Karol Wojtyła and the importance of every human person

Karol Wojtyła and the importance of every human person

Karol Wojtyła and the importance of every human person

Karol Wojtyła – Pope St. John Paul II – accepted the classical defnition of the person, “an individual substance of a rational arol Wojtyła – Pope St. John Paul II – accepted the classical nature”, and brought to it all of the richness of contemporary developments in philosophy. Wojtyła does not satisfy himself with simply repeating the medieval interpretation of the defnition but takes it up afresh, augmenting and expanding it. He thinks alongside and within the Christian tradition to enhance the contemporary understanding of that tradition. In so doing, he markedly expands the dimensions of the received defnition of the human person. The potential for this expansion is furnished by Wojtyła’s formation in contemporary philosophy, particularly phenomenology. The latter half of the 2nd millenium saw a transition from a philosophy of being towards a philosophy of consciousness. With this came a focus on the subject – a move from a focused analysis of the objective constitution of reality, to the thinking and knowing being. So, with Wojtyła’s help, we now approach the human person from a subjective

The human person is not only perspective: we are going to explore the person inwardly, so to speak, by looking at the human person from within the interior experience of personhood. Because the human person is not only an object, a what, but also a subject, a who, and primarily so. It is important to note here that the use of ‘subject’ and ‘subjective’ does not in the least imply ‘subjectivism’. Rather, it is simply the recognition that the human person is not just something, but each and every person is also someone, a subject. This is a transition from the cosmological perspective to the personalistic perspective, from the objective metaphysical structuring to the subjective phenomenological experiencing. These modes of approach are of course mutually complementary. First, to secure a connection between both approaches, let us explore consciousness in Aquinas’ metaphysical doctrine. In this, consciousness can be considered a derivative power of the human person, an active power arising from the rational an object, a what but also a subject, a who, and primarily so 6 principle of the human soul.  As a being of a rational nature, the human person is therefore, ordinarily, a conscious being. The nature of consciousness is twofold: consciousness is both consciousness and self-consciousness. Consciousness is the power to be present to and aware of reality – it is receptivity to being through experience. Self-consciousness is the power to be self-aware in one’s consciousness of reality. Through consciousness there is an “I” looking out upon the world and knowing it.  Each human person is an “I”.


This “I” could be called the interior pole of our individuality, that by which we are awake and alert to the world, and around which revolves all our unique and unrepeatable experiences of life and activity. It is the interior centre of our person, the nexus from which all life originates and all living concentrates. The conscious “I” sees the world, knows the world, and acts in the world. It says, “I think… I choose… I feel… I act.” Each individual “I” is the source of his own living and activity.  Consequently, it is that for which we must take responsibility – I am responsible for my “I,” and for all that comes forth from this centre of conscious life. The “I” is the ultimate source of thought and free-choice, the origin of deliberation and action. In grasping this “I”, both of ourselves and of others, we gain a privileged glimpse into understanding the unique personhood of ourselves and others.

Human creativity

Karol Wojtyła speaks of thought as the basis of human creativity and the source of human culture. Thought, he says, is the “basis for deriving truths from existing reality and for controlling reality”. And again, “in creating, we fll the external material world around us with our own thought and being”, and in this there is a likeness with God, since “the whole of creation is [but an] expression of God’s own thought and being” (Thomistic Personalism, 171). Moreover, Wojtyła explains that freedom, and with it morality, is central to the human person: that “which is most characteristic of a person, that in which a person (at least in the natural order) is most fully and properly realised, is morality.” (Thomistic Personalism, 172).

Morality is essential to the human person precisely because the human person is a being rational and free. And though free thought is certainly a precondition for doing the good, and is thus presupposed of morality, it is only in the very doing of the good in freedom that the human person most fully manifests itself. Karol Wojtyła speaks of thought as the basis of human creativity and the source of human culture. Love 7 For Wojtyła the moral character of the human person reaches its fullness in love. Love revolves around the good. The good is the centre of gravity of love – love recognises, afrms, desires and delights in the good. And since, among all of visible created reality, human persons are the greatest of goods, love is always personal. Strictly speaking love always begins within a person, in the freedom of the will, and ends in a person, in the intimate knowing of the personal core of the beloved. In Love and Responsibility, a ground-breaking text analysing sexual love, Wojtyła goes as far as to say that the only proper response to a person is love, since “the person is a kind of being such that only love constitutes the proper and fully mature relation to it” ( Love and Responsibility, 26).

To realise its being and life, and to experience the fullness of human experiencing, the human person must be the subject and object of love, for it is precisely in love that the human person most fully actualizes itself, and thus reaches the fullest realization of its being and life (66). In this power of self-dominion, the human person can do all those things which manifest a truly human life. He can take hold of himself as master of itself – can determine the course of his life, take possession of itself and give of himself.


Persons are radically capable of: 1) self-determination; 2) self-possession; and 3) self- giving.

1) Self-determination: The self-determining power of the human person is not simply the ability of the person to determine his own action and the course of his life. In free action the person not only determines some reality external to the self, but also simultaneously determines his own being. This self-determination is traditionally described by the contrasting categories of virtue and vice, where virtue is found in the manifold of habits that order the powers of the soul to their true good, and vice in their correlative negative opposites. Virtues are positive determinations of character, and so, virtue is personal formation; while vice, being negative, is personal deformation.

2) Self-Possession: Self-determination in virtue leads to ever greater degrees of self-possession. The human person does not receive his being from the Creator as a static determined fact, but must, through his own freely chosen activity, participate in its own defnitive formation in a progressive “taking-hold of itself”. In such a taking-hold the person assumes radical responsibility for himself and further determines his own native individuality. In this way, freedom leaves a decisive mark on the self of the person, and is a power with immense responsibility.

3) Self-giving: Though certainly an exalted property of the person, freedom not considered by either Aquinas or Wojtyła as an end in itself. Rather, freedom is for love (117). Ultimately, the human person is defned by love. Love, for Wojtyła, is about being other-focused. It is an inner movement of the will for the true good of the other, and ultimately culminates in some form of self-giving. Self-gift is of the inner nature of love, and is its essential interior dynamic. Therefore, we can see that the fundamental self-determining potential of the person, which is progressively perfected in self-possession, is essentially ordered towards the possibility for self-gift. Wojtyła says that it is precisely in love that the human person reaches the fullest realisation of its potential, and thereby fully develops its being (66). This is the ultimate paradox of human nature, that to fulfl oneself means to give of oneself—to be truly oneself one must exist for others. These three potencies of the human person, which are all ordered towards and culminate in self-giving, became the focus of so much of John Paul’s writings, in his encyclicals and his catechesis on the Theology of the Body. And it too became the defning character of his own life, as self-gift for the sake of the kingdom. Love, for Wojtyła, is about being other-focused 

Rich understanding

Given this rich and robust understanding, we see why the human person amongst all of visible created reality has pre-eminent dignity. Dignity identifes a being uniquely worthy of respect. It is only attributed to beings which because of their value are considered invaluable, that is, without the possibility of measure. Recognition of dignity is recognition of value beyond valuation. For Aquinas, the term person functions explicitly to signify our dignity. Aquinas states that “subsistence in a rational nature is of high dignity”. The human individual, as a concrete instantiation of a rational and free nature, is “distinct by reason of dignity”, and because of this we attribute to him the word person. Aquinas captures this truth beautifully when he says that “person signifes that which is most perfect in all nature”. The human person has dignity because of what he is, his nature, and that he is, his existence.  This is why the term person is so very important. When we use the term person we don’t just point to what the human individual is, his essential constitution, but we directly, intentionally and deliberately signal his pre-eminent dignity.

Recognise the dignity of all persons

1) It is not the activity of the person that is of decisive importance, but the being and nature of the person. According to a classical Aristotelian – Thomistic axiom: agere sequitur esse, action follows being. Actions arise in and from the being and nature 9 of something, and precisely as such are manifestations of the being and its nature. According to their nature, cats miaow and dogs bark; conversely, cats don’t bark and dogs don’t miaow – action follows being. It is thus the being according to its nature that has priority, with action following as strictly secondary. And so, it is not the thinking, nor even the aptitude for thinking, that defnes the human person, or identifes a particular being as a person, but rather it is the essential being of the person, a nature specifed by rationality. It is the manifestation of existence of a particular kind that is important, not its activity, or lack thereof. Therefore, all particular individuals which are identifed as having human nature are, as such, persons. And so, it is necessary to recognise their dignity.

2) The human person does not receive his dignity, whether from another, or from his own store of talents and actions. Rather, the human person has dignity, just because of ‘what he is’ and ‘that he is’. A human being’s worth does not depend on anything beyond the simple fact that he stands in existence.

Absolute respect

Therefore, because of what the human person is, his nature, it follows as strictly necessary that he be treated with absolute respect according to his incommensurable value, his dignity. This is why we say that human dignity is inviolable and inalienable – it cannot be destroyed, and cannot be removed. Consequently, the term person applies to all human beings who have existence, whether we consider those who do not think or will—including the human embryo, no matter how small—or those who perhaps never could or never will think and will—including the severely handicapped, the disabled elderly or an individual in a “persistent” or “permanent vegetative state”.

Putting it all together

The human person is the fulcrum around which the whole natural moral law rotates, and that to which it must always return and serve. And this has consequences for contemporary human rights issues, including abortion, euthanasia, human trafcking, war, etc. The concept of the person was developed and refned in the crucible of Christian philosopher – theologians trying to grapple with understanding (and misunderstanding) the two fundamental theological mysteries of the Christian faith. The gradual and sometimes painful evolution of the term through the Trinitarian and Christological controversies of the Patristic period, as well as the robust investigative work of Christian philosopher–theologians, Sts. Boëthius, Aquinas, and John Paul II, have progressively led to a fuller appreciation of the proper meaning of the human person.


It is precisely by virtue of this history of Christian thought that we have our colloquial usage of the term person as a signifer of the human being in his unique and unrepeatable individuality, a being with inalienable and inviolable dignity. In just this way, Jesus Christ, in His self-revelation of the Trinity, has had a decisive impact on the development of the meaning of the term, person, and with it the human individual – which signifcation and signifcance remains indelibly bound-up with Christian history. Sts. Boëthius, Aquinas, and John Paul II, have progressively led us to a fuller appreciation of the proper 



Robert McNamara lectures at the Franciscan University of Steubenville

Faith Magazine

Faith Magazine March - April 2017