John Paul II’s ‘Lively Battle’
We continue to learn much from the pope God gave us 45 years ago
October 16, 2023, marks the forty-fifth anniversary of the election of St. John Paul II as Pope. There are so many things about his 26-year pontificate for which we should be grateful, but I will focus on one I find particularly important: his Christian humanism. I am aware mention of “humanism” grates in some Catholics’ ears, but I reiterate: John Paul’s focus on Christian humanism was and remains a vital “sign of the times” for contemporary man.
To those Catholics who imagine that attention on Christian humanism somehow detracts from focus on God, I say: this is a false contraposition. As John Paul noted already in his pre-papal writings, the degree to which the human person obeys God and the degree to which he is truly and authentically human stand in direct, not inverse ratio. Wojtyła was acutely aware of the lie, originally sown in Eden but repeated throughout history, perhaps most insistently in our times by Kant and Marx, that places God and man in some sort of competition. Man does not become “heteronomous” (Kant) or “alienated” from himself (Marx) by following God. He, in fact, realizes himself most fully.
John Paul was keenly aware of how much that lie about a false human “autonomy” has warped modern thinking, be it the ethics spawned by Kant, the social movements inspired by Marx, or the “ethic of autonomy” that features so prominently in our thinking and, of which, Roe v. Wade was the most monstrous incarnation.
But, for John Paul, “incarnation”—specifically, the Incarnation—is the key. Far from competing with man, “God so loved the world” that He became man (John 3:16). Christian humanism’s radical message is that there is a human being with a human body in heaven—seated at the right hand of the Father—who is also, at the same time, the divine Son of God. That is why John Paul, following Vatican II, could proclaim often: “Jesus fully reveals man to himself.”
Perhaps we have grown so familiar with that phrase that its radical teaching no longer strikes us. Vatican II did not say, “Jesus Christ fully reveals God to man” (though that is true). It said, “Jesus fully reveals man to himself.” Jesus reveals what man, made in God’s image and likeness (Gen 1:26-28) is supposed to be. “Alienation” is not so much man from his things as man from himself and his relationships: to himself, to other human beings, and ultimately to God. That is precisely the alienation we see follow from the Fall, as detailed in Genesis 2.
As a professor and intellectual, Wojtyła saw in Christ the healing of the unjustified fissure in modern thought about what it means to be human. Modern philosophy, for various reasons, has “turned to the subject.” Sometimes that turn to subjectivity generated a relativism, an exaggerated emphasis on individual existence to a degree eviscerates objective reality, including the objective reality of the human person. Sometimes, instead of eviscerating that objectivity, it maintains the fiction of its significance while in practice negating its relevance, e.g., in the name of “pastoral charity.”
John Paul was not taken in by this subjective subjectivism. He recognizes that the human person as subject has an objective reality. Human personal subjects have a human nature, which is not radically subjective but also serves to measure the fulness (or lack of fulness) of its instantiation in that concrete human person. Human beings are not a bunch of individual monads thrown together under the equivocal name “humanity.” Human beings share a human nature. It is the loss of a sense of that human nature—something Wojtyła was warning against in his philosophical writings more than 50 years ago—which fuels various false contemporary models of the human person, even ostensibly within the Church.
Writing in the decade after Humanae vitae and with explicit reference to that encyclical, John Paul insisted “we are in a lively battle for the dignity of man” (see Sign of Contradiction), one particularly centered today in the fields of anthropology, marriage, and family. For a man who came to his manhood and lived his adult life under the rule of nations that created the anti-human abominations called “Auschwitz” and “Katyń,” the “concentration camp” and the “gulag,” Wojtyła was keenly aware that the challenge of the 20th (and 21st) century was about “who is man?” And what is valuable about his thought is that he answered that question with a full-throated defense of Christianity. “Christianity” is not humanism with religious mythology attached to it; true and full humanism can only lead to Christianity, to “the Word [who] was made flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14).
Finally, what I found and still find appealing in John Paul’s vision was his readiness to “go out into the deep.” John Paul was not about “consolidating” and “downsizing” the Church. He was not about hunkering down in some closed community, hoping the world doesn’t notice us while we maintain some internally pure, albeit shrunken, Church community. He was ready to engage modernity. Whether modernity was ready to reciprocate in good faith is another question. But he was certainly unwilling to put the Church’s light under a bushel basket or deliberate about how to lower the dimmer to ensure what shined forth from that light was sufficiently “accommodating” and “welcoming” to moderns.
We can continue to learn a lot from the pope God gave us 45 years ago.
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