Karol Wojtyla: The Thought of the Man Who Became John Paul II By Rocco Buttiglione. Translated by Paolo Guietti and Francesca Murphy. Eerdmans. 368 pp. $35
With the translation of Rocco Buttiglione’s text, the definitive commentary on Karol Wojtyla’s philosophy is now available in English. The book replaces George Huntston Williams’ fine work as the best analysis of Wojtyla’s intellectual development. Written in 1982, the commentary was soon translated into French and Spanish. The delay of American publishers is perhaps understandable inasmuch as the book is so detailed, so obstinately diligent in tracking down every nuance of Wojtyla’s philosophical journey, that one must pause when determining a proper audience.
From the outset, Buttiglione makes clear that he is interested only in Professor Wojtyla, the philosopher. The writings of John Paul II fall beyond the scope of the book, since the Pope’s labors, while often in continuity with his earlier work, are necessarily determined by Scripture and the tradition of the Church. As such they are written ex officio rather than simply ex corde . It should also be made transparently clear that this work has no interest in recounting or compiling biographical data about Wojtyla. After a short introduction, the book leaps to the heart of the matter, the future Pope’s philosophical education, influences, and syntheses.
His early thought was shaped by the Angelicum Theological Faculty in Rome, an institute run primarily by priests of the Dominican order. The faculty at this time (1946-48) was steeped in the neo-scholastic revival occasioned by the 1879 encyclical of Leo XIII ( Aeterni Patris ) calling for a renewal of Thomism in the Church at large. Leo’s motive was clear. Nineteenth-century society was dominated by two trends: the rationalism of philosophers in the thrall of scientism and empiricism, and the fideism of a number of religious thinkers who argued for a retreat from apologetics. Leo hoped that a renewed Thomism would restore the traditional balance between reason and faith, remedying the twin ills of the day by confuting scientism with Christian apologetics and fideism with rational inquiry. The Angelicum faculty of the 1940s was a tribute to Leo’s goals. It was dominated by such staunch Thomists as M. Ciappi, P. Philippe, and the brilliant if inflexible Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange. These imprinted the young Wojtyla with a lifelong interest in the philosophy of St. Thomas.
Even Wojtyla’s theological dissertation, on the notion of faith in the mystical writings of St. John of the Cross, reflected Thomistic themes. His thesis explained the balance necessarily maintained between the knowledge that is granted to man in the act of faith and the limits of cognitive penetration accorded the finite, created mind before the inexhaustible light of God. Wojtyla was impressed with John’s deeply mystical sense of humanity, a sense that analogously attributed to the human person the incomprehensibility normally predicated of God himself. Precisely this human mystery is the dwelling place of freedom and personal dignity.
With a clearer sense of his anthropological foundations, Wojtyla moved on to a study of ethics. He began work on his Habilitationschrift , given over to a discussion of the possibility of founding a Christian ethics upon the philosophical work of Max Scheler. Buttiglione gives serious and sustained attention to Scheler’s significant influence on Wojtyla. In particular, Scheler taught the young professor the importance of phenomenology as a method for examining the reality of ethical facts as well as its usefulness as a vehicle for penetrating and reflecting on the specificity of Christian ethics. Phenomenology allowed the richness and drama of concrete, living moral decisions to be fully investigated, while representing a salutary departure from Kant’s stolid ethical formalism.
There is no question but that, on certain points, Wojtyla rejected Scheler. He was convinced, for example, that his mentor overreacted to Kant by downplaying the responsibility of the subject as well as the importance of “duty” in moral decisions. He also disagreed with Scheler’s disdain for the heteronomous moralism implied in the idea of an externally imposed moral order. To the Schelerian fear that a normative order would desiccate the richness of experience, Wojtyla argued that the ethical order is, in fact, rooted in the internal, anthropological consistency of the person who participates in the horizon of God.
A significant part of Buttiglione’s book is a careful examination of Wojtyla’s major works. The first, Love and Responsibility , written in 1960, is devoted to examining sexual ethics in the context of anthropology. The person, Wojtyla writes, is not simply an object or a substance; he is, rather, a rich and complex being in whom absolute values are concretely manifested. These ultimate values are revealed not in a priori formalisms or in abstractions but only in a careful analysis of the self-enactment of the generous person. What this inquiry reveals is that the only proper attitude in the face of others is love, a love that respects the distinct intelligence and freedom of the other.
Since the object of sexual acts is always the person, not simply the body, the demands of the flesh are always ontological demands. As such, sexual acts must always be worthy of the dignity and mystery of the person. Rigorism and permissivism are alike inadequate here, for both separate enjoyment from the biological end of sexuality. The former, because it sees the body merely instrumentally, ignores man’s collaboration with God in interpersonal love. The latter, because it separates subjective fulfillment from authentic humanity, disregards the mystery of the person and the demands of procreation. All love is ultimately ordered to God inasmuch as he is the destiny of each person. To love another authentically is to will this destiny for the other, offering oneself as a partner in the process. On the controverted issue of contraception, Wojtyla notes that every marriage should be experienced rationally, i.e., every couple must try to bring into the world no more children than the partners can afford to raise and educate; however, the link between sexual acts and procreation should remain intact, thereby safeguarding, through the utilization of periods of female infertility, the symbolic and moral value of interpersonal union.
Wojtyla published his magnum opus, The Acting Person , in 1969. The English translation, as is well known, has been severely criticized. Buttiglione adds his voice to the chorus, claiming that the translator, Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka, engaged in an “interpretative reading” of the book, virtually raising herself to the rank of coauthor. Written soon after Vatican II, the work examines familiar philosophical themes: the nature of experience, the possibility of intersubjective relations, the constitution of consciousness, the synergy between receptivity and activity, and the essence of intentionality. What particularly characterizes the book is a rich phenomenological examination of how man dynamically enacts his freedom and intelligence in concrete experience. Wojtyla wants us to understand that a careful analysis of human action reveals the person as the dwelling place of dignity, transcendence, and spirituality. Phenomenology manifests these human characteristics in a way superior to both metaphysics and idealism. Idealism is defective because it represents an a priori determination of man’s interiority. Metaphysics is often unintelligible because of its high degree of abstraction. Neither properly chronicles the experiential complexity of human action as revelatory of the person. It should be added that, despite Wojtyla’s predilection for phenomenology, he regards its conclusions as ultimately confirming the truth of metaphysics.
From Wojtyla’s major works, the book moves to a review of his conciliar participation. Wojtyla’s most important contribution, his role in the discussions of the Polish bishops’ conference, is not available to us. However, we do have his actual interventions at Vatican II. These revolve around three themes: 1) the entire people of God, all of the baptized, should be discussed before the various distinctions within the Church; 2) the Church should move past simple “toleration” of other religions, since religion consists in adhesion to God arising from the desire for truth; and 3) the Church should teach the nations slowly and progressively, avoiding stringent authoritarianism. For the young bishop, the heart of Vatican II, and its greatest achievement, was its acknowledgement of freedom of conscience as a natural right of the person. He was concerned, however, that this freedom, exercised improperly, led to a flaccid relativism that denied the possibility of truth. He was also concerned with a developing misunderstanding of philosophical pluralism within Catholicism. While the Council clearly endorsed dialogue with a variety of contemporary philosophies, Wojtyla claimed that if certain living elements of classical philosophy did not survive, then there was very little chance of maintaining the link with traditional affirmations of the faith. In general, Wojtyla was a solid supporter of Vatican II throughout the Council and afterwards. He later published a book, Sources of Renewal , dealing with sundry aspects of the great event.
The last chapters of the book outline the importance of literature in Wojtyla’s intellectual journey and some final thoughts on his dialogue with the principal philosophical currents of his time: phenomenology, existentialism, and Marxism. Of phenomenology enough has already been said. It need only be added that throughout his life Wojtyla, like Scheler and Roman Ingarden before him, was attracted to the realism of the early Husserl and the battle cry zu den Dingen selbst as an antidote to the neo-Kantianism of the early part of the century. Existentialism, and the work of Sartre in particular, was seen as a humanizing dimension in the Marxist Poland of Wojtyla’s time. Wojtyla argued that atheism, whether existential or Marxist, is inherently solipsistic, and is, therefore, unable to achieve a proper notion of intersubjectivity. Buttiglione notes that Wojtyla could not, in Poland, carry out a head-on critique of Marx’s thought; nonetheless, the philosophy of praxis is everywhere in his writing. Wojtyla states again and again that Marx’s promethean dream is attractive to workers because it has engaged the nature of human labor and its role in man’s self-integration.
Wojtyla himself tried to develop the moral and spiritual significance of work, appropriating the philosophy of praxis to metaphysics. In a revelatory sentence, which indicates how far Wojtyla is not only from Marxism but also from contemporary currents in postmodernism and nonfoundationalism, he says: “How can one think about praxis without renouncing the fundamental principle of the existence of a subject or metaphysical substratum of man which underlies any historical change and dictates . . . the fundamental lines of any possible modification and which also furnishes the criterion upon which one can make an ethical judgment on them?”
Vatican II, with which Wojtyla will always be linked, called for a reformulation and reconceptualization of the great tradition of the Church. It sanctioned neither sterile repetition nor facile dissolution of the tradition. It sought, rather, new perspectives, emphases, and insights that would allow the luminosity of the Church’s theological and philosophical patrimony to shine forth again in its full radiance. Wojtyla, by his early use of Scheler in the matter of Christian ethics and anthropology, was a harbinger of conciliar ideals. Thirteenth-century philosophical forms, taken alone, could no longer handle all of the issues, certainly not the thorny problem of historicity, nor provide the sole conceptual basis for Catholic thought. Karl Mannheim had argued that there were elements in Husserl’s thought that were inherently supportive of Catholicism, and Wojtyla exploited these to the fullest. His own philosophical development clearly showed that a certain pluralism would not betray the deepest instincts of the Christian deposit of faith.
To call Wojtyla’s philosophical thought original is to brush too close to hagiography. Nonetheless, throughout his teaching career, he established a creative juxtaposition of ideas, philosophically fusing traditional elements of Thomism with more innovative dimensions of phenomenology and personalism. His close examination of the drama of human enactment allowed him to express new insights about such matters as the nature of self-transcendence and the mystery of conjugal love.
Overall, Buttiglione’s work provides an excellent study, exhaustively detailed, of the intellectual development and significant achievements of Karol Wojtyla from his student days to his election to the chair of Peter. The book is essential reading for those who hope to understand fully the theological teachings of his pontificate.
Thomas Guarino is Professor of Theology at Seton Hall University.