THE THOUGHT OF POPE JOHN PAUL II
Colin B. Donovan, STL
At the time of the Council of Trent a scholarly Dominican, Pope St. Pius V, sat in the Chair of Peter to guide the Church's implementation of that  Council's many dogmatic documents. Today in the era after the Second Vatican Council, there is once again the perfect man to implement a Council's decrees, Pope John Paul II. Such is the Holy and Wise Providence of God.

It has been said that the Second Vatican Council was only a pastoral Council, with few real doctrinal contributions to sacred tradition. According to this line of reasoning this is just as well. Many streams of thought, not all good, flowed into its texts, the language of which is equivocal, difficult to interpret and subject to abuse. In the main it is a Council better forgotten.

As if to prove the point, dissenters argue to liberty in doctrine and   morals basing themselves on "Vatican II" or its "spirit." Such arguments, however, seldom reference the actual words of the Council. It should be remembered that the Reformation based itself upon the inspired text of Sacred Scripture, misunderstood and erroneously applied. It would be unusual, indeed, if a human work, although of a special kind, were free of misunderstanding and distortion. The problem in both cases is to arrive at an authentic interpretation, guaranteed by the best of theological reasoning, and ultimately by the charism of the Magisterium.

 

Personalism

If one word can be used to describe the character of the writings of the Second Vatican Council and those of the Pope, both before and during his pontificate, it would be personalism. Personalism is a twentieth century philosophical, and ultimately theological, movement which seeks to investigate reality from the point of view of the human person.

You might ask, are not all studies conducted by human beings "from the point of view of the person" since human beings do the studying and they are persons? The answer would be no! Historically, most philosophical, scientific and theological studies have treated human beings as the "objects" who are KNOWN, rather than the "subjects" who KNOW. For example,  philosophy has often taken up the study of the nature of man, or human nature. Such a study views man as an object in order to generalize from what the philosopher learns about all human beings, so that he can  determine what they share in common, what is essential to man. What he discovers can then be said to be applicable to all human beings. There is no discussion about the individual human person, per se, though the philosopher may determine WHAT a human person is.

Such objective philosophy, and theology, is absolutely necessary, since it generates authentic truths about reality, such as the nature of things (e.g. the nature of God, of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, of man, of law, of the Church, of sacraments and so on). ANYTHING that can be an object of study can be treated in this way. On matters of interest to a Catholic the Summa Theologiae is the greatest work of objective philosophy and theology (synthesized as one) ever produced. In Aquinas' many   philosophical writings we have the single greatest corpus of objective (realist) philosophy the world will probably ever see.

When dealing with man, however, it is not enough to view him as a thing. The results are, at best, a partial truth. The philosophies behind Nazism and communism, materialism and liberalism, have had no difficulty reducing human beings to objects of the state, of evolution, of capital, or some other collective force. Personalism proposes that in any issue where man is involved the principal concern has to be the individual person and not man as an object, a thing.

In many ways the Church already had this perspective, for in addition to the objective philosophy of St. Thomas she also had the Gospel. No human  philosophy could as personalist as the message of Jesus, the Divine Person who became man to teach us how to love persons as God loves. However, the Church had never really given a philosophical basis to such personalism, concentrating on developing the objective nature of the truth (as noted above). So, while personalism began among secular philosophers as a reaction to the de-humanizing philosophies and programs of our age, some in the Church were quick to see that it had much in common with the Church's own message. They brought it into the Church under various guises and the general personalist concern made it into the thought of Vatican II from many founts. For this reason it is important to distinguish false from authentic personalism and to find the correct way to interpret it consistent with the truth which the Church already knows.

....to be continued.


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