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The following is a talk I gave at the conference Theology of the Body: Blessed John Paul II’s Anthropological Vision sponsored by the Archdiocese of Chicago and the Diocese of Joliet on March 31, 2012 at the Chicago Marriott, Oak Brook, IL.

It is an enormous honor to be here with all of you today. It is an honor to be invited by Margie and the Respect Life Office and it is a particular honor to be asked to speak specifically on Blessed Pope John Paul II. My first memory of Pope John Paul II has always been a very powerful one for me. I grew up in the Los Angeles area and on September 16, 1987 I attended, with my family, the Pope’s mass at Dodger Stadium. The site of the pontiff in that sports arena sticks out so clearly in my memory: the sound of his accented English, his holy presence, the electric feel of the crowd. I also remember the incredibly long entrance procession (it was his mass with all the Bishops of the US) and wait for communion (you can imagine how long it takes the average Los Angeles priest to go from the altar at center field to the nose-bleeds, all the while reverently carrying the Blessed Sacrament for distribution.

I’m sorry to say, the other reason the day sticks out in my head so clearly is because (and I don’t remember the reason for this) we were running late that day and, after picking up my grandma, my dad decided he needed to make up the time by speeding right by a friendly LAPD cruiser. Needless to say, the officer was not particularly receptive to my dad’s excuse: “We’re late for our meeting with the Pope!”



My task today is to speak specifically to John Paul’s understanding of the human person and then connect that to the Pope’s teaching on economics and politics. While I will focus mostly on John Paul’s encyclicals, I would like to first draw your attention to that homily I heard as a little kid in Dodger Stadium almost 25 years ago. His words ring true today and reveal some of the Pope’s key themes for understanding the human person: unity and diversity, the common and the particular, the centrality of Christ and his redemptive work:

“Today, in the Church in Los Angeles, Christ is Anglo and Hispanic, Christ is Chinese and Black, Christ is Vietnamese and Irish, Christ is Korean and Italian, Christ is Japanese and Filipino, Christ is Native American, Croatian, Samoan, and many other ethnic groups. In this local Church, the one Risen Christ, the one Lord and Saviour, is living in each person who has accepted the word of God and been washed clean in the saving waters of baptism. And the Church, with all her different members, remains the one Body of Christ, professing the same faith, united in hope and in love.”

In other words the Church is truly herself when she is universally open to all, that is when she is truly Catholic. The diversity of the human family is held in perfect unity only by Christ, our crucified and risen Lord. The Church, the body of Christ, holding within her members of all the diverse segments of the human family, serves as a powerful sign, a sacrament really, of this fundamental unity. But, he continues:

“This unity does not at all erase diversity. On the contrary, it develops it. There is constantly “unity in diversity”. Through the work of the one Lord, by means of the one faith and the one baptism, this diversity – a diversity of human persons, of individuals – tends towards unity, a unity which is communion in the likeness of God the Trinity.”

Here we see the Pope’s firm conviction that the ultimate destiny of the human person individually, and humanity as a whole, is found only in God Himself. We are, before anything else, made in the image of God. We are creatures that bear the mark of a God who is three-in-one, who is Himself a community of persons. In St. Augustine’s formulation the Triune God is constituted by Lover, Beloved, and the Love between them. The unity and diversity of the human family finds its origin in the unity and diversity, the three-in-oneness, of our Creator. The importance of holding these two poles of the Creator and his creatures in tension cannot be underestimated.

To emphasize one to the detriment or exclusion of the other is dangerous . . . and I don’t use that term lightly. To eliminate the diversity of God is ultimately to deny Christ, God in his unique and particular incarnation in time and space. To deny humanity’s diversity is to deny not just the rights and obligations of each of us individually, but also to deny our histories, personalities, talents, even prayers. In the opposite direction, to eliminate the unity of God is to eliminate the unity of the three divine persons leaving us with either some form of tri-theism or the requirement to deny the divinity of Christ and the Spirit. To eliminate the unity of the human person, body and soul, is ultimately to fall into some form of dualistic heresy – either materialism or what we might call spiritualism.

Both of these heresies have been around in various forms for all of Christian history and both persist today. John Paul was particularly concerned with modern forms of materialism that downplay, limit, or eliminate the spirit or soul, but spiritualism which denies the goodness of the body and material existence is equally problematic. Under materialism there is no nuptial meaning of the body, no possible theology of the body, and the spiritual works of mercy are rendered meaningless. Under spiritualism various abuses of the body become permissible (even desirable) and the corporal works of mercy become meaningless.

These false and dangerous conceptions of the human person are ultimately rooted in dangerous conceptions of Christ. These are often called Christological heresies and almost all of them fall under one of two categories. One limits or denies the full divinity of Christ (basically a form of materialism); the other limits or denies the full humanity of Christ (basically a form of spiritualism). The body and soul of the human person is correlated to the the full humanity and full divinity of Jesus Christ – the one through whom all things were made. As the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council taught in its great Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes: “The truth is that only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light.” In other words, the questions who is the human person and who is Jesus must be answered together. Anthropology and Christology go hand in hand. If we get one wrong, chances are we will get, or are getting, the other wrong as well. I would also add ecclesiology to this list, but that’s for another time.

Before proceeding to look at the specific foundations of John Paul II’s anthropology, I would like to answer a more basic question: why worry about anthropology at all? Shouldn’t the church just focus on God and spiritual matters alone and forget all this stuff about the human person? The shortest possible answer is that the church cares because Jesus Christ cared and cares. Paying close attention to the link between Jesus and man is exactly how John Paul deals with this question. Permit me to quote at length his 1st encyclical, Redemptor Hominis:   “Jesus Christ is the chief way for the church. He himself is our way “to the father’s house” and is the way to each man. On this way leading from Christ to man, on this way on which Christ unites himself with each man, nobody can halt the church. . . Accordingly, what is in question here is man in all his truth, in his full magnitude. We are not dealing with the “abstract” man, but the real, “concrete,” “historical” man. We are dealing with “each” man, for each one is included in the mystery of the redemption and with each one Christ has united himself for ever through this mystery. Every man comes into the world through being conceived in his mother’s womb and being born of his mother, and precisely on account of the mystery of the redemption is entrusted to the solicitude of the church. Her solicitude is about the whole man and is focused on him in an altogether special manner. The object of her care is man in his unique unrepeatable human reality, which keeps intact the image and likeness of God himself.” (RH 13) We see here how deep is the connection between Christology and anthropology. To preach the truth about Christ the church must always also preach the truth about man and vice versa.

Let’s now proceed to connect John Paul’s anthropology with economics and politics, in other words, with the social doctrine or magisterium of the Church. According to Cardinal George, in his 2000 essay “The Anthropological Foundation of John Paul II’s Social Though” published in the Catholic Social Science Review, JPII’s anthropology “focuses on three central issues: the intrinsic dignity of the human person, the human telos or destiny in self-giving to others, and the reality of human sinfulness. I would like to spend my remaining time examining these three in turn.

the intrinsic dignity of the human person

In some ways we have already hinted at this. Because we are gratuitously created by God from nothing (i.e. God created us not out of some need, but because he is superabundant and self-giving love), and because he created us in his own image and likeness, given both a body and immortal soul, each human being, simply as a human being, is endowed with immeasurable worth. Nothing, no amount of spiritual, moral, or physical disease or degradation, can lessen or eliminate this dignity. It is an unconditional quality of the human person and must be respected in all human activity, including economic and political activity.

In JPII’s third encyclical, Laborem Exercens, we see the Pontiff extend his anthropology to the realm of human work. According to John Paul, only human beings work (entomological concepts such as “worker bee” or “worker ant” notwithstanding.) Work is anthropological and is therefore, dignified. But work is also variegated and incredibly diverse (just as human beings are) and there will be inequalities and differing compensation and status assigned to various fields of work. But inequality of compensation does not equal inequality of dignity. This is incredibly difficult to maintain in our society. A Hollywood star might have more monetary compensation, status, influence, and political power, than a Catholic school teacher, or a custodian at that same school, or a migrant field worker, or even (to borrow from the Gospels, a prostitute or leaper or tax collector) but not more dignity.

This truth about human dignity leaves the pontiff to an extraordinary claim in Laborem Exercens.   in the final section of the encyclical called “elements for a spirituality of work,” we read of the exceedingly high nature of man the worker. We see man as cocreator with God. “The word of God’s revelation is profoundly marked by the fundamental truth that man, created in the image of God, shares by his work in the activity of the creator.” (LE 25) How is it that man’s work, even his most laborious, can have such a high nature? What sort of conception of theology and anthropology are required to justify such a claim? The Pope can make such a claim only because he sees man related to Christ in a specific way, in a non-competitive way. Because of the philosophical influence of Thomas Aquinas, John Paul II affirms that human beings can, in fact, cooperate with God, and, even more, participate in God – “share in the activity of the creator.” This is an extraordinary claim both about humanity and God – one that the Pope was, at times fiercely, criticized for. The prominent Protestant theologian Stanley Hauerwas called the idea a disaster and the whole encyclical “a remarkably bad idea.” Hauerwas states: “The good news of the creation account is that God completed his creation and that mankind needs do nothing more to see to its perfection. . . Indeed John Paul II’s interpretation of the invitation to become co-creators is uncomfortably close to the view Eve accepted by allowing herself to be tempted by that subtle serpent.” He goes on to argue that the human person is a “representative” not a co-creator. “A representative does not ‘share by his work in the activity of the creator,’ but instead reflects what that activity has already accomplished.”

Here is where we see the intersection of anthropology and ecumenical understanding. Hauerwas, in a theological move consistent with the whole history of Protestantism, rejects Aquinas and therefore cannot possibly see the truth of John Paul’s anthropological vision, in particular the extraordinary meaning of work. For Hauerwas, human beings cannot co-create with God or participate in God. The Creator and his creatures are in a kind of competition. They are not competing for material resources – land, food, water, etc. – but for metaphysical resources – freedom, power, knowledge, goodness, etc. and it’s a zero sum game. If God is all-powerful than human beings have no power that is properly their own. If God is perfectly free, then human beings are perfectly enslaved to sin. If God is all-knowing then the human intellect is totally incompetent on its own and cannot discern the Good, the True or the Beautiful. There is not enough time to get into the reasons for all this, but the notion of original sin becomes a way of protecting God’s sovereignty – his freedom, power, knowledge, goodness, etc. He has all of it and we have none of it and original sin keeps it that way. But that is simply not the Catholic vision of the human person. As if anticipating Hauerwas’ critique, John Paul quotes Gaudium et Spes 34 in this context: “Far from thinking that works produced by man’s own talent and energy are in opposition to God’s power, and that the rational creature exists as a kind of rival to the Creator, Christians are convinced that the triumphs of the human race are a sign of God’s greatness and the flowering of his own mysterious design. . .” (LE 25) So, rather than seeing man’s work (and his accomplishments) as threatening to God’s work, we as Catholics see man’s work as a form of divine glorification.

From this elevated notion of the human person as worker flows certain rights and responsibilities which the Church, in her magisterial social doctrine, recognizes and teaches in authoritative ways. From human dignity and thus the dignity of work and the worker, John Paul II (along with his predecessors since Leo XIII and his successor to the chair of Peter) consistently affirms the right to work, a family wage, healthcare, rest, free association, unionization and striking, unemployment benefits, a pension or some form of insurance for old age, a healthy work environment, even emigration “to seek better conditions of life in another country.” (LE 23) There are corresponding responsibilities and duties, of course, the first of which being the duty to work if you are able and if there is actual work available. John Paul II actually calls unemployment and underemployment a “scourge,” “in all cases . . . an evil,” “a real social disaster,” and “painful” (LE 18). Another duty is that workers, though having the right to unionize and strike must use their union powers with prudence and strike only as a last resort.   It is also important to note that these are human, not civil, rights. They cannot be legitimately taken away by the state. Rather, the state must protect and preserve them – this being the primary activity of the state. This is part of what John Paul and his predecessors mean by a just society. In Centesimus Annus he states: “Such a society is not directed against the market, but demands that the market be appropriately controlled by the forces of society and the State, so as to guarantee that the basic needs of the whole of society are satisfied.” (CA 35) In other words, the State has a proper role to play in the protection and defense of human life and dignity, even in the economic sphere.

the human telos or destiny in self-giving to others

This notion is rooted in the idea that we are loved into being by a God who IS love and so must offer a return of love to God and others. The self-giving love of God is not just on display in the fact that God creates us freely from himself, but finds its definitive expression in the cross. We are all called to imitate Christ’s self-sacrifice on Good Friday. And there is no time or place or activity, no compartmentalized portion of our lives when this call is absent. Our faith in Jesus Christ shapes ALL of life (nothing is outside the bounds of divine concern) – even how we spend our money, how (and why) we hire and fire, how we pursue professional and economic advancement and promotion, how we spend and invest our money, etc.).

John Paul, remaining consistent with the entire history of Social Doctrine beginning with Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum, affirms private property, but only in the context of the universal destination of all goods. We can never be so spiritually naive as to expect everyone to do the right thing all the time – SIN is real as much in the economy as in our personal lives and we will return to this idea in a little bit. There is what Leo XIII called in 1891“the right use of money” resting on the principle, originating in ancient pagan philosophers and “traced out clearly by the Church . . . that it is one thing to have a right to the possession of money and another to have a right to use money as one wills. . . “It is lawful,” says St. Thomas Aquinas, “for a man to hold private property; and it is also necessary for the carrying on of human existence.”” But if the question be asked: How must one’s possessions be used? – the Church replies without hesitation in the words of the same holy Doctor: “Man should not consider his material possessions as his own, but as common to all, so as to share them without hesitation when others are in need.” (Rerum Novarum 22)

John Paul in no way deviates from this firm and consistent teaching and, in fact, develops it. In Laborem Exercens we read that the Church’s teaching on private property: “diverges radically from the programme of collectivism as proclaimed by Marxism and put into practice in various countries . . . [and] at the same time differs from the programme of capitalism practiced by liberalism and by the political systems inspired by it . . . Christian tradition has never upheld this right as absolute and untouchable. On the contrary, it has always understood this right within the broader context of the right common to all to use the goods of the whole of creation: the right to private property is subordinated to the right to common use, to the fact that goods are meant for everyone.” (Italics are the Pope’s)

the reality of human sinfulness

In some ways, the need to subordinate private property to the right to common use is demanded by one thing: sin, which takes us to Cardinal George’s third anthropological foundation. Any attempt to deal with the fullness of the human person and the human family must take into account the reality of sin, both the condition of original sin and the fact of actual sin. Just as there is no realm of human life not shaped by authentic faith, there is no realm of human life not affected by human sinfulness. To understand the full significance of human sin, especially as it relates to economics or politics, we must not only take it seriously but we must understand the full extent of its consequences.

Like virtue, the consequences of sin are threefold: personal, horizontal, and vertical. By personal, I mean the effects of sin on the sinner, on his or her own body and soul. By horizontal, I mean the effects of sin on those around us (both close to us and distant). In other words, the social effects of sin. By vertical, I mean the consequences of sin on our relationship with God. All 3 of these dimensions of the consequences of sin are important and none can be ignored. Because of my topic, I would like to pay special attention to the 2nd or horizontal element. This is often the element of sin most difficult to accept because it is most difficult to see or feel.

We know, if we’re honest with ourselves, the personal effects of sin, mostly in the form of guilt but also in the form of a desire for reconciliation. The social effects of sin can, depending on the circumstances, be relatively easy to see. If I gossip about someone and all of a sudden I turned around and there they are, I can see right then and there the social consequences of sin. But when my sin is private, that is only I do it and only I know about it (let’s leave out here the lie we like to tell ourselves – that we can hide our sin even from God), there still exists social consequences. They may be subtle, even hidden, but they are real and pernicious. Out of this reality of sin and its consequences comes the need for rules, for clear boundaries within which we all must stay for the good of ourselves personally and individually and for the commonweal of our Commonwealth. By the way, this is exactly why God gave his holy people the Law of the Old Covenant and seeks to sacramentally imprint His law on our hearts under the New Covenant.

The most basic expression of this reality in the realm of the economy is in prudential regulations. An economy that is “pure” and left to its own devices, without rules or regulations is like a game without rules and referees. There can’t be more rules and referees than players, but there must be rules and referees to enforce them, and any attempt to preserve a free market in such a way both misunderstands true freedom and suffers from serious naïveté about human sinfulness.

Though it has become common since the Enlightenment to construe freedom as the absence of restraint, this is antithetical to the notion of freedom as it is passed down to us through the entirety of the Christian tradition. Freedom is not the absence of restraint, but the submission of the will (individual and collective) to God.   Because of sin we can never be completely trusted to preserve our own freedom, let alone the freedom of others. Only God both desires true human freedom (individually and collectively) and can ensure it. We all know, if we are honest and have a healthy relationship with the sacraments, that there are often times when we don’t desire equal freedom for all (even for ourselves) and even when we do we can’t make it happen! In fact, when we try to exercise freedom on our own apart from God, we enslave ourselves and others.

This is exactly St. Augustine’s understanding of sin–each sin, that is, each time I attempt to live in such a way that fosters a false notion of freedom, I add one more chink to the chain enslaving me to myself. This is why one of the earliest formulations of the effects of sin on the center is “curvatus in se” – curved in on oneself.   J.R.R. Tolkien’s character of Gollum, physically contorted into himself and chained to the ring of power, represents the physical manifestation of this interior and spiritual reality. John Paul dealt with precisely this problem of freedom in 1979 in his 1st encyclical, Redemptor Hominis.   He quotes the words of Jesus “you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” The pontiff then adds: “these words contain both a fundamental requirement and a warning: the requirement of an honest relationship with regard to truth as a condition for authentic freedom, and the warning to avoid every kind of illusory freedom, every superficial unilateral freedom, every freedom that fails to enter into the whole truth about man and the world.” (RH 12)

This problem of sin and freedom, when placed in the context of the State, begs the question of the principle of subsidiarity – who, which level of institution, ought to deal with and try to solve, the problems of society? The family, the neighborhood, the city, the county, the state, the federal government, international authorities, etc.? Subsidiarity, properly understood, is not MERELY a preference for the smallest and most local level of responsibility and engagement (although it is that), but also, when sin is taken seriously, an insistence that higher levels (even the international level) must step in when the lower levels either won’t or can’t solve the problem. The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church puts it this way: “all societies of a superior order must adopt attitudes of help (“subsidium”) – therefore of support, promotion, development – with respect to lower order societies.” (CSDC 186)

Another anthropological principle of the social magisterium of the Church that relates directly to both sinfulness and economic concerns is known as: “the primacy of being over having” in Leo XIII’s formualtion (or “persons over things” as JP puts it in Laborem Exercens 13) This principle can be and often is reversed in a culture that emphasizes mass production and individual consumption over all else and this reversal is rooted in sin. As the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace recently reminded us: “in 1991, after the failure of Marxist communism, Blessed John Paul II had already warned of the risk of an “idolatry of the market, an idolatry which ignores the existence of goods which by their nature are not and cannot be mere commodities”. Today his warning needs to be heeded without delay and a road must be taken that is in greater harmony with the dignity and transcendent vocation of the person and the human family.” An idolatry of the state must not be replaced by an idolatry of the market . . . if we allow that to happen we make the equal and opposite mistake of Marxist ideology.   This is exactly what prompts Cardinal George to assert that: “The Pope’s (and the Church’s) anthropologically grounded social thought is neither neo-conservative nor liberal. The Pope is neither a Whig nor a socialist.” In other words, if we are to remain with the Church, we must do the increasingly difficult thing: we must resist the temptation to reduce the Church and her teachings to partisan politics or ideological platforms. Theology must never be put at the service of having over being or things over persons. As John Paul insists in Centesimus Annus, “the Church is not an ideology” and with the failure of Marxism “there is a risk that a radical capitalist ideology could spread which refuses even     to consider these problems,” (CA 42) namely the “vast multitudes still living in conditions of great material and moral poverty.” We cannot get out of the clear and present moral evil of persistent and horrific poverty, even within our own borders, by trusting a belief, or better an ideology, that tells us all as “that any attempt to solve them is doomed to failure, or which blindly entrusts their solution to the free development of market forces.” (CA 42) If by free market you mean a market free from regulation, the Pope would suggest you are misunderstanding freedom and, again, discounting human sin. A market without prudent regulation is about as free as a Bull’s game without rules and referees to enforce them. Rules and regulations, when prudently determined, do not interfere with freedom but are the guarantors of freedom! To borrow from the Preface of Fr. Robert Barron’s book Bridging the Great Divide, “Anyone who has ever seriously participated in a game knows that indispensable conditions for successful play are structure, order, rule, and mutually agreed-upon limitations. Basketball would be no fun whatsoever if one were permitted to dribble outside the boundaries of the court, to manhandle one’s opponent, or to carry the ball under one’s arm. The challenge and beauty of the game depends, to a large degree, on the maintaining of its structured integrity.” The same applies to the game we call the economy.

The economy is a game not in a trivial sense, but because it shares this fundamental characteristic: namely, the need for clear rules and their enforcement in order to ensure the freedom to play the game at all. We all know this to be true from our own experience.   Pope John Paul II clearly expresses this idea in CA 42 when he attempts to answer this question: “can it perhaps be said that, after the failure of communism, capitalism is the victorious social system, and that capitalism should be the goal of the countries now making efforts to rebuild their economy and society? . . . If by “capitalism” is meant a system in which freedom in the economic sector is not circumscribed within a strong juridical framework which places it at the service of human freedom in its totality, and which sees it as a particular aspect of that freedom, the core of which is ethical and religious, then the reply is certainly negative.”   In other words, an economy that is free is also regulated and the extent, type, and enforcement of those regulations can only be determined through the development of the virtue of prudence. It might be helpful here to quote Cardinal George once more in his 2000 essay: “the Pope’s (and the church’s) anthropologically grounded social thought is thus neither neoconservative nor liberal. The Pope is neither a Whig nor a socialist.” There is no simple either/or choice before us: either a pure deregulated market or a pure socialist system. Ultimately, the one final arbiter of our anthropological understandings, our economic activity, or our political engagement, is Jesus Christ himself, the kingdom of God in person, passed on to us as a gift from the church.

On Sunday October 22, 1978 John Paul II preached the homily marking the inauguration of his Pontificate in St. Peter’s Square. I leave you with his words which reflect his anthropology as well as his economics and politics: all three united in and by the God who became one of us in order to redeem us from sin, but not just from sin – but also from the fear and despair that prevent us from heeding the call of Christ uttered through the Church and her teachings:

“Brothers and sisters, do not be afraid to welcome Christ and accept his power. Help the Pope and all those who wish to serve Christ and with Christ’s power to serve the human person and the whole of mankind. Do not be afraid. Open wide the doors for Christ. To his saving power open the boundaries of States, economic and political systems, the vast fields of culture, civilization and development. Do not be afraid. Christ knows “what is in man”. He alone knows it.

So often today man does not know what is within him, in the depths of his mind and heart. So often he is uncertain about the meaning of his life on this earth. He is assailed by doubt, a doubt which turns into despair. We ask you therefore, we beg you with humility and trust, let Christ speak to man. He alone has words of life, yes, of eternal life.”