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In the preparatory period before Vatican II, when St. John XXIII asked all the bishops of the world to send in memoranda on the subjects most important for the Council to address, Bishop Karol Wojtyla of Krakow suggested organizing all the materials of the Council around two central topics: person and communio. Behind his logic lay contemplation of the Trinity.

A fascinating feature that has emerged is that these two ideas, person and communio, have become the spine and soul of Catholic social teaching and Catholic social thought. (The teaching is the work of the official Magisterium, papal and episcopal; the thought is the work of the intellectual scouts and explorers of the concrete terrain of each generation, whose findings are weighed and sifted by the Magisterium.)

As many thinkers have recognized, “person” said of God is essentially different from “person” said of a human subject. But there is a similarity between God and human at least in this: both share in acts of reflective, deliberate choosing, in creative action, in acts of insight and choice, of understanding and loving, even of forgiving.

In contradistinction to the solitary Nous of Greek and Latin antiquity, the Christian God is to be thought of as a communio—a communio divinarum personarum: a communion of three divine persons. These three persons are joined in one substance, forming one communio, and they are to be thought of as one in being, in mind, in insight (verbum), in will, and in love. In this one act of being, mind, insight, will, and love, they are to be thought of as one. One in substance, and yet distinguishable.

St. Augustine here offers a metaphor. The human mind is neither the act of understanding nor the insight flashing forth from that understanding, nor the love which follows on the insight. All are one in act, though different in relation. Communio puts stress on the oneness in mind, insight, and love.

Caritas is that unique love that is, as it were, the intense white-hot fire of God’s own love, the mutual love of the communio divinarum personarum, which inflames with insight all things that come to be, and drives the outward thrusting love of the Holy Spirit that “over the dark world broods.” And in this way, the caritas of the Trinity is for humankind the model par excellence—and inner fire—of communio and person.

In human practice these two master concepts, person and communio, shed brilliant light. The human person springs from a communion, a family extended through time and also through networks emerging from wedlock. A person unaware of bonds, debts, duties, and affective ties is an ingrate. The human person whose circles of caring do not move outward so as to share sympathy with all other members of humankind lacks full fellow feeling.

A longtime friend once asked me what entered my mind when I said the word “Trinity.” I had to think awhile. Then I asked him which of his human actions did he consider the highest in value, the best, the closest to being divine? I ventured that my own were my love for my wife Karen, for my children and grandchildren, my parents, my friends. I especially mentioned the love between him and his dear Elaine. He nodded. I said the Christian idea of the Trinity is to think of God this way: more like our own communities of love than like anything else. The divine is in some way communio.

This is terribly rough and inadequate, of course. But it does suggest a plan of concrete action: If you want to come closer to God, try to increase the presence and scope of communio in your daily living. The perfection of the person is to repay, and to strengthen and give deeper and larger scope to, the communities of which he or she is a living part. The perfection of human communities is to raise up individual persons who are attentive, intelligent, creative, and richly practiced in displaying acts of insightful love.

Contemporary secular culture encompasses within itself many core Christian commitments that are rooted in the ideas of person and communio: compassion for the vulnerable, the solidarity of humankind, respect for liberty of conscience, and a commitment to the idea of progress—all this quite different from the ancients’ assumptions about fate and cyclical eternal returns, over and over again repeated.

These two organizing realities, person and communio, appear easily in contemporary secular uses such as “European Community” and “personal freedom.” And yet it is theologically satisfying, and tickles one’s sense of worldly irony, that they lie at the very heart of the Trinity, too.

Michael Novak is a member of First Things’s advisory council. 

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