John Paul II, Christian Anthropology, and “Familiaris Consortio”

John Paul II called humanity to rediscover an anthropology based in the beauty and dignity of human life, laying its foundation firmly in Sacred Scripture and Church Tradition.


The beatification of Pope John Paul II serves as a significant reminder of the theological and spiritual legacy of his nearly twenty- seven year papacy.  Among the many efforts that the late pontiff engaged in was the battle against what he famously called, in his 1995 encyclical, Evangelium vitae, a “culture of death” 1—a cultural reality he knew in his own life in war-torn and communist-controlled Poland.  However, more than simply challenging the darkness, caused by the cultural and ethical challenges of our day, Pope John Paul II proposed and preached a different, truly “counter-cultural” vision, as a theologian, bishop, and as Roman Pontiff.  He called humanity to rediscover an anthropology based in the beauty and dignity of human life, laying its foundation firmly in Sacred Scripture and Church Tradition.  One clear example of this bold and prophetic project came to us in the 1981 Apostolic Exhortation, Familiaris Consortio, which is known for its canonical and theological considerations on the Sacrament of Matrimony.

However, in this Apostolic Exhortation, Pope John Paul II makes often overlooked anthropological affirmations that form the basis of the canonical and theological affirmations of the rest of the document.  One such affirmation comes in the beginning of the second section of the document, dedicated to “The Plan of God for Marriage and the Family.”  In the opening line of this section, the late pontiff writes, “God created man in his own image and likeness: calling him to existence through love, he called him at the same time for love.” 2  In this important statement, we find an interpretation of Gen 1:26, based in a personalist, anthropological approach—an approach which John Paul II carried throughout his life, which was prevalent in his theological and philosophical outlook.  His focus upon this particular verse of Genesis is, in fact, no surprise as Gen 1:26 remains a key reference point in Christian anthropology, and has been discussed steadily within the tradition of the Church.  However, by drawing from a personalist perspective, in his exegesis of Gen 1:26, John Paul II broadened the horizon of the scriptural interpretation of this passage. It transformed the mode by which the Magisterium discusses the nature of man.  To demonstrate this, I would like to examine in more detail Familiaris Consortio [FC] §11.  For in this often overlooked passage, John Paul II affirms that creation in the image and likeness of God defines not only the nature of humanity, but also its fullest realization.

II. Exegetical issues and FC§1
It is important to begin by looking at some of the exegetical questions which form the context of various statements in FC §11.  Located in the first creation account—which is part of the later Priestly tradition of the Pentateuch—Gen 1:26 begins the discussion of man’s creation in a manner that Gerhard von Rad notes “is introduced more impressively than any preceding work by the announcement of a divine resolution: ‘Let us make man.’” 3  Von Rad explains that this divine deliberation signals that God is intimately and intensively participating in the creation of man, signaling that this is the evident climax of the entire act of creation.

The verbs used in this verse highlight the clear difference in man’s creation from that of the other creatures. For instance, in verse 26, the generic Hebrew verb, asa, meaning “to make,” is used; while later, in verse 27, the more theological verb, bara, or “to create,” is employed three times. 4  The repetition of this verb, bara, is significant. One exegete notes: “It is never used except with Yahweh as its subject, for it is the kind of production of which only YHWH is capable.” 5  Two terms are then employed to speak of how man will be created, namely in the selem, translated as “image,” and demut, meaning “likeness” of God.  There is much discussion as to whether these terms are carrying particular nuances, or are simply synonymous, as selem generally refers to an actual “plastic duplicate,” and demut often means an “abstract similarity.” 6

In this debate, however, John Paul II, among others, clearly states that in this passage, the totality of man, body and soul, is affirmed to be in God’s image.  He writes: “As an incarnate spirit, that is a soul which expresses itself in a body, and a body informed by an immortal soul, man is called to love in his unified totality.” 7 Although many have taken different positions on the meaning of these terms, most exegetes agree that the Priestly source is trying to convey man’s peculiar role as God’s royal, earthly representative, or the one who exercises divine authority on the earth. 8  One such exegete puts it simply: “The image itself cannot be understood apart from this function.” 9

In his work, Genesis 1-11, Claus Westermann synthesizes much of the 20th century scholarship on this passage. But I believe, more than any exegete, he best puts forward the scriptural context of John Paul II’s own personalist interpretation.  Westermann argues that, while most exegetes presuppose that the text is speaking of man, in reality, the focus is on the action of God.  He writes:

The creation of human beings in the image of God is not saying something has been added to the created person, but is explaining what the person is…humanity as a whole is created to render possible a happening between creator and creature.  This holds despite all differences among people…for the uniqueness of human beings consists in their being God’s counterparts… 10

This interpretation of Gen 1:26 is truly consistent with the words of John Paul II in FC §11: “God is love and in Himself He lives a mystery of personal loving communion.” 11  It is, therefore, in the desire for communion, that God creates man.  The late pontiff would explain this concept in more detail in his catechesis, God, Father and Creator: “The only possible motive for creation is love … God creates freely, because he wants to share his goodness with others.” 12  In this concept, a Thomistic perspective is embraced, as John Paul II held that the only way to grasp why anything other than God exists—who is the absolute and only necessary being—is to conceive of God as personal.  In making man in his own image, God, who desires, as Westermann puts it, a “happening” with man, endows his prized creation with “freedom, transcendence, and a spiritual character.” 13

III. The realization of man in light of Gen 1:26
The human person, who is endowed with that “freedom, transcendence, and spiritual character,” finds his or her intrinsic realization in the very mode of God’s creation, love.  This is affirmed clearly in FC §11, where the vocation to love is said to be “inscribed” into humanity, and where John Paul II writes: “Love is therefore the fundamental and innate vocation of every human being.” 14  This affirmation, however, is strongly rooted in John Paul II’s thought, prior to his papacy, and characterizes the theme of his work, Love and Responsibility.  In this work, the then Karol Wojtyła argues that the use and objectification of a person is a basic violation of man’s dignity and interiority.  As a result, the only way to assure right relations with another is love, which he describes as the “seeking of a good together with others, and the subordination of oneself for the sake of that good.” He goes on to note that this is the “particular portion of human beings.” 15

Love is the “particular portion” of humanity, precisely because of God’s unique creation of man, and the endowment of this very capacity to love.  Wojtyła, therefore, argues that, in all interpersonal relations, man finds the call to love based in the personalistic norm where “the person is a good toward which the only proper and adequate attitude is love.” 16  Later, during his papacy, Pope John Paul II spoke of genetic engineering as a violation of this basic norm, but his condemnation speaks directly to this discussion.  He said: “Man cannot be reduced to his genetic and biological components…from the mysterious instant of his conception, he must be accepted and treated as a person in the image and likeness of God himself.” 17  In this statement, we explicitly see the Holy Father condemning a basic violation of the personalistic norm—the instrumental use of the person in the earliest stages of life—connecting it directly to the violation of human dignity based upon Gen 1:26.  This is a significant example of the consequence of Genesis’ affirmation because, in bearing God’s image, each human being, regardless of any particularity, bears both the vocation to love, and the need to be loved by others.  In this affirmation, the personalistic echoes of Martin Buber and Emmanuel Levinas can be clearly heard. Like them, John Paul II writes of “the insistence that man’s basic experience transcends his individual existence and places him in dialogue with the other.” 18

This basic, intrinsic call to love is also contained in a specific way within Gen 1:27, where it is stated that the two sexes, male and female, are created in the image of God.  Westermann, once again, summarizes the exegetical significance of this division of sexes: “Humanity exists in community…a human being must be seen as one whose destiny it is to live in community…people have been created to live with each other.” 19  It is reflecting on this communal vocation of the person that occupies the rest of FC §11.  Pope John Paul II, in the exhortation, notes clearly that the vocation of man to love in his unified totality, body and spirit, has only two specific realizations: marriage and virginity, or celibacy.  Here, once again, he develops ideas voiced earlier in his life, as he notes that sexuality—the giving of man and woman to each other as an integral part of their committed love—is an acceptance of “the intimate community of life and love willed by God Himself…” 20  Twenty years earlier, in Love and Responsibility, he similarly noted that in procreating, man and woman participate in the very work of creation, and, therefore, in the work of God himself. 21  The divine will for the conjugal sharing of love, therefore, includes the call to procreate, which “surpasses the purely biological order and involves a whole series of personal values.” 22  Cardinal Ouellet summarizes well this teaching of John Paul II: “The communio personarum (communion of persons) is the common meeting place of the deeper reality of the family, and of the mystery of the Trinity.” 23

IV. Conclusion
I believe that one of the greatest achievements of the papacy of John Paul II remains his unabashed affirmation of the beauty of Christian anthropology.  While much in the coming months and years will be written about his accomplishments, apostolic visits, and his prolific corpus of writing, among all of these achievements, one of his greatest accomplishments must be his prophetic and constant teaching concerning the inherent value of human life—coming at the end of one of the bloodiest centuries in human history.  In the face of wide spread violence, moral and ethical challenges, and a critique of the Church as simply passé, John Paul II called the entire world to reconsider the foundation of our human identity, with its inherent dignity.

  1. Evangelium Vitae #12, Acta Apostolica Sedis 87 (1995) 414.
  2. Familiaris Consortio §11, Acta Apostolica  Sedis 74 (1982) 91-92. English translation:  ii_exh_19811122_familiaris-consortio_en.html, (28 January 2011).
  3. Gerhard von Rad, Genesis: A Commentary, trans. John J. Marks,  (London: SCM Press, 1961), 55.
  4. Francis Martin, “Male and Female He Created Them: A summary of the teaching of Genesis chapter one,” Communio 20 (Summer, 1993) 245.
  5. John L. McKenzie, “Aspects of Old Testament Thought,” in The Jerome Biblical Commentary, ed. R. Brown et al. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall Publishing, 1990), 1293.
  6. von Rad, Genesis, 56.
  7. FC §11.
  8. Martin, 247.
  9. August H. Konkel, “Male and Female as the Image of God,” Didascalia, (April 1992), 3.
  10. Claus Westermann, Genesis 1-11,  trans. John J. Scullion, S.J. (London: SPCK Publishing, 1984), 157-8.
  11. FC §11.
  12. Avery Dulles, S.J., The Splendor of Faith: The Theological Vision of Pope John Paul II, (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 1999), 20.
  13. Ibid, 21.
  14. FC §11.
  15. Wojtyła, Love and Responsibility, 29.
  16. Ibid. 41.
  17. Pope John Paul II. “Christian Personalism Protects Human Conception.” L’Osservatore Romano English Edition, June 13, 2001.
  18. Dulles, The Splendor of Faith, 22; cf., John Paul II, Crossing the Threshold of Hope.
  19. Westermann, Genesis 1-11, 160.
  20. FC §11.
  21. Wojtyła, Love and Responsibility, 54-55.
  22. FC §11.
  23. Marc Ouellet,  Divine Likeness: Toward a Trinitarian Anthropology of the Family, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 2006), 34.
Rev. Michael Bruno About Rev. Michael Bruno

Rev. Michael Bruno, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn, is completing graduate studies at the Pontifical Lateran University. A native of Brooklyn, New York, and a graduate of Stonehill College and the Pontifical Gregorian University, he resides at the Pontifical North American College in Rome.


  1. There has been only one way to measure the success of any Pontificate since 1960. Our Lady of the Rosary announced at Fatima, that God wished devotion to the Immaculate Heart of Mary be established throughout the world. Our Lady promised to save the world by this means.

    Every Pope since Pius XII has taken the Church further away from this goal. Modernism and ecumenism have neutralized the Hierarchy. Articles like this one amount to yet another tune on the fiddle while Rome goes down in flames!

    • Avatar Charlie B says:

      Except that he named a new set of mysteries to be prayed – the Luminous. A pope has a lot to address in his mission to teach, govern and sanctify. I suspect he touched on the Rosary many times. Its our local pastors who often fail at their evangelization tasks, under which personal and communal devotions would fall. This is most esp. critical as western societies devolve further into a cultural sewer.

  2. Avatar Charlie B says:

    In the spirit of Steve’s initial post….I would offer that the failure of our pastors to evangelize, convert, and form couples and parents – from engagement to at least the confirmation of their children (into which devotion to Mary would certainly be included) constitutes the greatest pastoral vacuum. In the name of the 8th capital sin – expediency, most parishes follow this rocky terrain: we have inadequate marriage prep; we insult and underwhelm them at infant baptism preparation, as well as first reconciliation and Eucharist, and then confirmation. Put another way: after their babies are baptized, the adults drop out of faith formation and we deal with children as if they are converted little adults. This rocky terrain occurs over a 15 – to- 20 year period. Excluding Sunday mass, the average number of catechetical contact hours a couple will have over that time frame is about 20 min to 34. Meanwhile, we collude with a stronger, counter-evangelization most effectively implemented by the hypersexualized, violent, and nihilistic Hollywood and Madison avenue. And we wring our hands about cohabitation, annulments, and a dearth of celibate vocations but don’t do anything to counter the secularization of our people. Writing documents for a people who aren’t listening is a waste of time. Parish ministries must be re-constructed. But I doubt the bishops have the insight and courage to put something in place, as well as deal with the resistance. With the clergy sexual abuse crisis, the bishops rightfully took action regarding seminaries and priestly formation. Marriage has been in crisis since the 1960s. Is that not a scandla? If we want a real “document” to counter the apparently inevitable enshrinement of same sex “marriage” in our culture, it would be the lived witness of sacramental marriage and healthy families. They need the spiritual, pastoral and doctrinal resources of the church but a radically new approach is needed. I hope we will find one. Forgive me arrogance, but I have a one page, first draft if anyone is interested. E mail me. And keep praying.

  3. Avatar Charlie B says:

    An addedum to my tirade: John Paul eloquently exhorts the same framework in Familiaris consortio, sec. 65-70. I spent nearly 30 years in marriage & family ministry. I’ve seen good work done but its inconsistent. It needs to be “institutionalized” in a coherent, integrated long range approach. But this needs a leadership willing to do so.

    • By requesting the release of the Third Secret by 1960 at the latest, Our Lady of the Rosary was trying to get the Holy Father to act “before” modernism was able to execute a cout de ta on orthodoxy.

      • Avatar Charlie B says:

        Not to be argumentative…I share your concerns. I just think orthopraxis is as important as orthodoxy. We’re in the Acts during this liturgical season, where evangelization, conversion, and community were the hallmarks of the fledgling church. Their main doctrine was “Jesus is Lord.” There was no catechism.
        After over 30 years in church ministry, I am of the opinion that all the concern with orthodoxy is wasted energy if we don’t realize we’re in a pagan world, and many of our baptized are secularized Christians (if there is such a thing). To me, that means we have to be missionaries. And fruitful missionaries established relationships with their audience, and when trust took hold, could tell them about Jesus, and salvation. Reiterating church teaching over and over again to an audience that a) isn’t interested, or b) doesn’t care, presents a challenge of method. Aquinas said, if you want to convert someone, take their hand and walk with them. We have to help people see that the hungers of the human heart are fulfilled by Jesus, his Mother Mary, and the Christian community centered on the Eucharist. I think this is called the New Evangelization, though I’ve not seen how it is to be put in place in a way that’s different from how me pass on faith. A Mormon, Stephen Covey, in a business context, once said: every organization is perfectly aligned to get the results it is getting. If we want disciples in our parishes, we have to re-think how we form people in faith. I’d start with marriage and family, because if it doesn’t occur there, “CCD” classes are at best, remedial work; at worst, a poor use of human and financial stewardship. I pray about this on the 3rd mystery of my nearly daily Rosary. I think it is work worth praying for.