An Introduction to John Paul II's Theology of the Body (1)

Father Richard Hogan

Chapter 1

George Weigel in his book, Witness to Hope, suggests that John Paul II’s Theology of the Body is a “theological time bomb set to go off, with dramatic consequences, sometime in the third millennium of the Church." [1] While completed in November 1984, until recently, the Theology of the Body has not elicited much comment or interest. In fact, only a handful of Catholics had ever heard of the Theology of the Bodybefore Weigel’s book was published. Weigel’s remark and his discussion of the Theology of the Body are partly responsible for a renewed interest in this significant papal work.   

The Theology of the Body of Pope John Paul II is a series of addresses given at the Wednesday papal audiences in Rome from September 1979 to November 1984. (There were some rather lengthy interruptions in this series, e.g., during the Holy Year of the Redemption in 1983, the audiences were devoted to other topics.)  The Wednesday papal audiences are given as an opportunity for visitors and pilgrims to Rome to see and hear the Pope.  Previous Popes of the second half of the twentieth century have given addresses at these audiences as Pope John Paul II does.  However, John Paul II’s predecessors have not tried to give a series of addresses devoted to one theme in successive audiences. Rather, each address stood on its own and treated a subject matter appropriate to that particular Wednesday, e.g., on a saint’s feast day, Pope Paul VI might have spoken about that particular saint; or during the Easter season, Pope John XXIII might have addressed the joys of Easter and the promise of the resurrection of the body implicit in Christ’s resurrection.   John Paul II has decided to use the Wednesday audiences to give a series of addresses devoted to one central theme.  The first of these series was theTheology of the Body.  A series, given once a week to totally different audiences over several years, is not the easiest task to attempt.  Each address needs to stand on its own and make sense to the particular audience who hears it.  Still, it also must fit into the series and be part of a much larger effort to address the central theme. 

The Theology of the Body comprises 129 individual addresses.  These are divided into six different cycles.  The first three cycles are reflections on the remarks of Christ pertaining to marriage. In the first cycle (nos. 1-23) John Paul discusses Christ’s answer to the Pharisees when they ask him about whether a man can divorce his wife. [2]  The second cycle (nos. 24-63) are a reflection on Christ’s remarks in the Sermon on the Mount about adultery, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.' But I say to you, everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” [3] The third cycle (nos. 64-72) discusses the resurrection of the body. In this cycle, John Paul analyzes Christ’s answer to the Sadducees when they come to him and ask him about a woman who had married seven brothers.  They want to know which brother will be the man’s wife in heaven. (The fictional case the Sadducees posed to Christ rested on the so-called Levirate law.  If a husband died without children, his brother was supposed to marry the widow and father a son who would be considered the son of the dead brother. [4] In the case presented by the Sadducees, a particular woman married the first brother and he died before fathering any children. A second brother married the widow and he also died without children. Eventually, the woman married each of the seven brothers and never had any children. The Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection of the body. They were posing the question in order to “trick” Christ who, they knew, taught the resurrection of the body.)

The second set of three cycles do not rest on particular words of Christ, but are the application of the points previously discussed to celibacy and virginity, marriage, and contraception.  The fourth cycle (nos. 73-86) applies the conclusions of the first three cycles to celibacy and virginity for the sake of the kingdom.  The fifth cycle (nos. 87-113), a particularly vital one, is an extensive analysis of the fifth chapter of St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians in light of the conclusions previously reached in the first three cycles of theTheology of the Body.  In this chapter, Paul compares the mystery of the Church to marriage, especially in light of Christ’s elevation of marriage to the level of a sacrament.  The sixth cycle (nos. 114-129) applies the conclusions of the first three cycles to the teaching of the Church regarding contraception.

From the very first words of the Theology of the Body, one realizes that John Paul’s approach to theology differs from those taken by the great representatives of the Catholic theological tradition: Saint Augustine and Saint Thomas Aquinas. Saint Augustine represents the first attempt in the West to develop a unified presentation of the faith through the use of a particular philosophical system. In adapting Plato’s philosophical thought to the data of Revelation, Augustine formulated a synthesis of the Catholic faith. This synthesis was the way the faith was taught from Augustine’s death in 430 until the thirteenth century. 

By the thirteenth century, modes of thought and the culture had changed.  Arabic translations of works of Aristotle, unknown to medieval Europe, translated into Latin in Spain, became available to scholars in Europe. Later, direct translations from the Greek to Latin were available through the crusading states established in the Holy Land.  Not only did these new translations provide more accurate texts of works already known, previously unknown works, at least to medieval Europeans, became available. Aristotle’s works changed the academic world of the twelfth century as did other factors as well.  No longer did the Augustinian system convey the faith in terms easily understood.  It was necessary to develop a new synthesis, a new way of conveying the faith. St. Thomas did what Saint Augustine did, except that instead of Platonic philosophy, St. Thomas used Aristotle. The resulting theological synthesis was the second mode of conveying the faith in the West.

While rooted in both the Augustinian and Thomistic traditions, it is crystal clear that John Paul’s Theology of the Body has a startling and unexpected new “twist.”  It, together with his other works, represents a new synthesis, a new way of conveying the faith to the modern world.  This new approach is necessary because most people in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries do not think and act in the categories of either Saint Thomas or Saint Augustine.

Both Saint Augustine and Saint Thomas Aquinas lived and taught in a culture which might be described as objective, deductive, and principled. The modern world is primarily subjective, inductive, and experiential.  Objective means that something is real, i.e., it is true, regardless of whether or not I know it to be true.  For example, if a blind man is outside, but cannot see the trees, the trees are still there.  Even though he does not perceive them, the trees are truly there. The existence of the trees does not depend on whether the blind man perceives them or not.  Objective reality exists independent of one’s perception.  The subjective view of reality claims that only that which I perceive to be real is actually real.  Generally, the subjective view of reality is not applied to trees and physical objects.  However, it is applied to non-physical realities, e.g., truths about the existence of God, truths about morality.  The subjective view of reality is clearly captured by the phrase, “That may be true for you, but not for me!”  In other words, what is true depends on what I believe or accept, or better phrased, on what I perceive.  In the medieval world, such a claim would be utter nonsense.  In fact, to most medieval academics, the truths of the faith, both dogmatic and moral truths, were more real than physical objects.  The medieval world was objective. We are subjective.

The medieval world was also deductive which is corollary of its objective view of the world.  Knowledge was derived from principles by the process of deduction, often illustrated in syllogisms.  One started with a “given” which was accepted, e.g., God is a pure spirit, and added what was called the minor term, e.g., a pure spirit does not have a body, and drew a conclusion, e.g., God does not have a body.  We determine what is true by experiments, by our own experience and by counting heads—whatever the majority believes.  This method of reaching truth or knowledge is the inductive method and it is a different process than the deductive method.

The third difference, i.e., between a principled and an experiential worldview, is implied by the other two. The medieval world was based on widely accepted truths from which conclusions were drawn, i.e., on principles. The modern world derives knowledge from personal experiences.

Since most in our era think subjectively, inductively, and experientially, they are ill prepared to hear, or even less, understand the truths and practices of the faith taught in a structure and outline which is objective, deductive, and principled.  Even the vocabulary and language used in either the Thomistic or Augustinian synthesis is foreign to the modern ear.  If the Revelation of Christ is to be grasped and understood today, it needs to be presented to people in their own language and in their own modes of thought.  In a word, it needs to have a subjective, inductive, and experiential garb and it needs to use words which are part of the common coinage of modern culture.  The difficulty, however, is to take the “jewels” of the faith—the Revelation of Christ—and present them in a new way with a new philosophical system without changing the content of these “jewels.” We need to have another genius, another Saint Augustine, another Saint Thomas, who would do for our era what each of these saints did for his.

John Paul II is another Saint Thomas, another Saint Augustine.  He is recasting the “jewels” of the faith into a mode and garb which makes them understandable to our age The Church needs to convey the content of Revelation in a way that is understandable to people of every generation. That is what St. Thomas did for the thirteenth century—and make no mistake, there were those who insisted on continuing to use the traditional explanations, i.e., the synthesis of St. Augustine—and what John Paul II is doing for our generation. If one understands the Thomistic or Augustinian synthesis, is there any harm in using them? Of course not, and they need to be taught to every generation of theologians. However, as a way of conveying the faith to the people of the twenty-first century, it seems that the new John Paul II synthesis is more effective.  Many will insist that John Paul II is a Thomist. Of course, he is!  St. Thomas was an Augustinian. Each new synthesis builds on the previous ones. There is no question that John Paul II is a Thomist.  But there is also no question that he is building a new theological synthesis which will be one of the building blocks of the Church in the twenty-first century and beyond.  The Augustinian synthesis was the way the Church thought about Revelation for about eight hundred years! St. Thomas’ synthesis was in place for more than seven hundred years.  If the pattern holds, John Paul II’s synthesis will be with us for centuries.

For some, such a claim may be startling.  It is not often that one hears a contemporary living person compared favorably with one of the icons of western culture.  However, there are a serious of coincidences and extraordinary events surrounding John Paul II’s life and papacy which lend some credence to the claim.  No one of these coincidences or events would make the case, but all of them, put together, cannot be mere happenstance.  All together, through these facts it seems that the Holy Spirit is telling all of us that we should pay attention to this Pope. Further, the reason why we should pay attention is precisely the new synthesis of the faith he is offering to the Church and the world.

First of all, although only in his early forties, the then Bishop Wojtyla spoke at the Second Vatican Council.  Further, he and a team he assembled in Poland wrote the original draft of the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes.  The original draft was edited, but as it stands today, it is predominantly what was drafted in Poland..  He also contributed substantially to the other constitution on the Church of the Second Vatican Council, The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium.  Since the Second Vatican Council was primarily about the Church (the word Church is the most used substantive word in the conciliar documents), John Paul II had a significant influence on its work.  Since the Second Vatican Council was the most important council in Church history since Trent, John Paul’s influence on it is a landmark of his life.

Second, Pope Paul VI appointed him to the commission which was examining the area of contraception, the so-called “birth control” commission.  John Paul’s book, Love and Respoonsibility, as well as a speech he gave in Milan, Italy, shortly before Pope Paul VI issued Humanae Vitae, influenced Paul VI to decide the issue of the birth control pill the way he did.  Arguably, Humanae Vitae was the most important papal document since the Reformation and John Paul II had a large part in its drafting.

Third, neither he nor John Paul I were expected to be chosen as Pope in 1978.  In the papal elections of the twentieth century, the two or three candidates for each election were fairly well-known. Almost always, the new Pope was one of the two or three mentioned in the media as possibilities.

Fourth, John Paul I and then John Paul II both took a double name.  The Pope at the time of his election has since the tenth century taken a new name, but only one.  To some, this may seem rather insignificant, but if one realizes the force of custom at the Vatican, the double name becomes incredibly important.  Only with great difficulty and much thought are customs changed.  For example, when John Paul I died, they still made sure the Pope was actually dead by hitting him three times on the forehead with a hammer and calling out his baptismal name.  This method was used in past centuries to make sure the Pope had died.  Even though the physicians have assured everyone that the Pope has died, they still use the hammer because that was the way it was done centuries ago!  In the face of such persistent custom, for John Paul I and then John Paul II to take two names is astounding.  In fact, when the cardinal dean asked the new Pope, John Paul I, what he wanted to be called, and the new Pope said, “John Paul,” the cardinal must have replied, “Well, you can have either “John” or “Paul” but not both.  The new Pope must have responded with something to the effect that, “I can have two names because I want it that way and I am the Pope!”

Fifth, John Paul II was the third Pope in a year of three Popes: Paul VI, John Paul I, and John Paul II.  There has not been three Popes in a single year since 1648.

Sixth, John Paul II is Polish, not Italian.  There has not been a non-Italian Pope since 1523.

Seventh, John Paul II was from a Communist country and yet, without him, the Iron Curtain would not have fallen.

Eighth, despite challenges to all of us to live up to the moral teachings of Christ regarding drugs and sexual practices, John Paul II is immensely popular and many cannot understand how he can issue such challenges and still be so welcomed by so many people, especially the young.  Of course, his popularity is based on the appeal of the truth of the Gospel which people recognize when he preaches because it is taught in a language and a method they can understand.

Ninth, he has traveled more than any Pope in history—a very significant fact when one remembers that for almost a century, the Pope never left Rome and its surroundings.

Tenth, the assassination attempt on his life in May, 1981 was clearly sponsored by the Bulgarian government.  Such an attempt, sponsored by a government, on the person of the Pope has not occurred since some thugs of King Philip IV of France roughed up Pope Boniface VIII in 1303.

Eleventh, John Paul II is both a philosopher and a theologian.  Most Popes in modern times have been diplomats or canon lawyers.  There has not been a academic theologian on the throne of Peter for centuries.

Twelfth, as Pope John Paul has issues a the Catechism of the Catholic Church.  There was on one other in history, the so-called, Roman Catechism, at the time of the Reformation.

Thirteenth, also as Pope, John Paul has issued a new code of Canon Law. The last time the Church issued such a code was 1917 and the time before that was 1240!

Fourteenth, as Pope, John Paul is issuing revisions of the liturgical books.

Fifteenth, he has suggested an additional five mysteries to the Rosary.  The Rosary has never been changed.  Furthermore, the 150 “Hail Marys” of the Rosary were supposed to match the 150 Psalms in the Book of Psalms.  Now, there are 200 “Hail Marys!”

Sixteenth, without counting St. Peter, John Paul is the second longest reigning Pope in history—behind only Pius IX of the last century who was the successor of Peter for more than thirty-two years.

Taken all together, these sixteen different coincidences and facts suggest that this Pope is very important.  We are to “read the signs of the times.”  It seems that the Holy Spirit is paintng a very clear sign for us to read regarding Pope John Paul II.  He is vital, not for all of these events and coincidences taken together or considered separately, but because he is giving the Church and the world a new way of presenting the Gospel of Christ. 

John Paul II’s new approach does not change the faith at all.  If one thinks of thecontent of the faith, the Revelation of Christ, as a very large diamond sitting on a pedestal under a skylight in the middle of a room in a museum, it is a bit easier to understand what John Paul II is doing.  The diamond can be viewed from any point on the 360 degree circumference. The viewpoint of the onlooker is defined by philosophy. St. Augustine looked at the diamond from one vantage point, using Platonic philosophy. St. Thomas moved to another point on the circumference using Aristotle. John Paul has defined a third point.  Nevertheless, they are all looking at the same, exact diamond. Further, one onlooker can point out a feature to another onlooker. In other words, St. Thomas sees the same thing as St. Augustine or John Paul II, but he describes it differently. But they each describe the same feature of the diamond. Therefore, it is possible to “translate” the description of any feature of the diamond from Augustine to Thomas, to John Paul II, from Thomas to Augustine and John Paul II, and from John Paul II to Thomas and Augustine.  It is always the same diamond.

The new “twist” in John Paul II’s Theology of the Body is precisely the application of a new theological synthesis to the problems of sexuality, marriage, and family life. Through the use of a philosophical movement called phenomenology, John Paul has been able to present the content of Christ’s Revelation in a subjective, inductive, and experiential way without doing damage to its content.

In his Witness To Hope, Weigel, quoting Angelo Scola, writes that “virtually every thesis in theology—God, Christ, the Trinity, grace, the Church, the sacraments—could be seen in a new light if theologians explored in depth the rich personalism [the usual name of the new synthesis of Pope John Paul II] implied in John Paul II’s theology of the body.” [5]  Of course, this remark is absolutely true. It is true for two reasons.  First, the new synthesis of Pope John Paul II is clearly apparent in his Theology of the Body and it can be studied and learned from its use in these addresses. Once learned and studied, it will be recognized in other writings of the Pope and his initial work can be furthered and developed. (It should be noted that the founder of a new synthesis does the initial work, but centuries are devoted to “mining” the riches and depth of a particular synthesis.  Saint Augustine developed his synthesis using Platonic philosophy, but it was studied and developed further over eight centuries.  Similarly, Saint Thomas was the founder of the fusion of Aristotle’s philosophy and the content of Revelation, but the study and development of his work goes on even today.) Certainly, if the new synthesis of John Paul II were to be studied in the Theology of the Body, and then recognized and applied to other areas “virtually every thesis in theology . . . could be seen in a new light.”

Secondly, Weigel’s remark is also true because every area of Revelation has an impact on other areas.  How one understands the mystery of Christ, both His Incarnation and Redemption, will impact one’s understanding of the Church, of grace, of the sacraments. How one understands the mystery of our Creation in the image and likeness of God, clearly impacts one’s concept of the second Person of the Trinity becoming man.  Revelation is a unified whole.  It is Christ.  Christ cannot be subdivided. A new approach in one area will impact all others.  So, of course, the fruit of John Paul II’s new approach in the area of sexuality, marriage, and family life---the results of the Theology of the Body—impacts every thesis in theology and “every thesis in theology. . . could be seen in a new light.”  Weigel’s remark is true because themethod of the new synthesis can be learned from the Theology of the Body and because the fruits found in the Theology of the Body have implications for the other areas of theology.

As we have mentioned, John Paul II’s new synthesis is the result of the use of a philosophical movement called phenomenology.  The founder of phenomenology was a German philosopher named Edmund Husserl (1859-1938).  Briefly, Husserl focused on the subjective, individual experience of people. He collected these experiences one at a time from different people.  Phenomenology is a subjective, inductive, and experiential philosophical method. Husserl was interested in discovering how things are in the world (the being of things—what philosophy always investigates) through the interior perception of the world by individual people.  In this way, he linked the interior powers of the mind, will, self-awareness (consciousness) to the real world and was able to overcome the division between the interior life of the mind and the real world which had entered philosophical thought first through Descartes. (Descartes’s “I think, therefore I am,” divorced reality--the exterior world--from the interior life of every person because it grounded existence only in interior thought.)

Karol Wojtyla first encountered phenomenology through Roman Ingarden who was a professor in the philosophy department at the University of Cracow where the future Pope was earning his doctorate in philosophy.  Ingarden had been one of Husserl’s students.  Through his studies, which focused on ethics, Wojtyla saw that phenomenology was able to provide a link to reality, a way to ground ethical norms in reality, and not only in interior ideas. An earlier German philosopher, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) had taught ethical norms are unknowable because they lie beyond immediate human experience.  But morality (good order in human existence) requires that we act according to the traditional norms.  Therefore, we should always act in accordance with these norms even though they are unknowable—this is what Kant meant by the “categorical imperative.”  Kant divorced ethics from reality. Wojtyla saw that phenomenology provided a way to re-link ethical norms to reality.

Wojtyla wrote his doctoral dissertation on Max Scheler who also had been a student of Husserl.  Scheler was particularly interested in ethics and attempted to come to knowledge of ethical norms through phenomenology.  Scheler argued that every human experience is connected with a value. We are either attracted to the value or repulsed by it. By studying human experience from the subjective, interior point of view, Scheler believed he could identify values. These values actually existed in the real world. They were concrete and objective, but they were known through subjective, individual experience.  Scheler thus provided an alternative to Kant’s “categorical imperative.” Further, he linked the values to the interior, subjective experience of the person.  Values are objective and real, but only known through the interior perception of experiences.  Instead of being commands and norms which one is compelled from the outside to follow, values (ethical norms) are part of one’s own interior experience.

Wojtyla was critical of Scheler because Scheler failed to provide an objective order of values.  Since values were known through the subjective experience of each person, they could differ radically from one person to another. Further, the relative importance of these values was determined by the intensity of the response to each value. The value which elicited the most intense emotional response from an individual was, for that individual, the most important value.  Therefore, even if two people had a similar set of values, the hierarchy of these values would differ from person to person. In Scheler’s thought, there was no way to establish an objective order of morality.  Of course, Scheler avoided any kind of appeal to duty or responsibility because he was reacting against Kant’s “categorical imperative.” 

Wojtyla was also critical of Scheler because the German philosopher did not notice that through our ethical choices, we each become what we do.  We become good or evil by doing good or evil acts.  An ethical act not only has effects outside of oneself, but it also has an internal effect. Visiting a friend in the hospital not only benefits him, it also has an interior effect on me: I become a visitor of the sick.

Despite the criticisms Wojtyla made of Scheler’s work, he saw that Scheler’s use of phenomenology provided a powerful tool for the study of Christian ethics.  If the Christian norms taught by Revelation could be understood as interior norms, i.e., if these norms could be perceived through experience, they would cease to have the character of external laws imposed on one from the outside. Further, one could speak about these values in a subjective way appropriate to the modern world.

More importantly, phenomenology provides a tool for examining personhood. Phenomenology studies human experiences from the interior point of view. Since through these experiences, we become who we are, the study of these experiences and their internal effects gives us a tool to come to some understanding of human personhood from the inside. Since personhood is one of the most important concepts in Christianity, the phenomenological method provides a new way of studying and perceiving Christian Revelation.  Saint Thomas using Aristotle studied personhood more or less “from the outside” in an objective way. “He did not adequately develop the subjective side of the life of the person.” [6] Using the phenomenological method, John Paul is able to develop the subjective side of the person while in no way compromising or altering the fundamental objective truths of Revelation. 

It is precisely because the person is vital to revealed truth that there can be a synthesis of phenomenology and the faith. Phenomenology begins its investigation with the individual human person. It begins with our conscious experience of ourselves as acting agents. Phenomenology then leads to the mystery of human personhood. Phenomenology, subjective as it is, “opens the door” to the full truth about man revealed in the objective order by God. John Paul II makes this link between phenomenology and the objective order of the faith through the text in Genesis: “Let us make man in our image.” [7] Man is a person (has an awareness of his own acts, one of the most important marks of personhood) because he is like God, made in God's own image. The reference to the Creation of human persons in God’s image at one and the same time saves the subjective insight of the phenomenologists without losing the objectivity of the Gospel. The true nature of human persons is revealed in the objective order but experienced and studied in a subjective way. The content of Revelation, truths centered on personhood—the personhood of God and each human being--is given to each individual human person and yet is experienced in a subjective way. The objective order of Revelation is linked in this fashion with the subjective experience of each human person. It is no wonder that one of the hallmarks of John Paul II’s pontificate is the repeated and insistent teaching on the dignity (value) of each and every human person.

The new synthesis of John Paul II encompasses the entire diamond, the entire content of Christ’s Revelation.  The teachings of Christ can be outlined in seven general subject areas: God (as One and Triune), Creation, Incarnation, Church, Sacraments, Grace, and Commandments.  Under each of these is an immense amount of material which in turn is divided into sub-categories. For example, any complete discussion of the mystery of Creation necessarily includes the Creation of the angels, the Creation of human persons, the mystery of the fall and of original sin, the effects of sin, and even the Providence of God shown to the people of the Old Testament. John Paul II’s new approach embraces the entire content of Revelation, the entire diamond. While there are a few subject matters in Revelation which John Paul has not addressed extensively, these can easily be studied according to the approach and mind of John Paul II. He has at least briefly addressed each area and from these remarks the direction of his thought is clear.  Others can analyze these areas further.  The John Paul II synthesis is also apparent from the subject areas he has exhaustively treated, e.g., the Theology of the Body.

The Theology of the Body certainly is a subjective, interior look at what happened to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden before and after the first sin.  The results of this examination of the experiences of our first parents are then applied to important areas related to sexuality, marriage and family life.  John Paul actually acknowledges specifically that he wishes to look at the subjective, interior reality of the lives of our first parents when he remarks that one of his absolutely central texts, the second chapter of Genesis, “presents the Creation of man especially in its subjective aspect.” [8] 

The phenomenological method is also apparent in John Paul’s work on the Church entitled, Sources of Renewal. [9]  Written as a reflection on the Church ten years after the opening of the Second Vatican Council, Sources of Renewal begins with the question the conciliar fathers put to themselves, “Church, what do you say of yourself?” [10] If the Church can ask itself a question (and, obviously, expect an answer), it is a personal subject—it is a person.  In fact, the Church is the mystical person of Christ. [11]

Every person has a mind and a will. Every one knows what he or she knows and knows what he or she chooses.  This self-awareness of what we know and choose is called our consciousness.  Through this self-awareness, we watch ourselves when we learn and when we act.  Our consciousness stores what we have learned and what we have done. It stores our experiences.  This storage function of our consciousness results in our becoming what we do. Through what is stored in our consciousness, we determine ourselves—we shape ourselves into those things we have experienced. If we practice the piano, these experiences are stored and we gradually shape ourselves into a piano player. (Of course, we can never completely alter and even less, destroy, what is given to us in Creation by God, i.e., that, as persons, we are created in His image and likeness.) In addition, the storing of these experiences means we have a memory of what we have done.  Phenomenology probes the depths of our consciousness, in its memory function, to study our experiences.

Since the Church is the mystical person of Christ with a mind and a will, it also has a self-awareness of its own acts.  Therefore, the Church can be studied as a subject, as a person, from within. In Sources of Renewal, the future Pope endeavors to probe the Church’s self-awareness of its acts of knowing, i.e., its faith, and its self-awareness of its choices.  Wojtyla studies the Church from within applying the phenomenological method to a theological investigation of the Church.  After the introduction in Part I, Parts II and III of the book are an examination of the Church’s acts of knowing and of its acts of willing, respectively. Part II is entitled, “Formation of Consciousness” and Part III is entitled, “The Formation of Attitudes.”  Wojtyla (at least in the English translation) uses consciousness to mean the self-awareness of what the Church knows (its faith) and attitudes to mean the Church’s self-awareness of what it chooses (its acts). The study of the Church from within as a personal subject is clearly the application of the phenomenological method to one of the major topics of Revelation. The Pope’s new “twist” is not only present in his Theology of the Body series.

We find similar uses of the phenomenological method in most of the encyclicals and documents of John Paul II’s papacy. The startling and exciting new way is present in the very first words of the very first encyclical: “The Redeemer of man, Jesus Christ, is the center of the universe and of history. [12]  The same startling turn of phrase is found in other places in that encyclical, e.g., when John Paul writes about the Church and teaches that man “is the primary and fundamental way for the Church.” [13]  

In Laborem Exercens, On Human Work, [14] the Pope refers to the primary purpose of work: the shaping of an individual into someone who acts like God, who participates in God’s creative work by subduing “the earth.” [15]  In working, human persons imitate God. They act as He acted when He “worked” to create the world. In acting as images of God through work, human persons shape themselves more and more into who they are: images of God.  In this way, they fulfill themselves.

In Familiaris Consortio, The Apostolic Exhortation on the Family, one of the headings in Part III is “Family, become what you are” and this phrase is also found in the body of the text. [16]

One of his most interesting applications of the phenomenological method is the analysis of the parables of Christ and of the experiences of people with Christ.  In his encyclical on morality, Veritatis Splendor, The Splendor of Truth, in the first chapter, the Pope examines the meeting of the rich young man with Christ. [17]  He analyzes in great depth the experience of the young man in meeting Christ and argues that the young man’s questions are the interior questions all of us have. By analyzing this experience and those of others who met Christ, the Pope comes to some understanding of human personhood. One of his conclusions is that we all have certain questions: questions not unlike the questions put to Christ by the rich young man. Through these subjective, phenomenological studies, the Pope uncovers the aspects of our own interior experiences: e.g., that we all have questions about ourselves.. But there is more here because these meetings are with God, Himself.  Christ answers the questions and the Pope is able to study how those people who met Christ experienced the answers (Revelation) given by the Lord.   

In his second encyclical, Dives et Misericordia, Riches in Mercy, John Paul has an extensive discussion of the parable of the Prodigal Son. [18] He analyzes the story from the point of view of the prodigal son, i.e., from the interior experiences of the prodigal affirming that the prodigal’s experiences are common to all of us.  “That son . . . in a certain sense is the man of every period.”  The prodigal demands his inheritance from his father, moves away to a distant country, squanders his money, and is reduced to working as a hireling on a farm. Almost starving and wishing he could devour the food the pigs were given, the prodigal comes to his senses and decides to return to his father.  At this point, the Pope writes that “the analogy turns clearly towards man’s interior.”  The prodigal has not only squandered money, but the prodigal has an “awareness of squandered sonship,” of the loss of his own dignity. The prodigal’s return to his father is a personal experience of forgiveness but it also contains important objected revealed truths.  Through a phenomenological study of this parable, the Pope offers us some new and surprising insights.  It is one thing to know something objectively. It is quite different to experience it.  For example, I may have heard that cars need motor oil or they will eventually cease to function.  But it is quite a different thing to experience one’s car stopping dead on a highway for lack of oil.  Phenomenology allows us to probe experiences of people and in the study of the Scriptures, actually to probe people’s experiences of Revelation.  This is what the Pope offers us in his application of phenomenology to Revelation.

The new personalism of Pope John Paul II is without a doubt a brilliant solution to a problem which has plagued the Church and its theology since the Renaissance and Reformation period.  The Renaissance focused on human beings in a way which was foreign to the Middle Ages. While it is something of a oversimplification, there is some truth in the statement that medieval thought began with God and Renaissance thought began with human beings.. The Protestant Reformation furthered the emphasis on individual human beings and especially on the individual with its insistence on the private interpretation of Scripture. The same tendency can be seen in the development of science and in the scientific method which gradually developed from the Renaissance onward.  Science is based on observation of individual phenomena, i.e., on experimentation and the recording of the data gleaned from experiments.   Science and the scientific method so dominate society that  people are loathe to accept conclusions from principles. When an individual’s “real” experience is quoted, people tend to accept conclusions based on that event.  It is observable and individual.  The focus on the individual is also one of the touchstones of democracy.  The emphasis on the individual and freedom has its roots in the Renaissance, the Reformation, the rise of science and in the development of democracy.  It results in a concept of the world which is subjective, inductive and experiential. The subjective turn of John Paul II’s new synthesis allows Revelation to be taught to the world of the twenty-first century in its own language and categories.

[1] See George Weigel, Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II, (New York: Cliff Street Books, 1999), p. 343.         

[2] See Matthew 19:3-9; and Mark 10:2-9. 

[3] See Matthew 5:27-28 

[4] See Deuteronomy 25:5-10. 

[5] See George Weigel, Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II, (New York: Cliff Street Books, 1999), p. 343. 

[6] See Rocco Buttiglione, Karol Wojtyla: The Thought of the Man Who Became Pope John Paul II, translated from the Italian by Paolo Guietti and Francesca Murphy, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1997), p. 82. 

[7] See Genesis 1:26.

[8] See no. 3, Theology of the Body, September 19, 1979, “The Second Account of Creation: The Subjective Definition of Man,”L’Osservatore Romano (English Edition), vol. 12, no. 39. 

[9] See Karol Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II), Sources of Renewal: The Implementation of Vatican II, translated by P.S. Falla, (New York: Harper and Row, 1980.) 

[10]  See Karol Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II), Sources of Renewal, p. 36. 

[11] See Richard M. Hogan and John M. LeVoir, Faith For Today, 2nd edition, (Boston: Saint Paul Books and Media, 1995), pp. 151-185. 

[12] See John Paul II, Redemptor Hominis,  The Redeemer of Man, L’Osservatore Romano (English Edition), vol. 12, no. 12, (March 19, 1979), no. 1.    

[13] See John Paul II, Redemptor Hominis, Redeemer of Man, L’Osservatore Romano (English Edition), vol. 12, no. 12, (March 19, 1979), no. 14. 

[14]See Pope John Paul II, Laborem Exercens, On Human Work, L’Osservatore Romano, (English Edition), vol. 14, no. 38, (September 21, 1981). 

[15] See Genesis 1:28. 

[16] See Pope John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio, The Apostolic Exhortation on the Family, L’Osservatore Romano (English Edition), vol. 14, nos. 51-52, (December 21-28, 1981), no. 17. 

[17] See Pope John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor, The Splendor of Truth, (Washington, D.C.: United States Catholic Conference, 1993, pp. 12-45. For the story of the rich young man in the Scriptures, see Matthew 19:16-21, and its parallels, Mark 10:17-31, Luke 18:18-3

[18] See Pope John Paul II, Dives in Misericordia, On the Mercy of God, (Boston: Saint Paul Editions, 1980), nos. 5-6.  For the story of the Prodigal Son, see Luke 15:11-32. 

February 25, 2003  - Fr. Richard Hogan