“I thank you…Amen”: The Theological Vision of John Paul II

The director of the Vatican press office, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, reported that before Pope John Paul II began to slip in and out of consciousness, he uttered the words: “I have looked for you. Now you have come to me. And I thank you.” The Vatican News Service reported that, on the following evening, the pope moved his right hand in a gesture of blessing and made a great effort to say a final “Amen.”

“I thank you.” “Amen.” The words epitomize the theological vision of John Paul II.

His words of gratitude were apparently intended especially for the young people who had gathered in St. Peter’s Square to pray for him and accompany him in his last hours, and his blessing was for the millions of faithful for whom he was pastor. But the words carry a valence of meaning that helps to weave the strands of his teaching into an integrated whole. “I have looked for you, Lord, and now you have come to me, and I thank you.” And again: “I have looked for you, Lord, in every human face—especially the face broken by suffering, the face disfigured by sin, the innocent face of the child, the face that cannot yet be discerned but is somehow truly and fully present already in the mystery of life’s beginning—and you have come to me, and I thank you.” Amen, or fiat: “So be it”—”Let it—life and death—be unto me according to your Word.”

The words express John Paul II’s abiding sense of being—of the whole of reality—as a gift from the trinitarian God in Jesus Christ calling forth gratitude. His theology should be viewed above all in terms of a simple return to the roots of the Christian gospel of love, of an attempt to retrieve the breadth and depth of this love anew in the face of the dramatic “signs of our time.” He returned faithfully to the sources of Christianity, not mechanically but organically, and the result was a fidelity that was creative.

As theologian Msgr. Livio Melina stated following the pope’s death, John Paul II made clear to us “that our time believes more in witnesses than in teachers and in teachers only when they are witnesses.” John Paul II’s theology truly reorients the enduring teaching of the Church, simultaneously in light of the Second Vatican Council and in the face of the global cultural situation.

Restoring God’s Place

We begin where John Paul II began: with the reality of God, that is, with Jesus Christ who reveals the Father’s love and who, in that revelation, reveals the meaning of man to himself. As is clear from his first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis, this dual revelation in Jesus of God and of man holds the key to John Paul ll’s vision of the Church and human culture. “The more the Church’s mission is centered upon man—the more it is, so to speak, anthropocentric—the more it must be confirmed and actualized theocentrically.” Indeed, the Holy Father insisted this organic relation between theocentrism and anthropocentrism is “perhaps the most important principle” taught at the Second Vatican Council.

John Paul II conceived the Father’s love above all as “rich in mercy.” As Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger—now Benedict XVI—stated in his funeral homily, the pope wrote in his last book, Memory and Identity, that the limit imposed upon evil “is ultimately Divine Mercy.” Reflecting on the assassination attempt, he said: “In sacrificing himself for us all, Christ gave a new meaning to suffering, opening up a new dimension, a new order: the order of love.” Always mindful of the unity of theology and witness, the Holy Father drew attention to a saint, Faustina of Krakow, as a special missionary of the meaning of this mystery for our time.

Consequently, John Paul II understood the most urgent problem of our time to be the death of God, in its practical as well as theoretical form. The materialism, utilitarianism, and cult of efficiency that he summed up in terms of the “culture of death” are a function finally of “the eclipse of the sense of God.” “By living ‘as if God did not exist,’ man not only loses sight of the mystery of God, but also of the mystery of the world and the mystery of his own being.” Ultimately, only “the blood of Christ, while it reveals the grandeur of the Father’s love, [can show] how precious man is to God’s eyes and how priceless the value of his life.” This is why John Paul II called for a re-evangelization—as distinct from merely moral rearmament or political reform—as the proper response to the current situation.

This loss of a living sense of God’s presence was not something measurable in the empirical terms of public opinion polls; the issue, rather, was whether God is truly alive in the workings of the culture, giving depth and form to its patterns of acting, thinking, making, and doing.

As John Paul put it trenchantly in Crossing the Threshold of Hope, “the twenty-first century [will] be the century of religion or it [will] not be at all.”

Mary and the Church

For the Holy Father, the purest reflection of God’s mercy was found in the Mother of God. It is she above all who shows the meaning of creaturely openness to God. Her fiat leads to the magnifying (magnificat) of God’s power on behalf of the weak and vulnerable, a power—paradoxically, a power-in-powerlessness that is most profoundly expressed in her giving birth to God (theotokos). John Paul stated that, in the order of holiness, the Marian dimension actually takes precedence over the Petrine: The sacramental-Petrine Church always presupposes an anterior Marian love.

Recuperating a rightful understanding of Mary within the reality of the Church was crucial for John Paul II’s sense of how a one-sided notion of the Church, as a hierarchical and clerical institution (Vatican I), was to be integrated into a notion of the Church as communio, a communion of persons (Vatican II), in a way that neither weakened the importance of the Petrine institution nor reduced the “People of God” to a democratic congregation.


John Paul emphasized the intrinsic dignity of the human person as perhaps no one else in our time. This dignity inheres in every individual in his reality as a creature and as an embodied spirit—a subject of intelligence and freedom.

Every individual person at once begins and abides in community: community with God and with other persons. The first such community in the created order is the “nuptial” community of man and woman. This community, in its dual unity that is fruitful, images the Trinity. It is in light of this that the pope characteristically insisted that the “the future of the world and of the Church passes through the family.” Furthermore, this community, in its imaging of God, is inclusive of the body. The pope thus spoke of the “nuptial” meaning of the body. The body is apt in its very physical structure to express the gift of self.

John Paul II’s understanding of the man-woman relationship as a dual unity was bound up with his distinct emphasis on the proper dignity indeed the “genius”—of women, which he understood in terms of an integrated, and not polar or fragmented, complementarity. Man and woman are not two halves making up a whole. On the contrary, each is all that the other is, differently.

In short, John Paul Il’s anthropology was not dualistic, as some critics have claimed. But neither was it a “unisex” anthropology, which would deny that the sexual difference is a natural difference, and in the end equate the sexual difference with ethnic, racial, or social differences. The pope’s view turns above all on his reading of the Genesis account of creation, which interprets the sexual difference, unlike these other differences, as fundamental in the human imaging of God.

It is his understanding of husband and wife as a dual unity that provided anthropological foundation for John Paul II’s affirmation, in the name of a gospel innovation, of a mutual submission of husband and wife—one rooted in the common submission of both to Jesus Christ. The pope’s sense of this mutual submission may perhaps be best understood by way of analogy to the ecclesial sense, in which he identified a mutual priority of the Marian dimension of the Church in relation to the Petrine, and of the Petrine in relation to the Marian.

We should acknowledge, in light of John Paul II’s emphasis on recovering the dignity of women in the way indicated here, that he has been criticized for the lack of a corresponding treatment of the dignity of men. In response, we should say that, just as the pope thought that the Petrine dimension was conceived in a one-sided (fragmented) fashion in the modern Church (Vatican I) and needed integration with the Marian dimension for there to be an adequate ecclesial communio, so did he judge that the masculine dimension had been emphasized in one-sided fashion in modern culture, and thus needed integration with the feminine for there to be an adequate domestic communion of persons. In any case, he provided profound elements for a theology of fatherhood in Dives in Misericordia and his play, The Radiation of Fatherhood.

The Culture of Life

John Paul II stated that “the Gospel of life is at the heart of Jesus’ message.” In Evangelium Vitae, he took up defense of the weakest and most vulnerable human beings, especially those at the beginning and end of life. At the heart of the culture of death is the loss of a sense of life as God’s gift, and indeed of freedom as “inherently relational.” The consequence is a tendency to treat life as man’s “exclusive property.” The respect, generosity, and service demanded by recognition of the person’s true dignity are replaced by the criteria of “efficiency, functionality, and usefulness…. This is the supremacy of the strong over the weak…. The values of being are replaced by those of having.” Suffering is “rejected as useless.” The body “is no longer perceived as a properly personal reality, a sign and place of relations with others, with God, and with the world.”

Within this context, John Paul II authoritatively reasserted Catholic teaching regarding the inviolability of innocent human life, condemning abortion and euthanasia, and strongly criticizing what he termed the “contraceptive mentality” that denies the integral meaning of procreation.

In light of the above, the pope acknowledged the apparent paradox in his affirmation of a continuing right to legitimate self-defense. Furthermore, though he emphasized that capital punishment should be “rare, if not practically nonexistent,” he did not condemn it in the absolute way in which he condemned abortion. There has been much controversy and confusion in this matter. At least two points need to be observed in interpreting John Paul accurately.

On the one hand, self-defense and capital punishment presume a situation in which life is no longer “innocent”—not in the sense that it no longer has worth in the eyes of God, but rather that the life in question has committed an injustice against which protection is necessary. For this reason, questions of just war and capital punishment can never be simply lumped together with questions of abortion and euthanasia. At the same time, John Paul II’s recuperation of the Christological roots of the dignity of the human person led him to tighten the conditions under which justifiable defense might be undertaken (which he judges to be almost never, in the case of capital punishment).

John Paul II’s teaching in Evangelium Vitae indicates the significant way in which today’s problems are cultural before they are political. For this reason, George Weigel, in his biography of John Paul II, is right: Wojtyla, in his pastoral role as priest and archbishop in Poland, saw that an authentic Christian culture would not be kept alive through the manipulation of political structures. What was needed, on the contrary, were vibrant ecclesial and familial communities that would sustain a culture rooted in and inspiring the integration of life in terms of truth, goodness, and beauty—in terms of being as opposed to having. This abiding sense of the importance of building such a broadly and deeply conceived “culture of life” can be seen in such apparently diverse writings of John Paul II as Laborem Exercens on the one hand and the “Letter to Artists” on the other.

The Splendor of Truth

John Paul II situated the moral question within the question that the rich young man asked Jesus—”Teacher, what good must I do to have eternal life?”—and thus within a religious horizon. The moral question is therefore raised in its deepest sense as a question “about the full meaning of life.” The moral life is about relationship with Jesus, about the splendor of that truth which is Jesus Christ Himself. It is ultimately an “echo of a call from God who is the origin and goal of a man’s life.” The moral act as conceived by the pope thus bears no trace of moralism or Pelagianism because it is a response, initially drawn forth and carried by the attractiveness of the Other.

The concern of Veritatis Splendor was not only to address particular moral evils, but more basically to consider the problematic cultural tendency today to detach “human freedom from its essential and constitutive relationship to the truth.” John Paul II stressed that, in considering the correct relationship between freedom and truth, or human nature, we need to take account of the place of the body. The body is not “a raw datum, devoid of any meaning and moral values until freedom has shaped it in accordance with its design.” On the contrary, we see in the body “the anticipatory signs, the expression and the promise of the gift of self, in conformity with the wise design of the Creator.’ Consistent with what he wrote earlier regarding “nuptiality,” the pope affirmed that the human person’s unity of body and soul entails “a unity of his spiritual and biological inclinations.”

The encyclical insisted on the universal validity of the “negative precepts of the natural law,” because certain acts—such as homicide, genocide, abortion, euthanasia, and suicide—always violate the integrity of the human person and thus the order of love.

Religious Freedom and the Missionary Task of the Church John Paul II’s affirmation of an “essential and constitutive relationship to truth” in Veritatis Splendor held important implications for his conception of religious freedom. Already at the Second Vatican Council, Bishop Wojtyla had insisted that “there is no freedom without truth.” Seen in light of Veritatis Splendor, this means that a person’s freedom occurs within a movement toward God. It is this positive movement toward God—that is, not the more commonly assumed immunity from coercion by others—that gives religious freedom its first and basic meaning.

To be sure, this primacy of truth in the inner structure of freedom cannot be interpreted as justifying coercion, as some critics would claim. Rather, the truth itself is a logic of love that respects the freedom of the search for truth.

In a word, the pope unequivocally affirmed the right to religious freedom enshrined in the council’s Dignitatis Humanae, though he gave that right a distinct theological interpretation. His interpretation enabled him to reaffirm vigorously and with consistency the missionary task of the Church—even in the liberal societies whose hallmark is concern for freedom. As John Paul II stated in Redemptoris Missio: “The multitudes have the right to know the full riches of Jesus Christ, riches in which we believe that the whole of humanity can find, in unsuspected fullness, everything that it is gropingly searching for concerning God, and man and his destiny, life and death, and truth.” The gospel itself demands that its truth be proposed and not imposed.

Faith and Reason

John Paul II wrote on the topic of faith and reason, he said, because of “the widespread distrust of the human being’s capacity for knowledge,” and because people today tend “[to] no longer ask radical questions about the meaning and ultimate foundation of human, personal, and social existence.” Renewal of such questions, he insisted, demanded recovery of the wonder that is “awakened by the contemplation of creation.”

Consistent with his pattern, John Paul II began his encyclical with discussion of Jesus as revealer of the Father, and in turn the nature of reason before the mystery of revelation, and then drew a first and basic conclusion: that the truth made known to us by revelation is not a “consummation of an argument devised by human reason. It appears instead as something gratuitous, which itself stirs thought and seeks acceptance as an expression of love.”

The encyclical defends both the legitimate autonomy of philosophy and the simultaneous unity between the knowledge conferred by faith and the knowledge conferred by reason. The movement is a circular one in which faith believes in order to understand, even as reason seeks to understand in order to believe. The pope reaffirmed St. Thomas Aquinas as a special guide in this connection. Citing Paul VI, John Paul II said that Thomas’s key contribution was that he “gave to the…encounter of faith and reason…a reconciliation between the secularity of the world and the radicality of the Gospel, thus avoiding the unnatural tendency to negate the world and its values while at the same time keeping faith with the supreme and inexorable demands of the supernatural order.”

Central to the pope’s concern in writing the encyclical, then, was to recover a metaphysical realism integrated into wisdom that would enable human intelligence truly to ponder and enter into the ultimate meaning of existence. In a striking conclusion to his argument, the Holy Father suggested the need to “philosophari in Maria.” There is, he said, a deep harmony “between the vocation of the Blessed Virgin and the vocation of true philosophy…. Just as the Virgin was called to offer herself entirely as human being and as woman that God’s Word might take flesh and come among us, so too philosophy is called to offer its rational and critical resources that theology, as the understanding of faith, may be fruitful and creative.”

Human Freedom and Liberation from Sin

“A theology of freedom and liberation which faithfully echoes Mary’s Magnificat preserved in the Church’s memory is something needed by the times in which we live.” For John Paul II, a theology of liberation was “authentic” and “integral” insofar as it understood that political and economic injustice are not a matter primarily of the external organization of societal institutions but of sin. His point was not that institutions are not in need of transformation, but that this transformation is properly interior, requiring a conversion from the slavery of sin that takes place only through Jesus Christ. Social transformation takes its rightful form only in a Marian-contemplative patience before God: The Magnificat always presupposes the fiat.

John Paul II’s distinctive notion of “structural sin,” which functioned significantly in his reading of “the signs of the times,” is to be understood in this light. Structural sin always presupposes and takes its primary meaning from personal sin. Sin in its structural sense, in other words, is personal sin in its objective dimension, or personal sin as extended into the logic of institutions.

It should be noted in this connection that John Paul II endorsed the genuine strengths of free-market economies. While acknowledging these strengths, however, he also warns of the “risk of an ‘idolatry’ of the market” that “ignores the existence of goods which by their nature are not and cannot be commodities,” and of the risk of an economy which promotes a style of life “directed toward ‘having’ rather than ‘being.” These and other criticisms make clear that the pope did mean to criticize the West significantly, though clearly not, as some have suggested, in a way symmetrical with socialist societies. He did not think that institutional structures in the West were innocent of an ideology marked by sin.

The Great

We began by saying that John Paul ll’s theology should be viewed above all in terms of a simple return to the roots of the Christian gospel. Centered in Jesus Christ as the revealer of Trinitarian love, the pope reoriented our vision of the whole of reality in terms of love. The key to his theology lies in his restlessness for God in Jesus Christ. With his theology, he wanted to awaken each human being, and indeed all of human culture, to this restlessness. To accomplish this, John Paul II recuperated human reason in its full metaphysical and moral capacity, enabling it to search for and truly enter into the ultimate reality of things. And he gave renewed form to the traditional doctrines of the Church in their proper meaning as articulations of divine, incarnate, and Marian love.

We heard it asked often during the days surrounding the pope’s death what would be his place in history—in the Church and in world culture. Only time will tell, of course, but it is difficult not to conceive this man’s theology, tied to his suffering witness for all in Christ, as a theology of John Paul the Great. Perhaps the key to why John Paul II is the “Great” is given in his seemingly insignificant request to be buried in the earth—humus, hence humilitas, nearness to the earth. It is a striking sign of the poverty of one who became rich inside Divine Mercy.

  • David L. Schindler

    David L. Schindler is the Dean Emeritus and Gagnon Professor of Fundamental Theology at the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family at the Catholic University of America and the editor of the Catholic review Communio.

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