John Paul II: the philosopher pope – includes related article on the Catholic Church in China – Cover Story

Leo D. Lefebure

DURING WORLD WAR II, 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 whill 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 Woityla’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 Ill 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 11 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 11’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 Approaches, 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 11 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 11’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 11 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 11 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 been a misunderstanding, and he denied that e 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 knowledges 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 mall 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.

COPYRIGHT 1995 The Christian Century Foundation

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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