Pope John Paul II:
The Self as Gift
By Gabriel Blanchard
Few figures on our author bank have bequeathed to us so extensive or complex a legacy of life and thought.
Karol Wojtyła was born in Poland in 1920. The “war to end all war” had just concluded, the mainstream Communist Party had recently taken control of Russia, and the Popes had spent half a century as “prisoners in the Vatican” after a newly united Italy came to a diplomatic stalemate with the Church. Before the end of the century, worldwide travel had become a standard element of the papacy, the Soviet Union had collapsed, and a dozen more wars with more than a million dead had been fought. One of the few men who had a hand in all these things was Wojtyła, better known by his regnal name of John Paul II.
He started university studies just a year before Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union partitioned Poland between themselves. The Nazis banned education above grade four for Poles, so Wojtyła joined an underground seminary to receive training for the priesthood; he was also personally involved in concealing Polish Jews from the Nazis. Had he been caught, either of these activities could have earned him a death sentence.
After the victory of the Allies in 1945, the government of Poland was assumed by Soviet-backed Communists, as throughout most of Eastern Europe. However, due to the strong loyalties of the Polish to the Catholic Church, the Communist party there had to allow more liberal policies than were common elsewhere in the Communist world, including a slightly freer though by no means untroubled place for the Church. In 1958, Wojtyła was made an auxiliary bishop of Kraków, an important see in the south of the country, and in 1960 he published his first major book, Love and Responsibility, drawing largely on his experience as a priest counseling young married couples. Two years later he went to Rome to contribute to the Second Vatican Council. By 1967 he had been appointed a cardinal, and in 1978, he was elected to the papacy himself, naming himself after his predecessor and thus becoming John Paul II.
His pontificate was remarkable in many ways, length not least among them (only Pope Pius IX has reigned longer to date). He participated, indirectly but actively, in the global opposition to Communism that characterized the 1980s, culminating in the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Hand in hand with this, he made unprecedented ecumenical gestures, both towards fellow Christians (particularly the Eastern Orthodox) and other religions—especially, and to the shock of many people on both sides, to the Jewish people, visiting both Yad Vashem and the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
It might be dishonest to paint too rosy a picture of his pontificate. Our non-Catholic readership will naturally have criticisms of Popes; even our Catholic readership must bitterly grieve his disastrous errors of judgment in trusting Marcial Maciel Degollado and Theodore McCarrick. Nevertheless, no great man is without flaws, and neither the greatness nor the flaws should blind us to the other.
His writings and speeches, stretching from the mid-1950s to the beginning of the present century, are voluminous, and it would be impossible to summarize them here. However, his most notable work may be a series of lectures he delivered shortly after his consecration as Pope, building on the subject of his first book. Given over a period of more than four years and running to over five hundred pages of text, the collection was titled Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body. Drawing on the philosophical school of phenomenology (which studies the structure and experience of human consciousness), John Paul II took certain key passages both from the Torah and the Gospels as places from which to meditate on the significance of life as a human being, i.e. a bodily creature endowed with consciousness. Many thinkers in the western tradition have tended to treat the body as a sort of “container” for the mind—whether that were a bad thing they wished to be rid of, or something perfectly alright but not very important. By contrast, for John Paul II, the body is a key element in human fellowship. He describes it as “the gift through which all gifts are given,” not only because our bodies are given to us by our parents with no effort on our part, but because our senses are the very means by which every other thing, even intellectual things, reach us. The implications of this approach to the human person include sexual mores, to be sure. Yet they are rooted in a far more intricate anthropology, which it may be the work of decades or even centuries to explore.
If you liked this piece, take a look at some of our other material here at the Journal, like this author profile of Mary McLeod Bethune, this “Great Conversation” essay on the concept of family, or this reflection on play as an aspect of education. And be sure to check out our weekly podcast on education and culture, Anchored.