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Truths are one thing, the way they are set forth is another. These words express what many have judged, for good or ill, to be the particular spirit of the Second Vatican Council. The words come, in fact, from the Council itself, from John XXIII to be precise. They are found in his opening allocution to the Council Fathers, in which he commended to the Fathers the task of penetrating and expounding the doctrine of the Church in the manner the times require, and it is in the process of saying this that he makes his distinction between truths and ways:

For the deposit itself of Faith, or the truths which are contained in our venerable doctrine, is one thing, and the way (modus) in which the same are set forth, with however the same sense and the same meaning, is another.

The Pope is thus speaking specifically of the doctrines of the faith. Moreover, it is very clear that he had no intention of sanctioning modi or ways of setting forth these truths that change their sense or meaning. What sort of thing, then, did he have in mind? Was he talking about a difference in the vocabulary to be used—asking for some variation of homiletic rhetoric, such as the change from “thee” and “thine” to “you” and “yours” in English? Was his famous aggiornamento just a matter of updating words? Hardly. An ecumenical council would not have been needed for that. On the other hand, if his desire was to change more than words, or to change them in some significant and deeper way, it is hard to see how he could have avoided changes in the sense and meaning of the doctrines set forth. The Pope might seem to be caught, therefore, between the Scylla of triviality and the Charybdis of heresy. Pope John himself presumably knew what he had in mind, though few others seem to have been able to work out what it was. During the forty years since the Council, the Church has been torn between the liberals on the one side, who so wanted to change the modus that they also changed the doctrine, and the conservatives on the other side, who so wanted to keep the doctrine that they also kept the modus.

John XXIII did not live to see this development. He died during the Council’s first year. It was left to his successor, Paul VI, to weather the storm that began to crash against the Church almost before the Council ended. I am not sure that he solved Pope John’s conundrum, but he did have the signal merit of refusing to dismiss it. In fact, he embraced it, affirming, against both liberal and conservative pressure, both parts of it. Without his rock-like steadfastness, his stubborn refusal in his pontifical utterances to be moved either to this extreme or to that, the Church might have given up on John’s conundrum. That would have been a pity; worse, it would have been an error. Or so I contend. For though the conundrum can be interpreted in a variety of ways, there is one particular way of interpreting it that, as one looks back, can be seen as pointing straight to the teaching of John Paul II.

The burden of John Paul’s teaching has often and well been described as personalism. Karol Wojtyla came to the papacy not merely as a bishop but as a professor of philosophy who had been writing about and teaching personalism in Poland long before the Second Vatican Council began. Moreover, as bishop of Krakow, he was himself present at the Council and must have heard with his own ears John XXIII propounding his conundrum. We don’t know what he specifically thought of it, but we know a great deal about what he thought of the Council in general, for he devoted a kind of guidebook to it, for the instruction and practice of his diocese of Krakow (The English translation is Sources of Renewal: The Implementation of Vatican II). The book was published in 1972 and so was being written, and being read, during some of the stormiest years of the post-conciliar period. Nevertheless, it exudes a confidence of thought and an optimism of faith that, for the time, appear astonishing. Here is a man who is so sure of his understanding of the “mystery” of the Council and of the capacity of his flock to understand it along with him that he is actively engaged in “initiating” them into it. One wonders how many other bishops of the day could have thought or done the same.

The words are as striking as the facts they record. To be initiated into a mystery conjures up, not the learning of a creed or the systematizing of a doctrine, but the revealing of an experience. As Karol Wojtyla himself put it, the concern of the Church’s pastors gathered in council was not so much

to answer questions like “What should men believe?”, “What is the real meaning of this or that truth of faith?” and so on, but rather to answer the more complex question: “What does it mean to be a believer, a Catholic, and a member of the Church?”

This question is difficult and complex because

it not only presupposes the truth of faith and pure doctrine, but also calls for that truth to be situated in the human consciousness and calls for a definition of the attitude, or rather the many attitudes, that go to make the individual a believing member of the Church.

This sounds much like the words of John XXIII when he said that his calling of the Council was necessary, not to express the Church’s doctrine (Trent and Vatican I, he pointedly remarked, had sufficiently done that), but “so that minds might be more fully imbued and formed” by that doctrine. We might even go so far as to suggest that “consciousness” is Karol Wojtyla’s gloss on Pope John’s “imbued” and that “attitude” is his gloss on “formed.” But what precisely do these glosses really mean? What is Wojtyla getting at by “consciousness” and “attitude,” or by the question “What does it mean to be a believing member of the Church?”

At this point I wish to call upon the assistance of a rather unlikely character—unlikely in this context at any rate—namely New York University professor Thomas Nagel. I do so because he is a noted Anglo-American philosopher with a knack for putting things in straightforward ways. Thanks to him, Anglo-American philosophers are all now familiar with the puzzling question, “What is it like to be a bat?” This question formed the title and topic of a famous and much-anthologized article of Nagel’s, and my claim is that Wojtyla understands the Council to have asked and answered the question, “What is it like to be a Christian?” Now, as Nagel argues, this is not the sort of question that you can answer by looking at a few examples (bats for Nagel, Christians for us) and pointing and saying, “Well, being a bat (or a Christian) is like this.” On the contrary, this sort of question can only be answered from the inside, as it were. You have to get inside the mind of a Christian, or a bat, to understand, or better to become acquainted with, what it is like to be one. Nagel’s immediate point in his article was negative, that while such getting inside is necessary for answering the “What is it like?” question, we cannot achieve this getting inside—at least not inside bats, and perhaps not inside other people, either. Consequently we cannot answer the question. Still—and this is the point from Nagel I wish to insist on—we cannot deny the question’s applicability; we cannot deny that there really is something that it is like to be a bat (or any other thing possessed of awareness); we cannot deny that bats really do have an inside, a state of experienced consciousness that is the what-it-is-like-to-be that thing.

Whatever Wojtyla might think about getting inside bats, he is not at all skeptical about getting inside Christians. This is in large part because there is at least one human being whom each of us can get inside of, namely ourselves. Consequently, if we are Christians, there is one Christian we can get inside of, too. For each of us is, precisely, an inside. We may not focus on this much, we may not bring it to explicit awareness, and we may not seek to set it out in a comprehensive theory; but we are always living it. Moreover, there are times when our inside comes very much to the fore, often despite ourselves, as when we are depressed or in anguish. Then our inside comes so much to the fore that it wholly absorbs the outside, too, and everything around us takes on the sadness and grief that we are living inside. The same happens, of course, though in the opposite direction, when we are extremely happy or in states of supreme joy. But what thus forces itself on us in extreme moments is actually present at every moment, though we seldom notice it or, indeed, have need of noticing it.

Now it is the philosopher’s habit, as it is also his job, to make explicit and to thematize what otherwise we take all too much for granted. So Wojtyla, as a philosopher and a theologian, takes upon himself, in his guidebook to the Council, the task of thematizing the inside of being a Christian. Or rather he takes upon himself the task of showing how the Council thematized it. For his book is replete with long quotations from the Council followed by his own comments and elaborations. Therein, indeed, lies much of the book’s puzzling character. For often the quotations and the comments seem worlds apart: the quotations look like traditional repetitions of traditional doctrine while Wojtyla’s comments look like bizarre tangents. For instance, he begins the book by quoting the following passage from the Council: “Thus, as the centuries go by, the Church is always advancing towards the plenitude of divine truth, until eventually the words of God are fulfilled in her.”

And yet he says immediately prior to this, and enlarges on it at length immediately afterwards, that the Council is really talking about the “enrichment of faith,” that concern with such enrichment expresses the “reality” and “essential aspect” of the Council, and that what this itself means is the “situating of truth” in the “consciousness and attitudes” of the believer, or that it means enrichment in the “subjective, human, existential sense.”

I defy anyone to get that meaning out of the quotation, or rather I defy anyone to get that meaning out of it who does not read the Council more according to a certain spirit than according to the letter. The “spirit” of the Council has become something of a dirty word among conservatives, and something of a license for doctrinal free-for-all among liberals. Wojtyla does not actually use the word himself, but if he did he would mean it in neither sense. Rather he would mean it in John XXIII’s sense of finding a new modus to set forth old truths.

To clarify let me return to Nagel’s “what is it like?” question. To start with the obvious, there would be no sense in your asking “what is it like to be a bat?” if it wasn’t a bat but an elephant that you were asking about. To put an elephant in front of you, to ask what it is like to be that thing, and then to conclude, once you had come up with some sort of answer, that you had now understood what it is like to be a bat—this could only be the behavior of a madman or perhaps of a philosopher wishing to prove a point. You have to start with a bat if you want to know what it is like to be a bat. So also with Christians. If you want to know what it is like to be a Christian—if, moreover, you want to initiate your flock into this knowledge—you have to start with a Christian. What, then, is a Christian? Precisely someone formed by the doctrines, the traditional doctrines, of the Church. Without the traditional doctrines, you may, to be sure, end up with something very interesting, but you will not end up with a Christian. This, I take it, is a matter of definition. For though some might want to say that a Christian should really be something else or should adopt different doctrines, they can hardly deny—indeed their desire for change requires them to assert—that the traditional doctrines are what defines a Christian. That is why they want to change the doctrines: because they want to change what it is, or has been, to be a Christian.

Hence if Wojtyla is going to ask and answer seriously the question of what it is like to be a Christian, he has to start off with the traditional doctrines; he has to start off with pure, uncompromising orthodoxy. In other words, orthodoxy—I mean orthodoxy in all its time-honored formulations and definitions—is so far from being threatened by Wojtyla’s project that it is the condition for the very possibility of that project. Take orthodoxy away and the whole thing ceases to make sense. But note, at the same time, that Wojtyla’s project does not seek merely to repeat the time-honored formulations. Rather, it explores Christian doctrine from the point of view of what doctrine does, or should do, to the Christian who believes it, and it explores this, moreover, from the inside. This is Wojtyla’s new modus with which he is going to set forth old truths.

Now if we consider the question of what it is like to be a believer, and if we mean by a believer someone fully formed by orthodoxy, we have to admit that there are very few believers out there. Most believers are imperfect in one way or another. Perhaps we do not actually deny with our lips anything that the Church teaches, but we certainly deny it often enough with our lives. Consequently, we should not so much say that Wojtyla’s question is “What is it like to be a believer?” as that it is “What ought it to be like to be a believer?” In fact, that is his question. It was I who, in the footsteps of Nagel, put it in the first way. What Wojtyla actually asked was, “What does it mean to be a believer?” The clear implication is that his interest is in what it would be like to be a real believer who lives out his belief to the full. That is why his book is about initiating his diocese into the mystery, or about enriching its faith. That is why he keeps on repeating the doctrines, and from so many angles, and in so many different ways. “These are the truths we all know and have known since childhood catechism,” he says in effect, “but see what it means really to believe them; see what sort of person they should be fashioning us into, and fashioning us into from the inside; see what spiritual reality we should be expressing in our inner person and living out in our daily lives.”

This focus of Wojtyla’s project, this new modus of presenting traditional doctrine, helps to explain much of the peculiarity of his writing style. In fact it helps to explain much of the writing style of Vatican II as well. For the documents of both are notoriously long-winded and diffuse. If you read them as you would a scholastic textbook, trying to trace out neat divisions and subdivisions, exact syllogisms and distinctions, you will quickly lose the thread and indeed the point.

Try instead to read them for their overall impression and effect, in the way you would read, say, a stream-of-consciousness novel or a psychological casebook—save that the consciousness and the psychology are ideals to follow, not malaises to diagnose. Try to read them as speaking primarily to the imaginative and active energies and only secondarily to the intellective ones. In particular do this with respect to what Wojtyla says when he quotes the Council’s remark that “the Church is always advancing towards the plenitude of divine truth,” and then interprets this to be about situating the truth in human consciousness and attitudes, and to be calling for an enrichment of faith in the subjective and existential sense. For contrary to initial impressions, this interpretation now turns out to be plain fact. If our focus is to be on the “what is it like?” question, what else can it be like to be a believer “advancing towards the plenitude of divine truth” than to have these truths “situated” in one’s “consciousness and attitudes” and thereby to be enriched “subjectively and existentially”?

Wojtyla’s modus is what is meant by his personalism, and, as such, it was a modus he had been following almost all his adult life. Certainly it long preceded Vatican II. It also preceded his theology, at least in logic, if not in time. Wojtyla’s personalism comes from his phenomenology, his adaptation of the philosophy of Edmund Husserl. Phenomenology may be said to be a systematic attempt to found all of one’s knowledge on the “what is it like?” question. Before one can say what any given thing is, one must become directly acquainted with it, and with it as it really is, not as one would like it to be or as others wish it to be or as some school has said it must be. This is the burden of Husserl’s slogan: “Back to the things themselves.” Now, expressed in this way, the method of phenomenology would seem to be nothing more than plain common sense and what many philosophers have pursued in the past. But Husserl’s phenomenology has its own twist. It begins as a sort of turn inward to self-consciousness. The things he wants us to go back to are things as they are manifest to the self.

The turn inward is, in modern philosophy, very much a legacy of Descartes. Previous philosophers had, of course, never denied the reality of the subjective world. How could they? It is and has always been a feature of everyone’s lived experience. But they had not focused on it or brought it to thematic expression. They had concentrated rather on the external world in its externality and had passed over, or taken for granted, the modalities it formed in subjective consciousness. The external world was, after all, exciting and perplexing enough to satisfy any philosopher’s contemplative desires. Even Descartes’ turn to the subjective was driven by and for the sake of his desire to understand the external world. He wanted to understand it wholly in terms of mathematics but, in order to do so, he had to rid it of the nonmathematical aspects present everywhere in daily experience. Since he could not deny that these aspects were part of experience, he had to deny instead that they were part of our experience of external things. So he was more or less forced to locate them in the internal or subjective self and, in the process of elaborating on this, he found himself, unlike his predecessors, making an express theme of self-consciousness.

Once thematized sufficiently for his purposes, however, the topic was quickly abandoned by Descartes. For his successors, by contrast, it soon became an all-consuming passion. Modern philosophy has, as a result, been above all the philosophy of consciousness, the philosophy of the self. There is clearly nothing in principle wrong with this sort of philosophy. It is even necessary, not to say vital, for the fullness of human understanding. Still, like any philosophy, it has its dangers, the chief of which is subjectivism—the view, which soon became prevalent, that there is nothing but subjective consciousness and that the world is but a construction or projection of the self. Phenomenology, at least in its first practitioners and its early stages, was conceived as a conscious rejection of subjectivism and an attempt to recover, without abandoning inwardness, the experienced reality of external things and of the self as well.

This is the phenomenology, particularly as practiced by Max Scheler, of which Wojtyla became a student, and which would in time lead him into novel, but orthodox, expositions of sexual ethics (Love and Responsibility), and into even more novel, though no less orthodox, expositions of the human person as the self-possessed locus of action and thought (The Acting Person). Both of these works may be seen as answers to “What is it like?” questions, the first to the question “What is it like to be a sexual person?” and the second to the question “What is it like to be a person simply?” In both, Wojtyla broke new ground, not by propounding new things, but by propounding old things in a new way, a new modus, the inwardly focused modus of phenomenological personalism.

Take, for instance, the terms “consciousness” and “attitude” that Wojtyla introduces in his 1972 guidebook to Vatican II. The former term he uses as a way to thematize faith, and the latter as a way to thematize the natural fruition of faith in action. About faith he says that it is “a conscious response to the God who reveals Himself,” that it engages “man’s whole personal structure and spiritual dynamism.” Faith does, to be sure, have an objective content in the form of the truths that God has revealed, so there have to be dogmas and there has to be a teaching authority. But that is not Wojtyla’s focus. His focus is on the kind of response man makes to God; on the subject, not the object, of belief. “Man’s response to God consists in self-abandonment to God. This is the true dimension of faith, in which man does not simply accept a particular set of propositions, but accepts his own vocation.” About attitudes Wojtyla writes that they are a kind of “taking up a position” or “a being ready to act” in accordance with faith. Essential to faith is “an attitude of self-commitment to God—a continual readiness to perform the fundamental ‘action’ which corresponds to the reality of revelation.” The action in question is that of bearing witness to God in all of one’s life and behavior and in all the complex variety of acts and attitudes that this involves. Strengthening the “conscious attitude” that is faith and thereby enabling all believers to carry out the fundamental action of faith is, says Wojtyla, what Vatican II was about.

Central to this strengthening of the faith, and what makes Wojtyla’s thought personalism, is the focus on the self. In the above quotations, for instance, Wojtyla speaks of “self-abandonment” and “self-commitment,” and these terms do not refer just to the self but much more to the freedom of the self. We are as we are, or we become what we become, through the way we fashion ourselves in our own acts of self-determination. There is nothing new about this theme, of course, nor is there meant to be. What is new is how this theme is brought to view. For what the turn to consciousness helps more fully to disclose, and even to revivify for us, is the extent to which the experience of freedom is the experience of being undetermined in our choices by anything extrinsic to choice itself. We do, to be sure, choose something when we choose; but it is we who choose it, and not it that chooses us. This is an experienced fact and cannot, without dishonesty or self-deception, be denied. On the contrary, it must, like any fact of consciousness, be given full phenomenological attention.

In the experience of self-determination we find, or re-find, the peculiar dignity of the individual, which, as an experienced phenomenon, is best expressed by speaking of the self-consciousness of the “I” rather than of “man” or even of “this particular man.” For to speak of “I” brings to the fore, as speaking of “man” does not, both the uniqueness and the free self-determination of the individual. The individual “I” is not interchangeable with, nor is it the possession of, any other “I.” This is manifest not only in the experience we have of “I” but also and as powerfully in the experience we have of “you.” The experience of “you” is also an experience of unique self-determination, the unique self-determination that is you. There is something inviolable about both you and me in this experience. I can try to persuade you to choose this rather than that, but I cannot perform your act of choice for you; nor can you perform my act of choice for me. I can, of course, trick you into a choice by false promises, or intimidate you into it by threats; I can even apply physical force if you do not do as I wish, and imprison, maim, or kill you. But I cannot do any of this without the experience at the same time of violating you, of invading your uniqueness and, so far as I can, taking it away. Moreover, I cannot experience the same invasion at your hands without the experience of being violated by you in my turn. At least I cannot do or experience any of this as long as I experience you as you and me as me. I can only do it if I somehow suppress the experience of you and, indeed, of me, and do violence in myself to myself.

It is this experience of self-determination and uniqueness in myself and in you, and the accompanying experience of violation if this uniqueness is assaulted, that Karol Wojtyla has so powerfully used in order to preach human dignity and, so far as he can, to restore human dignity in the modern world. It is the theme of his phenomenological personalism, and from it springs all his thinking, both philosophical and theological. From it also springs his radical challenge to the Church and the world. This challenge is finally no different from the traditional Christian challenge of love and holiness taught through the centuries. The difference in Wojtyla’s case is that this challenge is accessed from the inside, from the lived consciousness of “I.” That is why Wojtyla expresses the challenge in terms of a “situating” in the self of the timeless truths of the faith through thoroughly formed “consciousness and attitudes.” Wojtyla’s personalism is an articulation for inward experience of what sound morality and religion have always outwardly taught. Indeed, it is through the inward appropriation of the outward teachings that Wojtyla has been able to give such rich expression to personalism in his writings. It is through the same appropriation that he has articulated for the Church, and not only for the Church, a new modus of setting forth old truths.

To articulate something, whether new or old, is necessarily to objectify it, to reduce it to words intelligible to reflective consciousness. It is to pass from immediate acquaintance with a thing to the mediated expression of it in propositions. To do phenomenological personalism, therefore, is to engage in the objectifying of the subjective. There is nothing paradoxical about this. Once anything has been given to us in experience we can at once turn around and reflect upon it, thematize it, and give verbal expression to it. As Wojtyla himself has put it in Person and Community,

Today more than ever before we feel the need—and also see a greater possibility—of objectifying the problem of the subjectivity of the human being . . . . [W]e can no longer go on treating the human being exclusively as an objective being, but we must also somehow treat the human being as a subject in the dimension in which the specifically human subjectivity of the human being is determined by consciousness.

To objectify the problem of human subjectivity is to give an explicit place in our science of man to that experience of man which everyone has always had but which few, until recently, have brought to fully philosophic reflection. It is not easy to do this correctly. It is not easy to express the subjective: what we all readily experience we cannot all readily describe. Thus, phenomenological personalism is an ongoing and unfinished task. But it is a peculiarly modern task, a task for the thinkers of our time, and Wojtyla is a striking exemplar of what the task is and what can be achieved when one devotes oneself to it. Moreover, he has been called upon to undertake this task in view of all, on the world stage, and to undertake it in his life and deeds as well as in his writings. He has been called upon, I think, to be for us all a living embodiment of John XXIII’s conundrum, and thus an embodiment of the spirit, the true spirit, of Vatican II.

Peter Simpson is Professor of Philosophy at the City University of New York and author of On Karol Wojtyla.

Image by Beyond Forgetting licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.