The Urgency of Timeless Questions

April 1995By James G. Hanink

James G. Hanink is Professor of Philosophy at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, and Associate Editor of the NOR.

At the Center of the Human Drama: The Philosophical Anthropology of Karol Wojtyla/Pope John Paul II.  By Kenneth L. Schmitz. Catholic University of America Press. 170 pages. $24.95.

Finding the center, as the 20th century exercises its final distortions, is no easy task. Willing or not, we are driven to search out our starting points. Just who are we? And what are we worth? The timeless questions become disturbingly urgent.

Can't we, though, at least begin to fashion our answers? For a start, aren't we all persons? Don't we, as such, share in a basic dignity -- each and every one of us? But even these elemental reference points are now sharply disputed.

Kenneth Schmitz is blunt. The primacy of personhood, so much at home in Catholic circles, is "at risk" in the academic mainstream. The stakes in the philosophical struggle for the person are enormous. In Centesimus Annus, Schmitz reminds us, John Paul II teaches that a human being's core rights "flow from his essential dignity as a human person." The same message is clear in John Paul's Veritatis Splendor. Moral absolutes (e.g., never intentionally kill the innocent) signal and reflect the dignity of the person. And if we deny -- or forget -- our personhood? Then moral absolutes no longer make sense -- nor does a commitment to inalienable rights (e.g., the right of an innocent person not to be killed), which are the corollaries of such absolutes.

Highlighting the interplay between personhood, on the one hand, and moral absolutes and human rights, on the other, is only one way that Schmitz puts in perspective the key themes of the Pope's thought. Consider the question of philosophical allegiance. He locates Karol Wojtyla as, yes, a Thomist with a phenomenological twist, but always as "situated within the broad tradition of Christian personalism...." This personalism, he notes, found expression in then Cardinal Wojtyla's role in Vatican II. Such a spirit animates, as well, the Council's Gaudium et Spes, which proclaims of the Church that "she is at once a sign and a safeguard of the transcendence of the human person" (#76).

Having oriented us to John Paul's personalism, Schmitz's project masterfully explicates the continuity and development of the Pope's philosophy. In pursuing this agenda, he is especially acute in analyzing three pivotal issues: the distinctiveness of moral truth, the structure of freedom, and the need for a metaphysics of the person. With respect to each issue, the Pope's thinking confronts the idols of the day.

Let's start with truth. In Veritatis Splendor John Paul writes that we become muddled about conscience if we lose sight of "the idea of the universal truth about the good, knowable by human reason..." (# 32). Just what is this "truth about the good"? To many this concept will be puzzling, even oxymoronic, for much of our culture exhibits a de facto emotivism: Moral claims (e.g., "racism is wrong") become merely expressions of one's feelings and thus neither true nor false.

Wojtyla dissents. A character in his early play Jeremiah speaks to the moral imperative at work. "One must throw truth across the path of lies." Moral truth, to be sure, has a distinctive voice. Theoretical truth tells us how things are; moral or practical truth tells us how to live. Conscience honors this truth in showing us whether our acts enhance or frustrate the dynamic nature we enjoy as persons. Moral truth, indeed, is about our special human way of being, a being-in-act. Colloquially, we might speak of a life that "rings true."

If, though, we are to affirm the imperative of truth, we must also affirm that we are free to act for the good. Yet our culture, when it does not simply reject freedom for determinism, often reduces freedom to hollow arbitrariness. Veritatis Splendor makes the diagnosis: Freedom, in becoming its own sovereign, creates its own values and limits truth (#35). Such a "freedom," as the debacle of existentialism shows, deconstructs the self.

Again, Wojtyla dissents. There is our experience of freedom in acting, a sense of efficacy, which takes the form, "I could, but I need not" -- as he puts it in his work The Acting Person. Freedom, then, is not arbitrary; we achieve it in realizing our potential as unique persons.

Nor does freedom create authentic values. Rather, as Schmitz explains, Wojtyla sees conscience as setting freedom's objective course. Conscience "opens the person out onto the genuine, objective good" and, since our good is realizing the nature God gives us, "even to what is ontological in the good." Schmitz's fine of explication is deeply challenging. Conscience is a way of knowing the truth about how our acts, freely chosen, either enhance or frustrate the image of God within us, that which most fundamentally structures our nature.

So now we have come from truth to freedom to the root question of human nature. Here Wojtyla is insistent. We cannot make sense of either moral truth or freedom if we separate them from an adequate metaphysics of the human person. Phenomenological description, he writes in The Acting Person, "has to be the metaphysical analysis of the human being." What is this analysis? Its technical exposition is sometimes daunting, but the great central message is clear enough. The human way of being is a dynamic process of personal integration and transcendence, in an intrinsically social manner, that gives rise to, in Schmitz's phrase, "a community of being." This community, in its own way, reflects God's Trinitarian life.

How extraordinarily far we have come from the wary, isolated consumer of the libertarian capitalist ethos!

Schmitz merits the highest praise for this multi-dimensional overview of the philosophy of John Paul II. And yet when one follows these lessons through to their almost symphonic conclusions, one might very well experience an intellectual and religious vertigo. For the symphony is so sharply at odds with the pounding lamentations of this weary, grieving century. One wonders today how Christians can speak to and be heard by post-Christians, much less those who have never heard the Gospel. But this is a matter best left to the Spirit, who, in Hopkins's words, "Over the bent World broods."

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