As bishop and later as pope, John Paul II did not have the freedom to propose purely personal theological positions in his official documents. When acting as a pastoral teacher he sought rather to defend and proclaim the doctrine of the faith. But since doctrine always has to be expressed, justified and interpreted in a theologically colored language, official teaching and theology always interpenetrate. Even in their proclamation of the Christian message, popes and bishops have regularly relied upon theological advisers or upon their personal competence in theology. Karol Wojtyla was outstanding among the popes of modern times for his reliance on his own competence and insights. Even in his official documents one can usually hear the voice of Wojtyla, their author.
Among the personal gifts that Wojtyla brought to his office one must reckon his exceptional qualifications in philosophy and theology. He completed a doctoral degree in theology at the Angelicum in Rome in 1946, followed by a doctorate in ethics at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków in 1954. He began to teach social ethics in the faculty of philosophy at the Catholic University of Lublin in 1953, and continued to do so, as time permitted, even after his appointment as bishop in 1958. In 1978, as cardinal, he received the title of “honorary professor,” a position he retained for life.
Trained as he was in both theology and philosophy, Wojtyla was sensitive to the dual claims of faith and reason. The light of faith, he maintained, could bring reason to its highest fulfillment and sustain it in its quest for wisdom. Conversely, faith was dependent on reason to give intelligibility to the word of God, received through revelation.
The distinctive traits of Wojtyla’s theology may be ascribed to three sets of influences. As a child and young man he was nurtured by the strongly Catholic piety of southern Poland; he steeped himself in prayer and savored the high spirituality of St. John of the Cross. As a graduate student of theology in Rome he espoused the metaphysical realism of St. Thomas Aquinas. Later, as a doctoral student in philosophy, he came to appreciate personalist phenomenology. This threefold derivation has made John Paul II’s theology mystical, ontological and dialogical or, to put the same ideas in different terms, devotional, metaphysical and phenomenological. Linking all these dimensions together is a pervasive personalism.
In February 1968 the recently appointed Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, wrote to Henri de Lubac, S.J.:
I devote my very rare free moments to a work that is close to my heart and devoted to the metaphysical sense and mystery of the PERSON. It seems to me that the debate today is being played on that level. The evil of our times consists in the first place in a kind of degradation, indeed in a pulverization, of the fundamental uniqueness of each human person. This evil is even much more of the metaphysical order than of the moral order. To this disintegration, planned at times by atheistic ideologies, we must oppose, rather than sterile polemics, a kind of “recapitulation” of the inviolable mystery of the person. [see Henri de Lubac, At the Service of the Church (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1993), 171-72.]
Wojtyla’s personalism, matured by his familiarity with the Thomism of the Lublin school and the writings of Max Scheler (1874-1928), the German phenomenologist, was confirmed by his encounters with Marxism. In post-World War II Poland, the church, he found, was the chief defender of the dignity and rights of persons in opposition to totalitarian oppression. As a philosopher, Wojtyla taught that human persons stand above the rest of the visible world by virtue of their capacity to make responsible decisions—a task that required them to envisage the true and the good. As a theologian he knew that our human dignity comes from our creation in the image and likeness of God. We are called to yet closer union with the divine, thanks to the Incarnation, whereby the Son of God became our brother, paid the price for our redemption and sent his Spirit into our hearts.
In his days as a student priest Wojtyla developed close pastoral relations with young married couples. In informal conversations with them he developed a very positive assessment of the body and of human sexuality. The human person, he asserted, was not created to be solitary but to live in communion with others. By God’s design, male and female are complementary. This complementarity comes to its fullest expression in the marital act, which is intrinsically ordered toward procreation—an activity whereby human beings are privileged to participate in the creative action of God. The total self-giving of the partners demands openness to the generation of new life. In his first book, Love and Responsibility (1960; English translation 1981), Bishop Wojtyla strongly supported the traditional Catholic teaching on the objective immorality of contraception—a position he would reaffirm as a cardinal and a member of Pope Paul VI’s “birth control” commission.
As a young bishop, Wojtyla attended all four sessions of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). The event deeply marked the rest of his career. He formed friendships with prominent theologians, including the Dominican Yves Congar (1904-95) and the Jesuit Henri de Lubac (1896-1991), both of whom he would later raise to the cardinalate. The two documents that most engaged his attention were the 1965 “Declaration on Religious Freedom” and the 1965 “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World.” While esteeming these documents for their assertion of human freedom and self-determination, he defended them against false interpretations. Freedom, he insisted, is not an end in itself; it is given to us in order that we may personally embrace the truth and live by it. The truth is objective and transcendent; it demands our reverent submission. When freedom becomes arbitrary and self-willed, it destroys itself.
Shortly after Vatican II, Cardinal Wojtyla held a synod for his archdiocese of Kraków for the sake of implementing the council. His Sources of Renewal, composed as a guide for this synod, displays his mastery of the conciliar texts, his perfect fidelity to their teaching and his personalist interpretation of the council as an event. Vatican II, he held, marked a dramatic advance in the self-consciousness of the church, corresponding to a fresh moment in human history. The church, seen as a believing subject rather than simply as an object of faith, has accepted fuller responsibility for the faith it professes. At the council, the church recognized itself as “the social subject of responsibility for divine truth” (see John Paul II’s first encyclical, issued in 1979, Redemptor Hominis, No. 19).
In Sources of Renewal and subsequent writings, John Paul II showed a marked predilection for the idea of the church as a spiritual communion of persons, modeled on the divine Trinity as a communio personarum. The church exists in order to make its members holy—that is to say, sharers in the divine trinitarian life. While the whole church is a great family of persons bound together by the love of God, each Christian household is called to be a church in miniature, an ecclesia domestica. Like the church itself, the family is a communion of persons. It should be an efficacious and fruitful sign mirroring the loving union between Christ and the church.
In his theology of office in the church, John Paul II maintained his personalist perspective. The sacramental and institutional elements in the church, he insisted, exist for the sake of fostering personal holiness in the whole people of God. Popes and bishops, as hierarchical leaders, stand at the meeting point between Christ and other members of the church. Through their faith and prayer they must be personally responsive to the mysterious presence of Christ through the Holy Spirit. The entire body of bishops, moreover, is bound together in a communion of grace and love, technically expressed in the doctrine of collegiality. The “hierarchical communion” of the pastors gives expression to the communion of their churches. Collegiality, most perfectly expressed in ecumenical councils, receives true though limited expression in synods of bishops and episcopal conferences.
Episcopal collegiality and papal primacy, in Wojtyla’s vision, were two sides of the same coin. Collegiality itself requires a primatial office charged with special responsibility for maintaining unity among the bishops. The bishops should not be isolated from their head, nor the head from the bishops. Convinced of this reciprocity, John Paul II made extraordinary efforts to keep in close contact with the bishops of every nation. In teaching he refrained from invoking his personal infallibility in ex cathedra pronouncements. He preferred to use his office as supreme pastor to declare what was already taught by the bishops. On several occasions John Paul II proclaimed doctrines that should be firmly believed by all the faithful by reason of the constant and universal consensus of the bishops, grounded in Scripture and tradition.
While recognizing that perfect communion requires the fullness of the means of grace available only in the Catholic Church, John Paul II insisted that the communion of grace extends beyond the visible borders of Roman Catholicism. Orthodox and Protestant Christians, thanks to their faith, sacraments and ministry, are in various degrees of communion with Catholics. According to the will of Christ, all believers should be conjoined in a single visible church. The aim of the ecumenical movement, according to John Paul II, was to pass from incomplete to full communion among separated Christians. Respectful dialogue is a privileged means of bringing this about.
As a personalist, John Paul II had great confidence in dialogue and sought to promote it not only among Christians but with non-Christians as well. Conscious of the dignity of every human person and of the workings of grace among all peoples, he called attention to what Vatican II, following the early Fathers, called “seeds of the Word” and “rays of divine truth” in the various religions and philosophies of humankind. Dialogue seeks to identify these seeds and bring them to maturity so that they may bear fruit.
Seeking a productive dialogue with scientists, John Paul II sponsored interdisciplinary colloquia with cosmologists about the origin of the universe. He was convinced that the ancient quarrels between science and religion rested on unfortunate confusions. Just as scientists had sometimes intruded into the sphere of theology, so churchmen had occasionally trespassed on the territory of science. Each discipline, he contended, should remain within its own sphere of competence and respect the relative autonomy of other disciplines. From the beginning of his pontificate, Wojtyla defended the Polish astronomer Copernicus (1473-1543) and took steps to retract Pope Paul V’s condemnation of Galileo in 1616. In dialogue with anthropologists, he expressed his readiness to accept the evolution of the human body, provided that the process was not understood in atheistic or materialistic terms.
As a theologian of dialogue, John Paul II drew on the personalism of Jewish philosophers such as Martin Buber and Emmanuel Lévinas. Like them he taught that sincere dialogue demands candor in manifesting one’s own positions. Dialogue therefore appeared to Wojtyla as fully compatible with the church’s mission to evangelize all peoples. In dialogue, he noted, we give witness to our own convictions while listening respectfully to the testimony of others. To bear witness to Jesus Christ is an essential task and privilege of the church and of all its members. The Gospel, according to John Paul II, should be proclaimed to all peoples, because all have a right to hear the message of divine love and redemption that has been entrusted to the church. Our times call for a “new evangelization” that expresses the Gospel in new language and makes full use of the new media of communication.
Evangelization, in the perspectives of John Paul II, was always closely linked with social teaching. In his social doctrine, he built on human dignity and freedom as basic presuppositions. He was not content to propound a negative ethics based on divine prohibitions. Our obligations toward others, he believed, are positively grounded in the inherent dignity of every human person. From earlier popes, and especially John XXIII, Wojtyla took over the concept of the church as a champion of human rights.
The right to life, in Wojtyla’s view, was fundamental because life is the primary good, presupposed by all others. Above and beyond biological life, people have the right to a truly human existence. On various occasions John Paul II set forth rather comprehensive lists of human rights, such as those to food, shelter, clothing, education, religious freedom, employment and political participation. He also championed the rights of nations, families, women, workers and oppressed minorities. These rights, while deeply inscribed in the nature of reality, are enhanced by the biblical message of creation and redemption. The inviolability of human rights, for Wojtyla, demanded that they be grounded in the transcendent, that is to say, in God.
In espousing the sacredness of human life, John Paul II emphatically repudiated evils such as abortion and euthanasia. Without going to the extreme of pacifism, he showed a consistent aversion to war and a reluctance to approve of capital punishment.
Perhaps because of his own experience doing forced labor during the Nazi occupation of Poland, Wojtyla spoke with special feeling about the rights of labor. As a personalist he protested against the instrumentalization of work, whether by the state or by a capitalist class. According to his theology, work should be perfective of laborers themselves, even when it is burdensome. The difficulty of toil can itself be redemptive, especially when united to the sufferings of Jesus on the Cross.
Although he criticized the extremes of laissez-faire capitalism, John Paul II never espoused socialism. From his experience under a Marxist regime in Poland, he saw at first hand the inefficiency and corruption of the planned economy. As a personalist, he believed that entrepreneurs should be free and creative. In his encyclicals he spoke of the advantages of the free market economy while at the same time pointing out the necessity for government intervention to prevent economic injustices.
The theme of culture was dear to John Paul II as a poet, dramatist and actor. Poland, he believed, preserved the faith by means of its culture, which remained authentically Christian and Catholic even when the political order was militantly atheistic. Faith, in his view, had a natural tendency to become incarnate in cultures and in so doing to purify and elevate cultures themselves. Conversely, faith tended to be weakened when culture was debased. John Paul II wrote a stirring “Letter to Artists,” exhorting artists to seek out new epiphanies of beauty, “opening the human soul to the sense of the eternal.” Contemporary culture in the West, in his estimation, showed alarming signs of becoming materialistic and hedonistic. Cultures, he believed, were always in need of being evangelized.
Wojtyla’s thought unfolded in light of his vision of God’s personal self-disclosure through his action in human history. Prior to the coming of Christ, God manifested his mercy and fidelity by his dealings with Israel. In the life and ministry of Jesus, God presented himself as the Son, obedient to the Father in carrying out his redemptive mission. And after the resurrection of Jesus, God revealed himself even more fully as the tripersonal mystery of love. The Spirit bestowed at Pentecost, in Wojtyla’s view, discloses the inner depth of the divinity. Human beings are thus enabled to understand themselves and their destiny in reference to the triune God.
Wojtyla’s Christology was framed in universalist perspectives. Christ for him was the center and goal of all history and indeed of the whole cosmos. No individual could attain fulfillment without communion with Jesus Christ, the universal redeemer. With this conviction, John Paul II opened his pontificate with the bold summons: “Be not afraid. Open wide the doors for Christ. To his saving power open the boundaries of states, economic and political systems, the vast fields of culture, civilization, and development.” It is fear, he believed, that drives individuals, parties and nations to set up barriers to the truth, goodness and beauty of God, shining forth on the face of Jesus Christ.
Wojtyla had a deep Marian piety based in part on his early study of St. Louis Grignion de Montfort. In his 1987 encyclical on Mary he extolled her as the fairest daughter of the Father, the Mother of the Son, and the Spouse of the Holy Spirit. By reason of her intimate relationship with the three divine persons, she is the exemplar and the supreme realization of the church, which reflects in itself her virginal motherhood. Just as on earth Mary exercised a maternal role toward Jesus, so in heaven she intercedes in a maternal way for the Mystical Body. At Vatican II Wojtyla’s voice was one of the many that successfully urged Pope Paul VI to confer on Mary the title “Mother of the Church.”
A notable feature of Wojtyla’s thought is the importance he attached to particular times and places. He made much of shrines and pilgrimages. The crucial turning points of salvation history, in his assessment, had abiding efficacy. Devoutly recalled in the prayer of the community, these saving mysteries can continue to impart their specific graces to the church. The mysteries of the new covenant, according to John Paul II, are reactualized in the church’s liturgy.
According to Wojtyla’s theology of time, the history of the church is punctuated with weekly, yearly and jubilee celebrations of the foundational events. Sunday, as the Lord’s Day, should be specially observed by the assembly of the community at the Holy Eucharist as a living memorial of the Paschal mystery. The authenticity of the Eucharist requires that it be celebrated by priests ordained in succession to the Twelve who were present at the Last Supper. The priest at the altar acts in the very person of Christ, the covenant partner and spouse of the church.
Following Vatican II, the pope treasures the eucharistic sacrifice as “the source and summit of the Christian life.”
John Paul II saw his own pontificate as spanning the interval between Vatican II and the jubilee of the year 2000. Suitably prepared for, that jubilee could be a moment of special grace and renewal for the church. In his 1994 apostolic letter The Coming of the Third Millennium, the pope indicated ways whereby the church could dispose itself for the graces of the occasion. He called for gratitude for past favors, for an examination of conscience on the part of the whole church, for acts of repentance, for hope of forgiveness and for a renewal of trust in God. Over the heads of some nervous cardinals he insisted that the church should corporately express sorrow for unjust and violent acts that had been performed with its blessing in the past. The celebration of the millennial jubilee, the pope believed, could usher in an age of greater unity among Christians and a new springtime of evangelization.
At the end of the great jubilee John Paul II issued a new apostolic letter, The Beginning of the New Millennium, in which he sought to harvest the graces of the previous year. Calling for prayerful contemplation, he taught that effective proclamation of Christ requires deep insertion into the Christian mystery. Personal holiness is the primary vocation of the church, which proclaims Christ more by what it is than by anything it does. In his last years the pope sought to show forth the meaning of old age and suffering in his own patient perseverance.
So vast and multiform is the doctrinal legacy of John Paul II that it defies easy assessment. Perhaps the world will have to wait another century before it can pronounce on the positive achievements and limitations of this brilliant and energetic pope. Even today, however, it can be said that he brought the teaching of the church to bear on almost every area of modern life. While firmly adhering to the Catholic doctrinal tradition and the positions of Vatican II, he advanced Catholic teaching in several areas, such as the theology of the body, the sacredness of human life, the theological meaning of culture, work, and leisure. He urged Catholics to be open to respectful dialogue, confident of their own heritage, and critical of the spirit of the age. While seeking to reach out to the whole world, he never compromised on matters of doctrine for the sake of winning acclaim. On unpopular issues he was content to be, like his Master, a “sign of contradiction.”