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by Fr Thomas McGovern

Over the past twenty years of his pontificate, John Paul II has deepened our understanding of the Gospel message in many ways. Yet it is perhaps in his discussion of Christian anthropology that the former Archbishop of Krakow has made his most original contribution to theological discourse. [2]

The Church in the twentieth century has responded with greater sensitivity to the anthropological dimension of theology. This has not happened by accident. Particular philosophers and theologians made valuable contributions to this enterprise which found expression in the documents of Vatican II, especially in the pastoral constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, and the decree on religious freedom, Dignitatis Humanae. [3]

Vatican II was the first council of the Church to affirm a detailed Christian anthropology. The need to do so arose as a response to the materialistic conception of man which has dominated much of the twentieth century. This climate of materialism was fueled by three main currents. In the first place there was the materialism of modern science. The experimental method tended to the view that, since only what can be measured is real, only material reality exists. At the human level, advances in biology, influenced by the theory of evolution, had led to a depreciation of the spiritual dimension of man.  Secondly, the influences of the Marxist philosophy of materialism, in a tyranny without precedent in human history, brought misery and death to countless millions. Finally, a more subtle materialism which has drugged the spirit of man, and which is expanding rapidly, is the practical materialism of the West. This is the fruit of the rapid development of technology, creating a wealthy society driven by consumerism. This society measures progress solely in terms of material wealth, and effectively reduces the practice of politics to the maintenance of favorable economic conditions. The driving principles of this rapidly expanding practical materialism are the primacy given to individual subjective rights, and the dominance of a liberal capitalistic outlook indifferent to social responsibilities at a global level.

It was these negative influences that inspired attempts to construct a more adequate Christian anthropology. Here it is only possible to mention a few of the major contributors to this project. In Crossing the Threshold of Hope John Paul II refers to the contributions of two Jewish thinkers, Martin Buber (1878-1965) and Emmanuel Lévinas (1906-95), who had drawn on the personalist tradition of the Old Testament and had influenced his own thinking. [4] In Buber’s perspective, man is a being made for relationships at three levels – with his fellow man, with the world, and with God. [5] Other philosophers such as Gabriel Marcel (1889-1973), Jacques Maritain (1882-1973), and Emmanuel Mounier (1905-50) made their own individual contributions to this  personalist philosophy. Indeed it has been pointed out that the distinction which Marcel made between ‘being’ and ‘having’ had a profound influence on the anthropology of Vatican II as well as on the thinking of John Paul II. [6] Other valuable insights were added by the Gottingen Circle of Edmund Husserl (1859-1938), Max Scheler (1874-1928), and Dietrich von Hildebrand (1889-1977).

These personalist philosophies did not constitute a complete system, but rather expanded the framework of traditional Christian philosophy with a more profound exploration of the reaches of the human spirit. As John Paul II himself explains:    

One cannot think adequately about man without reference, which for man is constitutive, to God. Saint Thomas defined this as actus essendi (essential act), in the language of the philosophy of existence. The philosophy  of religion expresses this with the categories of anthropological experience. The philosophers of dialogue, such as Martin Buber and the aforementioned Lévinas, have contributed greatly to this experience. And we find ourselves by now very close to Saint Thomas, but the path passes not so much through being and existence as through people and their meeting with each other, through the “I” and the “Thou”. This is a fundamental dimension of man’s existence, which is always a coexistence. [7] 

These insights of personalist philosophy are based on the light of Revelation – on the doctrine of man made to the image and likeness of God and on the Trinitarian theology of relationships. These were some of the insights and strands of thinking which, added to traditional philosophy, gave impetus to the articulation of a Christian anthropology in Vatican II and subsequently in the magisterium of John Paul II.

The Anthropology of Vatican II

The first part of Gaudium et Spes, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, gives a brief but complete statement of the Christian doctrine about man. The early drafts contained three chapter headings as follows: ‘The Dignity of the Human Person’ (nos.12-22), ‘The Community of Mankind’ (nos.23-32), ‘Man’s Activity in the Universe’ (nos. 33-39). It is of interest to note, however, that at the insistence of one Cardinal Wojtyla, a fourth chapter was added on ‘The Role of the Church in the Modern World’ (nos. 40-45), which is a summary of the first three chapters. Indeed, according to Cardinal Garrone, who had overall responsibility for putting the document together, this fourth chapter was drafted by the Archbishop of Krakow himself. [8]  

Chapter I is a very evocative reflection on the dignity of the human person in the light of his creation in the image and likeness of God. It is also a rich discourse on the vocation of man, the significance of human freedom and the nature of conscience. The christological conclusion at the end of this chapter (no.22), which has been repeated so often in the magisterium of John Paul II, is perhaps the best known passage of the whole document:

In reality, it is only in the mystery of the Word made flesh that the mystery of man truly becomes clear ... Christ the new Adam, in the very revelation of the mystery of the Father and of his love, fully reveals man to himself and brings to light his most high calling ... Human nature, by the very fact that it was assumed, not absorbed, in him, has been raised in us also to a dignity beyond compare. For, by his incarnation, he, the Son of God, has in a certain way united himself with each man. [9]

This positive affirmation is, of course, qualified by a description of the darker side of man’s  history – the damage which sin has done to his very nature, and the consequences of this for his relationship with God and his fellow men. [10] Without the revelation of Christ it is not possible to understand man fully. Rather this very revelation is the deepest source of wisdom about man, his nature, and his destiny.

The second chapter tells us one of the most important truths about ourselves: ‘If man is the only creature on earth that God has wanted for its own sake, man can fully discover his true self only in a sincere giving of himself’[11] (no.24). This capacity for a relationship with God and with others is a reflection of the inner relational life of God himself which is the Trinitarian communion of the divine Persons. It is of particular importance for understanding the personal vocation to holiness of every man and the  evangelizing mission of the Church.

Anthropology of Karol Wojtyla  

Most people are already familiar with the significant stages and events in the life of the Holy Father as student, seminarian, priest, university professor, bishop and cardinal. His pastoral concern and philosophical interests led him to write Love and Responsibility – the work which reveals his distinctive anthropological perspective. This was first published in 1960, two years after he had been appointed auxiliary Bishop of Krakow. It is a profound meditation on human sexuality, love and marriage. Here his philosophical and theological convictions combine with his pastoral concern for the formation of young people in chastity and their preparation for marriage. It is here too that he articulates most clearly the ‘personalist norm’ which is fundamental to his anthropology, and which is a constantly recurring theme of his papal magisterium. [12] 

Around this time also, in preparation of for Vatican II, he proposed that it would be opportune for the Council, in light of the aggressive advance of the varieties of materialism, to emphasize the transcendent spiritual order and the uniqueness of human personal existence in the created world. In other words, he concluded, ‘it is appropriate to delineate the question of Christian personalism’. [13] His experience of the brutality of the Nazi occupation as a student and seminarian, and, later, of the tyranny of Communist oppression, gave him a unique perspective on the fundamental truths about man that needed to be proclaimed and defended by the Church. In his own words:

The two totalitarian systems which tragically marked our century - Nazism on the one hand, marked by the horrors of war and the concentration camps, and communism on the other, with its regime of oppression and terror – I came to know, so to speak, from within. And so it is easy to understand my deep concern for the dignity of each human person and the need to respect human rights, beginning with the right to life. This concern was shaped in the first years of my priesthood and has grown stronger with time’. [14] 

The Acta of the Council record that he made five contributions to the document on religious freedom (Dignitatis Humanae), and students of the history of this document affirm that it was deeply influenced by the Christian personalism of the Archbishop of Krakow. [15] At the third session of the Council, in September 1964, quoting St John’s text, ‘The truth will set you free’ (8:32), he requested that the relationship between truth and freedom should be emphasized more strongly, even to the point of affirming that there can be no freedom without truth. [16] How often would we hear him repeat the same thesis, especially in his encyclical Veritatis Splendor! [17] In his intervention on 22 October 1965, at the final session of the Council, he requested that the text of Dignitatis Humanae should underline a basic theme of Christian personalism – man’s responsibility in relation to the  truth. If freedom and responsibility are not situated in the context of their truth, there is a danger of favoring religious indifferentism. [18]         

Wojtyla’s role in the emergence of Gaudium et Spes was even more significant. [19] His longest and most important contribution was on 24 September 1964, when he addressed the question of the manner of communication and dialogue with modern culture.

It is appropriate that the Council speak in such a way that the world see we teach not only in an authoritative way, but that we seek together with it a just and balanced solution to the difficult problems of  human life. The question is not whether we already know the truth well, but rather how to enable the world to find the truth and make it its own. [20]

The influence of his contributions was such that, as we have already noted, he was asked to draft the fourth chapter of the first part of Gaudium et Spes on ‘The Role of the Church in the Modern World’. In Crossing the Threshold of Hope he refers to his participation in the Council debates ‘as a unique occasion for listening to others, but also for creative thinking’. [21]   He also records his debt of gratitude to Yves Congar and Henri de Lubac for the encouragement they gave him to pursue his particular line of thought. [22]

Cardinal Wojtyla also contributed to the 1969, 1971, and 1974 Synods of Bishops – and  most incisively to the latter which was concerned with evangelization. As Cardinal Koenig, the emeritus Archbishop of Vienna, commented: ‘Everybody knows that, by an express decision of Pope Paul VI, Wojtyla was the real author of Evangelii Nuntiandi, which obviously was revised and touched up by the Holy Father as was his custom.[23]  

Consequently, when he was elected to the papacy in 1978 he carried with him the experience of varied intellectual influences; but his own reflection was invariably focused on anthropological issues. This derived from his immersion in Thomistic philosophy, his use of the phenomenological method to capture and describe the richness of spiritual experiences, his personalist perspective on human flourishing, and his primary theological focus on the Incarnation as the key to the nature and destiny of man. [24]   

One of the great themes of the papacy of John Paul II is the articulation of the true nature of the human person as a being made to the image and likeness of God. Again and again he returns to this theme in his magisterial writings, especially in his encyclicals Centesimus Annus (1991), Veritatis Splendor (1993), and Evangelium Vitae(1995). It is clear, too, that he is willing to draw on the resources of the phenomenological method to manifest in all its splendor the depths of the human spirit, and to clarify such fundamental topics as conscience, moral judgment, the mystery of freedom and responsibility, and the possibility of obtaining access through these manifestations of the human spirit to the very core of the person. His Love and Responsibility is a brilliant example of this approach, leading to profound insights into the nature of human sexuality, love and marriage. [25]

Like all students of his time, he was well formed in the philosophical principles of Thomist theology, accepting fully St Thomas’ definition of the person as a subject of intellectual and volitional actions. His philosophical approach, however, enabled him to study a dimension of the person not developed in Thomist ontology – the creative aspect of human action and interpersonal relations. Descriptive analysis of human experience through the phenomenological method allowed him deepen his understanding of the person as a being who entrusts himself to God.[26]

Anthropology of John Paul II

From the beginning of his pontificate John Paul II has taught that the truth about man is to be found in Christ. In his homily at his installation as pope, he encouraged the world not to be afraid of Christ, since Christ alone knows what is in every man. ‘I ask you … I implore you’, he said, ‘allow Christ to speak to man.[27]  Little by little an expansion of themes from Gaudium et Spes became a regular feature of his magisterium. In his very first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis (4 March 1979), the conciliar document is referred on at least seventeen occasions. Indeed we could say that the phrase from Gaudium et Spes, ‘Christ fully reveals man to himself and brings to light his most high calling’ has become the theme of his pontificate. [28]

Later he would himself point out that, in the encyclicals Redemptor Hominis and Dives in Misericordia (1980), he was trying to explicate the content of this idea from Gaudium et Spes, taking account of the anxieties and expectations of his contemporaries. Writing about this encyclical fifteen years later, he says that

The Council proposed, especially in Gaudium et Spes, that the mystery of redemption should be seen in light of the great renewal of man and of all that is human. The encyclical aims to be a great hymn of joy for the fact that man has been redeemed through Christ – redeemed in spirit and body. [29]

The central idea is that the Redemption, the task of salvation which the Church carries out in the world, consists in helping man to discover the full truth about his being and this truth is to be found only in Christ.

Man and Creation            

Christian anthropology has two basic points of reference, each of which is a divine initiative. The first is the mystery of creation in which man is made ‘to the image of God’. The other is the mystery of Christ who, as we have seen, reveals man fully to himself. This is the anthropology of the Incarnation and the Redemption. The Christian definition of man has thus a point of departure and a point of arrival. Between these points the mystery of sin intervenes with the Fall and its consequences for man’s personal response to God.

After John Paul II had completed Redemptor Hominis, in preparation for the upcoming Synod of Bishops on the topic of the Christian family in October 1980, he devoted the traditional Wednesday catechesis to the exposition of his thinking on human sexuality and marriage. Over a period of five years, from September 1979, he would provide a profound theological reflection on the themes of chastity, marriage and celibacy in the context of the ‘nuptial meaning of the body’. [30] Here he drew on the creation accounts in Genesis, Christ’s teaching on marriage and celibacy, and the Pauline corpus covering the same areas. In his exegesis of the relevant scriptural passages, he brings to bear not only the findings of traditional Christian hermeneutics, but also the anthropological insights of Vatican II and the personalist philosophy he had already elaborated in Love and Responsibility.  

Traditional theology tells us that man is made to the image of God because he possesses the faculties of intellect and will. In his analysis of the creation accounts, John Paul II insists that a capacity for relationship with God is of the very essence of man. God’s invitation to a shared life is a gratuitous, unmerited gift to man who from the beginning was made capax Dei. In these reflections, John Paul II offers many insights about the nature of human identity, the manner in which man is distinguished from the rest of creation by the reality of human work, and the relational mode of his personal being which manifests itself on three levels – with God, with the world, and with others through a communion of love and self-giving.

These are some of the basic principles of ‘the truth about man’ to which John Paul II frequently refers. But the implementation of this truth cannot be achieved without the moral energy that comes from God through participation in the divine life of grace. Only in the Church can one find this wisdom about man, and, at the same time, the gift of divine grace which renders possible a life in accord with this vision.

Human Work and Temporal Realities

By God’s will, knowledge of the world and the progressive dominion of its resources is achieved only through human work. Faith guides and stimulates this effort, but it cannot substitute it. This is a consequence of the Church’s recognition of the legitimate autonomy of temporal things. Human affairs have their own proper laws which God did not reveal to us with the principles of the faith. The discovery of these laws is essentially the role of the laity. As Gaudium et Spes points out:

Let them be proud of the opportunity to carry out their earthly activity in such a way as to integrate human, domestic, professional, scientific and technical enterprises with religious values, under whose supreme direction all things are directed to the glory of God...it is their task to cultivate a properly informed conscience and to impress the divine law on the earthly city. [31]

Man needs the society of others not just to live and nourish himself but, above all, to develop as a person. ‘Creating the human race in his own image and continually keeping it in being, God inscribed in the humanity of man and woman the vocation, and thus the capacity and responsibility, of love and communion. Love’, as  John Paul II reminds us, ‘is therefore the fundamental and innate vocation of every human being.[32]  But man is called to love in his unified totality, in soul and body. Christian revelation recognizes two specific ways of realizing this vocation of the human person to love – either through marriage or through the specific commitment to celibacy. Both vocations, John Paul II affirms, are expressions of the full truth about man as created to the image of God. [33]  

Nevertheless, love is not just an inclination of spontaneous affection towards others. It is to will the good of others, and to give oneself to them in an unselfish way because the perfecting of love requires self-giving. John Paul II has repeatedly recalled those words of Gaudium et Spes:If man is the only creature on earth that God has wanted for its own sake, man can fully discover his true self only in a sincere giving of himself.[34] And he highlights these ideas again in his Letter to Youth and in his document on the Christian family. [35]           

Marriage and the Family  

Throughout his papacy, John Paul II has given particular attention to the question of marriage and the family. The concerns of Love and Responsibility are repeatedly echoed through his pontificate, starting with his extensive catechesis on ‘the nuptial meaning of the body’, through Familiaris Consortio, his Letter to Families [36], his many addresses on the topic to interest groups, and, always, during his pastoral visits. He sees the family as the nucleus of the ‘communion of persons’, as the place where this communion can be realized naturally in its most committed way. It is here that each one is first welcomed and appreciated for what he or she truly is – a unique person, and not in view of their social or economic function.

It is love which creates this community of persons. In Redemptor Hominis John Paul II wrote that

Man cannot live without love. He remains a being that is incomprehensible for 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. [37]

He repeats this refrain in Familiaris Consortio, insisting that it applies primarily and especially within the family. [38] This is surely one of the Holy Father’s deepest and most important anthropological convictions, expressing succinctly a whole program for family formation at both the philosophical and theological levels. For John Paul II, the future of the Church and society hinge on the stability of the family. It is not surprising, then, that he has invested so much of his immense intellectual and spiritual energy in the promotion and the defense of the family unit. For him the family is the first and most important school of life and of love; and this uniquely stabilizing influence is the principal service that it offers to society and the Church.

It is the first and irreplaceable school of social life, an example and stimulus for the broader community relationships marked by respect, justice, dialogue and love.

The family is thus … the place of origin and the most effective means for humanizing and personalizing society: it makes an original contribution in depth to building up the world, by making possible a life that is properly speaking human, in particular by guarding and transmitting virtues and ‘values’.

Consequently, faced with a society that is running the risk of becoming more and more depersonalized and standardized and therefore inhuman and dehumanizing, with the negative results of many forms of escapism – such as alcoholism, drugs and even terrorism – the family possess and continues still to release formidable energies capable of taking man out of his anonymity, keeping him conscious of his personal dignity, enriching him with deep humanity and actively placing him, in his uniqueness and unrepeatability, within the fabric of society. [39]

This a powerful statement of the indispensable role of well-adjusted families for building up a healthy and stable society, in which divine and human rights are respected.

Human Development                     

The Christian anthropology of John Paul II has very practical implications for human development on the religious, social and cultural planes. For him the Christian faith is a source of truth and of life, and thus theological reflection can therefore offer a great service in the configuration of cultural, social and political life.

Man is endowed with a creative capacity which enables him to from a culture or a human environment which is the result of human work, and which has both a spiritual and a material component. According to John Paul II, it is culture which humanizes man; culture is the medium through which the person becomes more fully what he is called to be. Indeed part of man’s vocation ‘to dominate the earth’ is the economic and cultural development of society. [40] 

Nevertheless, experience indicates that human intervention does not always yield positive results. Many cultural and social developments of the present century, rather than fostering genuine human development, have had a dehumanizing effect on man because of the particular moral and economic climate created by the guiding institutions of society – social inequalities, ethical problems created by the misapplication of technology, especially in the areas of human sexuality, and the enormous economic imbalances between nations.

Authentic human development has to be judged from the standpoint of whether it leads to conditions which facilitate human flourishing at its deepest levels. John Paul II bases his analysis of such development on the accumulated wisdom of the Church’s social teaching. But a key element in his theological and moral assessment of human development is the ‘being’ and ‘having’ binomial first articulated by Gabriel Marcel. [41]

Human Work and Social Priorities

Through work, human culture is formed and grows. In Laborem Exercens, John Paul II distinguishes between the objective and subjective dimensions of work .The objective aspect is the product that is created by work. The subjective dimension is the imprint that work leaves on man. Man realizes and perfects himself when he works well – he grows as a person when he applies order, attention, creativity and ambition to his work. [42] He also becomes more human because he provides a service to others through his work:

Work is a good thing for man – a good thing for his  humanity – because through work man not only transforms nature, adapting it to his own needs, but he also achieves fulfillment as a human being and indeed, in a sense, becomes ‘more a human being’. [43] 

Thus the value of each kind of work ‘is judged above all by the measure of the dignity of the subject of work, that is to say the person, the individual who carries it out.[44] 

Because the correct criteria are often not applied in the evaluation of work, this can have negative consequences for the social economy. John Paul II does not offer a particular social theory, much less a utopian solution, for the social economy. However, from his analysis he offers a few fundamental principles in Laborem Exercens: a) the priority of work over capital (nos.12, 13): b) the primacy of men over things (nos. 12,13); and c) the primacy of the subjective value of work over its objective value (no.6). In addition, in Redemptor Hominis, he had already affirmed the following principles: d) the priority of ethics over technology; e) the primacy of persons over things; and f) the superiority of spirit over matter. [45] This is the order of priorities which, according to John Paul II, derives from a Christian anthropology and is therefore fundamental for building up a social environment worthy of man. [46]

Ethical Aspects of Development

In Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, looking at the prevailing social conditions of the world in 1987, the Pope had no doubt that from the point of view of the principles enunciated above, the global impression of human development presented a negative picture. In this encyclical he speaks about the disequilibrium between North and South, inequalities within countries, illiteracy, hunger, the appearance of a ‘fourth world’ on the margin of developed societies, and concludes that conditions have become significantly aggravated. [47] After analyzing the causes of this situation, he goes on to give a detailed presentation of what constitutes authentic human development in Chapter IV. He points out that one of the greatest injustices of the contemporary world is the contrast between a wealthy minority and the majority who possess so little. [48] The evil, he says, lies not so much in the possession of so much material wealth as in the cult of ‘having’, which leads to an inversion of the human and social priorities already outlined. [49]

Speaking about the evangelization of culture to an audience of university people in Chile in 1987, he developed this point more fully:

A process of reflection is necessary, which leads to a renewed diffusion and defense of the fundamental values of man as man, and in relation to other persons and to the natural surroundings in which he lives. Therefore I earnestly encourage you to present a correct image of a culture of being and behaving. ‘All man’s “having” is important for culture, is a factor creative of culture, but only to the extent which man, through his “having”, can at the same time “be” more fully a man in all the dimensions of his existence in everything that characterizes his humanity’ (Address to UNESCO, 2 June 1980, no. 7). A culture of being does not exclude having: it considers it as a means to seek a true integral humanization, in such a way that ‘having’ is put at the service of ‘being’ and ‘behaving’. [50]                  

The inherent contradictions in processes of development which focus only on the economic dimension are more clearly apparent today. [51] John Paul II offers a much more demanding criterion of development.

Development, he tells us, cannot consist only in the use, dominion over and indiscriminate possession of created things and the products of human industry, but rather in subordinating their possession, dominion and use to man’s divine likeness and to his vocation to immortality. This is the transcendent reality of the human being. [52]

From this perspective, development must have an ethical and not merely a technical dimension – it has a clear moral character. [53]

In Reconciliatio et Poenitentia John Paul II had already pointed out how sin caused a rupture in man’s relationship with God, his fellow men, and the created world. The consequences of personal sin for society reflect the interior disorder in man. This is why, he says, we can speak of personal sin and social sin, the latter being the accumulation and concentration of many personal sins ‘of those who are in a position to avoid, eliminate or at least limit certain social evils but who fail to do so out of laziness, fear or the conspiracy of silence, through secret complicity or indifference’. [54] Man’s vocation expresses itself in the fulfillment of responsibilities to neighbor. When these responsibilities are overlooked, offense is given to God and there are negative consequences which extend beyond the brief life span of the individual. [55]

Human Solidarity

After adverting to the fact that the obstacles opposed to the integral development of man are not properly economic or material ones, but rather moral considerations, he concludes that these difficulties can only be overcome by decisions which are essentially moral. [56] People have to root out of their lives the ‘all-consuming desire for profit’ and ‘the thirst for power with the intention of imposing one’s will on others’. For Christians this calls for a real conversion of heart, and the substitution, with the help of divine grace, of an attitude of self-giving to others. Thus human solidarity ‘is a firm and persevering determination  to commit oneself to the common good’ in relations between individuals and nations; [57] it ‘is the path to peace and at the same time to development’. [58] For John Paul II, ‘solidarity is undoubtedly a Christian virtue ... In the light of faith it seeks to go beyond itself, to take on the specifically Christian dimensions of total gratuity, forgiveness and reconciliation.[59]Then one sees one’s neighbor, not only as a human being with his or her own rights, but as a child of God, even if he or she is an enemy:

Awareness of the common fatherhood of God, of the brotherhood of all in Christ, and of the presence and life-giving action of the Holy Spirit will bring to our vision of the world a new criterion for interpreting it. Beyond human and natural bonds, there is discerned in the light of faith a new model of the unity of the human race, which must ultimately inspire our solidarity. This supreme model of unity, which is a reflection of the intimate life of God, one God in three Persons, is what we Christians mean  by the word ‘communion’. [60]

Christian solidarity has, then, for John Paul II, an important part to play in the realization of the divine plan for the individual and for society, both at national and international levels.   

Man the ‘way of the Church’

The mission of the Church is one which is both human and divine, converting men into children of God and teaching them how to live as brothers in the same family. Consequently, the way the Church can and ought to intervene in the world is through offering the wisdom she has drawn about men from divine revelation. Guided by Christ she brings the mystery of God to men and in the process reveals man to  himself; she enables him to understand the meaning of his existence and opens up to him the entire truth about his destiny. [61]

The anthropology of John Paul II is essentially a program of evangelization. This is because the Church is in possession of the truth about man, the evangelized man, the converted man who has put on Jesus Christ, and who receives from the Holy Spirit the charity to enable him love his own kind. It is not a human anthropology, but a vision of man as God wants him to be. The human and the divine are united in Christ and each one is called to imitate Christ. For this reason ‘the Church’s social teaching is itself a valid instrument of evangelization. As such, it proclaims God and his  mystery of salvation in Christ to every human being and, for that very reason, reveals man to himself.’ [62]      

Thus, from the above considerations, we see that there is a profound connection between evangelization and true human development. Because of this, evangelization has always been accompanied by human social initiatives which are an external witness of the preaching of salvation. Thus missionary efforts have invariably  been accompanied by the setting up of educational and medical facilities. This demonstrates that salvation is not only spiritual, but that it also has to bring about a Christian configuration in the social and political dimensions of existence. [63]


Christian anthropology is grounded on fundamental guiding principles about man, his history, and his destiny. In response to the dechristianization of the West through different forms of materialism, the Church wishes to propose and activate a new evangelizing dynamic. Recent philosophical and theological reflection has provided the Church with new insights and ideas which have facilitated a novel and vibrant restatement of the principles of Christian anthropology, especially as presented by Vatican II and in the magisterium of John Paul II. These principles can be summarized as follows: First, man is the image of God; this is the fundamental truth about the human person and the point of departure for all subsequent reflection on him. Second, Christ revealed man to man; he is the way and the truth for every human person. Third, the communion of love of persons is a reflection of the inner life of the Blessed Trinity. This is the  point of departure for understanding the nature of the nuclear Christian family which is a microcosm and model of an authentic human society. Finally, man attains self-fulfillment in the giving of himself to others; this is the Christian conception of man’s calling and the basis to organize a better society which can only be achieved through charity.

These are the basic principles of ‘the truth about man’ so often articulated by John Paul II. But the implementation of this truth cannot be achieved without the moral energy that comes from God – the  divine life of grace. Only in the Church can one find this wisdom about man and, at the same time, the power of the grace to live up to this vision.     



[1] I am very grateful to Dr Gerald Hanratty of the Department of Philosophy, University College, Dublin, who read through a previous draft of this paper.


[2]   There have been several commentaries on the anthropology of John Paul II, which include the following: Rocco Buttiglione, Karol Wojtyla: The Thought of the Man who became John Paul II, New York, 1997; K.L. Schmitz, At the Center of the Human Drama, Washington, 1993; Andre Frossard, Be Not Afraid!: Interviews with John Paul II, London, 1984; Ronald Lawlor, The Christian Personalism of John Paul II, Chicago, 1982; George W. Williams, The Mind of John Paul II: Origins of his Thought and Action, New York, 1981; Juan Luis Lorda, Antropología del Concilio Vaticano II a Juan Pablo II, Madrid, 1996 (I wish to acknowledge my indebtedness to this source for several insights). A reading of Karol Wojtyla’s Love and Responsibility, London, 1981, however, and his long series of catechesis on ‘the nuptial meaning of the body’ as John Paul II, is essential to get a feel for his anthropology, both in terms of content and methodology. The catechetical series has been published in four volumes by St Paul Editions, Boston, as follows: Original Unity of Man and Woman: Catechesis on the Book of Genesis (1981); Blessed are the Pure of Heart: Catechesis on the Sermon on the Mount and the Writings of St Paul (1983); Reflections on Humanae Vitae: Conjugal Morality and Spirituality (1984); The Theology of Marriage and Celibacy: Catechesis on Marriage and Celibacy in the Light of the Resurrection of the Body (1986). Essential reading would also include encyclicals such as Redemptor Hominis (1979), Laborem Exercens (1981), Solicitudo Rei Socialis (1987) and Centesimus Annus (1991); the Apostolic Exhortations Familiaris Consortio (1981) and Christifideles Laici (1988).           

[3]   Vatican Council II, Gaudium et Spes (GS) (The Church in the Modern World, 1965) and Dignitatis Humanae (Decree on Religious Freedom, 1965).

[4]   John Paul II, Crossing the Threshold of Hope, London, 1994, pp 35, 36, 210.

[5]   Cf.  P. A. Schilpp, The Philosophy of Martin Buber, La Salle, Illinois, 1967, p. 341.

[6]   Cf. Lorda, p. 45.

[7]   John Paul II, Crossing the Threshold of Hope, pp 35-36 (italics in the original).

[8]   Cf. 30 Giorni, March 1985, p. 18.

[9]   GS 22.

[10]   ‘For when man looks into his own heart he finds that he is drawn towards what is wrong and sunk in many evils which cannot come from his good creator. Often refusing to acknowledge God as his source, man has also upset the relationship which should link him to his last end; and at the same time he has broken the right order that should reign within himself as well as between himself and other men and all creatures’ (GS 13).

[11]   GS 24.

[12]   Cf. John Paul II, Crossing the Threshold, p. 200.

[13]   Karol Wojtyla in Acta et documenta Concilio Oecumenico Vaticano II Apparando, I: 2, pp 741-742.

[14]   John Paul II, Gift and Mystery: On the Fiftieth Anniversary of my Priestly Ordination, London, 1996, pp 66-67 (italics in original).

[15]   Cf. Lorda, p. 105.

[16]  K. Wojtyla in Acta Synodalia, III: 2, pp 530-532.

[17]   John Paul II, Veritatis Splendour (VS), 6 August 1993.

[18]   K. Wojtyla in  Acta Synodalia, IV: 2, pp 292-293.

[19]   The Acta Synodalia indicate that he made six contributions to the discussion of this document : III/5, pp 298-300;  pp 680-3; III/7, pp 380-2; IV/2, pp 660-3; IV/3, pp 242-3; IV/3, pp 349-50.

[20]   K. Wojtyla in Acta Synodalia, III: 5, pp 298-300.

[21]   Cf. ibid., p. 158.

[22]   Cf. ibid., p. 159.

[23]   F. Koenig, Iglesia, ¿a donde vas? Sal Terrae, Santander (Spain), 1986, pp 54-55.

[24]   Cf. Lorda, p. 112.

[25]   It has been commented that Paul VI’s reading of Love and Responsibility had a significant influence on his encyclical, Humanae Vitae, in 1968.  Cf. Janet E. Smith, ‘John Paul II and Humanae Vitae’ in Why Humanae Vitae was Right: A Reader, San Francisco, 1993, pp 229-33; Paul Johnson, Pope John Paul II and the Catholic Restoration, Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1981, pp 32-33. 

[26]   Cf. Lorda, pp 112-23.

[27]   John Paul II, “The Inauguration Homily,” Origins 8:20 (November 2, 1978): 308.

[28]   GS 22. In his most recent encyclical, Fides et Ratio, John Paul II says this specific text from Gaudium et Spesis profoundly significant for philosophy’, and that it ‘serves as one of the constant reference-points of my teaching’ (Fides et Ratio, 60, 14 September 1998).

[29]   John Paul II, Crossing the Threshold of Hope, pp 48-49.

[30]   For details of the published volumes of this catechesis, see note 1.

[31]  GS 43.

[32]   Familiaris Consortio (FC), 11.

[33]   Cf. FC 11.

[34]   GS 24.

[35]   Cf. John Paul II, Letter to Youth (31 March 1985) 14, and FC 11.

[36]   John Paul II, Letter to Families, 2 February 1994.

[37]   Redemptor Hominis, 10.

[38]   Cf. FC 18.

[39]   FC  43.

[40]   Cf. Lorda, p. 175.

[41]   Cf. Lorda, p. 176.

[42]   Cf. Laborem Exercens (LE) 5-7.

[43]   LE 9.

[44]   LE 6 (italics in original).

[45]   RH 16.

[46]   Cf. Lorda, p. 180.

[47]   Cf. Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (SRS) 16.

[48]   Cf. SRS 28.

[49]   Cf. SRS 28.

[50]   John Paul II, ‘The Task of the World Culture of Today is to promote the Civilization of Love’ (3 April 1987) no. 4, in English language weekly edition of L’Osservatore Romano (4 May 1987):  5.

[51]   Cf. John Paul II, ‘Task of the World’,  33.

[52]   John Paul II, ‘Task of the World’, 29

[53]   Cf. John Paul II, ‘Task of the World’, 33.

[54]   Cf. John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation, Reconciliatio et Paenitentia (2 December 1984), 15.

[55]   Cf. John Paul II, ‘Divine Providence and the Growth of the Kingdom of God’ ( 25 June 1986) in L’Osservatore Romano (English) 30 June 1986: 1, 4..

[56]   Cf. SRS 35.

[57]   Cf. SRS 38

[58]   Cf. SRS 39.

[59]   SRS 40.

[60]  SRS 40.

[61]   Cf. Christifideles Laici, 36.

[62]   Centesimus Annus, 54.

[63] Cf. Centesimus Annus 51.

First published in Josephinum Journal of Theology, 8 (2001) 1, pp 132-47.

Section Contents Copyright ©; Fr. Thomas McGovern 1997-2002

This version: 17th January 2003

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