And Such a Pope!
The John Paul Synthesis: A Trinity College Symposium: Vol. I: The Christian Personalism of John Paul II
By Ronald D. Lawler
Publisher: Franciscan Herald Press
Review Author: Stuart Gudowitz
Also reviewed:Vol. II: The Church, the State and Society in the Thought of John Paul II. By James V. Schall. Franciscan Herald Press. 202 pages. $7.50.
Vol. III: The Pastoral Vision of John Paul II. Edited by Joan Bland. Franciscan Herald Press. 210 pages. $7.50.
It is one of the few signs of hope in this post-Christian world that a pope, just from the fact that he has ascended to the chair of Peter, is given a hearing. It has been evident for some time now that, with this Pope, it is somewhat different. No doubt it was his elevation to the papacy that brought Pope John Paul II to worldwide attention, but it is the qualities of the man and his thought that have so impressed many even outside the household of faith.
These three books presently under review are a result of a symposium, “The John Paul Synthesis,” which was sponsored by Trinity College in 1980. They consist of papers read at the symposium exploring various facets of the Holy Father’s thought, and are supposed to be “analytical rather than critical.” A worthwhile project. How well has it succeeded?
In the case of The Christian Personalism, the result is manifestly first rate. It was quite appropriate to have the first volume deal with the philosophical background of the Holy Father’s thought, for, saving Catholicism, it is the major shaper of the Pope’s intellect. What is so remarkable about Fr. Lawler’s essays is that they form such a clear introduction, provide such a revealing background, to the Pope’s thought in terminology so accessible to the non-philosopher. Chapter II, “The Dignity of the Human Person,” is a prime example of Lawler’s accomplishment as he tries to explicate the Pope’s major philosophical work, The Acting Person. In order to do this, Lawler explains certain basic notions of the philosophy of phenomenology which has so influenced the Pope and, not only that, he indicates how the Pope’s use of phenomenological methods of analysis has allowed him to come to deeper insights into the nature of human actions than David Hume, who has been such an influence on so much of Anglo-American philosophy. That Lawler is able so deftly to avoid obscurity on topics almost destined to be obscure to those without technical training in philosophy, is testimony to Lawler’s skills.
In a book as consistently fine as this, it is difficult to determine high points, but Chapter III, “The Moral Teaching of John Paul II,” is a reasonable candidate. The interesting argument here is that both John Paul and those dissenting theologians who have accepted a form of consequentialism, have been rightly trying to avoid a certain “narrow legalism” that characterized at least some past moral theology. Both the dissenters and the Pope, according to Lawler, wish to make clear “that it is love for persons that is the foundation of moral life.” But while the consequentialism of the dissenters, despite their intentions, winds up in denigrating the value of human persons, the Pope’s ethical and moral framework, while avoiding the errors of the dissenters, provides richer insights than a rather arid morality of duty.
The Church, the State and Society undoubtedly has a number of real strengths. Fr. Schall’s stress that it is man as seen in the light of his supernatural calling that is the starting point of the social teachings of John Paul is very welcome in a world that tends to create systems first and then tries to fit man into them. Deserving of special note is Schall’s discussion of the concept of culture in the Pope’s thought, for culture often seems to be paid little, if any, attention in non-Catholic discussions of social problems. Schall deals with a number of other issues creditably.
Yet there are weaknesses. One that is certainly not the fault of the author is that the Pope’s social encyclical, Laborem Exercens, is not discussed because it was not issued until after the symposium. Still, this does adversely affect the adequacy of this book as an introduction to, or summary of, the Holy Father’s social thought. Also, Schall’s prose is wordy. Though it might not have seemed so in the form of talks, it is evidently so on the printed pages.
More seriously, there are a number of times when we seem to be getting more of James Schall than of the Pope himself. This often happens whenever economic matters are touched upon, as he goes off on tangents in a decidedly conservative or neoconservative manner. The point here is not what value (if any) the reflections of Schall and his Approved Authorities (e.g., Herman Kahn, P.T. Bauer) have, but what they are doing in a book that is supposed to analyze the Pope’s thought. Given this, Schall’s rather short discussion of the Pope’s condemnations of consumerist civilization may suggest an attempt to downplay the Pope’s dissatisfaction with free-market economics, and his appendix, “Background to the Social Thought of the Church,” at times reads like a neoconservative revisionist history of Catholic social doctrine.
Thus, while there is a certain amount of valuable material in this book, it is far from a completely satisfactory or reliable analysis of the Pope’s social thought.
The Pastoral Vision consists of a number of essays by different authors ranging in style from the unselfconscious charm of Bishop Theodore McCarrick to a certain “social sciencey” jargon of others, and ranging in topic from essays about the Pope to those on the impact of his thought on subjects such as evangelization, religious life, catechesis, and priesthood. In quality, they range generally from adequate to very good.
What the symposium has given us, then, is a mixed bag. Lawler has done a splendid job. Schall’s contribution may be recommended, if at all, only with grave caveats, and the third volume of shorter essays contains much to reflect upon.
Then too, it is interesting to note that this type of symposium took place at all. It is another example of the respect and high regard in which the Holy Father is held by so many that such a symposium was held so (please God) early in his pontificate. When one reflects on this, on the amount of coverage the secular media has given him, and on the crowds that greet him, it strikes this reviewer that the world at large is replying to the traditional words uttered by the late Cardinal Felici in 1978, preparing us to see for the first time the new Pope: “Habemus Papam!” (We have a Pope!) And the world’s reply is: “Et talem Papam!” (And such a Pope!)
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