John Paul II: Champion And Theologian Of Freedom

Michael McDermott SJ FAITH Magazine July-August 2005


When John Paul II first addressed the world from the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica in 1978 he invited all to come to Jesus with the proclamation, “Be not afraid!” It might seem strange that he considered this exhortation necessary in a world that prided itself on its accomplishments and progress. The dogma of evolution assured everyone that things are improving. Yet it was a world that had seen in the twentieth century alone countless victims sacrificed to assorted totalitarian ideologies and still stood on the threshold of a nuclear catastrophe, a world in which many barely survived in poverty and oppression while others lived lavishly. The world’s imagination was captivated by technology even while heedless consumerism pandered to its enslaving needs. Most of allit was a world which daringly proclaimed its freedom and feared to submit itself to an external power. That world John Paul II challenged, echoing Jesus Christ’s call to everyone to deny oneself and follow Him.

The Post-Modern Predicament After the Protestant Revolt and the consequent wars of religion left Europe exhausted and religiously confused, the European Enlightenment sought a peace that did not depend upon an ambiguous divine revelation. Indeed, any divine revelation was deemed ambiguous precisely because it transcended man’s mind. Instead of theological subtleties, the philosophes preferred the clarity and power of Newtonian physics as the principal tool for confronting and improving their world. Eighteenth century secular thinkers limited their speculations to the material world, assigned religion to a tolerated interior region of subjectivity, and proclaimed that they had come of age, no longer subjected to the domination of any authoritarian principle, be it divine orhuman. Unfortunately limiting one’s vision to the material world ignores all the meaningful questions of human existence. In their very revolt against tradition and religion, the philosophes parasitically sucked a derived life from the transcendental questions and desires whose significance they were denying. But once the interior spiritual life of the ancien regime had been desiccated and no reason could be found for its continued subsistence, the French Revolution quickly overthrew the traditional unity of throne and altar. As their previous Weltanschauung collapsed in ruins men were forced to examine a wider horizon for their plans and dreams. Without an all-encompassing vision of reality humans lose their moorings and drift aimlessly, unsure of the context inwhich particular issues have to be judged, incapable of acting decisively. Hence they cannot long resist posing the deeper, wider questions about life’s meaning. Not surprisingly nineteenth century thinkers sought to supplement the Enlightenment’s myopia, rushing into the breach and constructing romantic visions of reality, to which they expected others to dedicate their lives. Their speculative visions, from Schelling to Hegel, from Fichte to Marx, generated the swollen nationalist, racist, and internationalist ideologies, which would convulse Europe , the Americas , and finally the world. Men fought, killed, and died in the name of ideologies which human minds had constructed and wished to impose on others. If the God of battles had not emerged clearly from thecarnage of the religious wars, a much chastened humanity barely crawled away from twentieth century conflicts. Exchanging God for man did not improve humanity but left some men without limits in their desire to dominate others. When the corpses were counted, the worship of the idol humanity in Nazi, Fascist, or Communist uniforms seemed to have far outstripped the worship of God in wreaking havoc.

Already by the middle of the twentieth century in Western Europe philosophers were so suspicious of ideologies that a relativistic, existential humanism was gaining favor. Camus set the individual in revolt against all ideologies and institutions, and Sartre, denying that objectivity could ever be attained, much less serve as a norm for moral action, proclaimed that whatever the individual chose was ipso facto the better choice. Man creates value by his very choice.[1] Although the idealistic upheaval of the late 1960s gave a momentary spurt to Marxist ideologies in Europe – Sartre even attempted to synthesize his existentialism with Marxism – the Chinese tyranny and the collapse of the Soviet block left the world without anideology. Capitalism, proclaiming itself the victor, attempted to fill the void with a cornucopia of consumer goods. The Enlightenment dream of humanism seemed to be conquering. The new European Constitution deliberately omits all reference to God. Man is allegedly master of all that he surveys. But John Paul II knew that material goods cannot fill man’s inner hunger for meaning; they only distract him for a time even as they subjugate him to his passions. Western culture has manifested ever more clearly the sign of meaningless dissipation as sex became recreational, abortion, therapeutic cloning, and euthanasia undermined respect for life’s sanctity, marriages dissolved, children were exploited, the drug culture burgeoned, suicides increased especially amongthe young, heroism and sacrifice were mocked, and the quest for pleasure introduced bizarre excesses. 

Mankind cries out for meaning, yet the intellectual centers of culture dissipate the time playing philosophical word games, writing solipsistic poetry of self-referential symbols, composing dramas of frustrated rage, and questioning the very possibility of knowing. The medieval universities, a product of Christian trust in the Logos who made the universe, were granted their charters of freedom by the papacy because they were dedicated to truth. But post-modern occupants of ancient professorial chairs no longer believe in truth: since objectivity cannot be reached, truth has become whatever the individual decides it is. Taking its cue from the professors, the Supreme Court of the United States wrote, “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept ofexistence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”[2] That argument served to justify the “right” to abortion, but it can be extended to every area of human existence. Thus tolerance is proclaimed the supreme virtue, and all absurdities are tolerated except those challenging the supremacy of the arbitrarily established, politically correct code of thought and conduct. That the unseen arbiters of opinion impose upon the university and the half-educated quasi-intelligentsia subservient to it, ever fearful of being out of date. “Spin” rules and the mind reels. As the university declines it traditional role of speaking truth to power and individuals are ever more isolated in cocoons of their ownconstruction, with the breakdown of intermediate institutions the state assumes the role of Leviathan, the allegedly omnicompetent mortal god. No individual can alone resist or restrict its claims. Woe betide the little ones whose existence is not recognized as meaningful. 

John Paul’s Challenge to Freedom Such a world John Paul II challenged to respond to Christ in freedom and for freedom. Yet the post-modern world hesitates because it fears losing its greatest good, its freedom. Submitting oneself to an unseen God beyond the world, whose will is allegedly mediated and interpreted by fallible humans, seems a pure loss of what is most precious to man, a loss which leads to the perpetration of inhumanities upon oneself and others because it escapes all rational control. Because the specter of the Enlightenment still haunts it, the secular world refuses to see the paradox that freedom is gained only when it is sacrificed. As one must lose his life in order to find it and the seed must die in order to bring forth fruit (cf. Mk. 8:35 ; Jn.12:24f.), so freedom must be surrendered if it is to be won. Of course a paradox resists the Enlightenment’s simplistic rationalism. The Enlightenment was always demanding freedom for itself from tradition, authority, and God in order to build a more human world but it constantly shied away from contemplating or even analyzing the mystery of freedom.[3]

Freedom must be a mystery, for it cannot submit itself to human reason. Human reason seeks reasons why things are as they are or, in the moral realm, why they should be otherwise. Since the days of Plato and Aristotle a “reason” indicates a cause, why things are such as they are and not otherwise. A cause implies a necessity; if there were no necessary connection between the cause and its effect, the “reason” discovered would at most be a necessary condition for the state of affairs (a conditio sine qua non in Scholastic terminology), not a real cause. For human reason operates according to laws of thought; it does not function arbitrarily. Otherwise it could neither understand reality coherently nor persuade others with an argument. Classical philosophy,presupposing that the mind can attain reality, discovered in “natures” the objective necessity corresponding to the necessary laws of thought. A nature is a principle of activity and rest which develops according to its inherent laws. So an acorn develops naturally into an oak, not into a vine, and a chicken’s egg becomes by nature a chicken, not a horse. An intelligibility pervades such natural processes of change as each nature strives to attain the end, or goal, inherent in its being and operation. In Aquinas’ doctrine human nature has an end and the will as a natural faculty is necessarily ordered to its end; since man’s nature is rational his end consists in the possession of universal good or God (S.T. I, 82, 1; I-II, 1, 4.5, 2; 2, 2.7. 8; 3, 1.8). Eventhough the axiom, “nature tends to a single end,” holds strictly for non-rational natures, intellectual natures enjoy the possibility of choosing various means to their necessary end, which is infinite, and in this respect man’s rational choice is not determined to a single end: “free will holds itself indifferent for choosing well or badly” in the face of contingent realities (I, 82, 1-3; 83, 1.2; I-II, 1, 5, 3). The poor use of his freedom may deprive man of his natural end. There is also the paradox that the attainment of his end, the beatifying vision of God, surpasses man’s natural capacities (I-II, 5, 5); it is a supernatural gift[4]. Thus man, while being part of the natural world, also surpasses it in his freedom; thoughthe freedom is rooted in the will, a natural faculty, the operation in which it actuates itself and by which it attains its end, the election, surpasses the limits of nature.

The mysterious tension between nature and freedom intensified when the Enlightenment accepted as foundational Newtonian physics.[5] Whereas ancient and Scholastic thinkers considered “nature” a whole composed of dynamic self-moving parts, i.e., individual natures harmoniously oriented to an end, the new mechanistic science considered “nature” (Greek: physis) to be dead. It consisted of inertial masses moved from without by efficient causes and subject to universally binding laws, like that of gravity and the commutation of motion. But if all reality had to obey such mechanistic laws, what room was left for freedom and morality? Some Enlightenment moralists like Francis Hutchins and Adam Smith relegated morality to thefeelings, especially benevolence and sympathy, and considered moral education to consist in the proper training of emotional responses.[6] Besides leaving unanswered the question how man could be free in the world when all physical motion was determined by mechanistic laws, such a position stripped away the intellectual foundations of moral action. Kant saw the absurdity and tried to reestablish the rational foundations of moral action. Because he was influenced by Hobbes’ skepticism about knowledge of the external world he claimed that just as reason creates universal, necessary laws in the objective science of physics, reason prescribes the content of universal, necessary laws in morality. To discover correct norms ofconduct one only has to ask oneself if one’s subjective principle for action could be extended to all men. For example, if all men could lie in order to obtain a bank loan, no bank would extend credit. Therefore lying to obtain credit is prohibited for everyone. In Kant’s system God no longer prescribes rules, but man becomes the ultimate moral legislator. “What else, then, can the freedom of the will be but autonomy, i.e., the property of the will to be a law to itself?”[7] Kant’s system ultimately collapsed because it failed to reconcile the phenomenal realm of physics with its finite, necessary laws (objective science) with an unknowable, infinite realm (the noumenon), in which he located human freedom, God,material reality (source of sense impressions), and subjective self-consciousness. But, as we noted above, his successors in the nineteenth century also failed to explain reality despite their wide-reaching efforts to reconcile the finite with the infinite. Hence despite acknowledged insufficiencies Kant’s formulation of basic epistemological, ontological, and moral questions still dominates current philosophical thought. Even though Einstein overturned Newton ’s absolute three-dimensional space and time, molecular science has rejected the necessary laws of mechanistic physics, cultural anthropology has undermined universal moral norms, and philosophical relativism has scorned the universal claims of Kant’s finite reason, contemporary academics follow Kant in excluding Godfrom intellectual discourse and see man’s freedom as the ultimate norm of morality.[8]

Such a position easily explains why modern intellectuals feel themselves alienated. Their freedom is not only outside of but also opposed to nature; their reason fails to discover any common truth that is shared with other rational creatures; and their limited experience leads only to the grave. Since Christ has conquered the grave, one might think that His message would be most appealing to the conundrum of the people of our time. Yet the intellectual inheritance of the Enlightenment weighs heavily on us, augmenting the already massive load of pride that prevents us from surrendering our autonomy. Seeing freedom as mankind’s greatest good, intellectuals refuse to submit to anyone outside themselves. Unfortunately freedom, being a mystery, does not lend itselfeasily to definition and practice. There are many strange and contradictory definitions of freedom that fight for supremacy in our world. They are worth studying.

Various Understandings of Freedom

One principal notion of freedom, borrowed from the political realm, understands freedom as independence. Teen-agers have also been known to long for independence from the restrictions laid on them by their parents and schools. The insufficiency of such an understanding, however, should be obvious upon slight reflection. A finite creature can never be totally independent. His finitude means that he is limited by other finite creatures. We all depend upon others for our food and shelter, not to mention the many conveniences which they provide. Indeed we are dependent upon the air we breathe and the earth we walk upon for life, orientation, and stability. Teenagers, once set up by themselves, usually find that new restrictions are placed upon them by theirbosses, neighbors, and friends. Usually the bosses are not so concerned with their well being as their parents were. In the ultimate analysis only God is capable of being totally independent, yet the Christian God chose to make a world susceptible of rebellion and redeem it through suffering.

A related notion of freedom, again tinged by adolescent fancies, imagines it as doing what one feels like. That certainly avoids the inconveniences of having someone shout into one’s ear orders which must be obeyed. It leaves room for spontaneity. But again reflection reveals that doing what one feels like hardly distinguishes men from beasts. Cows and pigs do what they feel like, following their natural impulses. They are hardly free. “Spontaneity” more often than not involves submitting to the unconscious tendencies of one’s nature. Thus necessary instincts and needs determine actions that one would like to call free. The spontaneity that accompanies true freedom does not consist in doing merely what one feels like doing. Christ freely wentto the cross though such obedience did not accord with His feelings.

Since reason distinguishes man from the beasts, some define freedom in terms of reason. It means following reason, which grants man a certain distance from his feelings, allowing him to see the implications of his actions and purposely plan his future. That seemed to be the Enlightenment ideal, but, as we noted, its reason was objectively realized in Newtonian science, which prescribed an iron determinism. Reason works according to inalterable laws and allows no exceptions. Even in the reaction against the Enlightenment Hegel and Marx both insisted that the world had to develop according to their theories. Their reason, understood dynamically, controlled not just physics but also history, and all individual instances which sought to resist those laws were deemedirrelevant. Today, however, when scientific laws are considered abstractions from reality and multiple perspectives on every conceivable question are allowed and encouraged, reason has been relativized. Whose reason should be followed, yours or mine? Why should anyone else’s perspective or opinion count more than mine? Yet once reason is denied the possibility of attaining objective reality, the choices allegedly based on reason appear arbitrary and freedom is reduced to following one’s feelings. Certainly the infinite God did not follow the laws of human reason in deciding to create the world, yet He decision was not arbitrary since creation was accomplished through the Logos.

Another view, which traces its origin at least to Augustine, sees freedom accomplished only when one chooses the good, what one should choose. Since the will was created to choose the good, the will is free only insofar as it attains its purpose. The choice of evil or a lesser good frustrates the will’s purpose and enslaves it to the attraction of a reality beneath it. This happens all too often in a fallen world where concupiscent human beings are subjugated to passions and inculcated desires. Unfortunately such an idea of freedom has inspired all sorts of ideological or personal tyrannies, whereby the party, the state, or its Führer prescribes what the good is and forces everyone else to freedom by imposing the correct demands: Arbeit macht frei! So millionswere enslaved under Communism and Fascism in the name of freedom. Yet Christians proclaim that only in choosing God, who alone is Good (Mk. 10:18 ), can man become free.

A final view may be traced to the Scholastics but has become generalized. Freedom is traced to the mutual interaction, or causality, of intellect and will. Man often deliberates before he chooses, especially in matters of great moment. His intellect, after careful analysis, offers several possibilities of action to the will. Since none of these possibilities exhausts the unlimited goodness to which the will is oriented – were the will oriented to some finite good, it would not be free, but determined to and by that good – none of them forces the will to choose it. The ultimate choice of a course of action depends upon the will. Yet precisely because the intellect informs the will with rational possibilities for its choice, the will’s choice is guided byreason. Thus intellect and will cooperate in making the choice which is neither irrational nor compelled. However psychologically astute such an analysis of freedom seems to be, there is a fatal flaw. Insofar as none of the possible finite choices exhausts the goodness naturally sought by the will, none of the reasons compels the will. Hence reason comes up short in the ultimate analysis and the choice seems to be arbitrary. For example, if someone is deciding on his or her vocation in life, whether married or religious or single, all those states of life manifest advantages and disadvantages; reason alone cannot decide. There is a real risk involved. Yet the challenge of the risk must be accepted. For to remain unendingly indifferent or hesitantbefore all the choices abolishes the actuality of choice; indeed, to refuse to choose is itself a choice since human beings live in a world demanding choices. We cannot dally forever in the consideration of possible worlds, the real world has been given to us and we have to respond or die.

The Drama of Karol Wojtyla Karol Wojtyla surely had to accept the world as it was thrust upon him, and if anyone ever had the right to lament his fate, Wojtyla might have claimed it. Deprived of his mother in early youth, then losing his brother and father, by the age of twenty-one he found himself without a family yet doomed to face the double scourges of Nazism and Communism, implacable enemies of God and man, for the next thirty-eight years of his life. But he realized that exterior events do not determine one’s fate. Destiny is also freedom for man. In the face of tyranny Wojtyla affirmed man’s inherent freedom as God’s greatest gift. Man cannot be reduced to the simple sum of his parts and influences. A conscience tells him of his moral responsibilitiesand, in case of failure, punishes him with guilt. Despite the efforts of various psychologists to explain guilt away as the result of social pressure or infantile training, basic to man is his sense of moral responsibility.[9] Unless man were open to responsibility for his actions, external pressures could never give rise to the guilt which plagues human life, marking its grandeur and tragedy. “Drama” has to do with man’s “doing,” and the great literature of all ages bears witness to man’s responsibility and guilt. No one plumbed the depths of the Slavic soul so penetratingly as Dostoevsky, and his worldwide success shows that the Slav stands for everyman. Indeed Homer’s Achilles, Sophocles’ Oedipus and Antigone,Euripide’s Electra, Shakepeare’s Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, and Lear, Corneille’s Cid, Racine’s Phaedre and Athalie alike bear witness to the fearful majesty of conscience, whether heeded or rejected to one’s cost. The very beginning of our race was marked by the crime in which Adam and Eve, instead of serving conscience and the objective order of value, sought to become masters of good and evil, displacing God and destroying all harmony.

Actor, playwright, poet, and priest, Karol Wojtyla was also called to teach moral philosophy at the Catholic University of Lublin. There by skillfully combining Scholastic precision with phenomenological method he laid the ontological and epistemological foundations of a moral philosophy that undergirted his great papal writings. His major work, The Acting Person, already indicates the creativity of his thought. He accepts the Scholastic ontology of nature and being but places it in a new context. Instead of starting with natures as principles of activity, he identifies the person as the one who acts. By “action” he intends primarily moral action, for in moral action the meaning of human existence becomes manifest. Whereas the Scholastics started with aphilosophy of nature, studying the necessary structures of reality, and made room for freedom by appealing to the contingency of individual existence, Wojtyla makes it clear that freedom is located in the person, not in the natural will. For the nature is only the necessary precondition of human action. Because human abstractions only approximate the mystery of freedom, the “natures” which the mind attempts to grasp are surely centers of activity, but they are not ultimately determinate of freedom.[10] They give a certain structure to human existence and thought, orienting its needs to various means of fulfillment. The nature needs food, rest, and intellectual nourishment, the choice of time, place, and type offulfillment is not determined in particulars. The ultimate decision and choice depend upon the individual person. That is especially true in moral choices that engage the whole person.

Person as Freedom The notion of person was invented by Christian theologians in the great Christological and Trinitarian controversies of the first seven centuries. They needed a word to express the final unity in Jesus that allowed for Him to be both God and man. Since divine and human natures were clearly distinct, the unity had to be something that was not natural, but neither could it depend upon a fusion or choice subsequent to the creation of Jesus’ human nature. Latin persona and Greek hypostasis served that unifying function at the Council of Chalcedon. What exactly the word meant was left undetermined by the Council Fathers. They considered their task accomplished when the promulgated dogma allowed for a unity in Christ that transcended the diversity ofnatures. It would be up to later theologians to work out the exact relation of person to nature. That task was somewhat complicated by another usage: the word persona or hypostasis was employed to indicate the distinction of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the unity of the divine nature. While St. Maximus the Confessor would provide a brilliant synthesis of orthodox Christology around the notion of person, his theology was lost to the West, due as much to the complexity of his argument as to the breakdown of the Roman Empire under the attack from Arabs, Germans, and Slavs.[11] The medieval Scholastic revival of high, speculative theology, employing as handmaiden a philosophy of nature, would wrestle with the variousnotions of person: in Aquinas’ great synthesis person in Trinitarian though was a subsistent relation, in Christology an individual substance, or subsistence, of a rational nature.

Much subtlety was employed by later Scholastics to define the notion of person more exactly, but their starting point in natures restricted their efforts.[12] Wojtyla cut the Gordian know of speculation by starting with the person conscious of his moral freedom. Intellectual abstractions and judgments can discover a certain order in created reality, but abstractions always fall short of the individual’s vocation, the one called here and now to a choice and commitment (RH 21).[13][13] Man is free, and in Dominum et Vivificantem John Paul II identified man’s image and likeness to God not just with his reason or spirit, but explicitly with his freedom (DV 43), the gift given andthe vocation to be accepted (DV 13; RH 21). For God speaks to every individual in the depths of his being; conscience is called the “voice of God” echoing in man’s “secret sanctuary” (DV 43). “God is present in the intimacy of man’s being, in his mind, conscience and heart: an ontological and psychological reality” (DV 54). This theme was already sounded in the pope’s first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis. Since God is love, man, the image of God, is called to love (RH 9). “Man cannot live without love. He remains a being that is incomprehensible to himself, his life is senseless, if love is not revealed to him, if he does not encounter love, if he does not experience it and make it his own, if he does not participate intimately in it” (RH 10). Indeed, thetruth revealed by Christ is a truth that grounds man’s freedom. There is an objective order of justice and love to which freedom must respond (RH 16f.). Love has as its object not just God but also God’s image, “man in the full truth of his existence, of his personal being and also of his community and social being” (RH 14, 17). Our age is filled with many false notions of freedom: it is “confused with the instinct for individual or collective self-interest or for combat and domination,” thus leading to its abuse, especially in consumerism, the desire to “have more” rather than to “be more,” which leads to the limitation of the freedom of others (RH 12, 16). Before entrusting himself and the Church to the prayer of the Mother of God, the pope concludes his encyclicalwith a rejection of the Enlightenment’s idea of freedom as autonomy. It deserves quoting:

Nowadays it is sometime held, though wrongly, that freedom is an end in itself, that each human being is free when he makes use of freedom as he wishes, and that this must be our aim in the lives of individual and societies. In reality, freedom is a great gift only when we know how to use it consciously for everything that is our true good. Christ teaches us that the best use of freedom is charity, which takes concrete form in self-giving and in service. For this ‘freedom Christ has set us free’ (Gal. 5:1) and ever continues to set us free. 

John Paul II just previously has spelled that that freedom:

Mature humanity means full use of the gift of freedom received from the Creator when He called to existence the man made ‘in His image, after His likeness.’ This gift finds its full realization in the unreserved giving of the whole of one’s human person, in the spirit of the love of a spouse, to Christ and, with Christ, to all those whom He sends men and women totally consecrated to Him in accordance with the evangelical counsels. This is the ideal of the religious life (RH 21).

Precisely because freedom is understood as a gift to which a response is implied, human freedom cannot be arbitrary selection of personal preferences. Ultimately the individual person in the depths of his conscience knows that he has to choose absolutely between altruism and selfishness and act consistently and faithfully in accordance with that choice, giving himself fully to find himself. For it is the paradox of love that when one’s attention is most concentrated on the beloved, one feels that one first begins really to live. To the defense and promulgation of that basic Christian truth John Paul II dedicated his life.

The Necessity of Christ’s Liberation Sometimes such is the high opinion that John Paul II has of man and his freedom that one might almost think that it suffices to love God in man, God’s image. John Paul himself says that the Church is “for man” and that “[man] is the primary and fundamental way for the Church” (RH 14, 21). Many humanists would applaud if the Church were to restrict herself to humanitarian services without raising any universal claim to a particular truth. But the Church cannot cease calling men to accept the Christ who lived at a particular time in history. Redemptor Hominis opens with the bold affirmation, “The Redeemer of man, Jesus Christ, is the center of the universe and of history.” Man is the way of the Church because previously “JesusChrist is the chief way for the Church” (RH 13). Because Jesus gave His life for all men, the Church, His Bride and Body, knows that she has to care for and defend the freedom of all men. Certainly man’s life without Christ would be tormented by despair arising from life’s enigmas. If man is made for love, how do we, who live in fallen world, alienated from ourselves and nature, know that love is a reality? “In men and ‘in man’s world,’ which in itself is a world of moral good and evil, does good prevail over evil?” (RH 15, 18; DM 10) How can anyone speak of “the primacy of person over things... the superiority of spirit over matter” (RH 16) in a world where so many suffer exploitation and all human endeavor ends with the grave? From just his own experienceof himself and the world no mortal can assure the rest of us that love is stronger than hatred, sin, and death. Someone has to tell us with conviction of love’s reality. Only God can speak a definitive word about love because God alone is love. Yet that word had to be spoken in a way intelligible to fallen men. So the Word became flesh and spoke to us in human words. More than that, Jesus did not just impart a teaching about love. As Love incarnate, He died for our sins and rose for our justification (cf. Rom. 4:25 ). In Him we know the truth that “above all, love is greater than sin, than weakness, than the ‘futility of creation’; it is stronger than death; it is a love always ready to raise up and forgive” (RH 9). The truth of love is not anabstract theory but the concrete truth of human life since Christ became our “way, truth, and life” (Jn. 14:6). “This revelation of love is also described as mercy; and in man’s history this revelation of love and mercy has taken a form and a name: that of Jesus Christ” (RH 9). Since Christ said, “You will know the truth and the truth will make you free,” He is “the one who brings man freedom based on truth” (RH 12, citing Jn. 8:32). In this way it is clear how the revelation of Christ “fully reveals man to himself and brings to light his most high calling” (RH 8, 10, citing GS 22). If man was created in the image of God, St. Paul now more truly calls Christ “the image of God” (II Cor. 4:4; Col. 1:15). As man’s “original link with the divine source of Wisdom andLove … was broken in the man Adam, so in the Man Christ it was reforged” (RH 8). Now men cannot understand themselves apart from the “image of God” who created, restored, and elevated them to the dignity of divine sonship. To accept Christ’s revelation of truth, which is identically the fidelity of love, means not just to affirm a proposition but primarily to accept and unite oneself to a person, a divine person, in faith and love. This union initiated by Christ effects the Church, Christ’s Body in space and time, and shows how Christ is the new Adam (RH 8) and the Church is “a sacrament or sign and means of intimate union with God and of the unity of all mankind” (RH 18, citing LG 1). This sharing of life commissions the Church to continue Christ’s self-giving serviceof mankind, and central to that service is the defense of truth and human freedom (RH 12, 14, 16, 19, 21). 

Redemptor Hominis showed how the Church’s mission defends human freedom, and its themes were reiterated in John Paul’s subsequent encyclicals. Dives in Misericordia not only traced the redemption back to the Father’s intention at creation but insists that justice cannot be attained unless carried by love. The rational attempts to create and impose justice cause the greatest injury unless they are supported by selfless, forgiving love. This transcendence of merely rational order reappeared clearly in Fides et Ratio since philosophy, understood as the rational inquiry, cannot be sustained without a deeper wisdom, especially when confronted with the reality of evil and apparently undeserved, unrequited suffering. There the cross’s divine wisdom is necessary to resolve therational conundrums of human life by providing a wider vision of reality.[14][14] Salvifici Doloris correspondingly showed how suffering can be transformed into glory, into an active participation in the redemption of oneself and others through the joining of one’s own suffering to Christ’s in love. Dominum et Vivificantem emphasized the presence of the Holy Spirit in the hearts and consciences of men from creation, since the Father wants every man to return His love, which is fully revealed in Christ. Because John Paul considered marriage the “sacrament of creation” and “the primordial sacrament,”[15] in which love is to be lived and communicated to children, he has resolutelyupheld the sacred indissolubility of marriage and defended sexuality and the dignity of the human body against all the trivializing, desacralizing tendencies of technology, pornography, and eroticism in Familiaris Consortio. Similarly because in God’s original plan love and life were one – just as God’s life is love – Evangelium Vitae defended human life from the moment of conception to natural death. Only after sin destroyed the primordial unity of life and love, did the horrors of abortion, artificial contraception, and euthanasia arise to dull man’s perception of life as a divine gift. Against those who would relativize moral absolutes, letting all depend upon the subjective conscience, so vulnerable to concupiscence, Veritatis Splendor recalled the objectivity of moralnorms which are implied in the total following of Christ. 

Despite the unique, privileged position of the Catholic Church which mediates and witnesses the life and truth of Christ to humanity, John Paul recognized with St. Thomas that God did not limit His power to the sacraments (S.T. III, 64, 7; 66, 6; 27, 1, 2) – otherwise no pagan would be moved by grace to receive baptism. Hence Redmptoris Missio acknowledged the goodness found in non-Christian religions even while insisting upon the need for conversion to Jesus Christ, the unique mediator between God and man, and to the Catholic Church where the fullness of His truth and life is maintained by God’s faithful grace. Since love unites while recognizing differences, the witness of believers to love and the freedom which love implies looks to unanimity in love and faith. Thus SlavorumApostoli and Orientale Lumen called for unity between East and West. Similarly Ut Unum Sint supported ecumenism’s efforts to gather all Christians into one Church around the one table of the Lord, but with full respect for God’s truth, not ignoring nor minimizing the real dividing differences that remain.

Love is more fundamental than justice, faith in love is deeper than the profession of dogmas, wisdom is wider than rational explications. Yet just as the Word of God communicated Himself through the message of human words, love cannot do without justice (DM 14) nor faith without dogma (FR 84, 95f., 99) nor wisdom without reason (FR 64, 75, 79). The deeper commitment of freedom, in which the mystery of God’s love encounters man’s heart, has to be mediated through finite intelligible structures as Christ’s humanity, the sacraments, the Scriptures. Without these structures love remains vague, incomprehensible, and irrelevant. Love’s unlimited demand for conversion and self-giving has to find concrete application in the real world of flesh and spirit. That is why JohnPaul insisted so strongly on the finite structures mediating love: marriage, the family, the unique role of women in Familiaris Consortio and Mulieris Dignitatem; then, in the order of grace, Church and the sacraments, especially penance in Reconciliatio et Paenitentia and the Eucharist in Ecclesia de Eucharistia. That is also why he had to address broader issues of social justice in Solicitudo Rei Socialis and Centesimus Annus and the meaning of human activity in Laborem Exercens. For Christ’s salvation embraces and illuminates all aspects of human life. Men are who they are in relation to others. They are made in the image of love for love, and that love has to be incarnated in finite structures. Although the social encyclicals do not contain dogmaticpronouncements, they are grounded in the fundamental truths of Christian life and hence can shed light upon the changing structure of the world. For wherever human freedom is at work, there the love of God is calling to men to express the figure of Christ, who serves His fellow men as He gives glory to the Father.

Through all his labors John Paul the Great was explaining, defending, and saving human freedom, because only free men can receive the revelation of the God who is Love in Jesus Christ. Freedom is not a possession that a creature hugs to himself, jealously hoarding his autonomy; it is a gift to be returned with gratitude so that it may attain the true freedom of God without limit, a final freedom that fulfills human nature while divinizing it. Like the kingdom of God , it exists in the tension between present and future, indicative and imperative. Human persons are who they are because they are in relation: most themselves when most one with others. For such also is God, endless Love, the mutual exchange of selves as subsistent relations. The Father is who He is,Father, only because the Son is Son, both in relation, communicating in the Holy Spirit.

Conclusion The struggle of the third millennium has commenced. The neopagan secular state, which claims to serve man and protect his rights, ultimately forces men to conform to its narrow vision of reality because it recognizes no power outside itself. It relativizes all values and laws in the swells of history in order to impose its own arbitrary order. But arbitrary imposition is not freedom and fosters no order.[16] The Church must always appear as its foe since the Church has a norm of human action revealed from beyond man. Human law at most can insist upon justice, but justice cannot be easily defined; it always wavers between the simple equality of commutative justice, “tit-for-tat,” “equal pay for equalwork,” and distributive justice, or equity, that recognizes differences among men and apportions rewards and punishment accordingly. Only self-sacrificial love can recognize the correct standard to be applied and hope for the acceptance of its judgment. That is why the state needs a foundation deeper than itself in order to subsist. If it does not recognize a norm beyond itself, it becomes tyranny. The Roman Empire sought to abolish the Christian Church because she refused to worship human power as right. The Church today is attacked by secularists on all sides because she refuses to recognize any human society as absolute. For the Church knows that there is a truth greater than man, a truth that, appearing in history, is nonetheless not relativized by theundulations of time and cultures. Freedom needs a Truth that transcends the world even while it is found in the world. Such is Christ who has committed Himself to mankind forever in His Church because He wants men to be free.[17][17] Christ’s freedom overcame the world and despite all the advantages of its technology and propaganda secularism shall collapse upon itself because it cannot assure man the freedom that he is and desires. We Catholics can thank God for the gift of John Paul II, who not only resisted the forces of dissolution within the Church but also renewed the vision and championed the cause of Christ, crucified and risen, who has “set us free for freedom” (Gal. 5:1). Love has overcome sin anddeath. We have nothing to fear. 


[1] A. Camus, The Rebel, tr. A. Bower (New York: Vintage, 1956), esp. pp. 285-290, 301-306.; J. Sartre, Existentialism and Humanism, tr. P. Mairet (London: Methuen: 1948), esp. pp. 20f.
[2] In Casey vs. Planned Parenthood (1992): printed in Origins 22:8 ( July 9, 1992 ), sect. 3, p. 117. This was the opinion of Justice Kennedy, supported by Justices O’Connor and Souter.
[3] In his apologia P. Gay, The Enlightenment: An Interpretation, 2 vols. (New York: Knopf, 1967-69), never considers the meaning of freedom except as the setting aside of tradition, authority, and God (mythopoeic thinking) in favor of science and human autonomy. He even subtitled the second volume: The Science of Freedom, though he was aware of the difficulties facing the philosophes in reconciling their views of freedom and nature with Newtonian physics (cf. II, pp. 126-128, 158-162, 289f.). A book praised by Gay, H. Muller, Freedom in the Western World (New York: Harper, 1963) simply identifies freedom with secular, scientific, technological modern democracy and depicts a one-sided history of “good guys and bad guys” withouthardly a philosophical reflection on the meaning of freedom. Few ages ever expounded such a superficial philosophy as the Enlightenment, and the conduct of many philosophes, even in Gay’s retelling, reveals them as sensuous, adulterous, incestuous, manipulating historical studies, distorting their adversaries’ positions, often hypocritically employing tergiversation and simple lying to advance “truth,” despising the uneducated rabble, yet claiming to be moral men unaffected by original sin. Were it not for mechanistic physics, which leaves no room for freedom, they would have been laughed off the stage. But the wind which they sowed the world has been reaping since the French Revolution. Cf. C. Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity (Cambridge:Harvard U., 1989), pp. 321-340.
[4] Thomas’ paradoxical doctrine of the natural desire for supernatural beatitude (cf. S.T. I, 12, 1; II, 3, 8) has provided the axis of dispute not only between Catholic and Protestant theologies but also in the twentieth century among various schools of Thomism. The distinction between natural and supernatural orders was posited to preserve human and divine freedoms for the novelty of historical revelation. But because freedom was located in the will various insoluble conundrums arose
[5] E. Burtt, The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science, 2nd ed. (1932; rpt. Garden City: Doubleday, 1954) gives a good presentation of the issues involved in the transition from the Ptolemaic-Aristotelian physics to mechanistic physics. Cf. also H. Butterfield, The Origins of Modern Science, rev. ed (New York: Collier, 1962).
[6] Taylor, pp. 259-265; A. Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759; rpt. Indianapolis : Liberty , 1969).
[7] I. Kant, Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, tr. L. Beck (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1959), p. 65.
[8] So, e.g., in the wake of Kant, Sartre, p. 46f., identified man’s “free being” with “absolute being,” and Freud’s psyche is tormented because the Super-Ego imposes moral imperatives upon the Ego.
[9]] K. Wojtyla, The Acting Person, tr. A. Potocki with A. Tymieniecka (Dordrecht: D. Riedel, 1979), pp. 11-13 and throughout, concentrates on moral action as the preeminently free action.
[10] Wojtyla, pp. 44f., 71-74, 78-85, 116f., 119f., 136, 147, 173, 180-186, 210f., 217f., 258, 299f.; more specifically on the relation of person and will: pp. 118, 125-128, 134-143, 147.
[11] Cf. A. Grillmeier, S.J., Christ in Christian Tradition, I, 2nd ed., tr. J. Bowden (Atlanta: Knox, 1975) for the dramatic issues leading to the Council of Chalcedon. The best introduction to Maximus’ thought remains H. von Balthasar, Cosmic Liturgy: The Universe According to Maximus the Confessor, tr. B. Daley ( San Francisco : Ignatius, 2003); for his analysis of personal action cf. G. Bausenhart, “In allen us gleich ausser der Sünde” (Mainz: Grünewald, 1992), pp. 110-182, esp. 147-182.
[12] A. Grillmeier, S.J., “The Figure of Christ in Catholic Theology Today,” in Theology Today, I, ed. J. Feiner, J. Trütsch, and F. Böckle, tr. P. White and R. Kelly (Milwaukee: Bruce, 1965), 78-108, offers a good overview of some modern Scholastic attempts, which repeat much of Baroque Scholasticism.
[13] The following abbreviations for papal and Vatican II documents are used: DM Dives in Misericordia; DV Dominum et Vivificantem; FR Fides et Ratio; GS Gaudium et Spes; LG Lumen Gentium; RH Redemptor Hominis. In retrospect one can affirm that almost all the major themes of John Paul’s teachings are anticipated in Redemptor Hominis.
[14] Cf. our “Faith, Reason, and Freedom,” Irish Theological Quarterly 67 (2002), 307-332, which attempts a brief metaphysical grounding for the John Paul’s understanding of freedom; cf. 325f. for the relation of reason to wisdom-faith in Fides et Ratio.
[15] John Paul II, The Theology of the Body: Human Love in the Divine Plan (Boston: Pauline Books & Media, 1997), pp. 76, 333-336, 341-354.
[16] Not only have secular humanitarian democracies often been transformed into totalitarian tyrannies in recent history from the French Terror on, but such acclaimed works as J. Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge: Harvard U., 1971), demonstrate how from egalitarian principle one arrives ultimately at a tyranny imposing its equality of all before the State.
[17] C. Cochrane’s classic Christianity and Classical Culture (1940; rpt. New York : Oxford U. , 1957) deserves rereading. In its day it reminded totalitarian states of the Roman Empire ’s totalitarian ideology that failed to perpetuate the State and had to be revivified by Christian freedom, divine and human. 

Faith Magazine

July - August 2005