John Paul the Forgotten?

May 18, 2020, marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Saint Pope John Paul II. Karol Józef Wojtyla was born in Wadowice, a small town in the south of Poland, which was once a center of crafts in the eighteenth century. Its nine thousand residents were primarily burghers and farmers who lived in small houses and crowded apartments. From these very humble beginnings, Wojtyla overcame many adversities, including the Nazi occupation of Poland during World War II, to become a priest, bishop, and cardinal. Along the way, he earned doctoral degrees in philosophy and theology, and for a time occupied the Ethics Chair at Lublin University. He was elected to the papacy in 1978 and is credited with helping to bring down the Iron Curtain, opening the way for the liberation of Poland and other East European countries.

This philosopher-pope was also known as a prolific writer. Among his most noteworthy papal writings are three key encyclicals: Veritatis Splendor, Evangelium Vitae, and Fides et Ratio. When Pope Benedict XVI was elected as his successor in 2005, he declared that his personal mission was not to produce many new documents but to ensure that John Paul’s papal writings were assimilated because they are “a very rich treasure, the authentic interpretation of Vatican II.”

Despite Pope Benedict’s heroic efforts, however, those papal writings have not been assimilated by the Church. With certain exceptions, much of his work has fallen into relative oblivion. To some extent, this result is the inevitable fate for every former pope, as they are quickly forgotten by the faithful. Despite their theological depth and enduring relevance, John Paul’s writings will not be on the shelves in the bookstores of most Catholic universities nor find their way into the classroom.

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It is also fair to say that Pope Francis and most of the elite Vatican officials who surround him are lukewarm about John Paul’s theological heritage. In both subtle and explicit ways, they have sought to sweep away his theological legacy, especially in the field of sexual morality. When John Paul was canonized in 2014, Pope Francis aptly referred to him as the “Pope of the Family.” Yet, at the 2014 Synod on the Family, his extensive catechesis on marriage and family was largely ignored.

There was a deliberate effort at that synod to temper and soften the Church’s moral voice on these issues. Some “historical minded” attendees dismissed John Paul’s writings, such as Familiaris Consortio (an apostolic exhortation on the family), as “outdated” and in need of revision. But as John Paul’s good friend, the late Cardinal Caffarra, pointed out at the time, Familiaris Consortio provides a fundamental approach for thinking about marriage and family that can never be disregarded.

What is this approach presented by John Paul? When Jesus is asked by the Pharisees about divorce (Mt. 19), He instructs them to put aside all their casuistry and simply look at how it was “in the beginning,” with marriage as an indissoluble, fruitful union between man and woman who become “one flesh.” As the dogmatic constitution Dei Verbum asserts, the words of Jesus are “the source of all saving truth and all moral teaching” they are not subject to reconsideration and constant revision.

Similarly, during the recent restructuring of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family in Rome, some of John Paul’s most ardent and talented intellectual disciples were displaced by theologians holding unorthodox views on contraception and homosexual relations. Contrary to Humanae Vitae and Familiaris Consortio, one of the new faculty members has rejected the idea that the use of artificial contraception is an intrinsically evil act. He has also argued that, under certain conditions, same-sex couples can engage in sexual relations if this is the best way to live out a good relationship. Obviously, these teachings are at odds with the Christian vision of marriage—which, as John Paul explained, is marked by three essential properties: real unity, absolute fidelity, and fruitfulness.

These developments do not augur well for the Church. Its deepening amnesia regarding the former pope is regrettable, since he still has so much to teach Catholics who are committed to moral truth.

The one theme that gives coherence to John Paul II’s diverse writings is anthropology. The cultural nihilism and wrathful pessimism that plague humanity have worsened since John Paul’s death in 2005. This crisis is largely due to a flight from God and the transcendent order of truth and justice. When transcendence loses its vitality, people also rapidly lose a sense of identity along with their moral bearings. As John Paul writes in Evangelium Vitae, “when God is forgotten, the creature itself grows unintelligible” and “man is no longer able to see himself as ‘mysteriously different’ from other earthly creatures.”

Those who are beguiled by secularism’s pragmatic reasoning do not accept their divine origin or destiny. Instead, they blindly follow Heidegger’s dark vision that our origin and destiny remain obscure. We are beings that have been “thrown” into this world where we find ourselves on a solitary journey to places unknown. Moral authenticity is reduced to creative self-definition, and freedom is defined as spontaneity and open-ended possibility.

As an alternative to this bleak outlook, John Paul creatively retrieved the metaphysical, Christian humanism that is deeply embedded in Catholic doctrine. Contrary to his critics, John Paul did not disdain the social sciences. On the contrary, he recognized their place in Catholic intellectual life better than most. But he always wrote and spoke in the Church’s traditional language of metaphysics and theology. The erosion in the contemporary Church of metaphysical wisdom has greatly undermined the intelligibility of Revelation and obscured a proper comprehension of moral theology. Metaphysical presuppositions about the moral meaning of the body, reaffirmed in John Paul’s epic work, Theology of the Body, shield that theology from any accommodation to the errant principles that undergird the sexual revolution. The “metaphysical element,” he writes in Fides et Ratio, is necessary “to correct certain mistaken modes of behavior now widespread in our society.” Ethics must be grounded in a rigorous philosophical anthropology along with a metaphysics of the good that gives ethical reasoning its proper foundation.

A coherent anthropology affirms the intrinsic worth of all human persons, and the ground of that dignity is the soul. The soul’s radical capacities of will and intellect, which are expressed through the body, enable self-possession. This self-possession, which becomes evident in the examination of human experience, is expressed in two ways. First, the person has self-awareness—a conscious knowledge of himself as a subject, present to himself from within as the source of his own choices and projects. Second, a person possesses himself through self-determination because he has mastery or control over his actions. This power of self-determination, which is actualized by the will, enables the person to be responsible for both his actions and omissions.

Freedom therefore is the indelible mark of personhood, but authentic freedom aims at those intrinsic goods that fulfill us. Freedom also possesses a “relational dimension” because it seeks the true goods of marriage and friendship that build up communion and community. Truth is always the ultimate source of freedom, but only the truth of Jesus Christ can fully secure our freedom.

In Redemptor Hominis, John Paul writes that as the Second Vatican Council reflected on the mysteries of creation and redemption it penetrated to the “inward mystery of man.” He repeatedly invoked a key passage from Gaudium et Spes throughout his papal encyclicals and exhortations: “The truth is that only in the mystery of the incarnate word does the mystery of man take on light.”

“Christ, the new Adam, in the very revelation of the Father and His love, fully reveals man to himself and brings to light his most high calling,” John Paul continues. By focusing on the life of Christ, the “perfect man,” every human person comes to learn life’s deepest meaning: sacrificial love and self-donation. Imitating Christ, man “finds himself in the sincere gift of self,” since mutual self-donation brings us into a fulfilling communio with others and with God, imperfectly in this life, but perfectly in the next. In this striking formula from Dominum et Vivificantem, John Paul sums up the whole of Christian anthropology. Thus, revelation supported by metaphysical wisdom resolves the riddle of human existence and restores the moral order shredded by the forces of modern nihilism.

It should be evident from this sampling of his papal wisdom that the silence surrounding John Paul II in the Church since his death in 2005 has been deafening. But he continues to speak and inspire through his remarkable writings so long as we have the fortitude to listen and learn.

  • Richard A. Spinello

    Richard A. Spinello is Professor of Management Practice at Boston College and a member of the adjunct faculty at St. John’s Seminary in Boston. He’s the author of The Encyclicals of John Paul II: An Introduction and Commentary and The Splendor of Marriage: St. John Paul II’s Vision of Love, Marriage, Family, and the Culture of Life.

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