The late Pope John Paul II (Karol Wojtyla), now routinely called “the Great” by many of his admirers, not only presided over the Catholic Church during an unusually tumultuous time but also left a strong legacy of written works, bound to help shape theological discourse in coming decades. One of his most important works, Love and Responsibility, tr. by H. T. Willets (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, c. 1981), was first published in Polish, the product of a lecture series at the Catholic University of Lublin in 1958-1959, merits serious study. “The present book,” wrote Wojtyla, “was born principally of the need to put the norms of Catholic sexual morality on a firm basis, a basis as definitive as possible, relying on the most elementary and incontrovertible moral truths and the most fundamental values or goods” (p. 16). Determined to reaffirm the traditional Christian position, he sought to do so in ways appropriate for the 20th century, attuned to the philosophical and psychological currents of his day. And ultimately he wanted to joyously declare “the fundamental appeal of the New Testament, embodied in the commandment to love and in the saying ‘Be ye perfect’, a call to self-perfection through love” (p. 257).
He began by examining “the person and the sexual urge,” emphasizing the difference between objective and subjective realities. There’s an inner subject, as well as an outer object, to each of us. Unfortunately, subjects can be reduced to objects, treated as something less than persons. Importantly, then: “The term ‘person’ has been coined to signify that a man cannot be wholly contained within the concept ‘individual member of the species’, but that there is something more to him, a particular richness and perfection in the manner of his being, which can only be brought out by the use of the word ‘person’” (p. 22). Persons, unlike other terrestrials, can reason, as Boethius famously declared, defining a person as an individual being of a rational nature (individua substantia rationalis naturae).
Capable of reasoning, man is by nature a spiritual being with a rich inner life that “revolves around truth and goodness.” We wonder about ultimate things—why we’re here, where we came from, where we’re going—ultimately meaningful only within an invisible world of God’s making. And in amazingly gracious ways we encounter “the most profound logic of revelation: God allows man to learn His supernatural ends, but the decision to strive towards an end, the choice of course, is left to man’s free will. God does not redeem man against his will” (p. 27). He freely chooses to love or not. “Man’s capacity for love depends on his willingness consciously to seek a good together with others, and to subordinate himself to that good for the sake of others, or to others for the sake of that good. Love is exclusively the portion of human persons” (p. 29). Still more deeply: “Love is the unification of persons” (p. 38). We’re called to love persons, not to use them for selfish pleasures. Such love, importantly, must remain rooted in “the order of justice [which] is “more fundamental than the order of love” (p. 42). Love goes beyond giving another person what is due him, but it never violates that basic principle of fairness, the commitment to doing what is right for the other.
Such justice extends to God as well as man. We do justice to God when we recognize Him as Creator of all things, ourselves in particular. He alone gives and sustains life. The world works in accord with His wisdom, and we live well when we desire to fit in with His designs. “And this understanding and rational acceptance of the order of nature—is at the same time recognition of the rights of the Creator when he recognizes the order of nature and conforms to it in his actions” (p. 246). Still more: “Man, by understanding the order of nature and conforming to it in his actions, participates in the thought of God, becomes particeps creatoris, has a share in the law which God bestowed on the world when He created it at the beginning of time” (p. 246).
Living rightly, doing justice, we must rightly understand our sexuality, “one of the crucial problems in ethics” (p. 54), recognizing that the real “end of the sexual urge is the existence of the species, Homo, its continuation (procreatio), and love between persons, between man and woman, is shaped, channeled one might say, by that purpose and formed from the material it provides” (p. 53). Sex, basically, is all about babies! The primary reason for sexual relations, evident in nature, is the preservation of the species. And yet, unlike other animals, we have a spiritual as well as “libidinistic” nature, so sex necessarily means more than mere procreation. Thus the Church always insists “that the primary end of marriage is procreatio” but it also provides a way for men and women to both enjoy physical pleasure and establish a spiritual union—a “mature synthesis of nature’s purpose with the personalistic norm” (p. 67).
Turning to a metaphysical and psychological analysis of “love,” Wojtyla insists it must rightly fuse freedom and truth, “the primary elements of the human spirit” (p. 116). To freely affirm the worth of another, to deeply desire the happiness of one’s beloved, to fully commit oneself to establishing and maintaining the well-being of him or her, is the authentic way of loving. Still more: “to desire ‘unlimited’ good for another person is really to desire God for that person: He alone is the objective fullness of the good, and only His goodness can fill every man to overflowing” (p. 138). Taking personal responsibility, doing one’s duty, validates love. Mutually giving and receiving establishes the ontological union—becoming one flesh—that we by nature deeply desire.
Such love presumes chastity, continence—properly controlling sexual behavior, developing self-mastery, perfecting our being. Sadly rare in our sensual culture, without this virtue there can be no true love. The “love” celebrated in films, little more than “carnal concupiscence,” promulgates “a ‘love’ which is not love, a love which provokes erotic feelings based on nothing but sensual desire and its satisfaction. These feelings have as their object a person of the other sex, yet do not rise to the level of the person, since they do not go beyond ‘the body and sex’, as their proper and sole content” (p. 15). Two people “having sex” engage in what’s properly defined as “bilateralism”—using each other, doing things together that provide pleasure but never establish a reciprocal, unifying personal relationship. They confuse the fervor of their “feelings” with the reality of love, when in fact: “‘Authenticity’ of feeling is quite often inimical to truth in behavior” (p. 163). Indulging a “sinful love” that betrays their deepest desire for happiness, they exchange ultimate goods for passing pleasures. They sincerely “feel” and thus misinterpret their “love,” for it’s an illusion, a fiction: “‘Sinful love’ comes into being when affirmation of the value of the person, and intentness on the true good of the person, (which are at the core of true love) are absent, and instead a hankering after mere pleasure, mere sensual enjoyment connected with ‘sexual experiences’ invades the relationship between man and woman. ‘Enjoying’ then displaces ‘loving’” (p. 164).
Chastity, however, says “yes” to loving rather than enjoying, manifesting a “tenderness’ that fuses benevolence and devotion. “The essence of chastity consists in quickness to affirm the value of the person in every situation and in raising to the personal level all reactions to the value of ‘the body and sex’” (p. 171). Refusing to use another person as a pleasurable object, chaste lovers manifest a “loving kindness” rooted in their commitment to each other’s well-being. It also calls for modesty. Thus, wroteWojtyla: “A woman wants to be loved so that she can show love. A man wants to love so that he can be loved. In either case sexual modesty is not a flight from love, but on the contrary the opening of a way towards it. The spontaneous need to conceal mere sexual values bound up with the person is the natural way to the discovery of the value of the person as such. The value of the person is closely connected with its inviolability, its status as ‘something more than an object of use’. Sexual modesty is as it were a defensive reflex, which protects that status and so protects the value of the person” (p. 179).
Living chastely, one may give himself to another person. Giving one’s self is the highest form of love. Dying to self we find our self, for self-gift is the highest and most distinctive potential we have as humans designed in God’s image. Death to self—the ancient key to holiness—opens the door to a joyous intimacy in marriage as well as union with the Lord. Love “makes for unification through the reciprocal gift of self” (p. 127). Indeed: “Love consists of a commitment which limits one’s freedom—it is a giving of the self, and to give oneself means just that: to limit one’s freedom on behalf of another” (p. 135). Taking responsibility for the well-being of another being, giving one’s life (often in routine domestic chores) to preserve the life of another, brings to fruition all that is good in a person.
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Soon after his election as Pope, John Paul II began exploring, in his weekly addresses, Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body tr. by Michael Waldstein (Boston: Pauline Books and Media, c. 2006, 1997). We discover in Genesis, he says, “the ‘beginning’ of the theology of the body. The fact that theology also includes the body should not astonish or surprise anyone who is conscious of the mystery and reality of the Incarnation. Through the fact that the Word of God became flesh, the body entered theology—that is, the science that has divinity for its object—I would say, through the main door” (p. 221). Though obviously focused on man, woman, and marriage, the Pope had far more in mind as he addressed the subject. As was evident in Love and Responsibility, these messages sought to correct (as Christoph Cardinal Schonborn notes) the egregious “habit widespread among intellectuals of confusing the order of nature with the biological order” (p. xxiii). By nature we’re embodied souls. By nature we’re “endowed with certain unalienable rights.” By nature we’re capable of recognizing the difference between right and wrong. There’s obviously more to “the order of nature” than matter-in-motion, for it rightly “includes all these richer relationships among real beings” (p. xxiv). In his Letter to Families, John Paul II said that “man is a person in the unity of his body and his spirit. The body can never be reduced to mere matter: It is a spiritualized body, just as man’s spirit is so closely united to the body that he can be described as an embodied spirit” (p. 96).
So John Paul’s “catechesis,” John West explains, “illumines the entirety of God’s plan for human life from origin to eschaton with a splendid supernatural light. It’s not only a response to the sexual revolution, it’s a response to the Enlightenment. It’s a response to modern rationalism, Cartesian dualism, super-spiritualism, and all the disembodied anthropologies infecting the modern world. In short, 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” (p. xxvii).
Though various editions of the Pope’s weekly addresses have been printed, this one excels because of the work of its translator. “Michael Waldstein,” says George Weigel (the author of a fine biography of John Paul II), “is going to put many people in his debt with this superb piece of work, a labor of love shaped by an acute intelligence. The illuminating translation, the brilliant [128 page] introduction, and the carefully crafted index will make this the standard English-language edition throughout the twenty-first century for scholars, for pastors, for students, and indeed for anyone interested in exploring John Paul II’s most creative contribution to human self understanding.” Waldstein asserts that “the full greatness of John Paul’s vision only emerges when one sees his concern for spousal love in the larger context of his concern about our age, above all for the question of scientific knowledge and power over nature, that is, the characteristically modern question of ‘progress.’ He argues that ‘the essence of the church’s teaching’ about contraception lies in a more critical judgment about the domination of the forces of nature’ by human power” (p. 3).
The desire to dominate nature gained philosophical traction (as ecologists have long recognized) in the works of Francis Bacon (a British empiricist) and Rene Descartes (a French rationalist), the 17th century architects of “modern” philosophy. To John Paul II, the “scientific rationalism spearheaded by Descartes is above all an attack on the body” (p. 95). Following Descartes and drawing on scientists such as Isaac Newton, various forms of mechanistic thinking soon dominated elite scientific and philosophical circles. As John Paul II noted, in Evangelium Vitae: “Nature itself, from being ‘mater’ (mother), is now reduced to being ‘matter,’ and is subjected to every kind of manipulation.” (p. 100). Consequently we now live in a world that “rejects the very idea that there is a truth of creation which must be acknowledged, or a plan of God for life which must be respected” (p. 100). Even Immanuel Kant, despite his insistence that we treat persons as ends rather than means to an end, took for granted the essentially agnostic, materialistic perspectives of Thomas Hobbes and David Hume. The inner, subjective, autonomous realm for Kant had little congruence with the external physical world, where “objective” scientific procedures prevailed.
The German philosopher Max Scheler, however, critiqued Kant and rejected much of the “modern” philosophical endeavor; he insisted that love for the world, not the desire to manipulate it, opens the mind to the Truth. To Waldstein: “The opposition between Kant and Scheler goes to the very roots of philosophy. For Scheler the central animating principle of philosophy is the desire to dwell with love and devotion in a receptive, contemplative vision in order to grasp what is truly evident. Against the ‘constructions’ of Kantian Idealism, he insists that philosophy must have a supple and obedient regard for what is given in experience. Philosophy must be an account (logos) of what is truly evident (phainomenon). In short, it must be phenomenology. In agreement with Scheler, John Paul II emphasizes love as the animating principle of phenomenology. “Phenomenology is primarily a style of thought, a relationship of the mind with reality, whose essential and constitutive features it aims to grasp, avoiding prejudice and schematisms. I mean that it is, as it were, an attitude of intellectual charity to the human being and the world, and for the believer, to God, the beginning and end of all things” (p. 65).
To Scheler’s phenomenology John Paul II added the profoundly Christian personalism of St. John of the Cross, whom he encountered as a student during WWII. To master John’s mystical theology in the original language, which routinely compares the soul’s bond with God with the union of husband and wife, the future pope learned Spanish. A few years later he wrote his doctoral dissertation on Faith according to St. John of the Cross and ever after confessed his debt to the writings of the 16th century Carmelite. “To him I owe so much in my spiritual formation,” said the Pope, and “I have found in him a friend and master who has shown me the light that shines in the darkness for walking always toward God” (p. 26). In his mystical works, St. John prescribed reciprocal giving as the key to union with God—and he used the spousal union as the finest earthly example of this truth. “’This spiritual marriage,’” he said, in Spiritual Canticle, “‘is total transformation in the Beloved, in which each surrenders the entire possession of self to the other with a certain consummation of the union of love’” (p. 31). “God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten son.” Loving means giving, and we imitate God inasmuch as we give ourselves away.
I have devoted most of this review of Man and Woman He Created Them to Michael Waldstein’s introduction to the book for two reasons: 1) he makes clear the philosophical and theological issues basic to the text; 2) he provides a cogent analysis of the underlying to structure of the Pope’s message—difficult to perceive when simply reading the weekly addresses, frequently repetitious and intellectually challenging. Basically, however, the addresses are extended analyses of pivotal biblical tests—including Genesis 2:5-7; Mathew 5:27-28; Matthew 19:2-12; Ephesians 5: 20-33. Though the Pope’s academic training was in philosophy, his weekly meditations refer almost exclusively to the Bible. Though not a renowned as a biblical scholar, he certainly reveals his immersion in the Scriptures and commitment to their authority and insight.
In Genesis we find justification for “the theology of the body,” he explains, for it “is linked from the beginning with the creation of man in the image of God, [and] becomes in some way also a theology of sex, or rather a theology of masculinity and femininity” (p. 165). When stressing the importance of marriage, Jesus referred back to the “beginning,” stressing that the primordial union of Adam and Eve—their “one flesh”—serves as the model for understanding our sexual nature as human beings, for here “God reveals himself above all as Creator” (p. 179). Man and woman He created them! “Uniting so closely with each other that they become ‘one flesh,’ they place their humanity in some way under the blessing of fruitfulness, that is, of ‘procreation,’ about which the first account speaks (Gen 1:28). Man enters ‘into being’ with the consciousness that his own masculinity-femininity, that is, his own sexuality, is ordered to an end” (p. 184). Following the first of all commandments—“be fruitful and multiply”—Adam and Eve brought children into the world. “The first woman to give birth has full awareness of the mystery of creation which renews itself in human generation. She also has full awareness of the creative participation God has in human generation, his work and that of her husband, because she says, ‘I acquired a man from the Lord’” (p. 213).
Man’s fall into sin disoriented his sexual desires and behaviors. But in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount we are reminded of how we ought to behave—“as it was in the beginning.” Curtailing concupiscence—the lust of the flesh (illicitly “looking to desire”)—his disciples are called to avoid adultery and be faithful to their spouses. “What Christ demands from all his actual and potential listeners in the Sermon on the Mount clearly belongs to that interior space inn which man—precisely the one who listens—must rediscover the lost fullness of his humanity and want to regain it” (p. 301). Such fullness can only be regained through love—caring for another person so fully that one is willing to sacrifice to give him or her all that is good. “Called precisely to this supreme value, which is love. Called as a person in the truth of his humanity, and thus also in the truth of his masculinity and femininity, in the truth of his body. Called in that truth which has been his inheritance ‘of the beginning’ the inheritance of his heart, which is deeper than the sinfulness inherited, deeper than the three fold concupiscence. Christ’s words, set in the whole reality of creation and redemption, re-activate that deepest inheritance and give it real power in human life” (p. 314).
The truth of Genesis and the Sermon on the Mount are finally confirmed by St Paul in Ephesians 5, which celebrates “the interpersonal covenant proper to marriage” (p. 473) through the reciprocal submission of both husband and wife. This intimate, sacramental union, akin to that between Christ and His Church, “is a revelation and realization in time of the mystery of salvation, of the election of love ‘hidden’ from eternity in God” (p. 476). There is no higher calling. There is no better means to holiness, for thereby our body “is capable of making visible what is invisible: the spiritual and the divine. It has been created to transfer into the visible reality of the world the mystery hidden from eternity in God, and thus to be a sign of it” (p. 505).