The Theological Anthropology of Karol Wojtyla (Pope St. John Paul II)

John Paul II and library collage

Every so often, there appears in history a person who has an effect on the world, that the whole world is changed for the better as a result of their being there. A person of recent memory is Father Karol Wojtyla, who became Pope St. John Paul II, frequently known even during his lifetime as “The Great.”1

Wojtyla was born in Wadowice, Poland in 1920. A few months later, the Red Army had been repulsed at the Vistula River, and Poland was independent of communist rule. His life was riddled with suffering, his mother having died in 1929, and his older brother in 1932. Nevertheless, Wojtyla was very pious and an excellent student. From an early age, he loved theatre and participated in many plays, even while young. In 1938, Wojtyla and his father moved to Kraków, where Karol enrolled as a student at Jagiellonian University, focusing on studies in Polish philology and publishing a volume of poetry called The Renaissance Psalter. He also had military training at that time.

Wojtyla endured the terrible suffering of the Nazi invasion of Poland, where he began a resistance movement to preserve Polish literary culture. He wrote two plays in 1940, and it was in this year that a tailor, Jan Tranowski introduced him to the writings of St. John of the Cross, which would have a lasting impact on his life.

Karol got to see the other side of life by being forced to work in a quarry and a chemical plant.2 No one could ever say after these unique experiences that Wojtyla was some ivory-tower academic, cut off from the needs of ordinary people and their suffering.

Another aspect of his religious growth was when he was introduced to the Marian spirituality of St. Louis de Montfort. While at the chemical factory, Wojtyla said that he wanted to distance himself from the forms of Marian piety he learned as a youth, which seemed to ignore Christ in favor of his Mother. It was at this time he discovered the works of St. Louis de Montfort, whose motto was Deus Solus (God Alone).3 It was Montfort who taught Wojtyla that true devotion to Mary was focused on Christ. Montfort calls Mary the “mold of God,”4 meaning that her job is to mold us into the image of God. When one says “Mary” one hears the echo “God.” In 1942, Karol began his study for the priesthood underground in the bishop’s residence. He was ordained in 1946.

Wojtyla’s Philosophical Anthropology

While Wojtyla took his first doctorate in theology, and his second in philosophy, because theology is founded on philosophical concepts, it is more useful to discuss Wojtyla’s philosophy first.

Wojtyla does not merely repeat the platitudes of St. Thomas’s thought, but he made a concerted effort to deal with the wreckage caused to philosophy by modern thinkers. It was in the thought of Descartes that the West was introduced into a mind-body duality. Descartes wrote in his Rules for the Direction of the Mind, that men make mistakes in reasoning when they found their thinking on “poorly comprehended experiences,” or that “propositions are posited which are hasty and groundless.”5 Hence, he believed in the evident superiority of arithmetic and geometry: “The former alone deal with an object as pure and uncomplicated, that they need make no assumptions at all which experience renders uncertain, but wholly consists in the rational deduction of consequences.”6 It is these sciences which eliminate the guess about reality which people make based on experience. Concluding,

not, indeed, that that arithmetic and geometry are the sole sciences to be studied, but only in our search for the direct road towards truth we should busy ourselves with no object about which we cannot attain a certitude equal to that of the demonstrations of arithmetic and geometry.7

He believed knowledge can only be attained in this way. That is, all knowledge is pure logic, which is solely a product of the mind coming from some indubitable principle. That principle is known as “cogito, ergo sum.8 He continues:

‘I think, therefore I am’ was so certain and so assured that all the most extravagant suppositions brought forward by the skeptics were incapable of shaking it, I came to the conclusion that I could receive it without scruple as the first principle of the Philosophy for which I was seeking.9

The only conclusion that can be drawn for our purposes is that experience is useless. The question can be asked, “Can the mind properly perceive and understand reality?” Descartes’ answer is clearly “no.” From this point onward, reality is seen by many philosophers as whatever one’s perceptions and/or reason lead one to, and hence, there is no objective reality that can be known by man. The result is that, with the exception of pure logic and the physical sciences perhaps, objective reality has become irrelevant to truth. Man has become purely a mind.

This has led to a separation of the mind from the body, such that the body is seen as a mere accoutrement of the soul, and even a barrier to effective knowledge. In the thought of Kant, who has had a great and deleterious impact on philosophy, metaphysics has had an illustrious career in the past, but since the scientific revolution, has been in decline. The reason for this “is that metaphysics, unlike physics, has not found any sure scientific method the application of which will enable it to solve its problems. And this leads us to ask, ‘why is it that here no sure path of science has yet been found? Is it perhaps impossible to find one?’”10

Reflections of Descartes can be seen in this quotation from Kant. Descartes was seeking the logical certitude of mathematics in philosophy, and Kant was looking for the certitude of the physical sciences in metaphysics.11 Kant despairs of the value of metaphysical knowledge. Kant acknowledges that all our knowledge begins with experience, but it does not arise from experience. The senses give us impressions, but these cannot comprise all our knowledge. There must be concepts in our mind, a priori, which, shall it be said, organize our sense impressions.12 These organizing concepts, called categories, are the property of the individual. Hence, all real knowledge occurs within the mind of the person, and comes from applying the categories to the sense impressions. Kant felt that, despite criticism that this would be chaotic if true where everyone would be doing his own thing, people had similar categories and therefore would act in similar ways. The only job of government for Kant is to harmonize the actions of these autonomous individuals in society, to avoid any chaos.13

But, for our purposes, the most significant part of Kant’s philosophy, and by far one of the most influential aspects, is his moral theory. Kant was trying to rescue morality from the radical skepticism of Hume. If Hume is right and we cannot really know reality, but merely act “as though” we do, what can be the basis of morality? To deal with this problem Kant invents what he calls “the categorical imperative.” The categorical imperative is stated thusly: act as though you wish your act to be universal law. Any act, to be moral, must be seen as a duty and hence, must admit of no exceptions, especially for the person asserting the requirement of a certain act. By doing so, one at least avoids hypocrisy. It is not that we can make this duty a universal law, it is merely that we wish that is was a general requirement. In other words, the act is so important that it should be required of all, but especially me.14

What Kant has done here is to make morality completely subjective, depending totally on what I think everyone should do. There is no reference to the nature of things in which morality is contained and is discoverable by reason, as in scholastic and Catholic teaching, opening the door to justifying all sorts of actions. While, as Leo Strauss held, it is not legitimate to make everything into a reductio ad Hitlerem, one can see that much moral teaching today is founded exactly on this. Take the homosexual who believes sincerely that this is the best way to have a romantic relationship. That person will perform homosexual acts and wish that everyone else would do the same, because we all would be better for it. Now one can fill in what ever act one wishes, drugs, “open marriages,” and whatever else one thinks should be required for one, which is no doubt what the individual in question is already doing, and one believes everyone else should do, without actually requiring it of everyone. Now morality has become totally subjective.

The other side of the issue that Karol Wojtyla had to deal with was a rigid Thomism which had grown up in the Church since the 1800’s. While Pope Leo the XIII had tried to restore Thomistic studies to a world which had forgotten the wisdom of St. Thomas,15 this quickly became an exclusive ideology, and was enshrined in the Code of Canon Law, and rigorously enforced by the Roman Curia. This whole mindset that had invaded the Church resulted in the suppression and punishment of some truly great Catholic thinkers, such as Father Henri de Lubac, SJ, Father Antonio Rossmimi, Father Yves Congar, OP, and Father Teilhard de Chardin, SJ. It had also looked with skepticism on the philosophy of phenomenology, despite the fact that so many good Catholics are phenomenologists, such as Dietrich von Hildebrand, St. Theresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein), Joseph Seifert, and others.16 Oddly enough, one main protagonist of this rigid Thomism was Father Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, a professor at the Angelicum, and under whom Wojtyla wrote his STD dissertation, which will be discussed below.

A thinker who was very concerned to both overcome the rigid Thomism infecting the Catholic Church, and at the same time, attacked Kant’s moral theory was Max Scheler. Wojtyla ’s second doctoral dissertation, which was in philosophy, was entitled An Evaluation of the Possibility of Constructing a Christian Ethics on the Basis of the System of Max Scheler.

Contrary to Kant, whose ethics is purely formal and totally subjective, Scheler attempts to found ethics on experience.17 Value, Scheler says, adheres in things; the things are not the values themselves. But the value in the things needs to be experienced by the actor himself, or the value is meaningless. In other words, Scheler really writes of “incarnational values,” that is, values as persons themselves experience them. For Scheler, the highest social level is the “person-community,” which is based on the ability to sympathize with others. We can see the rightness or wrongness of our acts if we can see what they do to another. Moral acts enhance the life of another. Immoral acts frustrate their lives. But we cannot see what these acts of ours do unless we can walk in the other man’s shoes, so to speak. Therefore it is in the person-community rather than in the “mass” level of society, where everyone merely goes about his own business, nor in the “life-community,” the level in which people are focused on things of their survival and physical enrichment. This second level, Scheler says, exists where persons have experiences, but they do not see them as personal experiences. It is almost like they are victims of circumstances. Things happen to them, they are not part of them.18 Nor does it happen in the third level which is that of “society” itself, characterized by autonomy in that people make their own way; equality, in that they treat others as equals for the purpose of mainly commerce, and self-interest, which Scheler does not condemn outright, as it is necessary for making judgments in one’s personal life.

In actual societies, all these levels exist and are necessary. But the society is stunted if it does not have the person-community at its pinnacle. It is here that personhood can be developed. It is here where persons transcend themselves and take co-responsibility. Good can only come from doing certain actions, but we can only know human beings from their co-performance of acts: willing with; feeling with; sympathy, empathy. This way we experience the inner emotional states of others directly. We feel the pain of the other, the otherness of the other, and the person perfectly and immediately enters the emotional states of the other person with whom he is bonded.

Wojtyla, while accepting some of Scheler’s insights, deviates from him as well, based on a more Thomistic interpretation of phenomenology. Buttiglione writes that

the difference between the ‘intentional’ form and the form as understood in the Aristotelian and Thomistic sense is not a minor one, and this precludes us from identifying them. The ‘intentional’ form connotes not a real object but the object as it is constructed in the subject’s intentional reaching out.

In other words, Scheler is really positing the essence of the object as it is experienced in the mind, not as it is in itself. Buttiglione asserts that this can be similar to the Aristotelian-Thomistic insight in certain ways, because the phenomenological reflection is on the object as it appears on the cognitive faculty. “Aristotle’s and St. Thomas’s form, on the other hand, is an essential attribute of the object itself, through which it is made present to thought. Therefore, according to St. Thomas, it is through the form that one knows the essence of things.”19

Wojtyla concludes that it is not possible to construct a Christian ethics on the basis of Scheler’s philosophy. Buttiglione stresses that Scheler, attempting to defeat Kant, takes it much too far, forgetting that phenomenology owes a debt to Kant. Scheler “understands the moral conscience in such an emotionalized way, that its role is reduced to practically nothing. Conscience, therefore, simply registers the person’s experience of value without motivating him to act.”20 In addition, Wojtyla concludes that phenomenology as a descriptive method does not try to discern the causal relations of behaviors and cannot understand the interventions made by persons in their choices coming from an internal process.21 He agrees that Aristotle and St. Thomas developed their ethics from experience, which is consistent with the rest of their thought. 22 But Wojtyla integrates the phenomenological insight of thinkers like Scheler into his analysis of ethics by saying,

Every human action involves a particular lived experience that goes by the name of ethical experience. The awareness that I am performing a certain action, that I am its author, brings with it a sense of responsibility for the moral value of that action. I then experience myself, my own person, as the efficient cause of the moral good or evil of my own person. Ethical value intensifies the sense of the band that exists between the action and the person.23

This leads to the discussion of Wojtyla’s The Acting Person. The Acting Person was published in Polish in 1969, then translated and published as volume ten of the Analecta Husserliana — The Yearbook of Phenomenological Research in 1979. In the introduction of the book, Wojtyla draws awareness to the fact that a lot of attention is given to man today, from many sources quantitative, cultural, notions of civilization and the inequalities resulting there from. But what is missing, he says, is a complete philosophy of man; man, who is the conqueror of so many things, has not had his own secrets unpacked, as it were.24

In this book, Wojtyla focuses on the act, the voluntary human act, as peculiar to the person. It is the act which actualizes the potentiality of personal being. Human action is not static but dynamic and comes from the will.25 What this boils down to is that people are understood through their actions, not their words. Metaphysically, that is, in the nature of every man, we say that man is a rational animal; he is an animal that can think, know and knows that he knows. But in a sense, this truth is much too vague. Even though we all share this nature, each of us is very different in many respects. Wojtyla’s book is a phenomenological reflection on the actual lived experience of real human beings.

In human life we experience not only sense impressions (the British empiricists would agree) but also things and people (so many philosophers from Descartes onward would actually quibble with this.) The things and people make up two different aspects of the world. The very fact that we developed language demonstrates that we are meant to disclose or share our experiences, thoughts and feelings with others. We, i. e., the human person, is the subject of action. We reflect on our own experiences and what we actually do, but also we act as an objective monitor of our own actions, which means that man is the object of his own cognition. This means that we have the ability to judge the rightness, wrongness and even the prudence of our actions, given the amount of understanding we have accumulated during our lives. The implication of this is earth-shaking: we and no one else are responsible for our own actions.

This responsibility comes from that fact that God has given us three qualities that flow from our participation in His likeness:

a) Self-possession — the person’s actions flow from the point of authority over himself;
b) Self-governance — the quality that allow a person to order his actions to fulfill his “existential ends,” that is, to fulfill what he was created to be;
c) Self-determination — the outcome of self-possession and self-governance is that we determine how our personhood develops in the real world, and not in some theoretical construct.

Let us examine self-possession more deeply.26 Wojtyla points out the origin of the word possession as coming from the Latin potus, meaning to be able, and sedere, to sit. In property terms, I sit on my own property. This demonstrates that it is mine, and I am responsible for its upkeep and output. Since a person is in possession of himself, his actions flow from his own authority over himself.27 Therefore, Wojtyla says that flights of fancy, imaginary utopias or living in the past or the future, inoculates a person against self possession. “Not living in the real world” means to abandon one’s responsibility over one’s actions, which do not accord with reality — the very definition of truth. Today many people are prone to this tendency. There are many folks who imagine that they can remedy the ills of society by returning to a more primitive lifestyle, where all work is done by hand and there are only simple machines and no companies. Not only do those who fall for these utopian schemes wish to have everyone live in squalor and work themselves to death. They forget that sin comes not from social institutions, but from the very heart of man, and no tweaking of a system will make that evil disappear.28 Ultimately, all of these well-meaning people are, as Wojtyla says, inoculating themselves against self-possession.

Examine life in the West today. So many people see themselves as victims. While some are truly victims, most of those folks, are really abrogators of self possession. Even the real victim of say, crime or hurricane, must face that reality in a self-possessed manner, and go on as best they can. They, while not responsible for the crisis in their lives, are responsible for dealing with it to the extent possible, and then turning to God and neighbor for assistance. But anger, revenge, self pity, and the like are losses of self-possession. The constant running to the government to legislate everything, is also a loss of self-possession — a common practice of our diocesan “Peace and Justice Committees.” We feel no responsibility for our brothers and sisters in trouble, and we turn to the government to force others through taxes to do what we ourselves should be banding together to do.

This is true in other areas as well. College students, for instance, are studying on other people’s funds. They need to be self-possessed and not waste that time and money goofing-off. The self-possessed student studies hard and gets the degree for which other people gave him the money. Having a job is a gift of God, for which He expects diligence. How many lack the self-possession to give an honest days work?

So, self-possession means that the fully human person expresses his character through his own actions, and that these actions ought to proceed from the authority he has over himself. Hence, the person is responsible for his own actions. It was also pointed out that talk, as opposed to action, does not reveal the person’s character, because many people say one thing and do another. Action is in the realm of transcendence because the person is revealed in the action.

Now Wojtyla considers the quality of self-governance. Self governance is not only a person’s power to control himself, but goes beyond this to the ability to govern himself.29 If a person has self-possession, he has self-governance. Not only is he responsible for his own actions, but he is responsible for the quality of his actions. It is destructive to the person merely to take responsibility for robbing a bank. While that is a good thing after-the-fact, self-governance means that the person controls his actions, and would refuse to rob the bank. To what end? — to the end of human flourishing. Self-governance is the quality that directs our free acts to the existential ends that God placed in our nature, so that we can live a truly human life as the imago Dei.

Each of these existential ends has an end or purpose, and can be divided into the least necessary all the way up to the more important. The necessary are those things which make life possible, but can never be desired just for themselves, for the very reason that they are not important to our full flourishing, but are only basic to it. So, food, clothing, shelter and the like are necessary, but the person who desires them for their own sake stunts his development. These make it possible for us to go to higher and higher levels, or from the necessary to the important. So Karol Wojtyla considers the relations between persons, especially from the heart, as the most important feature in developing full humanity. We can say that the persons of the Trinity itself are known by their relations among each other, where each person is completely self-giving to the other two.

Other important existential ends are the desire to know people and things outside of ones own geographic area; the desire to learn, the desire for love and family; the desire to contribute something to society. Lastly is the desire to be on good terms with the Creator.

But these ends cannot be reached unless and until the self-possessed person is self-governing, that is, until he controls and directs his actions to the ends. Every day one is confronted with a myriad of choices. Not all of those choices are moral/immoral or life and death choices. But they are choices which either enhance human flourishing or detract from it. People who live impulsively are not self-governing. They allow their emotions, their mere likes and dislikes, to control what actions they take.30 Self-governance means that they have control over their passions and desires. They consciously choose the better path; they accept grace and the good because they have a notion about how the existential ends can be accomplished and reject those things which lead away from them.

Take marriage for example. Think of the person who goes to Las Vegas, meets someone, and after one day heads to the Elvis Chapel to get married — heads to the Elvis Chapel to promise a person they just met that they are ready to commit to love this person in sickness and health, for richer or poorer, for better or worse, until the end of life. These are two people who have no self-governance. They have thrown away an opportunity to make a choice to develop their character to accomplish an important existential end. Is it any wonder that the divorce rate is so high? This is an extreme example, but is it not true that many, if not most, people live their lives this way, doing things on impulse, spur-of-the-moment, no thought required?

Now this begs the question what life would be like if the famous people in the past or even the present lived like this. Thomas Edison would have never invented the light bulb, because he might have enjoyed fishing instead. Great authors would have never written their books, because it was too hard, required too much thinking or research, and does not really pay. No one would have ever set up a business because the risk was too much to handle. And why should emergency room physicians and paramedics put up with so much blood, gore and suffering in others, when they could be doing something less stressful? All these people do this because they are self-possessed and self-governing. They overcome their aversion to the difficult and their natural desire for pleasure and relaxation to accomplish a good, both for themselves and for the flourishing of society. Included in this, of course, is the effort to do the moral thing in the face of a difficult choice. In a sense, self-governance is similar to the Thomistic virtue of fortitude.31

Therefore, we can conclude that the less self-possession and self-governance the people in a society have, the more the society will languish, and the more the individuals in that society will fail to reach their full potential.

Lastly, we have self determination. So far, Wojtyla has shown that human beings should have self-possession and self-governance. Without self-possession, a person is prey to every emotion, event or person coming his way. Without self-governance, he can not control his own actions and responses. If one has self-possession and self-governance, he then has self-determination. The individual can control his choices and therefore his destiny. The proper use of the will is decisive here. The person says, “I will do this or refrain from that . . . ,” or can distinguish among things the he “might or might not do” and those he “need not do.”32 The decisions made by the person are rational; they are related to the end he has in view, and the person is required to think about the hierarchy of ends, thus distinguishing between the necessary and important and arranging his choices according to the hierarchy. The self-possessed, self-governed decision maker does not confuse the lower ends, like food, clothing and shelter with higher ones like development of the intellect, and personal relations or real love (αγαπε — agape).

The other side of this coin, however, is that people are then responsible for their actions, and the development of their character. A person without these characteristics, i. e., self-possession, self-governance, determines his life and character in a helter-skelter way. The things he chooses are not linked to any particular hierarchy of ends, so his life is confused. When we perform actions, we reveal our inner character, and the world is objectively changed, for good or ill, by what we do. So the person is objectified by each of his actions. So, each person chooses from his subjective valuation of the good in question. Over time, the person reveals his values, and hence his character, in his choices. As Wojtyla says, “When I will anything, I am also determined by myself. Though the ego is not an intentional object of willing its objective being is contained in the nature of acts of willing. It is only thus that willing becomes self-determination.”33

The same is true with a society and the free market, for example. Those who blame the free market system for the materialism of the West miss Wojtyla’s point. The market will not provide what the people generally won’t choose. It provides these things because people are demanding (thus the law of demand) the good or service be available in sufficient numbers that it is worthwhile for someone to provide it. In a materialistic society, the problem is not always what people demand be produced; it is really the amount they want to possess. So much of what we buy does not show self-possession or self-governance, but is controlled by emotion, desire to have and not to be, and a spiritual vacuum in the life of the person who tries to fill it with “stuff.”34 As so many of us allow our lives to be determined by mere emoting, we determine ourselves away from our higher ends. We replace the important with the necessary, and give the society that character, because the individuals in the society reveal their character in that way — by the choices they make, by the actions they take.

The lowest level to which this sinks is, according to Wojtyla, is when we not only focus on things instead of persons and relations with them, but we actually begin treating people as things. We objectify people. All things are meant for our usage to accomplish higher existential ends. Now we objectify ourselves when we act, because of the fact that our actions become revelatory of our inner character. But we can not do the same with others. People must be valued for themselves.35 Now before the reader points out that we legitimately use people all the time, look closer. We do not use the medical doctor when we are sick — we use his services. The actual doctor must be loved and appreciated for himself. In business, it is the same. If we call up the supplier of some part we are using to make a machine, we are not using him; we are using his offer to sell us the parts. This is also the same with employees. But it is in our interpersonal relations that the problem occurs. To mistreat the physician or the supplier of parts is different than using their services that they freely supply. We must always remember that all human beings are created in the image of God, and thus are ontologically equal to us, regardless of the difference of skills among us.36 Hence, there is never a reason for berating anyone, even a criminal, beyond what might be necessary to subdue such criminal, or get his attention.

Wojtyla’s Theological Anthropology

Karol Wojtyla studied for his doctorate in theology at the Angelicum in Rome under the famous, strict Thomist, Father Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, OP.37 He did his dissertation under the same professor under the title of “Faith According to Saint John of the Cross,” which has been translated and published by Ignatius Press.38

Oddly enough, St. John of the Cross was not a systematic and speculative theologian, but was interested “in the spiritual and experiential dimensions of theology.”39 Interestingly, this is right up the alley of a phenomenologist, the philosophy of which focuses on the experience of things. Wojtyla points out in this dissertation that according to St. John of the Cross, faith is the main way through which man becomes like God. He quotes St. John: “By this means alone [faith], God manifests himself to the soul in divine light that surpasses all understanding. Therefore, the greater the faith of the soul, the more closely it is united with God.”40

What is the significance of this thesis? For so many years, decades perhaps, Catholics felt that they could “buy” their way into heaven by adhering to the moral law — by being good. St. John of the Cross, one of the greatest mystics who ever lived, is saying, almost sounding like a Protestant, the thing that comes first for salvation and real beatitude is faith, not works. What this does is put the Beatitudes in their proper place in the spiritual life: first. Our Lord says, Seek first the kingdom of God and its justice, and all else will be given to you besides.” In other words, God is the natural object of the intellect, in Himself, not the morality. The morality is a concomitant aspect of “the one thing necessary.”

By asserting this thesis about St. John of the Cross, and this is important regarding the constant moral striving, Wojtyla rejects the concept of “pure nature,” a notion originally concocted by Thomas de Vio, known as Cardinal Cajetan. Pure nature separates the supernatural from the natural in such a way that Father Henri de Lubac, probably the main theologian who brought this problem to the attention of theologians, writes: “Msgr. Antonio Piolanti declares that the great cardinal ‘separates’ the two orders, natural and supernatural, in a way that completely differentiates him from St. Thomas. It is in fact quite clear that in denying the created intellect any desire to see God — whereas St. Thomas said and repeated: ‘Every intellect by nature desires the vision of the divine substance.” And, Cajetan “was profoundly altering its [St. Thomas’s teaching’s] whole meaning.”41 Lubac points out that man was created with ‘a natural aptitude for understanding and loving God, and that aptitude consists in the very nature of spirit, which is shared by all men.’”42

So, just as Father Wojtyla in his theological dissertation rejects the idea that the supernatural is some kind of add-on to a nature, so as pope, he continued this thesis. Modern man has eclipsed his transcendent source. He has lost the best way to understand himself, that is, he has lost his understanding of Christ. In his first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis, John Paul II recalls this theme: “Our spirit is set in one direction, the only direction for our intellect, will and heart is — towards Christ our Redeemer, towards Christ, the Redeemer of man . . . ”43 Man broke this link with God, but the Man Christ reforged it. As St. Paul states, creation that God pronounced as “very good,” in Genesis, is now, because of man’s fallenness, “subject to futility.” The pope asks why it is that despite the great advances the human race has made, it cannot see this futility. The world is “groaning in travail,” that it “waits with eager longing for the revelation of the sons of God.”44

Also, John Paul stresses the human person’s great dignity. Jesus and his Apostles brought the truth to the world, but in doing so, had great respect for man’s freedom and conscience: “Thus the human person’s dignity itself becomes part of the content of that proclamation, being included not necessarily in words, but by an attitude towards it.45 But it is Christ that brings man this freedom, and the freedom is based on Truth. As Jesus said, “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”46

But in the modern world man has strayed from his true self, primarily today due to selfishness and materialism, which have led to lack of care for the plight of others, the loss of “social love” and solidarity among men.47 Interestingly, John Paul holds that the solution to these problems is in man himself; man must get back to moral responsibility, a theme he stressed in The Acting Person.48

One might ask why this encyclical stresses the problems in the more natural order, such as poverty and consumerism. The reason is that the pope sees man, not as a mere body, or as a soul trapped in a body, but as a suppositum — a true body-soul composite, and it is through the body that the soul receives its information and expresses its character. He refers to the person as the body-person. As Sister Mary Timothy Prokes, FSE, states: “The experience of the total person [is] implicated in the body’s conditions and functions.”49

This understanding of the body-person becomes clear in the series of audiences that John Paul gave in 129 Wednesday audiences from 1979–84. While it is impossible in this short space to do justice to this large, brilliant, and insightful work, a few things may be posited. First of all, the editor of the most recent edition of these talks, Michael Waldstein, writes in the preface to his thorough introduction that this work is often characterized as a catechesis by the pope on marriage and the family. But Waldstein holds that this work “represents the very ‘logic’ of Christianity . . . the theology of the body is one of the Catholic Church’s most critical efforts in modern times to help the world become more ‘conscious of the mystery and reality of the Incarnation’ — and, through that, to become more conscious of the humanum, of the very purpose and meaning of human life.”50

For the purposes of his theological anthropology, we can summarize John Paul’s teaching by saying that in the human being’s original innocence, the man and woman felt no shame, either in their heart of in their conscience. This is more than mere bodily shame. Humans can understand this only by a retrogression from their sinful state in thought back to the state of innocence, which all people long for in their hearts. As St. Paul says, there is a drive to do good, but a pull away from the doing of good. The desire to do good comes from original innocence; the drive for doing evil comes from man’s desire to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, that is, from his original fall, the scars of which men are stuck with. John Paul calls this analysis looking on the problem through “the prism of our ‘historical a posteriori’.”51

This means that the real meaning of the human being, both male and female qua humans, is what he calls “the spousal meaning of the body.” Since the human character is expressed through the body, and the person receives everything in this world through the body, it is the body which must express man’s true nature. A spousal meaning, as he shows in these talks, means a complete giving. Although it is really only in marriage that the man and woman give themselves totally,52 all human beings are called to be self-giving: “Original happiness, the beatifying ‘beginning’ of man, whom God created ‘male and female,’ the spousal meaning of the body in its original nakedness: all of this expresses rootedness in Love.”53

A good example of what happens when this spousal meaning of mankind does not take hold is seen in an example: examine the so-called sexual revolution. So many men and women are saying to each other, “It’s OK for me to use you for gratification and for you to use me for the same.” If we look at this on a smaller scale, we can see the devastating consequences of such usage of persons. Suppose I had a friend. The friend was very nice to me but all of a sudden he grew cold. Then I found out that he was just pretending to be my friend in order to get introduced to another friend of mine who was rich. Once the introduction was made, this so-called friend no longer needed me and dropped me. The reader would say that that was horrible behavior and would sympathize with the pain I felt when this fellow ripped himself from my heart. Well, the same is true in sexual relations, but to a greater degree. There is nothing greater that one can give to another than the intimacy of the sexual act. This is why the Church and natural law clearly teach that it is for use in a permanent relationship that is marriage. But if I give myself in this way to someone on a date, or to many people on many dates, I am creating a special bond with those folks, due to the special thing that sex is. This bond is immediately broken, and therefore intimacy has no meaning, and it is painful for one or both parties, even if they do not want to admit it. Thought of in this way, illicit sexual relations are barbaric acts. Is it any wonder that the character of the whole of western society has slipped? Reflect on how this shows up in what we buy, in our politics, and in our growing crime rates. We have refused to be self-determining because we no longer have self-possession or self-governance. The decisions of so many are based on whim, emotion, and pleasure. The whole society reflects this as our actions become history. We no longer see the spousal meaning of the body.

Summary and Conclusion

This article has been an attempt to bring to light the theological anthropology of Karol Wojtyla, who became Pope St. John Paul II. He was one of the most brilliant thinkers the Church ever produced, and a very holy man. The paper began with his philosophical anthropology, because this is the foundation of his theological anthropology — philosophy being the handmaiden of theology. The culmination of both of these anthropologies is that man is meant to reflect the total self giving of the persons of the Holy Trinity. This he has demonstrated philosophically, without reference to revelation, and then he has gone on to show the truth of this theologically. To John Paul, the greatest example of this self-giving of the nature of man is seen in the true nature of marriage. But even outside of the unique institution of marriage, man is meant to give to others: his time, talents, love, money, kindness, consideration, diligence — in every area. Obviously, this cannot be done as it can in marriage, but the person-body is spousal; it is not meant to be selfish, but giving.

Our Lord shows this is what could be called the final examination54 for our entry into heaven:

When the Son of Man comes in his glory . . . he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

Then the king will say to those on his right, “Come you who are blessed of my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”

Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when did we see you hungry, and feed you, thirsty and give you something to drink . . . ?”

The King will reply, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” (Mt 25:31–40)

  1. George Weigel, Witness to Hope: the Biography of John Paul II (New York: Cliff Street Books, 2001), 16.
  2. Weigel, Witness to Hope, 44.
  3. Patrick Gaffney, ed., Jesus Living in Mary: Handbook of the Spirituality of St. Louis de Montfort (New York: Montfort Publications, 1994), 482. In the dedication page of this work, it has the expression in French “Dieu seul” in Montfort’s handwriting. Under that inscription, is written, “St. Louis de Montfort’s signed motto was: God Alone. He was dedicated to this goal, to this ideal alone. For the journey from God Alone to God Alone, he asked that it be the battle cry, one uttered with St. Michael the Archangel. He used the heart symbol (placed over the “e” in Dieu) as a reminder that the God who is worshipped is the God who is Love.”
  4. See: St. Louis de Montfort, The Secret of Mary: A Secret of Sanctity (New York: Montfort Publications, 1988), 13.
  5. Rene Descartes, The Philosophical Works of Descartes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1911), 5.
  6. Descartes, Philosophical Works.
  7. Descartes, Philosophical Works.
  8. Descartes, Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting the Reason and Seeking for Truth in the Sciences, The Philosophical Works of Descartes, vol. I, 101.
  9. Descartes, Discourse.
  10. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, 2nd ed., xv, quoted in Fredrick Copleston, SJ, Modern Philosophy: Kant, A History of Philosophy, vol. 6, part II of A History of Philosophy (New York: Image Books, 1960), 8.
  11. This alone is a basic philosophical error. As Aristotle posits in Book II of his Politics, different subjects call for methods of study appropriate for the study of those subjects. The methodology of the physical sciences, which studies things of the senses, would be different that the methodology of the study of non-physical things such as the nature of things (Aristotle, The Politics, 1252a).
  12. Kant, Critique of Pure Reason: The Essential Kant, ed. Arnulf Zweig (New York: Mentor, 1970), 44–45.
  13. John Hallowell, Main Currents in Modern Political Thought (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1960), 252–53.
  14. Hallowell, 246–48.
  15. Leo XIII, Encyclical Aeterni Patris (1879).
  16. A student, whose family is strong Pius X Society activists, but from which this student broke, told this writer that the Society considers phenomenology as a heresy, and since Pope John Paul II uses it in some of his work, he, too, is a heretic.
  17. This summary of Scheler’s thought is drawn from Kevin Doran, Solidarity: A Synthesis of Personalism and Communalism in the Thought of Karol Wojtyla/Pope John Paul II (New York: Peter Lang, 1996), 27–50.
  18. This is the current author’s interpretation of this concept.
  19. Rocco Buttiglione, Karol Wojytla: The Thought of the Man Who Became Pope John Paul II, trans. Paolo Guietti and Francesca Murphy (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1997), 273–74.
  20. Buttiglione, Karol Wojytla, 274.
  21. Buttiglione, Karol Wojytla, 275.
  22. Karol Wojtyla, “The Problem of the Separation of Experience from the Act in Ethics: In the Philosophy of Immanuel Kant ad Max Scheler,” in Karol Wojtyla, Person and Community: Selected Essays, tr. Theresa Sandok, OSM (New York: Peter Lang, 1993), 24.
  23. Wojtyla, “Problem of Separation,” 23.
  24. Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, The Acting Person, trans. Andrzej Potocki (Dordrecht, Holland: D. Reidel, 1979), 21.
  25. Wojtyla, Acting Person, 26–27.
  26. See, Wojtyla, Acting Person, 107–8.
  27. This is the analysis of Joseph Mairura Okemwa cited in Stephen J. Grabill, ed., Beyond Self-Interest, A Personalist Approach to Human Action (Lanhan, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2002), 51, n. 16.
  28. This reminds us today of the big push for socialism among certain political candidates.
  29. Wojtyla, Acting Person, 106–7.
  30. It should be recalled here that this was the essence of Wojtyla’s critique of Scheler’s ethics — it was too emotion-centered.
  31. According to St. Thomas, fortitude is the virtue which makes man’s actions conform to reason. S. Th. II-II, q. 123, a. 1. It was said above that Wojtyla brought St. Thomas’s thought into line with the phenomenological method. What he is stating here is the Thomistic teaching in phenomenological language.
  32. Wojtyla, Acting Person, 105.
  33. Wojtyla, Acting Person, 109.
  34. John Paul II, Centesimus Annus, no. 36.
  35. One main thread of thought of Edith Stein’s (i.e., St. Theresa Benedicta of the Cross’s) doctoral dissertation, On the Problem of Empathy, trans. Waltraut Stein, PhD, The Collected Works of Edith Stein, Sister Theresa Benedicta of the Cross, Discalced Carmelite, vol. 3 (Washington, D.C., ICS Publications, 1989), 5 and 53–54. See, also, Marianne Sawicki, PhD, “Personal Connections: The Phenomenology of Edith Stein,”
  36. See John Paul II, Laborem Exercens, no. 6.
  37. The controversial position of Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange before, during, and after Vatican II is explained by Richard Peddicord, OP, The Sacred Monster of Thomism: An Introduction to the Life and Legacy of Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, OP (South Bend, Indiana: St. Augustine’s Press, 2005), introduction.
  38. Translated by Jordan Aumann, OP (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1981).
  39. John Cardinal Krol, “Introduction,” trans. Jordan Aumann, OP (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1981), 9.
  40. Wojtyla, Faith According to Saint John of the Cross, 66.
  41. Henri de Lubac, The Mystery of the Supernatural, trans. Rosemary Sheed (New York: Crossroad, 1967), 8–9.
  42. Lubac, Supernatural, 24, quoting St. Thomas, S Th I, q. 93, a. 4.
  43. John Paul II, Redemptor Hominis, no. 8.
  44. RH 8.
  45. RH 12.
  46. RH 12.
  47. RH 32 and 33.
  48. RH 34.
  49. Sister Mary Timothy Prokes, FSE, Toward a Theology of the Body (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1996), 51.
  50. Michael Waldstein, “Preface to the Introduction,” in John Paul II, Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body, trans. Michael Waldstein (Boston: Pauline books and Media, 2006), xxvii.
  51. John Paul II, Man and Woman, 192–93.
  52. The exception to this statement is the celibate life lived for the kingdom, which is also a complete giving.
  53. John Paul II, Man and Woman, 190.
  54. This concept is from the wife of the author.
Dr. William R. Luckey, PhD About Dr. William R. Luckey, PhD

Dr. William R. Luckey is Professor Emeritus and Scholar in Residence at Christendom College in Front Royal, Virginia. He has a BA from St. John's University in New York, where he also taught for five years. He has an MA and PhD in political philosophy from Fordham University, an MBA from Shenandoah University in Virginia, an MA in economics from George Mason University, and an MA in systematic theology from the Notre Dame Graduate School of Theology of Christendom College. He is widely published in scholarly and popular forms. He has been married for 45 years, and has four grown children, and 22 grandchildren. Dr. Luckey and his wife are Lay Dominicans.


  1. Avatar Glenn LANHAM says:

    Very excellent, except to defend JPII, I think he would state the Celibate life as a HIGHER form of self-giving than Marriage…

  2. Avatar Arthur McGowan says:

    In the very first sentence, a “singular ‘they.'”

  3. Avatar Hanque Amundsen says:

    Anyone else feel compelled to re-read this essay several times in the last few weeks?