenology, especially as represented by Max Scheler (1874-1928). He is also conscious of points of contact with the philosophy of action of Maurice Blondel (d. 1949). In place of the Cartesian cogito (“I think”), which begins with the thinking subject, John Paul prefers to begin with action. “I act, therefore I am,” might fairly characterize his starting point. Through action, he maintains, one can come to know the real character of the human being as a free, creative, responsible subject. By my free actions, he asserts, I make myself what I am.

Although John Paul's focus is initially on man as subject, his analysis brings out the necessary role of the object. As free and intelligent beings we are called to make decisions, and for these decisions to be meaningful they must conform to the truth. The root of human dignity consists in the capacity to transcend mere self-interest and embrace what is objectively true and good. One element in this objective order is the existence of other human beings with the same essential dignity as my own. With an explicit reference to Kant, Wojtyla declares that human beings must always be treated as ends, never as mere means. He frequently quotes from Vatican II the statement that, alone among all creatures on earth, man exists for his own sake.

For Wojtyla the ethical dimension is determinative for the value of all human action. When I act according to truth, I fulfill the deepest dynamism of my being and become good. When I do not act according to the truth, I do not fulfill myself and I become bad. In his philosophical works Wojtyla does not explain very clearly how a person intuits the truth. As George Hunston Williams remarks, he “fails to provide the reader with what the conditions are for coming to the truth” (The Mind of John Paul II, 1981). Williams hints that the operative ethics behind Wojtyla's proposal come from Christian revelation and Catholic tradition, and I suspect he is correct.

Speaking prophetically, the Pope formulates his doctrine of freedom in opposition to a merely negative concept, according to which freedom would consist in not being coerced or not being obligated by law. Already at Vatican II Bishop Wojtyla had pleaded successfully for amendments to the “Declaration on Religious Freedom” to specify that freedom is not a mere entitlement to do whatever one pleases. During his first visit as Pope to the United States in 1979, he warned that the concept of freedom should not be used as a pretext for moral anarchy, as though it could justify conduct that violates the moral order. Freedom, he insisted, is not an end in itself. It is a capacity to fulfill one's deepest aspirations by choosing the true and the good. In this connection the Pope likes to quote the saying of Jesus, “The truth shall make you free” (Jn. 8:32). When freedom is rightly understood, moral norms do not appear as a limitation. Truth is the guide to meaningful action, action in accordance with conscience.

We can, of course, disobey the voice of conscience and act against the truth as we perceive it. Violations of conscience do not bring about self-fulfillment; they result in anti-values and frustration. The very ability to commit sin testifies in favor of the dignity of the person. Because we have the capacity freely to embrace the good, we also have the power to reject it. “To erase the notion of sin,” says the Pope, “would be to impoverish man in a fundamental part of his experience of his humanity” (‘Be Not Afraid!’: André Frossard in Conversation with Pope John Paul II, 1984). The loss of the sense of sin, which seems to be an affliction of our time, is evidence of the failure to see man as a responsible moral subject oriented toward truth and goodness.

Thus far, we have been looking at human dignity from a philosophical point of view, without reference to revelation, which confirms and enhances human dignity. As a theologian, John Paul II draws initially on the creation narratives of Genesis. Man, he holds, was created to the image and likeness of God and destined to have dominion over the rest of creation (Gen. 1:26-28). But the full meaning of human life cannot be grasped except in the light of Christ, who, in revealing God, reveals humanity to itself (Redemptor Hominis, Nos. 8-9). There is no more impressive evidence for the value that God sets upon the human than God's gift of His own Son as the price of our redemption (No. 20). Every human being is intended by God to be redeemed and to come through Christ to final self-realization.

Some philosophers, influenced by Feuerbach and his school, have contended that God must die in order for man to attain his full stature. The present Pope, like Henri de Lubac (The Drama of Atheist Humanism), argues just the contrary. The world must be reminded, he says, that while men and women can organize the world without God, without God it will always in the last analysis be organized against humanity. In denying the transcendent source and goal of our being, we would deprive man of the source of his true dignity (Centesimus Annus [1991], No. 13). Without God as creator there would be no inviolable human rights. Without Christ as saviour, human hope would no longer extend to everlasting union with the divine. In this connection John Paul II quotes from Augustine the famous sentence, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts cannot find rest until they rest in you” (Confessions, 1.1).

3. Human Existence as Communal

Against excessive individualism John Paul II insists that human existence is essentially communal. He writes: “Man's resemblance to God finds its basis, as it were, in the mystery of the most holy Trinity. Man resembles God not only because of the spiritual nature of his immortal soul but also by reason of his social nature, if by this we understand that he ‘cannot fully realize himself except in an act of pure self-giving'” (Sources of Renewal, 1981). The Pope then goes on to explain that human beings are intended to exist not only side by side, but in mutuality, for the sake of one another. The Latin term communio indicates the reciprocal giving and receiving that goes on within this relationship.

Human community is realized on many different levels, from the family to the state and the international community. Vatican II, in its “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World,” had four separate chapters dealing with family, culture, economy and political community. On each of these levels conscience obliges us to transcend the narrow limits of our own self-enhancement and to contribute to the good of others. In a small unit such as the family, the members act primarily for the individual good of their partners, but in larger groups the primary objective is the well-being of the group as such. As distinct from the “I-thou” community, the “we”-society comprises a group who exist and act together for the sake, primarily, of the common good.

4. The Family

The family, according to John Paul II, is the basic cell of society and for that reason the primary locus of humanization (Christifideles Laici [1988], No. 40). The Pope's doctrine of the family, adumbrated in his early work Love and Responsibility (1960), is amplified in several documents from his papacy. He sees the family in a state of crisis, especially because of the reigning consumerist mentality that leads to false concepts concerning freedom and sexual fulfillment (Familiaris Consortio [1981], Nos. 6, 32). He draws on the traditional Catholic teaching regarding conjugal morality, divorce and remarriage in order to protect the family as a stable community of generous love. Sexuality, he asserts, is realized in a truly human way only if it is an integral part of the loving communion by which a man and a woman commit themselves to one another until death. The sexual relationship between married persons should always promote human dignity. The unitive meaning of marriage cannot be separated from the procreative. The deliberate exclusion of procreation, according to the Pope, is detrimental to the unitive relationship between the couple.

Although Christian preachers have often proclaimed that wives should be subject to their husbands, John Paul II goes to some pains to point out that the domination of the husband is a sign and effect of original sin. In the Christian order there should be an equality of mutual service between wives and husbands (Mulieris Dignitatem [1988], No. 10). In this connection the Pope sets forth a doctrine of women's rights based on the complementarity and communion between male and female.

5. The Order of Culture

Culture has been a major concern of John Paul II from his early days, when he developed his talents for music, poetry and drama. Between 1977 and 1980 he published several important papers on the philosophy of culture. In 1982, when establishing the Pontifical Council for Culture, he wrote in a letter to Cardinal Agostino Casaroli: “Since the beginning of my pontificate I have considered the church's dialogue with the cultures of our time to be a vital area, one in which the destiny of the world at the end of the 20th century is at stake.”

The Pope's theory of culture is thoroughly humanistic. “Man lives a really human life thanks to a culture” (address to UNESCO, Paris, 1980). Man is the subject of culture, its object and its term. Culture is of man, since no other being has culture; it is from man, since man creates it; and it is for man, since its prime purpose is human advancement. Everyone lives according to some culture, which determines the mode of one's existence.

Culture, as a human achievement, involves our capacity for self-creation, which in turn radiates into the world of products. Culture is a materialization of the human spirit and at the same time a spiritualization of matter. It thus serves to render our world more human.

We should not imagine that every culture, just because it is a culture, is above criticism. John Paul speaks of a dialogue between faith and culture. Like everything human, culture needs to be healed, ennobled and perfected through Christ and the Gospel (Redemptoris Missio [1991], No. 54). Because culture is a human creation, it is also marked by sin. The church must prophetically oppose what the Pope, at his visit to Denver last August, called “the culture of death.” On another occasion (1984) he said: “More than ever, in fact, man is seriously threatened by anti-culture which reveals itself, among other ways, in growing violence, murderous confrontations, exploitation of instincts and selfish interests.” In technologically advanced societies, people tend to value everything in terms of production and consumption, so that man is reduced to an epiphenomenon. Authentic culture, on the contrary, resists the reduction of man to the state of an object. “It signifies the march towards a world where man can achieve his humanity in the transcendence proper to him, which calls him to truth, goodness and beauty.”

One aspect of the contemporary crisis of culture is the crisis in education. To an alarming degree education has become focused on having rather than being. All too often it turns people into instruments of the economic or political system. In the alienated society, education is in danger of becoming a form of manipulation (UNESCO Address, 1980).

The term “alienation,” which the Pope borrows from Marxist literature, is central to his social philosophy. For him it is the opposite of participation. In the good society all the members contribute to the common good and share in its benefits. Alienation arises when the society does not serve the dynamism of its own members, but unfolds at their expense, so that they, or some of them, feel cut off. The neighbor becomes the stranger, even the enemy.

6. The Economic Order

The dynamics of participation and alienation, which are the key to John Paul II's theory of culture and education, are also central to his economic analysis. While he does not purport to give lessons in economics, he insists that any sound economy must accept the primacy of the human person and the common good as guiding principles. His teaching on this subject is set forth in three important encyclicals.

In the first of these, Laborem Exercens (1981), he concentrates on the theological meaning of work, as a fulfillment of the biblical mandate to subdue the earth (Gen. 1:28). He protests against systems in which man is treated as an instrument of production rather than as the effective subject of work. By transforming nature, says the Pope, man can achieve greater fulfillment as a human being. All too often labor is regarded as a mere means to the production of capital and property, to the detriment of workers themselves. As a champion of human dignity, the church has a duty to speak out in defense of the rights of labor.

In his second encyclical on economics, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (1987), John Paul II recognizes personal economic initiative as a fundamental human right, stemming from the image of the Creator in every human being. Does not the denial of the right to take initiatives in economic matters, he asks, “impoverish the human person as much as, or more than, the deprivation of material goods?” Drawing, no doubt, on his experience behind the Iron Curtain, he castigates systems in which citizens are reduced to passivity, dependence and submission to the bureaucratic apparatus. He likewise criticizes consumerist societies in which things take priority over persons. “To ‘have’ objects and goods,” he writes, “does not in itself perfect the human subject unless it contributes to the maturing and enrichment of that subject's ‘being,’ that is to say, unless it contributes to the realization of the human vocation as such.”

In Centesimus Annus (1991), his third social encyclical, John Paul II returns to many of the same themes. He points out that while the natural fruitfulness of the earth was once the primary source of wealth, today the principal resource is rather the initiative and skill of human persons. He defends private property, profit and the free market as against the socialist alternatives. At the same time he cautions against consumerism, “in which people are ensnared in a web of false and superficial gratifications rather than being helped to experience their personhood in an authentic and concrete way.” He speaks at some length of the alienation that can arise in capitalist as well as in socialist societies.

From the beginning of his pontificate, the present Pope has shown a constant concern for the environment. Unlike some creationists, he bases this concern less on the inherent goodness of nature than on what is genuinely good for humanity. In Redemptor Hominis (1979) he noted that the power of humanity to subdue the earth seems to be turning against humanity itself. Many seem to see no other meaning in the natural environment than its immediate use and consumption. Such exploitation, however, instead of making our life on earth more human, carries with it the threat of an “environmental holocaust.” At the root of our senseless destruction of the natural environment, he observes, lies a prevalent anthropological error, further described in Centesimus Annus. We are often driven by a desire to possess things rather than respect their God-given purpose. We lack the disinterested attitude, born of wonder, that would enable us to find in nature the message of the invisible God. We also violate our obligations toward future generations.

7. The Political Order

The thinking of John Paul II about politics and the state is closely intertwined with his reflections about culture and economics. Emphasizing the human dimension, he consistently speaks of the personalist values of participation, dialogue and solidarity. The common good, he maintains, is threatened on the one hand by selfish individualism and on the other hand by totalitarian systems that trample on the fights of the individual person. No single group may be allowed to impose itself by power upon the whole of society. The enormous increase of social awareness in our day requires that the citizens be allowed to participate in the political life of the community (Redemptor Hominis, No. 17). The Pope accordingly praises the democratic system “inasmuch as it ensures the participation of citizens in making political choices, guarantees to the governed the possibility both of electing and of holding accountable those who govern them and of replacing them through peaceful means when appropriate” (Centesimus Annus, No. 46). Yet even his endorsement of democracy contains a warning against certain popular misunderstandings. Too often our contemporaries assume that agnosticism and skeptical relativism are the philosophy and basic attitude that best correspond to democratic forms of political life. John Paul II replies that, on the contrary, a democracy without objective values and ethical responsibility can easily turn into open or thinly disguised totalitarianism. The rights of the human person must be acknowledged as inviolable.

The Pope has repeatedly praised the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that was adopted by the United Nations in 1948. In his address to the United Nations in 1979 he enumerated, among the human rights that are universally recognized, “the right to life, liberty and security of person; the right to food, clothing, housing, sufficient health care, rest and leisure; the right to freedom of expression, education and culture; the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.” This list (too long to be repeated here) ended with the “right to political participation and the right to participate in the free choice of the political system of the people to which one belongs.” In speaking of human rights, the Pope frequently alludes to the evils of abortion and euthanasia, which he regards as scandalous violations of human dignity (address to the United Nations, 1979).

All these declarations of human fights are abstract. The Pope clearly recognizes that philosophical and theological principles cannot be automatically translated into positive law or judicial practice. The talents of statesmen and jurists are needed to determine the extent to which a given right—for example, the fight to education or free expression—can be implemented in a given situation.

8. The Church

Thus far, we have been speaking of essentially natural societies, whose existence does not rest on the Gospel and on faith. In dealing with them, John Paul II speaks primarily as a philosopher. As a theologian and teacher of the people of God, he extends his theory of personal action, participation and community into the order of revealed truth, where it becomes the basis of an ecclesiology.

John Paul II's ecclesiology is not a simple corollary from his general doctrine of society. The church has a unique status and mission. In a memorable phrase he calls it “the social subject of responsibility for divine truth” (Redemptor Hominis, No. 19). The Gospel, he reminds us, does not spring spontaneously from any cultural soil. It always has to be transmitted by apostolic dialogue, because it comes to the church through the apostles. The message is that of Christ, who declared, “The word that you hear is not mine but is from the Father who sent me” (Jn. 14:24).

The idea of the Gospel as a word coming down from above might appear to conflict with the view that the human vocation is to active self-realization. John Paul II is aware of this difficulty, and he replies that God's redeeming action in Christ comes to meet the deepest longings of the human heart for truth, freedom, life and community. The gift of divine adoption enables us to fulfill our deepest identity in a surpassing manner. The church as communion is the locus of this personal and communal participation in the divine. It reflects and shares in the trinitarian communion of the divine persons among themselves.

Thanks to the presence of the Holy Spirit in the hearts and minds of the faithful, the people of God experience a unique awareness of their divine adoption. “The Christian bears witness to Christ not ‘from outside’ but on the basis of participation” (Sources of Renewal, 1981). The entire people of God shares in the threefold office of Christ as prophet, priest and king (Christifideles Laici, No. 14). Each individual member is called to share in the life-giving mystery of redemption, to make a perfect gift of self and thereby to achieve definitive self-realization. For it is always in giving that one finds one's true self.

The members of the church share in the threefold office of Christ in differentiated ways. All the ministries, whether hierarchical or charismatic, serve to build up the one community in unity. The Holy Spirit gives the church a corporate “sense of the faithful” to discern the meaning of God's word. This “supernatual sense of the faith,” however, is not a matter of majority opinion. It is a consensus achieved through the collaboration of the various orders in the church. In this process “pastors must promote the sense of the faith in all the faithful, examine and authoritatively judge the genuineness of its expressions, and educate the faithful in an ever more mature evangelical discernment” (Familiaris Consortio, No. 5).

The special role of the hierarchy within the church is reiterated by John Paul II. Instituted by Christ, the episcopal order, together with the pope as successor of Peter, has an irreplaceable responsibility for assuring the unity of the church in the truth of the Gospel (Sources of Renewal, 1981). Like charismatic gifts, hierarchical office is essentially a service toward the community. Its whole task is to build up the community of the people of God. The Pope warns against a laicism that denies the proper role of the hierarchy. The contrary error is clericalism, which arises either when the clergy usurp the competence of the laity or when the laity shirk their responsibilities and throw them on the clergy.

In his Christology and ecclesiology, John Paul II frequently appeals to the category of prophetic testimony. Jesus Christ, he says, is the great prophet, the one who proclaims divine truth. The church and all its members are called to share in His prophetic mission. The transmission of the sacred heritage of saving truth can be an extremely demanding task. When asked to preach a retreat to the papal curia, Cardinal Wojtyla chose as his title Sign of Contradiction (1979). After describing the burdensome vocation of ancient prophets such as Jeremiah, he went on to say that the church and the pope himself are often called to be signs of contradiction in our day. Secular society exerts heavy pressures on the church and its hierarchy to relax moral norms and permit unbridled self-indulgence.

The then cardinal's answer was typically firm: “In recent years there has been a striking increase in contradiction, whether one thinks of the organized opposition mounted by the anti-Gospel lobby or of the opposition that springs up in apparently Christian and ‘humanistic’ circles linked with certain Christian traditions. One has only to recall the contestation of the encyclical Humanae Vitae, or that provoked by the latest declaration by the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Personae Humanae. These examples are enough to bring home the fact that we are in the front line in a lively battle for the dignity of man. … It is the task of the church, of the Holy See, of all pastors to fight on the side of man, often against men themselves!”

In an important speech on Catholic universities, John Paul II made a special appeal to them to be a “critical and prophetic voice” in confronting the increasingly secularized society of our day. It would be a mistake, he says, for such universities to attenuate or disguise their Catholic character. They must take full cognizance of their responsibility to affirm a truth that does not flatter but is absolutely necessary to safeguard the dignity of the human person (see John Paul II's apostolic constitution on Catholic higher education, Ex Corde Ecclesiae [1990], No. 32).

In the end, therefore, authentic humanism is compelled, for the sake of its own integrity, to become prophetic. Conscious that the dignity of the person rests both upon freedom of conscience and upon a transcendent order of truth most perfectly revealed in Christ, the faithful Christian must protest against dehumanizing forces, whether collectivistic or individualistic, whether absolutistic or relativistic. The testimony of the church, like that of Christ, must be against the world for the world. By courageously taking up this task, John Paul II has made himself, in my estimation, the leading prophet of authentic humanism in the world today.

Douglas Johnston (review date 6 November 1994)

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SOURCE: “Asking the Really Big Questions,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, November 6, 1994, pp. 1, 11.

[In the following review, Johnston offers favorable analysis of Crossing the Threshold of Hope.]

One wonders what the College of Cardinals though it was getting when it elected Karol Wojtyla the first non-Italian pope in 455 years. That will remain an eternal secret, but there can be little doubt that Pope John Paul II has surprised everyone with his vitality and political shrewdness.

Now he surprises again with this book—the first ever written by a sitting pope for a general audience. Reading what may be the last testament of this extraordinary but ailing man is an enriching experience, as he presents his views on a range of difficult moral and spiritual questions.

Readers need not be steeped in Catholic theology to appreciate the insight and energy which Crossing the Threshold of Hope brings to questions of the sort that have troubled many of us at one time or another: Why does God tolerate suffering? Why does He not reveal himself more clearly? Why should one believe in Him if it is possible to live an honest life without the Gospel? How does one reconcile the right to life of the unborn with the humanitarian arguments of those who practice contraception on who seek to legalize abortion?

For the politically inclined, the pope comments on the reasons underlying the demise of communism, the continuing problems of capitalism, the needs of the developing world, human rights, Middle East peace (including the establishment of ties with Israel), and the Catholic Church as a force in world politics and international organizations.

Although some of the arguments posed and explanations offered are highly technical and require a close reading, most of the book is conversational; almost rambling in style. On balance, its thrust is pastoral; there are no doctrinal surprises here.

For the pope's purposes, the book is timely. Throughout the 15 years of his papacy, Pope John Paul II's dynamism has inspired admiration and respect, as has his role on the international stage. Gorbachev himself credits the pope with having made possible the recent transformation not only of Poland, but of all Eastern Europe. With the pope's health failing, though, there is concern that his moral authority in the world is also in decline. At this point in his tenure, John Paul II is generally perceived to be engaged in a holding pattern, seeking to stem the tide of moral relativism while avoiding new debates. His traditional stands on issues of church authority and sexuality are viewed as being unresponsive to the realities of women's rights and the population explosion. All but totally lost in this perception are his earlier, genuinely counter-cultural teachings on social justice and reform.

Thus, this book comes at a critical time and provides him a valuable tool for further outreach. Its simultaneous release in 35 countries now makes available to millions his current thinking across a broad spectrum of inquiry. With the obvious need to curtail his extensive travels—62 trips at last count—the book becomes a surrogate for personal presence as he continues his quest to revitalize the 600 million Catholics in local churches the world over.

Especially relevant in this regard is the pope's ecumenical treatment of other religious traditions. He pays homage to their contributions to morality and culture and notes certain commonalities as well as some of their differences with Christianity. In the final analysis, his description suggests that it is the unique balance between involvement and detachment that sets Christianity apart. Both Hinduism and Buddhism, in their different ways, seek a state of detached liberation from the anguish of the human condition. Christianity, on the other hand, acknowledges the world as God's creation “redeemed by Christ” and teaches that it is in the world that man meets God. This, in turn, translates to a positive attitude toward creation and a constant striving toward transformation and perfection.

As a Christian, the pope most closely identifies with the monotheistic religions of Islam and Judaism. He expresses deep respect in this book for the “religiosity” of Muslims and refers to Jews as “our elder brothers in the faith.” In Islam, however, he sees divine revelation reduced to the point where the God of the Koran is essentially a “God outside of the world … only Majesty, never Emmanuel, God-with-us.” Conspicuous by its absence is any comparable treatment of what sets Judaism apart from Christianity, but that may be assumed.

The pope also makes interesting reference to the ancestor worship of the primitive or animistic religions: Here he draws a parallel between veneration of ancestors and the Christian concept of the Communion of Saints; in which all believers—“whether living or dead”—form a single body. Perhaps this accounts for the fact that the fastest rates of growth of the Catholic Church today are among the animists of Africa and Asia. Referring to the church's ever-renewing vitality, the pope recalls the words of Cardinal Hyacinth Thiandoum, who “foresaw the possibility that the Old World might one day be evangelized by black missionaries. “Indeed, there is some speculation that this pope's successor may be either Cardinal Francis Arinze of Nigeria or Cardinal Bernadin-Gantin of Benin.

Ironically, a number of countries in Africa, where most of the church membership growth is taking place, face enormous population problems that seem to make some form of birth control a matter of national survival. Here the pope's treatment falls short of what a policy-maker would need for taking effective action. In defending the rights of the unborn, he indicates that “what is at stake is the commandment Do not Kill!” Whatever the pope's views on war and capital punishment, his treatment of abortion allows for no exceptions because “a child conceived in its mother's womb is never an unjust aggressor, it is a defenseless being that is waiting to be welcomed and helped.” This defense ties to a more pervasive theme that celebrates the dignity of man, the joy of creation, and the concept of “person” as representing the center of the human ethos.

Where the gruel gets thin is in the book's prescription for the problem of overpopulation, suggesting that the answer is “responsible parenthood.” As early as 1932, T. S. Eliot, writing as a high-church Episcopalian, suggested in an essay entitled “Thoughts After Lambeth” that if Catholic doctrine requires unlimited procreation up to the limit of the mother's strength,” then the church should be “obliged to offer some solution to the economic questions raised by such a practice: for surely if you lay down a moral law which leads, in practice, to unfortunate social consequences—such as overpopulation or destitution—you make yourself responsible for providing some resolution of these consequences.” (Until the Lambeth conference of 1930, no Christian denomination viewed contraception as acceptable.)

At the recent International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, the issue assumed something of a North-South context as the Holy See delegation advocated economic development, health care and education as appropriate remedies. As expressed by the Rev. Diarmuid Martin, deputy head of the delegation, “wealthy states must realize that it is only by helping poor countries raise their living standards that they will solve the population problem, not by forcing them to adopt Western attitudes toward abortion and contraception.”

If Crossing the Threshold of Hope is weak in providing constructive alternatives for population control, it is anything but weak in its criticisms of the inequities and excesses of capitalism. The flaws in the practice of capitalism that initially attracted people to socialism are seen as continuing unabated, a theme the pope has been espousing for some time. In an earlier work titled Sign of Contradiction, he suggested that Western consumerism and communist collectivism both share materialistic utilitarianism as their common philosophical root. It is this consumerism without transcendental ends that ultimately undermines the spirituality and dignity of man.

But here again, the book's prescriptions are weak. The fate of the authoritarian alternatives to capitalism that have wreaked such havoc for most of the 20th century suggests there are limits to what human nature can accommodate. Undeniably, excessive consumerism has contributed to moral indifference and an unhealthy focus on what one has rather than what one is. Many people seem to be losing their sense of balance between individual freedom and discipline, between liberty and justice, between the temporal and the eternal—becoming insensitive to what the pope calls “the Last Things.” Reigning in the excesses of consumerism and individual liberty so that spiritual values can be recaptured and reflected in daily behavior is a very tall order. Enlightened approaches are in woefully short supply and, regrettably, this book offers few clues.

If Pope John Paul II seems unduly conservative in his strong-minded adherence to Catholic doctrine, it is because he takes seriously the words of the Apostle Paul (2 Tim 4:3): “Proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable … For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth.” Whether or not we are at that time, Pope John Paul II certainly is not a teacher who caters to the itching ears of modernity, telling us what we want to hear. As the pope further notes, “Christ forewarned us, telling us that the road to eternal salvation is not broad and comfortable, but narrow and difficult. We do not have the right to abandon that perspective, nor to change it.”

Perhaps it is unfair to impose upon the pope the task of providing workable solutions to intractable problems, but that is the sort of expectation this inspiring man invites. Whatever else one might think, the pope deserves our respect as a bastion of uprightness and integrity in a world that is undergoing a crisis of moral leadership. Just as man and the divine merge in the figure of Christ, so too do Karol Wojtyla, long-time social revolutionary and champion of human rights, and Pope John Paul II, arch-defender of the faith, come together in this book. It is very worth reading.

Peter Hebblethwaite (review date 11 November 1994)

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SOURCE: “Professor in Slippers,” in Times Literary Supplement, November 11, 1994, p. 32.

[In the following review, Hebblethwaite examines John Paul's religious and political views in Crossing the Threshold of Hope.]

Librarians will have problems cataloguing this work. The author appears on the title-page as “His Holiness Pope John Paul II”. Perhaps the easiest thing would be to put it under Messori, Vittorio, ed. Then it would join the celebrated interviewer's other books like The Ratzinger Report—which had their fifteen minutes of fame.

Pope John Paul has been interviewed before. In 1984, André Frossard (author of God Exists, I've Met Him) published “Be Not Afraid!”: André Frossard in conversation with John Paul II. Frossard's is the better book for penetrating the Pope's Polish mind. He was allowed to probe away through supplementaries. Messori, though at one point claiming to be a gadfly, fails to buzz and is totally overawed by his subject.

This is partly because he has such an exalted view of the papacy that he makes the ordinary ultramontane look positively liberal: “The Pope is considered”, Messori announces with false confidence, “the man on earth who represents the Son of God, who ‘takes the place’ of the Second Person of the Omnipotent God of the Trinity.” That is why, he concludes, Catholics call the Pope “Vicar of Christ”, “Holy Father”, or “Your Holiness”. “You are either”, says Messori, addressing John Paul and evoking Blaise Pascal's wager, “…the mysterious living proof of the Creator of the universe or the central protagonist of a millennial illusion.” More bluntly put: You either prove the existence of God, or you are a fraud. Is he trying to make Protestants of us all?

Now John Paul responds to this hype with skilful dialectic. “Vicar of Christ” is indeed dangerous language, going to the very edge of blasphemy. But as Vatican II teaches, every bishop is the “Vicar of Christ” for his diocese. And “in a certain sense” every Christian is a “vicar of Christ”. Just imagine: Let me introduce my wife, a vicar of Christ. A new order: the VCs. But the point is: he remains the Vicar of Christ. So that shimmy doesn't quite work.

On the less significant titles, “Holy Father” and “Your Holiness”, John Paul quotes the powerful words of Jesus himself: “Call no one father on earth; you have but one father in heaven. Do not be called ‘Master’; you have but one Master, the Christ” (Matthew 23:9-10). That is one of the clearest statements of the New Testament, and an express command of the Lord. Yet, having reminded us of it, John Paul simply sweeps it aside: “These expressions, nevertheless, have evolved out of a long tradition, becoming part of common usage. One must not be afraid of these words either.” John Paul saves the day with the magnificent phrase of St Augustine: “Vobis sum episcopus, vobiscum christianus.” (“For you I am a bishop, with you I am a Christian”), adding that “christianus has far greater significance than episcopus, even if the subject is the bishop of Rome”.

John Paul does not speak of death, but admits to feeling old. So he reminisces. In his day, young people's idealism was expressed in the form of duty; today, it takes the form of criticism. Today, positivism prevails; in his day, “romantic traditions” still persisted. No native English-language speaker could ever say that.

John Paul tells the story of the brilliant engineer, Jerzy Ciecielski, who decided after much prayer that he should get married. What to do? Instead of going to the local disco or the parish ball, “he sought a companion for his life and sought her on his knees, in prayer”. That is the difference between the Polish “romantic traditions” in which John Paul II was brought up, and not only our Western societies but today's Poland too. But how hard he tries to bridge the gap. His message to youth is always: “What I am going to say to you is much less important than what you are going to say to me.”

He may really believe that. But no one about him does. Hence the Time-magazine epithets, “hard-nosed”, “hard-line”, “inflexible”. But he can't lower the bar or mitigate moral demands that are not his but the Church's. That is why, in Veritatis Splendor, the only form of holiness he knows is heroism. He has often quoted Georges Bernanos: “The Church doesn't need reformers; it need saints.”

Maybe so. But when, in Crossing the Threshold of Hope, he talks of martyrs as the true heroes of the faith, he lists only the victims of Communism, starting with the politically uncorrect “martyrs” of the Spanish Civil War. Yet nearly all the martyrs in his pontificate have been the victims of Latin American dictators who went to Mass every Sunday. But he simply cannot see that. It is his Polish blind spot. Like any Catholic, he starts out from a national culture which provides a strong sense of identity, and then tries to rise to the level of the universal Church. With his knowledge of languages, he has succeeded better than most of us in this enterprise.

But when he comes to talk of human rights, he has two paradigms unknown to the rest of the world. The Kraków Theological Faculty, he tells Messori, “condemned the violence perpetrated against the Baltic peoples” at the Council of Constance in 1414. They condemned, in other words, forced conversions. Later, he adds, the Spanish theologians of the Salamanca school condemned the forcible conversion of the native Americans on the same grounds. And so on to wartime Croatia, no doubt. But Poland scored a first Bravo.

You may never have heard of Father Kasamierz Klósak, a Kraków theologian of immense erudition. Neither had I, a student of such things. For John Paul, Klósak is a major figure, since in him “Marxist natural philosophy was challenged by an innovative approach that allowed for the discovery of the Logos—creative thought and order—in the world”. I must confess that I have not the faintest idea what this means.

What picture of John Paul the man emerges? He is like an elderly professor in carpet slippers, with a passionate interest in comparative linguistics. (I once heard him discussing whether Portuguese had a word for “nostalgia”.) He has thought deeply and prayed about every question that Messori can bowl at him. His reading is a little out of date—he introduces Albert Camus to illustrate a “bleak vision” of the world. But he has read Emmanuel Levinas.

This “conversation with every home” implies a very sophisticated household, expected to know the difference between the young and the mature Ludwig Wittgenstein. Such households may appreciate the truth that “man's existence is always coexistence”. But they will make heavy weather of John Paul's remark that “it is not possible to affirm that when something is trans-empirical, it ceases to be empirical”.

A question of more general interest is “Was God at work in the Fall of Communism?” After a ramble through God-at-work in the “new movements” and another vote of confidence in youth, he says that if people do not hear the voice of God in history, that is partly because they have blocked their ears and partly because they have been deafened by society, the mass media and the ideological foes who, since the eighteenth century, have led “the struggle against God”. That is another swipe at the Enlightenment. John Paul reduces it to an anti-God movement whose aim is “the systematic elimination of all that is Christian”. Marxism appears as a cut-price version of this scheme. Now Marxism has gone, “a similar plan is revealing itself in all its danger and, at the same time, in all its faultiness”. Moreover, there was some merit in Marxism. It began as “part of the history of protest in the face of injustice”, a genuinely justified workers' protest which was then, alas, turned into an ideology. Fortunately, this “protest” seeped into the life of the Church. It led to Rerum Novarum in 1891. Indeed, Leo XIII “in a certain sense predicted the fall of Communism, a fall which would cost humanity and Europe dearly, since the medicine could prove more dangerous than the disease itself”.

John Paul next exploits the Fátima story, claiming that the three children could not have invented the predictions that “Russia will convert”. They simply “did not know enough about history for that”. The attempt on John Paul II's life was “necessary”, which is another way of saying it was “providential”. It occurred in 1981, on the feast of Our Lady of Fátima, “so that all could become more transparent and comprehensible, so that the voice of God which speaks in human history through the ‘signs of the times’ could be more easily heard and understood”. This comes close to disclosing the “providential meaning” of his pontificate.

It would, however, be “simplistic to say that Divine Providence caused the fall of Communism”. It crumbled under the weight of its own mistakes and abuses. The causes of its collapse were internal: “It fell by itself, because of its own inherent weaknesses.” He dealt more fully with this theme in his interview with Jas Gawronski in the Guardian and in his address to Latvian intellectuals in Riga in September 1993. In the preparation for the Euro-Synod, he acutely remarked that “now that Communism has gone, the Church has to be on the side of the poor, otherwise they will go undefended”. This upset those who regarded him as the sole victor in the duel with Marxism. You cannot please all men all the time. Or, as Messori says, in an “inclusive” translation of St Paul: “I have become all things to all, to save at least some” (1 Corinthians 9:22).

Garry Wills (review date 22 December 1994)

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SOURCE: “The Tragic Pope?,” in New York Review of Books, December 22, 1994, pp. 4, 6-7.

[In the following review, Wills discusses John Paul's Christian theology in Crossing the Threshold of Hope. Though noting contradictions and evasions, Wills writes, “It is a relief to see the Pope talk of the truths of faith with the excitement they deserve (whether true or false).”]

Was the Pope subjecting us to a Great Wu routine? It seemed so. Let Orson Welles, always a bit of a Wu himself, explain:

Mister Wu is a classic example [of theatrical hype]—I've played it once myself. All the other actors boil around the stage for about an hour shrieking. “What will happen when Mister Wu arrives?” “What is he like, this Mister Wu?” and so on. Finally, a great gong is beaten, and slowly over a Chinese bridge comes Mr. Wu himself in full mandarin robes. Peach Blossom (or whatever her name is) falls on her face and a lot of coolies yell, “Mister Wu!!!” The curtain comes down, the audience goes wild, and everybody says, “Isn't that guy playing Mr. Wu a great actor!” That's a star part for you!

The release of the Pope's multimillion-dollar project had clear marks of Wu upon it. The books and tapes were warehoused, embargoed, surrounded with the hush-hush of great revelations withheld. Then the drumbeat of anticipation ended in a clash of publicity's cymbals. The books came sluicing out, in twenty-one languages, with television cameras recording their arrival in the stores, their opening, their (disappointing) sales.

In other cases, there would have been an explosion of disapproval if readers found there was nothing new in a book so wrapped in conspiratorial trappings. One looks silly striving to hide a thing that is not there. But for a pope of dogma and tradition, there is no shame in saying nothing new. He is not supposed to make reckless additions to the “deposit of faith.” Only God can issue new commandments, a new revelation.

The promoters of the book seem hard put to justify their exercise in mystification. Vittorio Messori, the journalist whose questions form the basis of the book, claims that the new thing is the format—the Pope promised to comply (but ultimately did not) with a request to be interviewed at length on television. John Paul II, who required that the questions be submitted beforehand, wrote his answers at leisure and sent them back to the journalist through his press representative. This is what Messori calls “a conversation.”

A snake-oil salesman has to think his audience obtuse in order to keep up his act. So Messori boasts that the Pope answered all his questions “without avoiding one of them”—though anyone who turns the page will find that the Pope avoided the very first one. After a long deferential windup, Messori asked: “Haven't you ever had, not doubts certainly, but at least questions and problems (as is human) about the truth of this Creed?” Despite the tuckings and bowings (not doubts, as is human), he was asking a personal question. The Pope gave an institutional answer: even Peter had trouble with the idea that God could suffer. Nothing about the Pope's own doubts (if any). Yet the “candor” of the new book was supposed to set it aside from all the Pope's earlier (non-multimillion-dollar) publications. The Pope sidestepped another question (Number 22) when Messori asked about the “decisions by the Anglican Church [that] have created new obstacles” to church union. He was clearly referring to ordination of women priests. The Pope answered by saying high-minded things about the ecumenical movement; he never addressed the specific Anglican decisions.

Messori is not a dogged questioner (though he apologizes for being “provocative”). He butters up the Pope at all opportunities: “Allow me to observe that your very clear words once again demonstrate the partiality, the short-sightedness of those who have suspected you of pushing for a ‘restoration,’ of being a ‘reactionary’ with regard to the Council.” So certain questions begging to be asked were not asked—e.g., about the Pope's partiality to the secretive and authoritarian Opus Dei movement. Messori is friendly with the papal press agent who arranged the “conversation” in the first place, Dr. Joaquin Navarro-Valls, who is himself a member of Opus Dei.

There seems to be something of the Great Wu in the Pope's own attitude toward himself. Asked about the role of a Polish pope in the downfall of communism, he answers: “Perhaps this is why it was necessary for the assassination attempt [on John Paul's life] to be made in St. Peter's Square precisely on May 13, 1981, the anniversary of the first apparition [of Mary] at Fátima.” That reminds me of James I's belief that two plots on his life were providentially arranged to fall on a Tuesday, both of them the fifth in their month.

Actually, many people see something providential in John Paul's strengthening of Polish resistance to communism. It is the tie-in with Fátima that puzzles. And though Catholics believe that God's providence embraces all the world, as well as their Church's leadership, Bernhard Schimmelpfennig's analytical history, The Papacy, reminds us that providence has also provided mankind with murderer-popes, perjurer-popes, and even heretic-popes.

As an apologist for the faith, John Paul II seems to be giving rote answers. When Messori asks how one can tell that Jesus is the Son of God, John Paul answers that this is what Peter called him at Matthew 16:16. When Messori asks why God seems to hide his existence, the Pope answers that this question is just a result of Cartesian rationalism—which is not much comfort to those who see the problem very clearly but have never heard of Descartes.

But it is worth persevering with the book. As he goes along, the Pope seems to loosen up, to become more personal, to go back continually to his Polish experience, as if clamoring to get out of the restraints of his office. If there are no new doctrines, there are new approaches to doctrine. The Pope labors to say what he believes, not (only) what the office demands him to pronounce. Asked about eternal life—about heaven and hell—John Paul says that hell exists, but no man, not even Judas, can be said to be there. He repeats the text of 1 Timothy 2:4, that God wants everyone to be saved. It is an open question, he maintains whether man can be rejected by a God who saves. This goes far beyond what the new Catholic catechism says about hell. The Pope even quotes a favorite author of his, Saint John of the Cross, on interior hell and purgatory existing during one's lifetime.

On the subject of salvation in general, the Pope says that the Church once placed too much emphasis on individual salvation, whereas God came to save the whole world, even to “divinize” it. Teilhard de Chardin got into trouble with the Vatican for holding those views. Yet the new catechism, by returning to old mysteries, unearths a vision of universal salvation in the teaching of the Creed. The dead Jesus “descended into hell” to reclaim the whole of history since Adam's time. The catechism quotes an ancient homily saying. “He has gone to search for Adam, our first father, as for a lost sheep,” so that none shall be lost.

The Pope's ecumenism is also less grudging than that of his predecessors. John Paul admits that Rome has things to learn from other churches; that truths emerge from other religions, including Buddhism, which might lie hidden but for the “dialectic” process of interaction between the various faiths. Elsewhere he gives an example of this by referring with approval to Cardinal Newman's famous words, “I shall drink to the Pope, if you please; still, to Conscience first, and to the Pope afterwards.” Newman was criticized for talking like a Protestant—and he had, indeed, learned of the primacy of conscience from the Reformation. Now the Pope has learned it, too. (The Catholic catechism quotes Newman on conscience, but from a less pointed text.)

As his book becomes more personal, the Pope goes back to his own history in Poland, to his first experiences of piety, to his study of phenomenology. One Catholic philosopher has criticized the Pope for speaking out of a specific philosophical school, as if people had to study Husserl in order to be Catholics. The same objections were raised to Saint Augustine's Neoplatonic background, or to Saint Thomas's Aristotelianism. But one must use refined language to approach divine mysteries, and it is bracing to see the Pope grappling with the most basic doctrines in fresh ways—especially for us Catholics who must listen to the sermons preached these days. For most priests in the pulpit, the basic doctrines of the Church—the Trinity, the Incarnation—are “mysteries” in the sense that they are technical points of theology not “relevant” to Catholics' modern concerns. Sermons become therapeutic and empathetic, leveling farther down every day toward the Oprah Winfrey Show.

The sermons of Saint Augustine tried to take Christians into the heart of the faith—and so do John Paul's reflections on the meaning of Jesus as the entry point for human beings into the inmost self-communication of God: “Man is saved in the Church by being brought into the Mystery of the Divine Trinity.” By reflecting on the Trinity, Saint Augustine developed a whole new view of human personality—that we are selves, not a self; that even God must exist in dialogue; that he is not only a unity (as Plato thought) but a community. It is in this vein that John Paul uses the insights of Martin Buber (the “I” is a relation, not a substance) or of the Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas (identity cannot be constituted without a sense of other beings to talk of man's relation to God). Saint Augustine would find something trinitarian in these views.

When a newspaper article of the 1920s called the conciliar “quibbles” about the dual nature of Christ a sign of the degenerate Greek intellect (Gibbon's view), Chesterton wrote a poetic answer that showed the reaching of two Greek myths toward complementarity—the eagle of Zeus imposing order on the world, the vulture of Zeus feeding on Prometheus. At the end, a “simple” combination, the centaur, reacts in fear to a greater monster, who cries:

I am Prometheus. I am Jupiter.
In ravening obedience down from heaven,
Hailed of my hand and by this sign alone,
My eagle comes to tear me.

The idea of the Incarnation may be monstrous. It is hardly dull, or irrelevant to the way people think of themselves and their world. In Jesus, the Pope writes, God does not answer Job from on high, but comes down to join him in “the tragedy of redemption.” It is a relief to see the Pope talk of the truths of faith with the excitement they deserve (whether true or false). The new catechism offers some of the same stimulation.

But when I am asked whether I am a church-going Catholic and answer yes, no one inquires whether I really believe in such strange things as the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Resurrection. I am asked about ovaries and trimesters. The great mysteries of faith have become, for many inside the church as well as outside, the “doctrines” on contraception and abortion. These are hardly great concerns in the gospels and the letters of Saint Paul, which never mention them. But they crowd out most other talk of Catholic beliefs in modern conversation.

For this the current Pope must bear some of the blame. He tells us, in this book, that he is not obsessed with abortion; but he certainly encourages that obsession in others. His fine Husserlian talk of personality degenerates, at second hand, to hairsplitting on the difference between all the fertilized ova that fail to attach themselves to the uterine wall and those few that do. It's a wonder some of the Pope's followers, with this view of the fertilized egg as a person, do not stand by to baptize every uterine flux as well as every aborted fetus. (The Church did not baptize even fully formed fetuses in the past). Talk of the degeneration of intellect into quibbles.

The real mysteries of the faith are easier to believe than the supposedly rational condemnation of contraceptives based on “natural law.” According to the Pope, the sex act must always be ordinated toward procreation, and never to pleasure alone. By that logic, eating and drinking must always be ordinated toward self-preservation, never to pleasure. The toast of fellowship among well-fed people is ruled out, all the symbolic and extraordinary uses of feasting and drink that find their highest expression in the agape feast and the Eucharist. The body does not physically need the eucharistic bread or cup, so they are unnatural.

The Pope attacks biblical fundamentalism in this new book. But his approach to women's ministry is absurdly fundamentalist. Jesus chose only men apostles, in the context of his own culture, so there is something essentially male about priesthood. Yet he also chose only Jews, who spoke Aramaic, who were married, who had not read the (nonexistent) gospels; and those requirements are not imposed in modern conditions. The Pope, of course, claims that no denigration of women is intended in this “divisions of labor.” But his view of the superior dignity of males slips out when the Pope speaks of the father-hood of God: “The father-son paradigm is ageless. It is older than human history.” The “rays of fatherhood” are divine. We hear of no mother-daughter paradigm for the divine-human relationship. No wonder the Pope can write, without any sense of irony: “Not only abortion, but also contraception, are ultimately bound up with the truth about man.

How can the Pope be so intellectually probing and honest, yet so closed and simplistic on certain matters (all having to do with sex)? That is a conundrum his biographers will have a hard time reading. The answer may lie in his Polish experience at a time of crisis—as his own frequent references backward show. A church under persecution holds to all signs and rituals as acts of resistance. The piety of John Paul was embattled and sacrificial—he often refers to the benefits of persecution and laments the failure of “heroism” in a pampered age. Furthermore, he lost his mother at the age of nine (she died in childbirth!) and he seems to have shifted his love for the missing woman over to the Virgin Mary.

The Pope's piety toward Mary is almost scary. She is the subject of more entries in the collected Prayers and Devotions than any other aspect of God or religion. The Pope can say the biblically correct things about Mary, as First Disciple and symbol of the church, but he is also interested in all the supposed apparitions of Mary in modern times—not only in Fátima, Guadalupe, and Lourdes, but in dubious events like that which occurred at Knock in Ireland (where the Pope went to pay homage to “Our Lady of Knock”). The Pope's emphases on Mary verge on those in a sermon I heard an Italian priest give in Verona last September: “Our Protestant brothers—I say this with infinite sorrow—do not honor the Madonna, so they cannot understand the Faith, since she is at the center of it.”

It may seem odd that the Pope should honor Mary so, yet have a constricted view of women's role in the church. But his image of Mary is one of submission. As a replacement for the mother who died early in Wojtyla's life, she is a guardian of chastity, inhibiting sexual expression. The minatory role of celibacy shows up in the Pope's odd argument that married people will not stay faithful to each other if they do not have the model of celibate fidelity near at hand. As he puts it in Prayers and Devotions: “Consecrated celibacy helps married couples and family members to keep the conscience and the practice of the loftiest ideals of their union alive … Virginity keeps consciousness of the mystery of matrimony alive in the Church and defends it from being reduced in any way and from all impoverishment.” By this standard, Jews or Protestants lacking a celibate priesthood, would be incapable of marital fidelity.

After his initial evasions, the Pope has invited us into his psyche with his own reflections on his early life. The challenge to biographers is very great. They will find important clues in his poems. His best-known poem deals with his experience working in a quarry, where comradeship and anger mix in ways more explosive than the blasting powder. He deals with alienation in “The Car Factory Worker.” But his other experience was as an actor and playwright. “Actor” begins:

So many grew around me, through me, from my self, as it were,
I became a channel, unleashing a force called man.
Did not others crowding in, distort the man that I am?

As a prelate under Communist rulers, Wojtyla had to maneuver, be strong but flexible. No wonder we read paradoxical lines like “truth must be hurtful, must hide” (from “Gospel”) or that Jesus must “walk behind the heart” (from “Development of Language”). The man who recognizes Jerusalem yet confers knighthood on Kurt Waldheim, who is open himself yet harbors those who hide in the Opus Dei, is one of the more complex and fascinating figures of the twentieth century. We do not know, yet, whether he will be one of the more tragic. If so, he will be repeating the pattern of one of the most fascinating and tragic figures of the nineteenth century, a man he very much admires and tries to imitate—Pope Pius IX.

Paul Gray (essay date 26 December 1994)

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SOURCE: “Empire of the Spirit,” in Time, December 26, 1994, pp. 48-57.

[In the following essay, Gray discusses John Paul's significance as an international moral leader.]

People who see him—and countless millions have—do not forget him. His appearances generate an electricity unmatched by anyone else on earth. That explains, for instance, why in rural Kenyan villages thousands of children, plus many cats and roosters and even hotels, are named John Paul. Charisma is the only conceivable reason why a CD featuring him saying the rosary—in Latin—against a background of Bach and Handel is currently ascending the charts in Europe. It also accounts for the dazed reaction of a young woman who found herself, along with the thousands around her in a sports stadium in Denver, cheering and applauding him: “I don't react that way to rock groups. What is it that he has?”

Pope John Paul II has, among many other things, the world's bully-est pulpit. Few of his predecessors over the past 2,000 years have spoken from it as often and as forcefully as he. When he talks, it is not only to his flock of nearly a billion; he expects the world to listen. And the flock and the world listen, not always liking what they hear. This year he cast the net of his message wider than ever: Crossing the Threshold of Hope, his meditations on topics ranging from the existence of God to the mistreatment of women, became an immediate best seller in 12 countries. It is an unprecedented case of mass proselytizing by a Pontiff—arcane but personal, expansive but resolute about its moral message.

John Paul can also impose his will, and there was no more formidable and controversial example of this than the Vatican's intervention at the U.N.'s International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo in September. There the Pope's emissaries defeated a U.S.-backed proposition John Paul feared would encourage abortions worldwide. The consequences may be global and—critics predict—catastrophic, particularly in the teeming Third World, where John Paul is so admired.

The Pontiff was unfazed by the widespread opprobrium. His popular book and his unpopular diplomacy, he explained to Time two weeks ago, share one philosophical core: “It always goes back to the sanctity of the human being.” He added, “The Pope must be a moral force.” In a year when so many people lamented the decline in moral values or made excuses for bad behavior, Pope John Paul II forcefully set forth his vision of the good life and urged the world to follow it. For such rectitude—or recklessness, as his detractors would have it—he is Time's Man of the Year.

The Pope is, in Catholic belief, a direct successor of St. Peter's, the rock on whom Jesus Christ built his church. As such, John Paul sees it as his duty to trouble the living stream of modernity. He stands solidly against much that the secular world deems progressive: the notion, for example, that humans share with God the right to determine who will and will not be born. He also lectures against much that the secular world deems inevitable: the abysmal inequalities between the wealthy and the wretched of the earth, the sufferings of those condemned to lives of squalor, poverty and oppression. “He really has a will and a determination to help humanity through spirituality,” says the Dalai Lama. “That is marvelous. That is good. I know how difficult it is for leaders on these issues.”

John Paul's impact on the world has already been enormous, ranging from the global to the personal. He has covered more than half a million miles in his travels. Many believe his support of the trade union Solidarity in his native Poland was a precipitating event in the collapse of the Soviet bloc. After he was nearly killed in 1981, he visited and pardoned his would-be assassin in jail. Asked an awed Mehmet Ali Agca: “Tell me why it is that I could not kill you?” Even those who contest the words of John Paul do not argue with his integrity—or his capacity to forgive those who trespass against him.

His power rests in the word, not the sword. As he has demonstrated throughout the 16 years of his papacy, John Paul needs no divisions. He is an army of one, and his empire is both as ethereal and as ubiquitous as the soul. In a slum in Nairobi, Mary Kamati is dying of AIDS. In her mud house hangs a portrait of John Paul. “This is the only Pope who has come to this part of the world,” she says. During his most recent visit, he sprinkled her with holy water. “That,” she says, eyes trembling, “is the way to heaven.”

In 1994 the Pope's health visibly deteriorated. His left hand shakes, and he hobbles with a cane, the result of bone-replacement surgery. Asked about his health, he offered an “Oh, so-so” to Time. It is thus with increased urgency that John Paul has presented himself, the defender of Roman Catholic doctrine, as a moral compass for believers and nonbelievers alike. He spread through every means at his disposal a message not of expedience or compromise but of right and wrong; amid so much fear of the future, John Paul dared to speak of hope. He did not say what everyone wanted to hear, and many within and beyond his church took offense. But his fidelity to what he believes people need to hear remained adamant and unwavering. “He'll go down in history as the greatest of our modern Popes,” says the Rev. Billy Graham. “He's been the strong conscience of the whole Christian world.”

And then there was the sorry state of the globe he proposed to save. Patches of the Third World sank further into revolutionary bloodshed, disease and famine. The developed nations began to resemble weird updatings of Hieronymous Bosch: panoramas of tormented bodies, lashed, flailed and torn by the instruments of material self-gratification. Secular leaders dithered and disagreed and then did nothing about the slow death of Bosnia, the massacres in Rwanda.

Private behavior appeared equally adrift. People trained to know better showed that they did not, notably the younger members of Britain's royal family, who energetically pursued self-implosion, with TV documentaries and books their detonators of choice. In Los Angeles two separate juries could not agree on a verdict in the trials of Lyle and Erik Menendez, young men who admitted killing their parents, at close range, with shotguns. The nightly news became a saraband of sleaze: Tonya, Lorena, Michael, O. J.; after 10 days of claiming to have been the victim of a car-jacking, a South Carolina mother confessed she pushed the vehicle into a lake with her two tiny sons strapped inside.

The secular response to the tawdriness of contemporary life was not uplifting; it largely amounted to a mingy, mean spirited vindictiveness, a searching for scapegoats. Many interpreted the Republican sweep in the November elections as a sign that voters were as mad as hell and ready for old-fashioned verities. That seemed to be the view of incoming House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who called for a constitutional amendment allowing voluntary school prayer in public schools. He also suggested it might be a good idea to fill orphanages with the children of welfare mothers.

John Paul was personally affected by the turmoil of 1994. He could not make planned visits to Beirut and Sarajevo because enmities on the ground were too volatile. Rwanda dealt him particular grief: an estimated 85٪ of Rwandans are Christians, and more than 60٪ of those Roman Catholics. Some priests were accessories to massacre. The new faith was unable to overcome tribal conflict.

But when circumstances allowed him to act, John Paul did so decisively. His major goals have been to clarify church doctrine—believers may experience doubt but should be spared confusion—and to reach out to the world, seek contacts with other faiths and proclaim to all the sanctity of the individual, body and soul.

He made advances on all of these fronts in 1994. The Catechism of the Catholic Church appeared in English translation, the first such comprehensive document issued since the 16th century. It clearly summarizes all the essential beliefs and moral tenets of the church. Some Catholics believe it will be the most enduring landmark of John Paul's papacy. In June, John Paul oversaw the establishment of diplomatic relations between the Holy See and Israel, ending a tense standoff that had existed ever since 1948.

In May the Pope released an apostolic letter in which he set to rest, for the foreseeable future, the question of the ordination of women. His answer, in brief, was no. The document disappointed and outraged many Catholic women and men; even some sympathetic to the Pope felt that his peremptory tone, his strict argument from precedent, i.e., that Christ appointed only males as his Apostles, represented a missed opportunity to teach, to explain an exclusionary policy that contemporary believers find outmoded or beyond understanding.

The high or the low point of the Pope's year, depending on who did the reporting, came in September. The U.N. population conference convened in Cairo, with representatives from 185 nations and the Holy See in attendance. On the table was a 113-page plan calling on governments to commit $17 billion annually by the year 2000 to curb global population growth. About 90٪ of the draft document had been approved in advance by the participants, but the remaining 10٪ contained some bombshells John Paul had seen coming. The most explosive was Paragraph 8.25, which owed its inclusion in part to a March 16 directive from the Clinton Administration to all U.S. embassies; it stated that “the United States believes access to safe, legal and voluntary abortion is a fundamental right of all women” and insisted the Cairo conference endorse that policy.

John Paul was not in Cairo, but he kept in constant touch with his delegation. Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls recalls the Pope's reaction to Paragraph 8.25: “He feared that for the first time in the history of humanity, abortion was being proposed as a means of population control. He put all the prestige of his office at the service of this issue.” For nine days the Vatican delegates, under his direction, lobbied and filibustered; they kept their Latin American bloc in line and struck up alliances with Islamic nations opposed to abortion. In the end, the Pope won. The Cairo conference inserted an explicit statement that “in no case should abortion be promoted as a method of family planning”; in return the Vatican gave partial consent to the document.

In public relations terms, it was a costly victory. There he goes again, the standard argument ran, imposing his sectarian morality on a world already hungry and facing billions of new mouths to feed in the coming decades. One Spanish critic said the Pope had “become a traveling salesman of demographic irrationality.” Says dissident Swiss theologian Hans Kung: “This Pope is a disaster for our church. There's charm there, but he's closed-minded.” The British Catholic weekly the Tablet summed up Cairo, “Never has the Vatican cared less about being unpopular than under Pope John Paul II.”

Cairo perfectly crystallized reciprocal conundrums: the problem of the Pope in the modern world and the problem the Pope has with the modern world. The conflict boils down to different paths of reason and standards of truth. In Crossing the Threshold of Hope, John Paul locates the source of the great schism between faith and logic in the writings of the 17th century French philosopher Rene Descartes, particularly his assertion “Cogito ergo sum” (I think; therefore I am). The Pope points out that Descartes's formulation turned on its head St. Thomas Aquinas' 13th century pronouncement that existence comes before thought—indeed, makes thought possible. Descartes could presumably have written “Sum ergo cogito,” but then the history of the past 300 years might have been profoundly different.

Although not the only one, Descartes was a major inspiration for the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment. Truth became a matter not of doctrine or received traditions but of something materially present on earth, accessible either through research or sound reasoning. “Know then thyself, presume not God to scan,” Alexander Pope wrote in 1733-34. “The proper study of Mankind is Man.”

The human intellect, thus liberated, proved prodigious; the fruits of its accomplishments are ever present in the developed world and tantalizingly seductive to those peering in from outside the gates. John Paul is not a fundamentalist who wants to repeal the Enlightenment and destroy the tools of technology; the most traveled, most broadcast Pope in history knows the advantages of jet airplanes and electronics. Instead he argues that rationalism, by itself, is not enough: “This world, which appears to be a great workshop in which knowledge is developed by man, which appears as progress and civilization, as a modern system of communications, as a structure of democratic freedoms without any limitations, this world is not capable of making man happy.”

In essence, the Pope and his critics are talking at cross-purposes, about different universes. His reaffirmations of the church's doctrines on sexual matters actually form a small part of his teachings, but they have drawn most of the attention of troubled Catholics and the Pope's critics in the West. The conviction is widespread that sexual morality and conduct are private concerns, strictly between individuals and their consciences. But who guides those consciences? the Pope would ask. Many population experts see a future tide of babies as a problem to be solved; the Pope sees these infants-in-waiting as precious lives, the gifts of God. The church's doctrine that condoms should not be used under any circumstances has provoked, in the age of AIDS, deep anger. Henri Tincq, who writes on religious subjects for Paris' Le Monde, sums up this reaction, “The church's refusal of condoms even for saving lives is absolutely incomprehensible. It disqualifies the church from having any role in the whole debate over AIDS.” As heartless as John Paul's position may seem, it is consistent with his view of the world: the way to halt the effects of unsafe sexual practices is to stop the practices.

Those who will never agree with the Pope on birth control, abortion, homosexuality and so on may nonetheless have benefited from hearing him speak out. Says Father Thomas Reese of the Woodstock Theological Center in Washington: “He's the one keeping these issues alive, things people should reflect on morally. He can't force them to do things, but he provides a constant reminder that these are moral questions, not simply medical or economic ones.”

John Paul has never stepped back from difficulties, and he looks forward to an arduous 1995 agenda. First up is a scheduled 10-day trip in January to Papua New Guinea, Australia, Sri Lanka and the Philippines, where the Archbishop of Manila is in open conflict with the country's Protestant President over population control. The Pope is also laying strategy for the 1995 U.N. World Conference on Women in Beijing, which figures to be a replay of Cairo. In June, he plans to meet with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, the leader of the Eastern Orthodox Church. John Paul has long spoken of mending the breach between the Roman and Eastern churches that became final in 1054. The Berlin Wall, put up in 1961, came down 11 years into his papacy; undoing the effects of a millennium may take him a little longer.

The Man of the Year's ideas about what can be accomplished differ from those of most mortals. They are far grander, informed by a vision as vast as the human determination to bring them into being. After discovering the principle of the lever and the fulcrum in the 3rd century B.C., Archimedes wrote, “Give me where to stand, and I will move the earth.” John Paul knows where he stands.

Camille Paglia (review date 26 December 1994)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1379

SOURCE: “Pope Fiction,” in New Republic, December 24, 1994, pp. 24-5.

[In the following review, Paglia offers positive evaluation of Crossing the Threshold of Hope. According to Paglia, “Crossing the Threshold of Hope comes as a stunning display not of Catholic autocracy but of the ideological flexibility and rueful insight of the modern mind.”]

The pope speaks. But Crossing the Threshold of Hope is a peculiar document. Each chapter opens with the journalist Vittorio Messori's questions, sometimes bold and querulous, sometimes obsequious and honorific in the Italian way—“Allow me to play, although respectfully, the gadfly.” The pope then replies at length, his reflections moving impressionistically from the philosophical and theological to the historical and autobiographical. The didactic structure of Catholic catechism is thus reversed. During preparation for the sacrament of confirmation, for example, the preceptor asks, and the novice answers. But in John Paul II's book, the ultimate authority figure of church hierarchy submits to interrogation, a warping of tradition typical of a man whose kissing of airport tarmacs has dramatized his conviction that the pope is the servant of humanity.

I approached the pope's book as an atheist for whom Italian Catholicism is a rich ethnic identity rather than a religion. Catholic doctrine, particularly regarding sexuality and obedience to authority, has been troublesome to many members of my generation in America, and John Paul's reputation has become increasingly conservative. Thus, Crossing the Threshold of Hope comes as a stunning display not of Catholic autocracy but of the ideological flexibility and rueful insight of the modern mind. Its complex sequence of wide-ranging meditations—on prayer and salvation, the existence of God, the uniqueness of Jesus, the permanence of suffering, the overcoming of fear through faith—establishes John Paul as an eloquent and erudite intellectual, struggling to bridge the gap between universal human longings and the bitter political realities of the twentieth century.

In literary terms, the voice of the book is intense and powerful, yet peculiarly distant and exalted. All hierarchs suffer the isolation of power. Reaching us from stone walls of the labyrinthine Vatican, Crossing the Threshold of Hope resembles prison literature, in which physical immobility and sensory deprivation seem to intensify an author's power of language and originality of imagination. John Paul's captivity by rigid, royal protocol gives this book a distinct and affecting air of loneliness.

The former Karol Wojtyla, whose name honors his predecessor, John Paul I (who fused the names of his predecessors, John XXIII and Paul VI), has suffered an obliteration of personal identity in his higher function, the almost unimaginable burden of his election as pope, whom millions regard as the single living human closest to God. Hence the text oscillates between the first and third persons, sometimes in the same paragraph. “I,” who privately takes pen in hand, had a father and homeland, but “he,” the Supreme Pontiff on public view, is a nearly abstract being, the successor to Saint Peter, whose apostolic mission came from the lips of Jesus himself. It is a harrowing, mutilating privilege. Take this surreal example:

As a young priest and pastor I came to this way of looking at young people and at youth, and it has remained constant all these years. It is an outlook which allows me to meet young people wherever I go. Every parish priest in Rome knows that my visits to the parish must conclude with a meeting between the Bishop of Rome and the young people of the parish. And not only in Rome, but anywhere the Pope goes, he seeks out the young and the young seeks him out. Actually, in truth, it is not the Pope who is being sought out at all. The one being sought out is Christ who knows “that which is in every man” (cf Jn 2:25), especially in a young person, and who can give true answers to his questions!

Wojtyla, the long-ago aspiring priest, melts into John Paul, the venerable Bishop of Rome, commander of many priests, who in turn swells into the world-traversing pope. But like a ghost, the latter suddenly vanishes into the Divine Being, Christ, whose vicar he is on earth and whom like all celebrants of Mass he literally impersonates in the Communion service (hence the ban on female priests). The passage is eerily chameleonic.

After the nihilism of poststructuralism and game-playing postmodernism, it is a relief to find the history of ideas treated in so respectful, cohesive and luminous a way. Studded with emphatic italicized phrases, the pope's book radiates with passion. Its central plot line, sketched with disarming simplicity, is a “struggle for the soul of the contemporary world.” The dramatis personae in this Faustian combat are both living and dead. On one side is René Descartes and his modern progeny, Kant, Hegel and Heidegger. One hundred years after Descartes, John Paul asserts, European Christianity was already defeated: the French Revolution “tossed crucifixes in the street” and introduced “the cult of the goddess Reason.” Today's Cartesians are the atheists and moral relativists of the “intellectual elite” who rule “the worlds of science, culture and media.” On the other side are the warriors for Christ, beginning with Saint Paul, whose failed missionary visit to Athens illustrated the resistance of those trained in Greek “philosophical speculation” to the faith-based rigor of Christian “mystery.” On the eternal battlefield of Western thought, Descartes' greatest opponent is Saint Thomas Aquinas, the medieval theologian John Paul believes to be unjustly neglected by the contemporary Church. He groups with Thomas other members of the Scholastic tradition, leading to John Henry Cardinal Newman, nineteenth-century Catholicism's most glamorous convert. With each recitation of the Nicene Creed at Mass, Catholics align themselves with this ancient lineage, for the words of the Creed are “nothing other than the reflection of Paul's doctrine.”

The young are John Paul's hope. He writes feelingly of their needs and desires, of their “searching for the meaning of life.” Remembering the “heroism” of his contemporaries, who “laid down their young lives” in the Warsaw uprising of 1944, he laments the predicament of today's young. “They live in freedom, which others have won for them, and have yielded in large part to the consumer culture.” He asks, “What is youth?”—implicitly opposing the soul-centered Christian view to the pagan one. The Hellenophile Oscar Wilde, for example, celebrated the beauty of youth quite differently. It is this carnal strain in the West, heterosexual as well as homosexual, that John Paul protests when defining as unethical, and inconsistent with true love, the use of any person as “an object of pleasure.”

And yet his own style is remarkably in tune with ‘60s sensibility. With its slow, trancelike rhythms and breathtaking vision, Crossing the Threshold of Hope is nearly psychedelic. Its floating fantasia of ideas has the hallucinatory vividness of ‘60s expanded consciousness, calm, contemplative and psychologically disassociated. Its theater is hugely multicultural: John Paul makes Jesus confront Buddha and Muhammad and celebrates African and Asian animists for their sympathy to Christianity. Reopening staid establishment theology toward superstitious “populist piety,” he accepts testimony about mystic coincidences and apparitions, particularly of Mary at Fatima and Jasna Góra. He rightly praises Mircea Eliade for showing how world anthropology has healed the break made by the Enlightenment between intellect and religion. True multiculturalism reveres the sacred.

The pope's persona is beyond sex, as conveyed by the dazzling purity of his white cassock and skull cap. He is a father-mother of shamanistic androgyny, a caring, contemplative, emanating being whose inconvenient body is merely a sensual entrapment or, as now, a living proof of human vulnerability to disease and death. As with worshipers of Plato's male-favoring Uranian Aphrodite, the pope's ancestry and affiliations are of the spirit rather than the flesh. Hence in this book he seems on charmingly intimate terms with the evangelists Luke and John and with Jesus himself, whom he calls, in a nearly Protestant way, “the only Friend” who walks beside us and will not disappoint. Real women, unfortunately, exist for John Paul only as celibate heroic saints or as dimly hallowed mothers in the obedient image of Mary. Crossing the Threshold of Hope is a book of transitions and new directions, but like much of current Catholic policy, it remains confounded by the pagan paradox of gender.

Kevin Wildes (essay date 26 December 1994)

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SOURCE: “In the Name of the Father,” in New Republic, December 26, 1994, pp. 21-5.

[In the following essay, Wildes examines the importance of phenomenology as the philosophical framework of John Paul's Christian theology and teachings. According to Wildes, “Pope John Paul II has grounded the authority of Karol Wojtyla's modern phenomenology in the ancient authority of God.”]

Since the close of the Second Vatican Council, the Roman Catholic Church has struggled, in public, about how it should move: forward into the modern world or backward to the austere certitude of the past. In 1979, when an obscure Polish cardinal was elected pope, it seemed as if a decision had been made in favor of the past. And in the years since, the former Karol Wojtyla has been portrayed—with some reason—as an arch-reactionary. But he is, in fact, something far more complex than that. His theology, as it emerges in his life's writings, is strikingly modern, more rooted in nineteenth-and twentieth-century philosophy than anything else. Indeed, it may even be the very modernism of his theology that has led him into the ecclesiastical authoritarianism for which he is more renowned.

How this happened is an interesting twentieth-century story. Wojtyla's central philosophical identity is rooted in what is known as the method of “phenomenology.” This off-putting term translates into a relatively simple idea: it is that one can come to understand the truth of something not simply by reference to the authority of science, or revelation, or dogma, but by “moving around” it, experiencing it from different perspectives and letting the reflections of each perspective communicate the truth of the object.

The central metaphor of such philosophy is “walking around.” It is in this way that Wojtyla has consistently understood the Church. Amid dramatic changes, he has led it around and around its identity, traditions, central practices and beliefs. Hence also his constant travel around the world: it is part of his attempt to circle human experience, in the belief that there is an essential core that is normative for being human. That core is, for him, what defines authentic human existence. It is not a subjective matter, but a mission of objective discovery. In Veritatis Splendor, John Paul's recent encyclical on morality, he wrote, “The splendor of truth shines forth in all the works of the Creator and in a special way in man, created in the image and likeness of God.” The splendor of that truth can be found by a form of traveling, observing and circling. Theologically, in fact, Wojtyla hasn't led the Church forward or backward. He has led it in circles.

Wojtyla's philosophical interests began in his earlier priestly formation and doctoral work in theology. In his pre-seminary years, as a worker and university student in Krakow, Wojtyla came under the spell of the underground priest Jan Tyranowski, a hero of the Polish church during the Nazi occupation. It was Tyranowski who, in his bid to revive a deeper spirituality among Poland's persecuted Catholics, introduced Wojtyla to the work of Spanish mystics such as John of the Cross, a sixteenth-century Carmelite monk who, with Teresa of Avila, led the Carmelite order in reform.

Steeped in this spirituality, Wojtyla presented himself in 1942 to Archbishop Sapieha of Krakow as a candidate for the seminary. Four years later, he was ordained as a priest and immediately packed off to Rome for a doctoral studies in theology. The decision by Archbishop Sapieha to send Wojtyla was part of a plan to rebuild the Polish church intellectually after so many of its priests—more than 2,000—had been killed by the Nazis. In Rome, Wojtyla studied at the Angelicum, a college now called the Pontifical University of St. Thomas, and wrote his dissertation under the direction of Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange. Perhaps sensing the young priest's background, Lagrange directed Wojtyla to write on the problem of faith in the writings of John of the Cross.

The problem Wojtyla dealt with was that, in John's writings, faith seemed to lack any cognitive content. It was all mystical spirituality, no hard knowledge. But Wojtyla found both categories unsatisfying. Perhaps influenced by his early years in the political turmoil of occupied Poland, Wojtyla argued that faith was, above all, rooted in experience. In the experience of faith, the human being is transformed and participates in divine life. First highlighted in this 1950 treatise, The Question of Faith in St. John of the Cross, the importance of the category of experience came to be critical in all of Wojtyla's thought.

After his return to Poland, Wojtyla worked for a time in a parish. But in 1951, Sapieha, then a cardinal, insisted he work on a second doctorate, in order to qualify as a university teacher. This time, the thesis was on a less traditional subject. Completed in 1957, the dissertation's title is An Evaluation of the Possibility of Constructing Christian Ethics on the Assumptions of Max Scheler's Philosophical System.

Scheler was a phenomenologist who deployed Edmund Husserl's intuitive philosophy to discover a basis for ethics. Here, Wojtyla began to pin down exactly what “experience” could really mean. Scheler argued it was possible objectively to describe “ethical” states of consciousness. He claimed that many emotions—including those of moral values—had an objective basis, and that it was the objective attraction to the good—not the imposition of an “ought”—that moves us to moral action. But Wojtyla felt that Scheler's account of moral experience was insufficient, since moral experience is more than the experience of values: it is acting upon them. For Wojtyla, it was in the choice of action that all the various aspects of the moral life came together, that internal, philosophical experience and external moral experience intersected.

This concentration on action was in turn influenced by the work of Maurice Blondel, a turn-of-the-century Catholic philosopher who was best known, in his book l'Action, for exalting the role of the will. Blondel argued that philosophy must give an account of action rather than pure thought, an idea that recurs throughout Wojtyla's later work. In linking together the observation of objective moral values (Scheler) and the centrality of action in human morality (Blondel), Wojtyla had constructed the foundation of his ethics: the authentic, acting human person. This understanding of the person suggested not only how people ought not to be treated but also how they ought to be treated.

In his new book, Crossing the Threshold of Hope, Wojtyla explains his development this way: “So the development of my studies centered on man—on the human person—can ultimately be explained by my pastoral concern.” But it was also affected by his political experience. His emphasis on the person is, in part, a reaction to totalitarian regimes that impoverished the mystery of the person in order to control people by the mechanisms of mass, centralized societies. In the face of first Nazi and then Soviet tyrannies, Wojtyla stressed the unique richness of each person. But he also emphasized that the person becomes a person because of community. In an address in Canada in 1984 he argued that “the human person lives in a community. … And with the community he shares hunger and thirst and sickness and malnutrition and misery. … In his own person the human being is meant to experience the needs of others.” He refused to counter totalitarianism with the liberal individualism of the West.

An account of his view of the authentic nature of personhood came in his 1960 book, Love and Responsibility, in which Wojtyla deployed his phenomenonlogical method to pastoral ends. He argued that in the matter of love there are natural sexual desires and that “the natural direction of the sexual urge is toward a human being of the other sex.” The moral order builds upon the natural order and transcends it. He writes that “the commandment to love is, as has been said, a form of the personalistic norm. We start from the existence of the person.” The personalist norm “leads to the recognition of the principle of monogamy and the indissolubility of the marriage tie.”

In defending this position, he later wrote: “I formulated the concept of a personalist principle. This principle is an attempt to translate the commandment of love into the language of philosophical ethics. The person is a being for whom the only suitable dimension is love. We are just to a person if we love him. … Love for a person excludes the possibility of treating him as an object of pleasure. …; It requires more; it requires the affirmation of the person as person.” He goes on to say, “Above all, the principle that a person has value by the simple fact that he is a person finds very clear expression: man, it is said by Vatican II, “is the only creature on earth that God has wanted for his own sake.’” “Personhood” subsequently became a fixation. Wojtyla's next book, Osoba i Czyn, written in 1969 and republished and revised ten years later as The Acting Person, is devoted to the subject.

Throughout Wojtyla's intellectual development, the phenomenological framework is clear. Wojtyla as a theologian had not responded to modernity by retreating into reactionary certitude, or by reasserting dogma or a simple elaboration of Thomist natural law. He had explored belief with all the modern philosophical tools available. He brought to his faith the mysticism of John of the Cross, but had developed this with the thought of such modern thinkers as Blondel, Scheler and Husserl. Throughout, he was responding, as the Church was, to the fundamental problem of faith in a rationalist, amoral, scientific age. And like the Second Vatican Council, he did not seek to escape these facets of modernity, but to understand more fully their unique challenges to faith.

Truth was not simply a matter of revelation, or a blind leap of faith, or a self-evident product of nature. It was, according to Wojtyla, found by observation, observation as a reflection on all experience. It could be conducted from all sorts of angles; what seemed like contradictions—say the contradiction between faith and science—were actually different ways of looking at the same thing. Take the question of science's challenge to religious belief. Wojtyla, in a 1987 letter to Father George Coyne, director of the Vatican Observatory, saw science and religion forming “a community of interchange. Such a community of interchange encourages its members to expand their partial perspectives and form a unified vision.” What's more, “science can purify religion from idolatry and false absolutes. Each can draw the other into the wider world, a world in which both can flourish.”

But this remarkable openness had its problems, too. By relying on phenomenology, Wojtyla also suffered from some of its more obvious difficulties. What if the different appearances of something don't fit together? What if, instead of coherence and connection, we get chaos and disjunction? What if science actually contradicts faith? What, to take another example, if the Church had changed its own doctrines, contradicting itself? One strategy is to gloss over the dissonance. In Redemptor Hominis, the 1979 encyclical on changes in Church doctrine, John Paul simply asserts the continuity of the Church yesterday and today. In Dives in Misericordia, written about the mercy of God, there is no struggle between the teachings of the Old and the New Testaments, merely the statement that “Christ reveals the Father within the framework of the same perspective and on ground already prepared, as many pages of the Old Testament demonstrate.”

While Wojtyla assumes there is continuity, what happens when there is real conflict? In a world that is culturally diverse and morally pluralistic, it is not clear why men and women outside the community of believers should accept certain understandings of “authenticity” over others. Indeed, the development of practices such as free markets, limited democracies and informed consent are responses to pluralistic conceptions of authentic human experience. They are practices that convey moral authority when people hold different moral views. What did Wojtyla have in his arsenal to counter them? More important, what resources did John Paul have?

In the letter on ordination and women, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, for example, John Paul was forced to address an issue that Wojtyla the theologian had few resources to solve. Here, authenticity wasn't a good enough argument. After all, who was to say which notion of the priesthood was more authentic than another? A phenomenologist might look at priestly roles in the Church and in society, observe how other cultures and churches have found sacerdotal roles for women; or notice the correlation between some theological views of the symbolism of women and the pastoralism of the priesthood. But none of this is evident in John Paul's edict. He quotes Pope Paul VI who wrote, “The real reason [for not ordaining women] is that, in giving the Church her fundamental constitution, her theological anthropology—thereafter always followed by the Church's tradition—Christ established things in this way.” He simply lays down the law, arguing, it seems, that tradition is the primary way to decide what is authentic or inauthentic, what is true and what is false.

The truth is, phenomenology can only get you so far. A description of any phenomenon, no matter how objective, must start from somewhere. All descriptions embody certain presuppositions, biases and values of the observer. A visitor to a city may get two very different tours of the city from two separate friends. One friend may highlight the artistic centers of the city while the other may highlight the sporting attractions. Another still may notice its industry, or its architecture. The visitor is left with a question of how to determine which tour of the city reveals its authentic nature.

Wojtyla is aware of the problem, of course. His own writing provides an explanation of why there are such divergent interpretations of authenticity: human reason is limited while the phenomena of human existence are complex and rich. Without a common framework, accounts of authenticity will move in very different directions and reach very different conclusions. But who is to provide the common framework? The answer is not a surprise. When all else fails, Wojtyla appeals to the authority of revelation to pick out the normative account of humanity. And the arbiter of that authority turns out to be Wojtyla himself, in the person of the pope.

When talking to the world at large, John Paul II has simply invoked the authority of the Scriptures as interpreted by himself. This is certainly the strategy in his latest book. But the strategy was clear as early as 1979 in Puebla, Mexico, on a trip to meet with the bishops of Central America. In that meeting, John Paul proclaimed: “Faced with so many other forms of humanism that are often shut in by a strictly economic, biological or psychological view of man, the Church has the right and duty to proclaim the truth about man that she has received from her Teacher, Jesus Christ.”

Of course, this assertion of authority is not an innovation. But its stridency is notable. The irony is that when the phenomenologist Karol Wojtyla became pope, he simply asserted that the papacy's “authenticity” lay in its fiats. This turned out to be particularly true when the papacy addressed the internal matters of the Church itself. In these affairs, to be sure, the papacy has always exercised considerable authority. But this always has been in the context of many different levels of authority in its magisterial teachings. There are those teachings when the pope or Church council speaks ex cathedra or infallibly. This is the extraordinary teaching authority of the Church. There is also the ordinary papal magisterium, which, in principle, is open to development, change and reform.

But John Paul II seems to have created a new category of authentic papal teaching in both Veritatis Splendor and the letter on ordination. The claims made in those letters are not said to be infallible in a technical sense. Yet they are said to be regarded as definitive for all the faith and for all time. In the letter on ordination John Paul wrote that “in some places it [the ban on women's ordination] is nonetheless considered still open to debate, or … to have merely disciplinary force.” The implications of such views is that the ban can be changed. He goes on to write:

In order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church's divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf Luke 22:32) I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church's faithful.

The theologian Francis Sullivan had perhaps the most succinct response to this innovation: “I can only conclude that claims are being made which, to my knowledge, have never been made about any document of ordinary papal teaching.”

Anyone who deploys a phenomenological method must address at some point the problem of the circularity of the method. Every description is contextualized and relies on prior assumptions made by the describer. The describer must assume what is important to describe. Wojtyla's work does not escape this fundamental problem of phenomenology. It is particularly problematic for him when he encounters the pluralism and multiculturalism of many secular societies. Differences in cultures frequently signal different accounts over others. How can he break out of the circle? He does so simply by appealing to authority. And the more circular the reasoning, the cruder the authoritarianism.

In a public, pluralistic forum John Paul II has appealed to the authoritative content of God's revelation to say why some accounts are authentic and others are inauthentic. But within the Church, he has done something more radical. Throughout its life, the Church has contained a pluralism of spiritualities and interpretations of what it is to be authentically human and Christian. One has only to think of the different religious orders of the Church to find examples of different views of authenticity. In this context, John Paul II cannot rely on the authority of content since the revelation is shared by all believers. Instead he must appeal to the authority of office. It is by appeal to juridical authority that he must move to break the circle. Perhaps this is why, in what seems almost desperate fashion, the current pope has been making new and radical claims for papal authority, sometimes, it seems, each day. It is, after all, only God who enjoys the view from nowhere: the view without context or particularity. Only God escapes the circle of interpretation. In the last resort, perhaps, Pope John Paul II has grounded the authority of Karol Wojtyla's modern phenomenology in the ancient authority of God.

Peter Steinfels (review date 13 January 1995)

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SOURCE: “Surprising, Demanding, Impressive,” in Commonweal, January 13, 1995, pp. 21-2.

[In the following review, Steinfels offers positive assessment of Crossing the Threshold of Hope.]

Millions of people scarcely able to understand this book will purchase and peruse it. Other millions who could appreciate and benefit from its insights will spurn it out of hand. The reason is the same in both cases: the author is the pope.

Behind the widespread interest and best-seller status of Crossing the Threshold of Hope is the belief that it will reveal a “real pope” behind the official Vicar of Christ, a down-home Karol Wojtyla who will relax, invite us into his Vatican apartments, and tell us what he really believes, how he really prays, what really makes him tick, all in terms at once more intimate, more accessible, and yet more oracular than those of papal documents or Catholic theology generally.

The book utterly defies these expectations. In a world of precooked, nearly predigested, thought, the pope's performance is uncompromising. Although he knowingly set out to write for masses of devout or curious readers, by page 22 he is discussing “cognitive realism.” On that page and the three that follow, he cites Ludwig Wittgenstein, Aristotle, Plato, Kant, Aquinas, Paul Ricoeur, Emmanuel Levinas, Mircea Eliade, Martin Buber, and the Polish archbishop and thinker, Marian Jaworski, as well as the Gospel of John, the Book of Wisdom, and Saint Paul's Letters to the Romans and to the Ephesians.

My favorite passage of this sort occurs on page 51 where John Paul explains how Descartes “inaugurated the great anthropocentric shift in philosophy” and brought the world to “the threshold of modern immanentism and subjectivism”:

The author of Meditationes de Prima Philosophia with his ontological proofs, distanced us from the philosophy of existence, and also from the traditional approaches of Saint Thomas which lead to God who is “autonomous existence,” Ipsum esse subsistens. By making subjective consciousness absolute, Descartes moves instead toward pure consciousness of the Absolute, which is pure thought.

There may be a snobbish, morally dubious glee in imagining the impact of that passage on the kind of reader who picks up the pope's book from the “inspiration” shelf at the airport bookstore, where it was grouped with The Celestine Prophecy, Robert Fulghum, and Marianne Williamson. Yet it is justiably satisfying that the current successor of Peter takes it for granted that serious answers to serious questions demand not just piety and good will but also knowledge and intellectual effort.

However, those prepared and willing to make such an effort may find other obstacles blocking their appreciation of John Paul's book. One is the temptation to read it not for itself but as a source of clues to his papacy, its successes or shortcomings. Another is the obsequious manner in which Italian journalist Vittorio Messori frequently poses the questions that John Paul II answers in each of the thirty-five brief chapters that move from discussions of God's existence, the divinity of Jesus, and the problem of evil to non-Christian religions, contemporary youth, the fall of communism, immortality, human rights, women, and other topics.

Catholics honor and respect the pope primarily because of the office he holds, one firmly anchored in accountability to the church and its tradition. Only secondarily do Catholics focus on the pope's personal holiness, which may not equal that of the widow down the street (or, in some historical periods, the pickpocket down the street).

But Messori oils every difficult question with verbal prostrations that seem more suited to addressing an Eastern potentate or Hindu holy man. Messori's notion of “Vicar of Christ” seems closer to the popular Tibetan understanding of the Dalai Lama than to the Catholic theology of the Petrine ministry. In this respect, the conservative journalist is probably representative, as is the commercial success of this volume, of a reborn “pope cult” that flourished from Pius IX to Pius XII and that John XXIII and the Vatican Council had temporarily eclipsed.

John Paul, it should be added, adroitly parries much of what is most theologically offensive about Messori's abject and ingratiating exaltation of the papacy. He steers the journalist's evocation of papal titles back to a discussion of collegiality and ultimately of the calling of all baptized Christians.

The pope of this volume is not “inspirational,” although at times his observations are inspiring. His voice is very much the one heard in his encyclicals. It is the voice of a high-strung Polish intellectual, abstract, romantic, steeped in history, tempered by modern tragedy. His view of Christianity is heroic and baroque, dwelling not on the “little way” but on the grandeur and misery of humanity, on the extremes of joy and suffering, which are never far apart from one another in his reflections.

This is not the voice of John XXIII; it lacks the peasant calm, the sweetness, the earthy, self-deprecating humor. But who is to say that this is not a voice at least equally valid for the century of gulags and genocide, of global communication and probes into space?

Obviously Crossing the Threshold of Hope is not to be read as a treatise. When John Paul II is asked, “Does God really exist?” he is not going to say no, nor is he going to close the question definitively in a few pages. This is a book to be read for insights, perspectives, connections, formulations that spark meditation and enrich our understanding.

There is no shortage of these. In reply to the question, “If God exists why is he hiding?” John Paul, after a typical circling of the issue by way of Descartes, Aquinas, Catherine of Siena, the Book of Proverbs, Ludwig Feuerbach, the Gospel of John, and First Corinthians, proposes that the real problem may not be the hiddenness but the visibility of God. In taking on humanity and revealing himself in Jesus, God

could go no further. In a certain sense, God has gone too far! Didn't Christ perhaps become “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Cor. 1:23). Precisely because he called God his Father, because he revealed him so openly in himself, he could not but elicit the impression that it was too much. … Man was no longer able to tolerate such closeness, and thus the protests began.

For me that does not close the discussion. Maybe the problem is that God is both too hidden and too visible, the divine revelation in Jesus too obscured by confusing and contradictory human witness in both the Scriptures and the historical church. But the pope's formulation altered my framework of thinking.

In some cases, the interplay of question and answer is fascinating in itself. In one of Messori's more challenging moments, with a minimum of groveling (“Taking advantage of the freedom you have granted me …”), the interviewer asks, “did a God who is a loving Father really need to sacrifice cruelly his own Son?”

John Paul opens his response with what looks like apologetic intellectualism at its worst: “Let's begin by looking at the history of European thought after Descartes.” By the time the next question is posed, it seems that the pope, like a good politician, has completely evaded what has long haunted Jewish commentary on Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac as well as Christian soteriology.

Then, ten pages later, John Paul reintroduces the apparently evaded question himself in the context of the “great mystery of suffering.” His brief answer will not settle doubts, but it demonstrates his unwillingness to set aside the embarrassing and intractable paradoxes of faith.

Likewise, John Paul's comments on other religions, including animism, are at once frank and generous, highlighting both what divides and unites. One wonders, of course, whether his treatment of Buddhism and Islam would be different if it were informed by the personal contacts and experience that warms his understanding of Judaism.

He affirms many of the themes of Vatican II, of Gaudium et spes, of the Declaration on Religious Liberty, of ecumenism, of the church as a reality greater than its visible structure and organization.

John Paul's thought, whatever one may think of it, has always been profoundly Christocentric, and so is his reading of Vatican II: “The council is far from proclaiming any kind of ecclesiocentrism. Its teaching is Christocentric in all of its aspects.”

It is legitimate to ask how these views, expressed with passion, accord with the policies of John Paul's papacy. Historians may someday explore the oddity that a pope of romantic, heroic, Christocentric outlook should preside over the triumph of authoritarian, bureaucratic, and centralizing forces in the church.

But that would hardly be the greatest of ironies historians confront. Seldom in fact can one read recognized masterpieces of Christian thought without finding unpalatable opinions or recalling inconsistencies between the texts' profound sentiments and the more earthbound actions or circumstances that shadowed the lives of their authors.

It would be a shame if unhappiness with current Vatican actions, irritation at inflated claims of papal authority, suspicion of a gap between the pope's views and his policies, or simply impatience with the hoopla surrounding its publication kept readers from Crossing the Threshold of Hope.

Leo D. Lefebure (essay date 15 February 1995)

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SOURCE: “John Paul II: The Philosopher Pope,” in Christian Century, February 15, 1995, pp. 170-6.

[In the following essay, Lefebure examines John Paul's intellectual development and the philosophical underpinnings of his Christian theology. Lefebure contends that John Paul's rigid demand for Catholic obedience is tempered by his affinity for modern philosophical thought and belief in the sanctity of individual conscience.]

During World War, Karol Wojtyla was a member of the underground Rhapsodic Theater. He was in the middle of performing one of the most patriotic plays in Polish literature when the sound of the Nazi radio interrupted with news of a German victory on the Russian front. While loudspeakers proclaimed the triumph of Hitler's armies, the young actor intoned his lines all the more forcefully: “The night was passing over the milky sky, the rosy beams of dawn began to fly.”

At a time when some of his contemporaries fought in the Polish underground or joined in the uprising in Warsaw in 1944, Wojtyla pursued the quieter path of a seminarian. He was convinced, however, that literature, philosophy, theology and religious service could be weapons in the struggle for freedom. He would later look back on the war years and the sacrifices of his contemporaries: “I was a part of that generation and I must say that the heroism of my contemporaries helped me to define my personal vocation.

Nazis and communists might be defeated, but threats to human rights and life remained. The sacred dignity of the human person has remained at the center of Wojtyla's concerns. He has brought to successive struggles a deep religious fervor rooted in traditional Polish Catholicism, an intellectual background that includes two doctorates, and experience in a wide variety of roles. Before becoming pope he had been a poet, playwright, philosopher, parish priest, university professor and ecclesiastical prelate.

Wojtyla's life has never been free from conflict and controversy He has described his role as pope as that of being a “sign that will be contradicted. … a challenge.” He has been criticized by liberal Catholics and Protestants for demanding strict loyalty to traditional positions on ordination and sexual ethics, and he has been hailed by conservatives as the pope of “the Catholic restoration.” He has disappointed Protestant ecumenical leaders for his uncompromising stances, and he has aroused the ire of Orthodox Christians for his efforts to establish the Catholic Church in Eastern Europe after the fall of communism. John Paul is a complex figure whose thought escapes stereotypes; the effects of his pontificate will be many-sided. His recent writings—Crossing the Threshold of Hope, responses to the questions of Italian journalist Vittorio Messori, and As the Third Millennium Draws Near, his Apostolic Letter for the jubilee of the Year 2000—reflect his lifelong intellectual journey and his hopes for the future of Christianity. Whether one agrees with his positions or not, he is one of the few world leaders to possess a deeply considered religious and philosophical perspective on human existence.

As a theology student in Rome, under the guidance of one of the leading Thomist theologians of the day, Reginald Garrilou-LaGrange, Wojtyla a wrote his first doctoral dissertation on the meaning of faith in St. John of the Cross. St. John, the Mystical Doctor, taught the young doctoral candidate that the journey to God leads through the dark night of the soul, a time of deprivation and suffering. The dark night takes both active and passive forms. In this experience every natural ability of the person must be emptied so that God can accomplish a supernatural transformation of grace. Faith guides one through the painful process, even though this faith, in Wojtyla's words, “lacks all consolation and is without any light from above or below.” Faith continues to trust in God despite its inability to see. Wojtyla conceded that this is better understood by experience than by concepts. The dark night is also the time of love, and perseverance leads to rapturous union with God.

Though embracing the mystical theology which assumed faith in divine revelation and spoke to the community of believers, Wojtyla and his mentors knew that philosophical analyses of human action and ethics were of the utmost importance in the confrontation with communist theoreticians. To prepare for a university career in a communist society, Wojtyla studied the foundations of ethics in modern Western philosophy, writing his second dissertation on the phenomenology of Max Scheler (1874-1928). Scheler, who was for a time a convert to Catholicism, warned that moral relativism could lead modern culture into a barbarism made more dreadful because of technology. In response to this threat, Scheler adopted the descriptive approach of phenomenology. He proposed that ethics be based on the intuition of values as the objects of feeling. Scheler's style of thought was intuitive and introspective. He excelled at describing subtle states of consciousness such as sympathy, resentment, repentance, love and joy Scheler argued that these states of consciousness put us in touch with objective values. Defending the objectivity of values has absorbed Wojtyla throughout his career.

Phenomenology never displaced the Thomistic structure of Wojtyla's thought, but it has had a lasting influence on his way of thinking. The young Wojtyla doubted that Scheler's proposal could serve as a basis for Catholic ethics because the emotional intuitions of value lack the objectivity of revelation. Nonetheless, Wojtyla admired Scheler's ability to clarify lived experience, and he suggested that one could apply the phenomenological method of reflection to the experience of the believer in attending to revelation. Wojtyla's approach to the human person has been shaped by Scheler's emphasis on human personality and his intuitive style of reflecting on experience and values. The pope's recent encyclical, The Splendor of Truth (Veritatis Splendor), returns to some of these concerns and defends the objectivity of values against the threat of moral relativism.

As bishop, archbishop and eventually cardinal of Krakow, Wojtyla continued to lecture and write, and he became well known in phenomenological circles. While auxiliary bishop and docent at the Catholic University of Lublin, he authored a philosophical study, Love and Responsibility (Polish edition, 1960; English translation, 1981), that explores the ethical dimension of human love and sexuality. The work arose from concerns he encountered in his pastoral ministry, especially his work with married couples and with university students preparing for married life or celibate religious vocations. He sought to confront Catholic ethical teachings with concrete experience, and he insisted on the responsibility and dignity of the human person as the norm for sexual behavior: “The mill loves only when a human being consciously commits his or her freedom in respect of another human being seen as a person, a person whose value is fully recognized and affirmed.” Wojtyla warned against the self-deceptions of subjectivism and argued that self-giving love is the only dimension in which humans can truly affirm themselves and realize their full identity. Love is “the reciprocated gift of the self,” and it is genuine only if it includes responsibility for the beloved.

The conclusions that Wojtyla drew for sexual ethics were among the most controversial of his career. He argued that in human sexuality there is a complex, interdependent synthesis of two orders: the order of nature, in which sexual relations aim solely at procreation, and the personal order, which seeks the full expression of the love of persons. Wojtyla asserted that it would violate both the order of nature and the order of personal love to use artificial methods of contraception, and he cited Gandhi's Autobiography as a supporting witness. Precluding the possibility of conception, Wojtyla feared, would shift the focus of sexual expression to enjoyment, thereby violating the personal order as well.

The book attracted attention in Europe and was translated into Italian, French and Spanish. Pope Paul VI read the work while he was awaiting the report of the Papal Commission on Problems of Birth and the Family. Wojtyla's arguments against artificial contraception influenced Paul VI's decision to reject the recommendation of the commission, and Pope Paul used Wojtyla's thought in writing his encyclical Of Human Life (Humanae Vitae, 1968), which rejected artificial contraception. A growing bond between the pope and the cardinal of Krakow led to Cardinal Wojtyla's being invited to conduct a Lenten retreat for Pope Paul VI and the papal household in 1976.

Wojtyla continued to ponder the philosophical foundation of ethics, and became increasingly interested in understanding the human person who acts. His most important philosophical book, The Acting Person, appeared as Volume 10 of the Analecta Husserliana, the Yearbook of Phenomenological Research (Polish edition, 1969; revised and translated into English, 1979). Acknowledging his debt to Scheler, Wojtyla explored the meaning of conscience and the process of human integration and self-fulfillment in action. Through analyses of consciousness, conscience, will, subjectivity and self-determination, he argued that we realize ourselves most profoundly through our sense of obligation and our decision to love. While most of the discussion remains philosophical, the closing pages of the book probe the significance of the evangelical commandment to love one's neighbor as oneself in a world of alienation and dehumanization. In a world in which individuals are too often submerged in collective systems, Wojtyla insisted that love of the neighbor is the reference point and norm for participation in any community that is truly human.

As archbishop of Krakow during the 1960s and ‘70s, Wojtyla learned to act on the national stage, and he became adept at mobilizing the resources of the Polish Catholic tradition and the faith and enthusiasm of millions of Polish people in the struggle against communism. He honed the skills of confrontation and negotiation, being careful not to push the communist government too far but demanding concessions each time the communists desperately sought the Catholic Church's support for the struggling economy. The church in Poland grew strong through policies of strict discipline and determined opposition. Undergirding the political maneuvering was a profound philosophical and theological struggle over the meaning and value of human existence.

As pope, John Paul II's impact on the world stage has been enormous, and Time magazine's selection of him as the 1994 Man of the Year is only one mark of his influence. He has been called the most powerful pope in the political arena since Innocent III in the 13th century, and it has been estimated that he has been seen face to face by more people than anyone else in the history of the human race. The very presence of a pope from Poland changed the dynamics of power throughout communist Europe. In 1981 Jaroslav Pelikan commented on the significance of a Slav being the visible head of Catholic Christianity: “Remember Stalin asking how many battalions the pope had? Now the Russians know. What would Kosygin—may he rest in peace—or Brezhnev or any of those guys give to go into a East European country and have a million people spontaneously turn out to cheer? It must blow their minds. … Whatever the Russians do will be wrong. … Whatever they do, they're going to lose.”

But victory over established communism has not brought peace to Eastern Europe or the world. The new assaults on human dignity are in some ways even more painful for Pope John Paul II than the old: it was not Nazis or atheistic communists but Catholics in Croatia and Rwanda who actively participated in atrocities against persons of other ethnic groups.

The coming of the third millennium of Christianity has given a special focus to the pope's concerns, and he has declared that “preparing for the year 2000 has become as it were a hermeneutical key of my pontificate.” This sense of anticipation is reflected in Crossing the Threshold of Hope and As the Third Millennium Draws Near. While the two publications are very different in form—Crossing the Threshold is conversational, wandering from topic to topic; the Apostolic Letter is a focused call to action—they express a single purpose: to infuse new vigor into the age-old mission of the church to proclaim Christ to the world.

Central to the pope's preparation for the new millennium is the “new evangelization.” What is “new” in the task of evangelization involves both the contemporary context of the Catholic Church and a changed attitude toward those outside the church. In John Paul II's view, proclamation of the gospel demands both maintaining Catholic Christian identity and fostering dialogue with the world. While the concerns for identity and dialogue at times appear to move in different directions and give rise to certain tensions of thought and practice, they are inseparable in the pontiffs program.

In the pope's eyes, the greatest threat to Christian identity arises from the subjectivism, rationalism, relativism and indifferentism of much of modern Western culture as expressed by its philosophers and lived by millions of people who never read philosophy. Moral relativism is but one aspect of a broader relativizing trend which undermines the quest for the truth in any form. Cut off from metaphysical and religious foundations, all forms of culture risk being dissolved into forms of competition fueled by the will to power. In the struggle for the soul of modern culture, the dialogue with modern Western philosophy takes on a critical importance. The former philosophy professor is extremely critical of Descartes for seeking to ground philosophy in the human subject; he sees the fruit of this strategy in the later rationalism of the Enlightenment, which abandoned metaphysics, banished God from the world, and left humans to follow their own reason. In the French Revolution reason presided over the reign of terror. The search for freedom and pleasure divorced from responsibility has led to a culture of death in which the most vulnerable are made the victims.

While harshly critical of modern rationalism and positivism, John Paul is nonetheless warmly appreciative of philosophers who have a more complex relationship to modern thought. He cites with approval such philosophers as Emmanuel Levinas and Paul Ricoeur, both of whom have a more positive relation to the major figures of modern philosophy than the pope's teacher, Garrigou-LaGrange, would ever have tolerated. Ricoeur, for example, has a profound respect for the philosophy of limits of Immanuel Kant and for Kant's retrieval of the role of the symbol. Ricoeur invites Christians and secularists alike to a deeper appreciation of religious symbols as evoking more than can be captured in concepts. In welcoming Levinas's and Ricoeur's theories of interpretation as authentic retrievals of the profound meaning of religious metaphors and symbolic language, John Paul is at least implicitly opening the path to a more positive relationship to major elements in modern thought.

In As the Third Millennium Draws Near, the pope reaffirms the church's preferential option for the poor and commitment to work for justice, and proposes that the biblical tradition of the jubilee year be revived: the year 2000 could become a time of reducing or canceling the international debt that burdens poorer nations. He also welcomes broader movements in society that seek scientific, technological and especially medical progress, as well as efforts on behalf of the environment, peace and justice.

Within the Catholic Church, the pope's concern for safeguarding identity has led to strict discipline, an insistence on fidelity to received understandings of the truth of the gospel. John Paul II is acutely aware that many Catholics do not follow all papal teachings, especially in matters of sexual ethics. He publicly laments a “crisis of obedience” in relation to the church's teaching office. He has relentlessly demanded loyalty to papal and conciliar teaching and has been firm in rejecting alternative visions of Catholic belief and practice—as the censures of theologians Hans Kung, Leonardo Boff and Charles Curran have indicated. Even bishops are not secure. Last month Bishop Jacques Gaillot of Evreux in northern France was dismissed from his responsibilities as bishop because of his open challenge to the pope's teaching on abortion, the use of condoms, married priests and homosexual couples.

Nonetheless, the pope also shares the modern concern for religious freedom, and he is unequivocal in rejecting coercion of the conscience. His early philosophical studies deepened his conviction concerning the inviolability of conscience and the necessity of drawing people to the truth through their own free inquiry and judgment. In Crossing the Threshold of Hope, John Paul cites Aquinas: even an erroneous conscience that forbids one to profess faith in Jesus Christ must be followed. John Henry Newman once raised a famous toast: “To the pope, if you please—still to conscience first, and to the pope afterwards.” Newman insisted that conscience is the “aboriginal Vicar of Christ,” and that the pope cannot replace its role.

John Paul notes with approval that Newman placed conscience above authority. Quietly ignoring that in 1832 Gregory XVI condemned freedom of conscience as the “most pestilential error,” John Paul says that in exalting conscience “Newman is not proclaiming anything new with respect to the constant teaching of the Church.” The pope recalls with pride the Polish heritage of toleration of religious differences, at least among Christians. Passing over the country's history of anti-Semitism, he notes that in the late 16th century, when heretics were being burned at the stake, the last Polish king of the Jagiellonian dynasty refused to use violence, saying: “I am not the king of your consciences.”

Respect for conscience means that the “new evangelization” cannot proceed according to methods used in earlier centuries. Indeed, for John Paul II, Christians preparing for the new millennium need to acknowledge and repent for the many crimes committed in the name of Christ throughout Christian history. In his Apostolic Letter, he challenges Christians to mourn the past actions of Christians who suppressed the opinions of others, at times using violence “in the service of truth.” Even in recent years, he laments, Christians have supported totalitarian regimes that brutally violated fundamental human rights. The pope urges Christians to learn a lesson from such painful memories and cites the principle of Vatican II's Declaration on Religious Freedom: “The truth cannot impose itself except by virtue of its own truth, as it wins over the mind with both gentleness and power.”

The pope's concern for dialogue has opened up encounters unprecedented in the history of the papacy. Though he yields to no one in his insistence upon the centrality of Jesus Christ in the economy of salvation (he proclaims that Jesus Christ is “absolutely unique” among the religious leaders of the world), he also asserts “the common fundamental element and the common root” of the world's religions. Moreover, he cites with admiration and respect the work of the late Romanian historian of religions, Mircea Eliade, who argued that there are common patterns shared by the world's religions.

The pope recognizes that the struggle for human dignity and world peace challenges the world's religions to come together in prayer and dialogue. He has sought better relations with the Jewish community, and he may be the first bishop of Rome since Peter to visit a synagogue in Rome. In October 1986 John Paul II invited religious leaders from a wide range of traditions to come to Assisi, Italy, to pray for world peace. Jews and Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs and Hindus, representatives of traditional African and Native American religions, Shintoists and Jains all participated. Many popes have censured and condemned the teachings of theologians, often in far harsher terms and with more dire consequences for life and limb than Pope John Paul II has. No pope in the history of the papacy ever invited religious leaders from the world's religions, including the Dalai Lama, a figure traditionally revered by Buddhists as the reincarnation of the bodhisattva of compassion, to come to Assisi and pray.

Proclaiming Jesus Christ as the unique Savior of the world while also respecting the values of other religious traditions presents a difficult challenge, and the pope's comments on other religious traditions have not always been well received. This past December a conference of Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka protested against John Paul's description of their tradition as being “in large measure an ‘atheistic’ system” and offering an “almost exclusively negative soteriology.” In Crossing the Threshold of Hope, John Paul II ignores the central Buddhist virtues of generosity and compassion, as well as the long history of constructive Buddhist engagement in the world. Neglecting the positive signification of nirvana as the ultimate, the pope interprets nirvana as simply “a state of perfect indifference with regard to the world,” and presents Buddhist practice as solely a path of negative detachment from the world. He sees it as a first step that leads to the point where the Carmelite mysticism of love proposed by John of the Cross begins. Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka were angered by the pope's remarks and threatened to boycott his visit unless the remarks were withdrawn. Shortly before embarking for Asia the pope suggested there had been a misunderstanding, and he denied that he intended to portray Buddhism in a derogatory manner. But leading Buddhist monks were not satisfied, and they boycotted the meeting of the pope with Hindu and Muslim leaders.

While he clearly proclaims Jesus Christ as the one mediator through whom all salvation comes, John Paul also acknowledges that the prayers of other religions are genuine worship and are welcomed by God. In his remarks at Assisi, the pontiff commented on both the difficulty and the importance of diverse traditions coming together: “Certainly we cannot pray together, namely, to make a common prayer, but we can be present while others pray.” The presence of the pope at the prayers of other religious people expressed a profound respect for the genuine, grace-filled experience of God in other religious traditions. In his Apostolic Letter he expresses the hope of holding joint meetings with Jews and Muslims at sites of significance for all three traditions.

John Paul also admits that there are profound reasons that can hinder sincere persons from conversion to Christianity. In Crossing the Threshold, the pope praises the “deeply evangelical manner” of Mahatma Gandhi, a Hindu, and acknowledges the situation facing Gandhi: “Could a man who fought for the liberation of his great nation from colonial dependence accept Christianity in the same form as it had been imposed on his country by those same colonial powers?”

In considering the divisions among Christians themselves, the pope has firmly defended the traditional claims of Catholic Christianity, often to the frustration of partners in ecumenical dialogue. Nonetheless, he has also on occasion expressed a rather different perspective on those who directly reject his authority. In response to Messori's question about why the Holy Spirit permitted the historical divisions in Christianity, John Paul notes that sin was a factor in the divisions, and that the historical causes are well known; but he then speculates on “a metahistorical reason” for the differences. He wonders whether the full wealth of meaning of the gospel and of redemption in Christ could have come to light if it were not for such diverse paths. “For human knowledge and human action a certain dialectic is present. Didn't the Holy Spirit, in His divine ‘condescendence,’ take this into consideration? It is necessary for humanity to achieve unity through plurality, to learn to come together in the one Church, even while presenting a plurality of ways of thinking and acting, of cultures and civilizations.” This metahistorical perspective, the pope suggests, would be more in accord with the wisdom of God's providence. Thus the pope admits that the painful oppositions among Christians, including the rejection of papal authority itself, may well make an indispensable contribution to the unfolding of the gospel under the guidance of the Spirit.

As Time acknowledged, John Paul's is one of the strongest and clearest moral voices in the world. The strength of his convictions is clear, as is his will to lead a united Catholic Church in evangelizing the world. His own demand for respect for conscience and his invitations to dialogue call the church to a posture not only of proclaiming but also of listening. The pope remains a sign that will be contradicted. For one who follows a dialectical path of knowledge and action open to the unpredictable role of the Holy Spirit, differences of perspective may not be simply obstacles to be lamented but may be invitations to deeper reflection and prayer and hope for a unity in the Spirit that no one can foresee.

J. Bryan Hehir (essay date 19 May 1995)

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SOURCE: “Get a (Culture of) Life,” in Commonweal, May 19, 1995, pp. 8-9.

[In the following essay, Hehir offers analysis of John Paul's The Gospel of Life encyclical.]

John Paul II's eleventh encyclical, The Gospel of Life (March 25, 1995) is yet another testimony to a central conviction of this papacy, namely, that words and ideas are the crucial determinants of history. The reception accorded the most recent text demonstrates John Paul II's continuing ability to gain a hearing for his ideas, however different they are from prevailing cultural convictions. The New York Times devoted almost a quarter of the front page to a photo and story about the encyclical; Newsweek made it the cover story; European colleagues tell me the coverage there was extensive. All this occurred before the religious community began its detailed analysis in weekly and monthly journals.

The encyclical bears the pope's distinctive style, a biblically based meditation and argument about a broad range of controversial issues. The text exhibits the discursive, sometimes repetitive character of earlier encyclicals. The four chapters logically admit of a different order than one finds in the text. It seems to me that the first chapter, on threats to life, leads directly to chapter 3, a detailed argument about the defense of life in different circumstances. Chapter 2, the positive Christian vision of life, leads directly to chapter 4, building a culture of life.

Embedded in these four long chapters are a variety of arguments. The dominant character of the encyclical is its overarching moral vision. Cast in the cosmic categories of a “culture of death” contending with a “culture of life,” The Gospel of Life seeks to galvanize the witness of the church and to challenge ideas, laws, and policies which threaten human life in different but deadly ways.

The pope's classification of these threats to life can be divided into ancient, modern, and postmodern categories. The ancient threats, well-known, are rooted in the worst instincts of human nature and persist with a virulence which defies any conception that history is a constant march toward improvement. The ancient threats are poverty and hunger, war and genocide. From Central Europe to Sub-Saharan Africa, the ancient scourges—some the product of nature, others the result of human hatred—number their victims today in the millions.

The modern threats are more complex in origin and character. They are often rooted in the best instincts of human nature, in the quest for knowledge, the development of modern science, the expanding reach of technology. The modern threats characteristically are rooted in the qualitatively new power which modern science and technology have placed in human hands.

In the past fifty years, American society has split the atom, cracked the genetic code, and pierced the veil of space. We have also dramatically expanded our capacity for medical intervention in the final stages of life. Each of these developments has produced major advances in human knowledge, in applied technology, and in creating the culture of postindustrial society. Each of them also has demonstrated that technological innovation is not always accompanied by moral wisdom. Churchill's comment that the Balkans produced more history than they could consume finds an analogous application here. Technology—nuclear, genetic, medical—has its own logic, but it does not have its own ethic. From the first encyclical of his pontificate, The Redeemer of Man, John Paul II has focused on the issue of providing moral direction for science and technology as a dominant challenge for church and society. The pope never assumes a position of fundamental opposition to either scientific research or technological change; his concern is to place both within the identifiable limits of the moral universe.

This abiding interest in maintaining traditional restraints in the face of contemporary developments in science, technology, and politics reaches a new level of intensity and detail in The Gospel of Life when the pope turns to the “postmodern” threats to life. These are rooted not in what we can do but in how we think. Peter Steinfels (New York Times, April 1, 1995) accurately identified the principal objective of this encyclical: it is the pope's address to the culture of advanced technological societies. In one sense it is an attempt at dialogue, in the spirit of Vatican II's Gaudium et spes. But the tone is not entirely dialogical; in many passages it is a declaration, a lecture to the culture of societies which John Paul believes have lost their moral moorings. The postmodern threats are the pope's principal concern; they are well represented in two passages of the encyclical: “Choices once unanimously considered criminal and rejected by the common moral sense are gradually becoming socially acceptable. … no less grave and disturbing is the fact that conscience itself, darkened as it were by such widespread conditioning, is finding it increasingly difficult to distinguish between good and evil in what concerns the basic value of human life.”

This is the heart of the issue. The fundamental purpose of The Gospel of Life is to project a moral vision and to provide a structure of moral reasoning that will illuminate a direction for personal conscience, professional ethics, and public policy on questions threatening human life in this final decade of a very violent century. Neither the vision (chapter 2) nor the moral argument (chapter 3) breaks new ground; the power and value of the encyclical lie in its synthetic quality, bringing together broad themes and specific conclusions in the style of a Brandeis brief, projecting a definite viewpoint on a multiplicity of issues which are usually treated in isolation in our civil debates.

The pope's opposition to abortion reaffirms what has been said at every level of Catholic teaching; his case against euthanasia and assisted suicide is carefully drawn and summarizes traditional and recent teaching on topics which will be increasingly the focus of the “life debate” in American society. Even the well-publicized section on capital punishment amounts to a change in emphasis; the pope raises substantially the presumption against the state's right to take life in the name of domestic security. It is an important and welcome authoritative statement, but continues a pattern of reasoning used by the American bishops and others for the past fifteen years.

The encyclical combines, therefore, a powerful moral vision, a traditional moral argument, and an urgent call to personal and social conscience. How will it be received? The answer depends on three large arguments which the pope enters and which can only be identified here and must await further commentary. First, an internal issue in Catholic social teaching; John Paul II addresses his case to the church and civil society, but it is a case made almost exclusively in terms of biblical imagery and theological reflection. Unlike John XXIII's moral appeal to civil society in Peace on Earth, John Paul calls upon all to enter the rich symbolic discourse of the Scriptures to find direction for moral choice. There is a tension here between this vision and secular pluralistic culture which the encyclical never acknowledges.

Second, the heart of the pope's appeal to civil society is his discussion of law and morality. His position is a classical statement that civil law and policy must reflect moral law, even if they cannot simply replicate it. But John Paul's vision of how much civil law can do in postindustrial societies is very expansive. In many ways his proposals are exactly what one would expect from a magisterial document. But they do not struggle with the conditions which Catholic politicians, administrators, and professionals face even if they are wholly convinced of the moral vision of The Gospel of Life. We will need to hear from the practitioners on this topic.

Third, John Paul continues in this letter a theme found in Centesimus annus (1991) and Veritatis splendor (1993). He distinguishes the political institutions of democracy from the cultural context of democratic societies. He endorses the first more decisively than any pope in the Catholic tradition. He finds much less to support in the culture. There is much to criticize in the cultural presuppositions of postindustrial society, but the dynamic of politics and culture requires more attention than even this long, welcome encyclical provides.

John O'Neill (essay date June 1995)

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SOURCE: “Intrinsic Evil, Truth, and Authority,” in Religious Studies, Vol. 31, No. 2, June, 1995, pp. 209-19.

[In the following essay, O'Neill examines the argument for intrinsic evil and moral authority in Veritatis Splendor. Though supporting John Paul's view that some acts are intrinsically evil, O'Neill objects to the pope's claim to “epistemological authority.”]

Pope John Paul's recent encyclical, Veritatis Splendor, addresses itself beyond its immediate audience in the Catholic Church to ‘all people of good will’. While my Catholic friends assure me that the Catholic Church is one club that once entered can't be left, I assume myself to be in the wider audience: I write here as an atheist and one still happy to be called a Marxist, both condemned in the document. The paper is not written, however, from a position of hostility to all in the document. My aim in the first part of the paper is to defend one claim in Veritatis Splendor, that some human acts are intrinsically evil, and to relate that claim to another central thought of the document, that one should live in truth. I outline two versions of the idea of living in truth and suggest why the Thomist position defended in the encyclical is to be preferred. In defending the claim that some acts are intrinsically evil, I am not endorsing the specific claims about which acts are intrinsically evil, in particular that claim which, in media coverage of Veritatis Splendor, was construed to be one of its main messages, namely that contraceptive practices which intentionally render the sexual act infertile are intrinsically evil. Indeed one problem with that claim is that it trivializes the otherwise prima facie plausible Vatican II list of intrinsically evil acts that precedes it. Even contentious members of that list, for example abortion and euthanasia, have a recognizable moral seriousness that the question of contraception lacks. However, the problem with John Paul's reaffirmation of Paul IV's teaching on contraception is that it misdescribes a particular act, not with the claim that there are intrinsically evil acts. More generally, the claim that some acts are intrinsically evil can be defended independently of any theological position. The first part of the paper provides such a defence of the position.

In the second section of the paper I outline where, as a part of the wider audience addressed, I have difficulties with the encyclical. I refer here to the authoritarianism of the document. The problem lies not with the concept of ‘authoritative teaching’ as such. All teaching presupposes some form of epistemological authority. It lies rather in the way that the document defines such authority in a way which is incompatible with one precondition of it, that is, reasoned dialogue.


To assert that some acts are intrinsically evil is to affirm the Pauline principle, that it is not permissible to do evil that good might come of it (Romans 3:8). To affirm that principle is to deny consequentialism: there are acts one ought not to perform even if their consequences are good or even the best. That denial of consequentialism is quite independent of how what is intrinsically good is characterized: it rules out for example not just classical utilitarianism, and its modern ideal and preference-based versions, but consequentialist reasoning employing traditional Christian characterizations of the good. One reason that Catholic teaching remains influential especially in the sphere of medical ethics is that it offers a theoretically grounded opposition to the consequentialism that dominates discussion. What I want to do here is link it with another powerful set of objections to consequentialism which might at first sight seem distant from the Catholic tradition.

An objection to consequentialism which has informed a great deal of recent discussion of the doctrine is that it fails to respect personal integrity. The objection is developed by Bernard Williams, in part, through the example of George, an unemployed chemist of poor heath, with a family who are suffering in virtue of his being unemployed. An older chemist, knowing of the situation tells George he can swing him a decently paid job in a laboratory doing research into biological and chemical warfare. George is deeply opposed to biological and chemical warfare, but the older chemist points out that if George does not take the job then another chemist who is a real zealot for such research will get the job, and push the research along much faster than would the reluctant George. Should George take the job? For the consequentialist, given any plausible account of the good, the right thing to do is obvious: George should take the job. That will produce better consequence both for his family and the world in general. However, to do that would be to undermine George's integrity. He must treat his own projects and commitments as just so many desires to be put into the calculus with others.

It is absurd to demand of such a man, when the sums come in from the utility network which the projects of others have in part determined, that he should just step aside from his own project and decision and acknowledge the decision which the utilitarian calculation requires. It is to alienate him in a real sense from his actions and the source of his action in his own convictions. It is to make him into a channel between the input of everyone's projects, including his own, and an output of optimific decision; but this is to neglect the extent to which his actions and his decisions have to be seen as the actions and decisions which flow from the projects and attitudes with which he is most closely identified. It is thus, in the most literal sense, an attack on his integrity.

This objection to consequentialism, that it fails to respect an individual's integrity, has import outside any merely theoretical arguments of philosophers. It has its counterpart in the practical world of political conflict, most notably in Havel's defence of living in truth in his essay ‘The Power of the Powerless'. Thus, to take Havel's example, a greengrocer puts up in his window each day a slogan ‘Workers of the World Unite’, not because it expresses an ideal he holds and which he wants others to know and share, but for a quiet life, because if he refuses he and his family will be in trouble. In doing so he lives a lie, and Havel argues that what he calls ‘post-totalitarianism’ (I'm not sure why the ‘post’ is pre-fixed, but then it's a rather vacuous pre-fix in all its recent uses) is a society whose foundation lies in its members colluding in acts in which they live a lie. Hence, for Havel, its vulnerability to those who live in truth: ‘Let us now imagine that one day something in our greengrocer snaps and he stops putting up the slogans merely to ingratiate himself … His revolt is an attempt to live within the truth.’ While Havel's justification for this revolt occasionally slips into a consequentialist mode, it is a gamble to produce desired results, the thrust of his argument is anti-consequentialist. The prevalence of utilitarian modes of thought represents one of the ideological buttresses of living a lie. Against it Havel invokes an ethic of integrity. To live within the truth is to live in accordance with one's basic beliefs, to refuse the unwillingness of the consumer-orientated ‘to sacrifice some material certainties for the sake of their own spiritual and moral integrity’, to refuse to be ‘alienated from themselves’, to live an ‘authentic existence’. The concepts invoke a picture of the individual who refuses in her acts to live against her own commitments, even if the consequences are for the worst. To have integrity is to live in accordance with that one believes to be true. It is to live in truth.

How might the consequentialist respond? Both chemist and greengrocer are open to a consequentialist temptation that might undermine the claim that there is in consequentialism something incompatible with integrity. Consider the chemist. Surely, like the older chemist, the consequentialist might tempt the agent in terms of his or her own commitments: ‘Look, if you are really opposed to chemical weapons, you want to do all you can to stop their development, and that's best achieved by your taking the job. That is what it is to be committed to opposition to them.’ What can George say? I think if he is to retain his integrity he has to resist the consequentialist temptation: he has to say something like: ‘Even if that is true, I don't want to be the kind of person that could do that. Regardless of the consequences, I won't collude with that with which I am opposed. I refuse to engage in making chemical weapons. There are some things I simply won't do.’ The consequentialist temptation is corrupting of integrity because it will not allow an agent to refuse to perform some acts, in virtue of the kind of act it is alone, an act of doing research on chemical weapons, of murder, of torture, and so on, regardless of actual consequences or the desire to realize such consequences. But to say that, that there acts of a kind that one simply won't perform, is to affirm the Pauline principle: there are acts I cannot permit myself to do, even though I believe, in my own terms, that they will produce the best outcome. The Pauline principle is built into the concept of integrity. If integrity is to be possible then the Pauline principle has to be accepted.

Why should integrity be of such basic value that it can override consequentialist reasoning? There are two influential, but very different forms of justification that might be offered. One justification of that position is that of the virtues ethic. Both integrity and its Pauline presupposition have their basis in an ethic of virtues. Integrity is of basic value, which cannot be overridden by consequentialist considerations, since one believes that primitives of ethical appraisal include about the excellences of character, the virtues. There are acts I cannot do as such, because I do not want to be the kind of person that can do them. To hold a virtues ethic is to take the question ‘what kind of person should I be?’ to be primitive in ethical deliberation. Integrity is a central virtue, because it is a condition of having others. As Williams notes, it is closely related to the Socratic concept of courage as the virtue concerned with having a sense of what is important and staying firm to it.

A second and very different justification is that of a pure ethic of authenticity which is based on a strong sense of individual moral autonomy, a sense that individuals are the authors of their own values. There is no moral authority beyond the individual, each individual is the author of her ethical beliefs, and, given that this is true, the only basic value one can assert, true of every agent from her own perspective, is that they have integrity. One demands that individuals live authentic lives, that they be true to their own beliefs and desires, whatever they be, that they refuse to engage in acts of ‘bad faith’.

Veritatis Splendor is of interest in part because it represents an encounter of the older virtues tradition with the modern ethic of authenticity. And I think the latter is rightly characterized in the encyclical as a modern variant on the Romantic version of an ethic of conscience. And again, while one might differ on specific ethical claims, the position of the Thomist virtues ethic does provide a well-founded criticism of any pure ethic of authenticity. Whatever the general truth of the doctrine of the unity of the virtues, it is true that integrity is only a virtue amidst virtues. Thus, consider the story told by Williams re-written from the perspective of the zealot for the chemical weapon. Would integrity or authenticity be a virtue? Authenticity is the last quality one would hope the zealot possessed. The sooner he is tempted to betray his beliefs for a comfortable job in advertising the better. Likewise, if Havel's greengrocer is an unrepentant fascist, who since 1945 has been untrue to his convictions for the sake of a quiet life, one might hope he continued to do so, that he live a lie, that he eschew an authentic existence, that anti-semitic slogans fail to appear in his window in place of those required of him and he does not refuse to serve Jewish customers. While a lack of integrity or failure of authenticity might be a fault, it does not follow that integrity or authenticity is a good; and inauthenticity and a lack of integrity might save both agent and victims from much worse. Integrity or authenticity is a virtue only in good company, in particular the company of good ethical judgement.

To live in truth is not merely to live in accordance with what one believes to be true, but involves a responsibility to discover what is true. Authenticity is a virtue only given good ethical judgement, and that concept presupposes it makes sense to distinguish what I believe is good and what is. The subjectivist foundations of the pure ethic of authenticity needs to be rejected.

[I]t is always from the truth that the dignity of conscience derives. In the case of the correct conscience, it is a question of the objective truth received by man; in the case of the erroneous conscience, it is a question of what man, mistakenly subjectively considers to be true. It is never acceptable to confuse a ‘subjective’ error about the moral good with the ‘objective’ truth rationally proposed to man in virtue of his end, or to make the moral value of an act performed with a true and correct conscience equivalent to the moral value of an act performed by following the judgement of erroneous conscience.

With this rejection of a subjectivist account of ethical reasoning, I have no disagreement.


Where then does disagreement exist? It exists over different kinds of claim: (I) on substantive claims about what it is for a person to lead a good life; (2) on epistemological claims about the proper criteria for accepting the truth or falsity of propositions about what it is to live a good life. Differences on the first set of claims would require a book unto itself. Differences on the second set of issues do warrant further comment.

The defence of moral realism in Veritatis Splendor, and the corresponding rejection of ‘relativism, pragmatism and positivism’, is associated with a reassertion of hierarchical authority:

While exchanges and conflicts of opinion may constitute normal expressions of public life in the representative democracy, moral teaching cannot depend simply upon respect for a process: indeed, it is in no way established by following rules and deliberative procedures typical of democracy. Dissent, in the form of carefully orchestrated protests and polemics carried on in the media, is opposed to ecclesiastic communion and to a correct understanding of the hierarchical constitution of the People of God. Opposition to the teaching of the Church's Pastors cannot be seen as a legitimate expression either of Christian freedom or the diversity of the Spirit's gifts. When this happens, the Church's Pastors have the duty to act in conformity with their apostolic mission, insisting that the right of the faithful to receive Catholic doctrine in its purity and integrity must always be respected.

That passage is worth quoting in length in virtue of the strength of the anti-enlightenment view of reason in moral matters that it expresses. The passage is not aimed against anti-realism about ethics, but against an account of the right epistemological criteria for the acceptance or rejection of a putative ethical truth. It is instructive to set beside it Kant's classic statement of the nature of the enlightenment:

Enlightenment is man's emergence from his self-incurred immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one's own understanding without the guidance of another. The immaturity is self-incurred if its cause is not lack of understanding, but lack of resolution and courage to use it without the guidance of another. The motto of the enlightenment is therefore: Sapere aude! Have courage to use your own understanding … For enlightenment of this kind, all that is needed is freedom. And the freedom in question is the most innocuous form of all—freedom to make public use of one's reason in all matters. But I hear on all sides the cry: Don't argue! The officer says: Don't argue, get on parade! The tax-official: Don't argue, pay! The clergyman: Don't argue, believe!

Kant in thus defining the enlightenment is not here claiming that every individual is the author of their morality. His concern is rather with the epistemological conditions under which an individual can be said to have good grounds for a moral belief. Right moral belief emerges from the public use of reason, and an individual's grounds for a belief must be that it has been tested against public argument. John Paul, by contrast, asserts an epistemological authority of a hierarchical kind, in which public argument is rejected, and the believer's right is that of receiving doctrine untainted by controversy. While public controversy is allowable outside of the church, it is understood simply as political principle required for ‘representative democracy’. It is not a necessary epistemological condition for right moral belief: the proper process is a hierarchical one.

Is there anything to be said for the epistemological authoritarianism defended by John Paul? A case might be made of a negative kind. There is a problem with the Enlightenment view defended by Kant that forms the strong epistemological core of conservative political thought. The problem is that any person who relied simply on his own understanding would understand very little. Any process of education, be it in the sciences, the arts, in language or in morals depends on the acceptance of the authority of others. There is a sense in which all teaching is authoritative and all learning requires some deference to an authority:

The acceptance of authority is not just something which, as a matter of fact, you cannot get along without if you want to participate in rule-governed activities; rather, to participate in rule-governed activities is, in a certain way to accept authority. For to participate in such an activity is to accept that there is a right and a wrong way of doing things, and the decision as to what is right and wrong in a given case can never depend completely on one's own caprice.

Take science, the model of rational activity for the enlightenment. One learns science from school to university by practising standard cases of good experiment, adopting exemplars of good inference and theory, and accepting correction from an authority when one goes wrong. Such epistemological authority is not a luxury that one could do without, preferring one's own understanding: one can only exercise one's own understanding given authoritative education. Failure to do so when one enters some practice like science involves no lack of courage: it is a requirement which must be followed if one is ever to be in a position to exercise epistemological courage against received opinion. To dare to refuse to believe any opinion on authority takes not courage but foolhardiness. It is only when equipped with good judgement and belief born of authoritative education that the question of courage arises, and enlightenment could conceivably be its result. Moreover, the conservative notes that acceptance of epistemological authority is not something that can be done in abstract: the authoritative way of doing something is necessarily embodied in the practice and teaching of other human persons, who, for all their fallibility, are the only way into a practice. Thus goes the conservative argument, and the case is a powerful one.

Let us grant that conservative case. Does epistemological authority thereby rest in a hierarchical form of organisation, as John Paul assumes? Or is there something that can be rescued from Kant's enlightenment view? I believe that a more sophisticated version of the Enlightenment position can be rescued, and it is not clear indeed that the Kantian passage quoted above is not compatible with that position. Consider the imperatives discussed by Kant: ‘I hear on all sides the cry: Don't argue! The officer says: Don't argue, get on parade! The tax-official, Don't argue, pay! The clergyman: Don't argue, believe!’ Even given the conservative's defence of epistemological authority there is a powerful point to be made here. Given an imperative ‘Do X’ there are two kinds of answer that might be made to a response ‘Why?’: (1) because I am your officer, your tax collector, your clergyman, paying you, etc.; (2) because it would be the right thing to do, the best thing to do, because it is a valid inference, etc. The first set of responses make essential reference to the individual's occupancy of a particular institutional position or status. If it turned out that the individual did not have that position, or that the addressee was not within the range of the person's institutional authority, that for example the officer was addressing a civilian or a general, then the imperative is infelicitous. On its own terms there is no backing for its authority. The second set of responses are not of this kind. They make no essential call on institutional positions of authority, but, rather, on standards independent of institutional positions and status. The felicity of the speech act calls only on impersonal standards. A feature of the imperatives that Kant criticises is that they are the first institutional kind. Their felicity is essentially founded upon institutional authority, not on any standards independent of those positions. I take it that part of Kant's point here is that to defer to the beliefs of another, to believe simply in virtue of a person's institutional position is never defensible. A person's status, wealth or power is never good reason to defer to their judgements: to do so is mere sycophancy. The only good grounds a mature individual has for deferring to the judgements of other persons is that there are good reasons to believe that they meet standards independent of those persons.

This is true even where, as in the case of a teacher, their institutional authority is called upon. Consider, a mathematics teacher who in an exasperated moment in the classroom, when faced with students who argue with what she says: ‘Look this isn't the time for argument; for the moment take it on authority, and later you'll be able to see why your objections can be met.’ In all teaching there is a time and place for making a claim on authority, for saying something like ‘Don't argue, believe’. However, the grounds for the deference to authority in that context will be one that is independent of the institutional position of the individual as such. It is because she has the position she has in virtue of publicly recognized competences that one has good reasons for the temporary silencing of one's dissent.

The root of a great deal of modern relativism lies in a refusal to recognize the difference between authority grounded solely in institutional position and authority grounded in standards independent of such positions. There is a widespread anti-enlightenment view that all epistemological authority is simply a disguised way of enforcing social power. That view cannot be sustained. The very statement of it is difficult, since on its own terms it must itself be interpreted as an act of power: it denies the very conditions for there to be utterances critical of unjustified social power. However, reading Veritatis Splendor it is possible to detect a similar identification of epistemological authority and social authority. The distinction between social authority and epistemological authority is nowhere clearly drawn and the defence of epistemological authority often appears to be primarily aimed at the reassertion of hierarchical authority. To the question ‘why should I believe P?’ the answer looks like ‘because I, the pope/church pastor, tell you so’: hence the rejection of dissent.

It might be objected that this judgement is too harsh. The Catholic tradition in which the papal letter is written does recognize the distinction between authority that is backed by standards of reason and authority that is not. Both the distinction and the use to which it is put are ancient ones that are, for example, recognized by Augustine: ‘with regard to the acquiring of knowledge, we are of necessity led in a twofold manner: by authority and by reason. In point of time, authority is first; in order of reality, reason is prior.’ While in learning sometimes one must first accept a proposition on authority since that is a condition for coming to a position to understand it, reason is ultimately prior. The object of learning is to arrive at propositions justifiable by standards of reason, and which the learner can recognize as such. Nothing in the papal defence of ‘the right of the faithful to receive Catholic doctrine in its purity’ entails a conflation of epistemological and social authority.

This response does not yet fully resolve the differences between the revised Kantian and papal perspectives on epistemological authority, although it does clarify where the differences ultimately lie. They concern the conditions a community of inquiry must possess in order that authority be accepted at all. The point is again one that is recognized by Augustine: ‘Authority demands faith, and prepares man for reason. Reason leads on to knowledge and understanding. But reason is not entirely useless to authority; it helps in considering what authority is to be accepted.’ A mature individual needs reason to decide to which authority deference is justifiable. This point provides I believe a way of rescuing the core of Kant's position.

The sophisticated defender of the enlightenment position might accept that the public use of one's reason might not always and everywhere be appropriate: there may be occasions in which deference to authority is justifiable. However, one needs some reason to believe that the practice in which authoritative teaching is made is itself in order. Justifiable deference to epistemological authority is possible only if one has grounds for believing the authority in question could be redeemed in public argument. Deference would be quite improper if no public use of reason is possible even at level of those competent and, hence, that the doctrines in question could not be subject to the scrutiny of competent peers. Where the possibility of public dialogue and argument is absent one has good reason to believe something is amiss. A practice that allows only opinion untainted by dissent is not one in which authoritative utterances could be redeemed, and hence is not one in which deference to authoritative judgments is justifiable.

It is at this point that the Kantian defence of public reason does have power against the position asserted by Pope John Paul. The encyclical defends a silencing of internal dissent, and insists on ‘the right of the faithful’ to receive doctrine without the stain of controversy. Now whatever one thinks of modern theologians—and I find it difficult to take seriously those among them who combine anti-realism with religious belief—an institution that insists on a hierarchical power to silence dialogue and to state what is to be the ‘pure’ doctrine which the faithful are to receive lacks those marks which would make deference to authority rational. Here of course problems arise in particular for those ‘people of good will’ outside of the Catholic church to whom the document addresses itself. Specific problems of religious authority are at stake. The papal position relies on the possibility of authority beyond reason—that of revelation—and the claim to represent that authority. In Augustinian terms ‘the authority of the mysteries’ over-rides ‘the circumlocution of disputation'. However, even given that specific background, which is unlikely itself to move the outsider, there is a problem. Augustine adds a qualification that the papal document lacks: ‘but human authority is often deceiving'.

Human authority is never more deceiving than when it is self-deceptive, and self-deception is never more likely than when an authority fails to admit the possibility that it is sometimes in error. A central virtue of moral realism is that it is a condition for accepting one's own views can be mistaken—that one's beliefs about the good may be wrong. Hence, combined with the virtue of intellectual humility, it allows space for being corrected. Correction, however, requires openness to public dissent. The strong social authoritarianism of the papal document undermines the conditions for correction of belief. Hence, it undermines the grounds for claims on others to defer to its putative epistemological authority. The document defines its epistemological authority in a way that is incompatible with one necessary condition of any proper instance of it, that is, reasoned dialogue.

Desmond Sullivan (essay date September 1996)

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SOURCE: “The Pope and Christian Unity,” in Contemporary Review, Vol. 269, No. 1568, September, 1996, pp. 135-8

[In the following essay, Sullivan examines John Paul's advocacy for reconciliation within the Christian Church. “While proclaiming, fearlessly, his office as successor of Peter,” writes Sullivan, “John Paul II has personally … shattered most of the post-Reformation arguments and obstacles to Christian unity.”]

There was considerable disappointment among many ecumenical Christians that the Pope did not use the occasion of his visit to Germany—where the Reformation began—to make any memorable pronouncement on Christian unity. Yet three letters did come out of Rome last year from, I think, the personal pen of John Paul II, which have astonishingly contradicted our media-controlled view of the triumphalism and superstar quality of the present Pope. Such is the potential impact of these documents that it seems that the present Pope has used his unique position to release ecumenism and lay wide open the future role and position of the historic papacy.

The three documents are: a letter on Christian unity called Ut Unum Sint; a letter to the Churches of the East called Orientale Lumen; and the third his famous millenium letter Tertio Millenio Adveniente. (Their texts can be found in L'Osservatore Romano of 2 May, 25 May and 10 November 1995.)

While proclaiming, fearlessly, his office as successor of Peter, John Paul II has personally with gentleness and precision shattered most of the post-Reformation arguments and obstacles to Christian unity. The best way to picture this breakthrough is the image of the Bishop of Rome, in penitential stance, kneeling at the threshold of the new millenium trying to lead his own to become a church in need of reform—‘semper reformanda’—facing the rest of the churches with the plea that ‘Peter’ being ‘once converted could confirm his brethren'. He, in the name of Peter, may once again in truth and love no longer be an obstacle to the dying wish of the Saviour ‘that they may be one'.

The approach of the millenium seems to exercise his mind, for he too has not many years left. In his letter on unity he stresses that the final wish of Jesus at the Last Supper was to pray to the Father that they may be one. His life so far has not achieved much here, perhaps; this urges him to risk all to break down the barriers to unity.

Martyrdom too has a fascination for the current successor of Peter. He has himself shed his blood in an attempted assassination in 1981. He writes that martyrs, in the East and in the West, were believers in Christ; united in following his footsteps, the martyrs cannot remain divided, and he asks for the churches to have a common list of martyrs to celebrate in unity so that we will respect each other's martyrs for a change, for ‘they profess together the same truth about the Cross'.

In a similar way he expresses love and veneration for the fidelity, example of Christian teaching, integrity and spiritual heritage of the Churches of the East. Recalling the many mutual exchanges of visits with those in communion with Constantinople, with Moscow, and with the Oriental churches he rejoices that this unity in faith and sacraments and friendship proves the reality of diversity within unity as a hallmark of catholicity.

Often the world-wide tours of John Paul II, as seen on television, appeared to be embarrassingly populist and almost un-Christ-like. The Pope reveals that behind all the public fuss there has been very direct and serious meeting of Christian minds. For he shows in his letter on unity that he has made it his duty to visit, in friendship and in real dialogue, the leaders of churches and other religions in every one of the countries he has visited.

It is quite touching for us in England to read, in this regard, of his visit to Canterbury in May 1982. For it was an earlier bishop of Rome who called on the young Augustine to go to that far away land and bring into the fold of Christ the Angels of those lands and to found the see of Canterbury. John Paul II recalls, with some emotion and affection, his visit to Canterbury, his prayer for unity with the Archbishop and the love and respect for ‘those elements of grace and truth and the work of the Holy Spirit in the Church of England’. He was, I believe, the first Bishop of Rome to visit this see founded at the request of his own predecessor.

Travelling has certainly broadened the mind of John Paul II for he lists the positive fruits which he has observed over the years of the Ecumenical Movement. He wisely notes that this, as a modern Movement, stems directly from the missionaries of the ‘Churches of the Reformation’, and humbly affirms how his own Church came only very late to the movement. He wants to make up for lost time. He therefore enumerates some very real lessons for his own Church.

For example, he says his own Church must get rid of some of the pet ideas of ‘Church', some of the false impressions left with them by their ancestors in the faith. Such notions that outsiders have no hope; that we must be hostile to dissenters: many of these ideas have become ingrained as a result of the hostilities arising from the Reformation period or from the fortress mentality of recent years. John Paul affirms that the Catholic Church has preserved unity for two thousand years, and most of the Church was united for the first thousand years, when East and West, Celts and Romans, all were in one Church. However, recently we seem to have rejoiced in our dividedness, and in so doing have hidden the face of Christ like a smashed church window. From this perspective, towards the end of this millenium, ‘both sides are to blame'. He cites the infidelity of some Church leaders, of some priests, the faults of members, the sins and betrayals, weaknesses and mediocrity of her children. Even so there are many shared values, beliefs and areas of co-operation.

These kinds of remarks and the tone of sorrow, the asking for forgiveness and the mood of penitence has got the ageing Pope into trouble. The Catholic press, so ‘loyal’, has not much reported these kinds of statements. Even Cardinals have expressed in public their rejection of the mood of admission of guilt, or of any faults from the past!

From all his experience of travel, of looking at history and an awareness of the urgency of his age and of the age of the world, John Paul II has tried to charter a new way through on his own initiative in an area that few others would dare to go.

Then, after bravely recognising the shared common heritage of many things in the churches, he calls for ‘honesty, truth and integrity'. Fancy words, phrases and grand statements of doctrinal committees must not risk ambiguity and false irenicism. Each of us must approach dialogue as a move to our own personal ‘conversion'. The fruits of dialogue must also become the common heritage of all Christians and not remain remote theological propositions. There are, he writes, five major problems at the present time:

1. the relationship between Scripture and tradition,

2. the Eucharist as a sacrament, as a sacrificial memorial and the Real Presence,

3. the ordination to the threefold ministry,

4. the magisterium of Pope and bishops as properly understood in relation to Christ,

5. the Virgin Mary, as Mother of God and as Icon of the Church.

But there is one other problem. This brings us to the nub of the question of unity and to the core of this letter from the Bishop of Rome. During his many travels and visits John Paul has been hit by a paradox: people of all churches, faiths, religions and countries have shown him great respect and have affirmed his undoubted world-wide influence. At the same time these very people have made it very clear that for many Christians his very office ‘constitutes a great difficulty: it has, over the centuries, built up many painful and hurtful recollections, stemming sometimes from personal sins, from structural sins and many non-religious factors.’

In his letter on unity John Paul says we must re-examine our painful past, purify past memories, the mistakes made, the factors involved in our deplorable divisions and we must pray for each other and seek our own personal conversion and repentance and the reformation that is necessary for achieving mutual respect for the diversity of our different spiritual heritages, both in the East and in the West.

As a first step John Paul wishes to give a lead and in a spirit of repentance on behalf of his own church he personally asks, in this letter and during his visits, for forgiveness from those countries he visits. The traditional stance of Rome in this matter has been to refrain from any admission of mistakes. John Paul has abolished this stance. The traditional view in Rome was for strict uniformity. John Paul, following the second Vatican Council, has on the contrary, affirmed true Catholicity is diversity—diversity of culture and of spiritual heritage. The old stance was against structural change—or any change. John Paul has refused any change in teachings, but wants to examine the way we express our teachings. He has affirmed that: ‘reading the signs of the time’ he sees a ‘new situation’ has arisen. He tells us that he has received many requests from the churches begging him to find a new way of exercising his personal office as a successor of Peter, a way which is open to this new situation in his own and in all the churches. He realises that often in the past ‘for a great variety of reasons and against the will of all concerned what should have been a service sometimes manifested itself in a very different light’. The Pope then says ‘To the extent that we are responsible for these, I join with my predecessor Paul VI in asking forgiveness.’

He goes on to say ‘After centuries of bitter controversies, the other Churches and Ecclesial Communities are more and more taking a fresh look at this ministry of unity’.

Here, I think, we have a clear contemporary example of Newman's teaching about the development of doctrine. A new situation with pressure from below and above has given rise to the development of aspects, in this case of the role of Peter, which have been obscured and lay for so long hidden, but are now appearing as an authentic interpretation of Scripture and tradition. The old doctrine is then seen in a new light.

So it is that John Paul says: I want as Pope to start this re-examination of the role of Peter. I want this to be done in the light of Christ's word, his wish and prayer for unity. Many aspects need to be examined: doctrinal, disciplinary, social, historical and political considerations surround this task. The Bishop of Rome says ‘I cannot do this by myself’. He wants to accede to the many requests from around the world and from different churches. As unity cannot be achieved by one church alone, he calls on the bishops and theologians of all the churches to set about this examination. He hints that the turn of the millenium would be a good target!

Such a profound declaration from a Pope carries one's mind back over the centuries in search of such a precedent in the history of the papacy. No wonder commentators have been shy about it. They seem to have chosen to ignore it. John Paul, in a very moving remark, writes: ‘This is an immense task, which we cannot refuse and which I cannot carry out by myself.’ He proposes that ‘leaving all useless controversies behind, keeping only the will of Christ before us let church leaders engage with me in a patient dialogue on this subject and be moved only by that plea of Christ “that they may be one so the world may believe that you sent me”.’

As St Luke records the role of Peter is not ‘the exercise of power over people as the rulers of the Gentiles and their great men do but as leading them to new pastures.’ He sees the new idea, or the original idea of the Bishop of Rome with all the other bishops (he calls them too vicars of Christ) as a college of pastors keeping watch so the true voice of Christ may be heard in all the particular Churches.

For these reasons he says ‘I insistently pray to the Holy Spirit to shine His light upon us, enlighten all the Pastors and theologians of our Churches, that we may—together, of course—seek new forms in which this ministry may accomplish a service of love recognised by all concerned.’

The challenge to all the Churches is really put clearly. Are we willing to give up our pet ideas, our inherited prejudices, even our concept of church in order to become that church which Christ so earnestly prayed for? The Pope quotes, significantly (and perhaps biographically) the words in Luke's Gospel about Peter that he will have to ‘strengthen his brethren when he has been converted’ (Luke 22, 32). Of this, Peter's conversion, Pope John Paul II writes: ‘It is as though the Master especially concerned Himself with Peter's conversion as a way of preparing him for the task he was about to give him in his Church.’

In a final plea Pope John Paul prays that at the dawn of the new millenium we will not refuse to implore the grace to prepare ourselves, together, to offer this sacrifice of unity.

Jonathan Kwitny (essay date 10 October 1997)

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SOURCE: “Neither Capitalist Nor Marxist: Karol Wojtyla's Social Ethics,” in Commonweal, October 10, 1997, pp. 17-21.

[In the following essay, Kwitny examines John Paul's contradictory affinity for Marxist revolution and free market principles as delineated in Catholic Social Ethics. According to Kwitny, John Paul endorses “class-conscious revolution,” though objects to “Marxism's subjugation of the individual human spirit … after the revolution.”]

Romuald Kukolowicz, now in his seventies, is the son of Polish Catholic intellectuals. In 1953, he was working as a clerk. At the time, Poland was firmly part of Stalin's Soviet empire. During World War II, Kukolowicz had done work as an underground printer. Some friends from those days, now students at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, approached him, raving about a young professor whose lectures on Catholic ethics and communism were inspiring and ought to be published. Did Kukolowicz know anyone who could do it?

Kukolowicz found an underground printer in Lublin. His friends arranged for him to pick up the manuscript from the professor—Father Karol Wojtyla—at a convent in Krakow. As the manuscript was typed, edited, and published, there were more meetings between Kukolowicz and Wojtyla, but little small talk. “When I saw him it was always [to discuss] what to publish and how,” Kukolowicz remembers. “It was a very strict conspiracy.”

Some 250 reams of printing paper were stolen by the members of this “conspiracy” from the state institutions where they worked. A World War II press was used that required each page be rolled by hand over a typed matrix. Kukolowicz calculates that his friends had to press some 112,750 sheets of paper separately to make the book. It was published in two volumes, the first in 1953, the second the following year, with only 200 to 250 copies in each edition—loose pages in an envelope, to be bound, if desired, by the recipient. Copies went to priests who taught students in all the major cities of Poland. “They weren't given [directly] to students because of the need for secrecy,” Kukolowicz says. “Police agents infiltrated the classes. If the security forces found such a book in your apartment, you would be subject to ten years in prison.”

The work, called Catholic Social Ethics, is nowhere described in Kalendarium (the official diary of John Paul II's life up to his pontificate) or any other available literature; Kukolowicz's is the only copy I have encountered. The Vatican confirms his story. To my knowledge, this is the book's first public disclosure, and it belies much that has been written in the West about Wojtyla in recent years portraying the pope as an ally of free-market Western politicians.

Bishop Tadeusz Pieronek, now secretary of the Polish episcopate but in 1954 a student in Wojtyla's social ethics course at the Jagiellonian, remembers being stunned to learn that Father Wojtyla had written a manual, several copies of which were passed around at the school. “It was impossible to publish a manual in those days,” Bishop Pieronek explains. “All printers were registered by the government. Even typewriters were registered, but authorities allowed you to type. The university had a library, but the books were not accessible to the average reader. You can't imagine how libraries looked. Till the 1980s, whole lists of books were banned.”

As a priest in the 1970s, Pieronek visited Cardinal Wojtyla for dinner and found parts of that old manual on a bookshelf in the dining room. “We learned about capitalism for the first time from Wojtyla's text,” Bishop Pieronek recalls. “He tried to explain each system.”

Catholic Social Ethics reinforces the notion that Wojtyla was a Thomist rather than a phenomenologist; it asserts at its inception that Aquinas's natural law “allows theories of ethics” to be stated with “scientific” precision. It also shows that by age thirty-three, Wojtyla had adopted unreservedly both the welfare-state economic ideas and the courage of Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, the Polish primate. No longer a novice or small-parish priest, Wojtyla instead marked himself in this book as a serious, innovative thinker with his eye on the world.

“The main task of the Catholic social ethic is to introduce the principles of justice and love into social life,” Wojtyla wrote in the first volume, on politics. Tracing economic history from feudalism to the industrial age, he endorsed the Marxist notions of a working class and a class struggle. But he stressed that class should be among a person's secondary loyalties. Primary was the family, the success of which depended on its “close cooperation” with the church and the state. “The nation, as the natural society, must be respected,” he wrote, but “the common good demands” a balance between “loyalty to the nation … and, on the other hand, avoidance of overzealous nationalism.”

Government had “a superior function” that was “very useful in achieving the common good of society.” Its power “comes directly from society, indirectly from God.” Wojtyla condemned “individualism,” a word that he and other European scholars used to refer to unregulated capitalism. “Individualism and totalitarianism,” he declared, “remain opposed to the principle of correlating the individual good and the social good, which Catholic ethics accepts.”

“Justice and love” must govern international relations as well, he wrote: “War is evil. It should be avoided even as a last resort to restore justice between countries, because it may result in even greater evil and injustice than it combats.” His statement on war went significantly beyond other current Catholic teaching, which allowed war if all else failed. Although many anti-Communists would later try to co-opt Wojtyla into their military policies, he condemned war unequivocally in 1953, even as a means to correct injustice, because he believed it tended only to create new injustice. (He did not, however, dispute Catholic teaching that violence could be used to repel violent attacks.)

In a chapter on Marxism, Wojtyla saw beyond the system that tyrannized his own life and into the issues that would later present themselves to him as pope. He wrote:

The relentless materialism in Marxism contradicts Catholicism, [which] sees man as spirit and matter in one, [and which] proclaims the superiority of the spirit. … Ethics is … the science of spiritual good, such as justice or love, that provides the material activities of human beings with specifically human values. This gives ethics primacy [over materialism] in economics or biology.

But, he added, “the goal of these thoughts is not to criticize Marxism entirely.” He explicitly embraced Marx's essential theory that “the economic factor … explains, rather substantially, the different facts of human history. … Criticism of capitalism—the system of exploitation of human beings and human work—is the unquestionable ‘part of the truth’ embodied in Marxism.”

In 1993, John Paul II would provoke mocking headlines when he criticized Poland and other post-Communist countries for accepting pure market economics from the West and thus abandoning the “grain of truth” in Marxism. Although many thought the pope was reversing himself, he was in fact using almost the same words he had used forty years before in class lectures and in his book, and had been using ever since.

Wojtyla separated Marx's analysis of economic exploitation, which he largely accepted, from Marx's solutions, which he rejected. “The Catholic social ethic,” he wrote in 1953, “agrees that in many cases a struggle is the way to accomplish the common good. Today … a class struggle … is the undeniable responsibility of the proletariat.” Not only is class conscious revolution compatible with Christianity, he argued; it is sometimes necessary to Christianity. What is incompatible is Marxism's subjugation of the individual human spirit to a grand economic design after the revolution.

In Catholic Social Ethics, Wojtyla set down rules for social struggle that are strikingly similar to those that would be enunciated less than a decade later by the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., in the United States. Wojtyla and King each believed the struggle should be aimed at persuasion, not at violent, Marxist-style upheaval. Wojtyla wrote:

Demonstrations, protests, strikes, and passive resistance—all these are means of class struggle that need to be considered appropriate. The struggle for rights, after exhausting all peaceful means … is a necessary act of justice that leads only to the achievement of the common good, which is the goal of social existence. …

It is clear that from the view of the ethical assumptions of the Bible, such a struggle is a necessary evil, just like any other human struggle. … It is also evident from the Bible that struggle itself is not the opposite of love. The opposite of love is hate.

A struggle in a specific case does not have to be caused by hate. If it is caused by social and material injustice, and if its goal is to reinstate the just distribution of goods, then such a struggle is not [hatred]. … Social justice is the necessary condition for realization of love in life. …

Many times Jesus Christ has proven that God's kingdom cannot be achieved in man without a struggle. … Achievement of social justice in one element of achieving God's kingdom on earth.

Wojtyla made a major distinction between revolution within a country and international war—though in some ways, the distinction seems paradoxical:

Revolution causes much more damage than war, because the unity of the natural society—the nation or state—is much greater than the international unity of humanity that gets torn in war. … Hatred for those who are close to us is much more dangerous and inflicts much more damage than hatred for people who are further removed.

Yet, war, he said, isn't permissible and isn't likely to improve conditions. Revolution, though best avoided, is permissible and can improve conditions:

Can the opposition that brings down [an unjust] government surpass all the damage that was caused by an armed struggle, and thus make the revolution ethically justified? The answer is yes. …

It can be accepted that the majority of the people who have taken part in revolutions—even violent ones—have acted on their convictions, in accordance with their consciences. …

Such a struggle is a necessary evil. Although it does not have to be an act of hatred … such a struggle undoubtedly provides an opportunity for acts of hatred. … One can hate negative characteristics of human beings. But one cannot hate the human being himself. …

Marxism … does not see any other way to solve the burning social issues. … Catholicism sees the possibility of solving … social issues by evolutionary means. The struggle of the oppressed classes against their oppressors becomes the stimulus for the evolution to proceed faster. …

The class struggle … grows stronger when it meets resistance from the economically privileged classes. Pressure from the class struggle should bring appropriate changes in the socioeconomic system.

Although Marxism saw struggle as inevitable and desirable, Wojtyla goes on, “Catholicism cannot accept struggle as the principal ethical dictate. … Regardless of all the factors that set people apart in society … there exist deeper factors that foster unity and solidarity.”

Wojtyla's biggest problem with Marxism, though, wasn't its advocacy of struggle but its opposition to the institution of private property. Grappling with this forced him to think through, perhaps for the first time in print, what Saint John of the Cross had said about material wealth. The question must have crossed Wojtyla's mind before: If Saint John, about whom Wojtyla had written a dissertation in Rome in 1948, had been right about abandoning physical property, why weren't the Communists right about it? The answer, Wojtyla decided, lay in distinguishing worthy ideals from practical possibilities. Marxism, he wrote, sought

a classless society. To achieve this order, one must get rid of private property because it is the only source of class opposition. …

While the church clearly sees and proclaims the need for reform of the socioeconomic system, it does not consider necessary a radical upheaval in attitude toward property. … The re-creation of the socioeconomic system may be achieved while maintaining the institution of private property, and should be based on the enfranchisement of the proletariat.

Wojtyla's rationale for private property differed from that of free-market theorists, and what he wrote about it makes for fairly explosive reading in the 1990s: “The church realizes that the bourgeois mentality, and capitalism with its material spirit, are contradictions of the Bible. According to the tradition of … monastic/religious life, the church also can appreciate the idea of communism. … Communism, as a higher ethical rule of ownership, demands from people higher ethical qualifications.”

After a subsection headed “The Objective Superiority of the Communist Ideal” (the text of which I was unable to obtain), Wojtyla noted,

At the present state of human nature, the universal realization of this [Communist] ideal … meets with insurmountable difficulties. Private property is suited to human nature. The goal that should be pursued is to achieve, in the system based on private property, such reforms as will lead to the realization of social justice. The class struggle leads to this. …

Revolution is not the doom of society, but at most a punishment for specific offenses in socioeconomic life.

Wojtyla wrote that “ethical evil is caused” not by those wishing to rebel but “by those factors of the socioeconomic system that have spawned the need for a radical movement.”

The second volume of Catholic Social Ethics was more specifically concerned with “rebuilding the economic system [and] defining the many moral obligations of owning and using property.” Its premise was: “Because private ownership of property is ethically good if the property is used appropriately, individual owners and especially the state should carefully watch its use.” Regarding labor, Wojtyla again rejected strict free-market doctrine, returning instead to the ideal of the Polish poet Cyprian Norwid (1821-83), that “work cannot be treated as merchandise.” Regarding capitalism, Wojtyla said,

An economic enterprise based on capital is ethically justified if it contributes to social prosperity. But if its main goal is to maximize the profit of the owner, then it is ethically wrong. …

The entire tradition and teaching of the church is clearly opposed to capitalism as the socioeconomic system of life, and as a general value system.

The exchange of goods complements the economic process. … Therefore it is ethically justified, like production, so long as it does not lead to unjustified, speculative profits. … A just profit depends on a just price for merchandise, which is determined by using an appropriate value theory. Determination of the price is a function of society. …

[Because] money … is very important in the socioeconomic process … the state should supervise monetary and credit policies for the good of the whole society.

Wojtyla said that collecting interest on loans “is ethically justified, given the current state of the world's economy.” But he said interest rates should be limited not by what the market will bear but by ethical considerations.

Wojtyla was very concerned with pay. “The profit gained from work in the form of compensation is the main factor in the just division of the income of society,” he wrote. And “the just solution to the problem of pay is the principle of family pay.” He has championed the “family pay” concept ever since, arguing that the size and needs of a worker's family should influence the amount of wages or salary. While this idea was somewhat Marxist (Marx said, “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs”), Wojtyla rejected the determination of compensation by need alone. “In determining family pay,” he wrote,

one should consider the economic state of the enterprise and of the whole country. An entrepreneur has a right to a reasonable, moderate profit, considering both his own work and his financial investment … for example, for renting land. …

The common good is best achieved when individual members of society evenly attain material prosperity. So we must strive to limit luxury and excessive wealth.

The society must use all ethical means to save its members from poverty and lead them to prosperity. Society should take special care of those in poverty.

Rather than allying him with market capitalists, these views ring closer to those of supporters of “liberation theology,” a Catholic movement that Wojtyla would later encounter in Latin America, which sought to redistribute capital. After several years of close reading of Wojtyla's published words as both priest and pope, I cannot cite an instance of his saying anything to contradict what he wrote in Catholic Social Ethics.

Michael Sean Winters (essay date 9 February 1998)

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SOURCE: “Old Faithful: John Paul v. Modernity,” in New Republic, February 9, 1998, pp. 16, 18.

[In the following essay, Winters discusses John Paul's opposition to Marxism, capitalism, and modern technological societies.]

In a country accustomed to one message and one messenger, the Pope's visit to Cuba is the stuff of high political drama, certainly a more provocative threat to Castro's regime than the Helms-Burton Act. For weeks now, the U.S. press has been buzzing with speculation as to whether the Pope may precipitate the fall of communism in Cuba—finally succeeding where generations of U.S. policy-makers have failed. After all, as Newsweek cheerfully notes, “this well-traveled Pope has crusaded with fervor against his old Communist foes.”

But make no mistake: while the Pope is happy to praise democracy, he is no champion of capitalist values out to slay the last defender of Marxism. In fact, as Castro has gleefully observed, the Pope “has done all his criticisms of communism. Now he's criticizing capitalism.” That's because John Paul is guided by a theological vision that is as hostile to capitalism as it is to communism. And while some high-profile neoconservative Catholics are content to celebrate the collapse of communism—and bask in the capitalist afterglow—John Paul is already retrofitting the arguments he used against Marxism and the Marxist-tinged liberation theologians of the 1970s for use against advocates of U.S.-style capitalism during the 1990s.

Though always more popular on U.S. campuses than in the barrios of Latin America, liberation theology was an ideological threat to John Paul's Christian vision. It borrowed heavily from Marxism in an attempt to equate the Christian gospels with the socioeconomic struggles of the poor. But John Paul's objection to the movement was never based on economic or geostrategic considerations. (The Catholic Church can live with shoddy economics and confused politics—the Vatican, after all, is in Italy.) Rather, John Paul argued that the “liberation” promised by liberation theology was inadequate because its conception of the human person was too limited. Marxism reduced the human person to a homo economicus. So, as Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete, a key theological ally of John Paul's in the attack on liberation theology, puts it: “What do we say to a man who is dying? That he should place his hope in the end of economic exploitation? When the Church ceases to be concerned with eternity, it ceases to be the Church.”

To the Pope, the capitalist, consumerist ethic of the West is just as unsatisfactory an alternative, since it also entails a reduction of the human person to its economic dimension. Thus, John Paul and his followers within the Church view capitalism's cold war victory over Marxism with ambivalence. They're glad to be rid of an alarming threat to Catholic principles, but unenthusiastic about the strengthening of what they perceive as a different—but equally serious—menace.

At a synod of bishops from North and South America held in Rome last autumn, a prevailing theme was anxiety over the extension of U.S.-style capitalism into the traditionally Catholic cultures of Latin America. Some bishops even used the term “invasion.” While praising the restoration of democracy throughout Latin America and acknowledging the free market's ability to break up the often corrupt oligarchies that dominate many Latin American economies, the bishops expressed dismay at capitalism's general disregard for individual suffering in the name of overall economic progress. They condemned economic models that ignore the needs of the poor. (After all, it's as dehumanizing to reduce a poor person to a mere statistic in an IMF austerity program as it is to lump him into the ranks of the faceless proletariat.) And most of the Latin American bishops at the synod endorsed John Paul's call for a severe reduction—if not outright cancellation—of the debt burden of poor developing countries.

The bishops' concern for the human impact of free-market policies also shapes their pronouncements in the United States. Recently, in both St. Louis and Los Angeles, the local bishops strongly opposed the selling of Catholic hospitals to for-profit conglomerates. As Roger Cardinal Mahony of Los Angeles explained, “the primary goal of health care delivery is not to generate a profit for shareholders; rather, it is a public asset to be directed toward the common good of the society.” Bernard Cardinal Law of Boston was even more blunt: “Business considerations should not take precedence over mission.” This may seem a naïve and ultimately unworkable position, but as Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk of Cincinnati explains: “We are pastors. We ask, ‘How does this affect the poor?’ Whatever the economic presuppositions, this is a question we can't stop asking.”

Despite its economic implications, John Paul and his bishops' critique of U.S. capitalism is fundamentally centered on cultural concerns. Specifically, the Pope worries about the free market's power to break familial and social bonds that may not be profitable but are nonetheless humane. In a recent statement, U.S. bishops pronounced this withering critique of modern culture:

In our country, the modern, technological, functional mentality creates a world of replaceable individuals incapable of authentic solidarity. In its place, society is grouped by artificial arrangements created by powerful interests. The common ground is an increasingly dull, sterile consumer conformism, so visible especially among too many of our young people, created by artificial needs promoted by the advertising media to support powerful economic interests.

How to rescue mankind from this bleak new world? A recurrent theme of John Paul's writings is the need for a new humanism to serve as the foundation of a new postmodern culture. This new humanism should not be confused with the humanism of post-Enlightenment philosophy. In fact, to John Paul, it is precisely the rationalist approach that is at the heart of the problem. For the “technological, functional” mentality he decries is rooted not just in capitalist or Marxist materialism, but in all modern, post-Enlightenment thought. The culprit here is not Karl Marx or Adam Smith but René Descartes! In short, the Pope's visit to Cuba is part not of a battle against communism but of a lifelong crusade against modernity itself. And that's a good deal more challenging than confronting Fidel Castro.

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