Appeared in Autumn/Winter 2005, Vol. XXX, Nos. 3 & 4 Download PDF here

In an article published in 2002 in The Latin Mass magazine, John Galvin offers a critique of Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae. Section 8 of the article is entitled “Reliance on Personalist Phenomenology”:

The entire argument of Humanae Vitae rests upon the sentence, “That teaching, often set forth by the magisterium, is founded upon the inseparable connection, willed by God and unable to be broken by man on his own initiative, between the two meanings of the conjugal act: the unitive meaning and the procreative meaning.” . . . We must recognize that this new formulation stands in sharp contrast to the justification offered by traditional Catholic theology. The substitution of the new concept “meaning” in place of the traditional language of “end” or “purpose” represents a radical restructuring. . . . How did the magisterium come to discard the natural law explanation of such a fundamental institution as marriage and replace it with a novel and untried philosophy? The answer in a word is “Personalism.” Soon after its release, Cardinal Wojtyla (now Pope John Paul II) offered an extended testimony to the thoroughly personalistic nature of HV. . . . It is apparent that HV acted as a springboard by which personalism could launch its new philosophy of marriage, displacing the traditional teaching. Since that time, it has replaced all the customary supports of the Church such as history, tradition, authority and hierarchy with an impenetrable philosophy of inter-personal relationships that has proven disastrous in practice. (1)

It is interesting to compare Galvin’s judgment with that of Ronald Modras, a theologian who defends homosexual acts.

If the Pope’s theology of the body is sometimes ambiguous, it is because it can appear so revolutionary and original at first. He uses the language of personalism and the phenomenological method of description in his analyses of sexuality. He speaks rarely about nature and often about persons, personal dignity and responsibility, and so appears to have broken with his Neo-Thomistic training with its insistence upon immutable natural laws. Upon a closer examination, however, the pope is a skillful and energetic exponent of the neo-Thomistic natural law ethic. . . . Although he uses words like “person” and “love” liberally, his understanding of those words is hardly that of his readers. Like his arguments, his definitions refer constantly to nature. (2)

Galvin objects to Humanae Vitae (explicitly including John Paul II) because it replaces the order of nature with the subjective personalist order of “meaning.” He sees Paul VI and John Paul II as abandoning Thomism in favor of personalism. Galvin opts for preserving the order of nature and for rejecting the new personalist emphasis on “meaning” as modern subjectivism. Modras objects to John Paul II because he fails to replace the order of nature by the personalist order. He sees the wolf of Neo-Thomism under the sheepskin of personalism. Modras opts for rejecting the order of static natures in favor of a personalism unencumbered by nature.

The thesis of the present essay, put negatively, is that both Galvin and Modras are wrong. Put positively, it is that Pope John Paul is faithful to the teaching of St. Thomas precisely in the elements of his teaching that both Galvin and Modras consider opposed to St. Thomas.

The following argument has two parts. In the first I argue that Pope John Paul’s teaching on marriage is indeed deeply rooted in a teleological conception of nature in agreement with the natural philosophy of Aristotle and St. Thomas. On this point, taken in itself, there is little that is new in John Paul II. In the second part, I will argue that most of what is new in John Paul’s personalism is inspired, not by Scheler, but by St. John of the Cross. St. John of the Cross had a good formation in St. Thomas, as did John Paul II. What is new in them stands in harmony with St. Thomas and often develops points that are mentioned only briefly or implicitly by St. Thomas.

John Paul II writes in his book Love and Responsibility, published two decades before he became Pope,

[t]he Church, as has been mentioned previously, teaches, and has always taught, that the primary end of marriage is procreatio, but that it has a secondary end, defined in Latin terminology as mutuum adiutorium. Apart from these a tertiary aim is mentioned—remedium concupiscentiae. . . . The ends of marriage, in the order mentioned, are incompatible with any subjectivist interpretation of the sexual urge, and therefore demand from man, as a person, objectivity in his thinking on sexual matters, and above all in his behavior. This objectivity is the foundation of conjugal morality (Love and Responsibility, 66).

Particularly problematic in Humanae Vitae, according to Galvin, is the word “meaning” (significatio) which, Galvin thinks, replaces the more traditional word “end.” A teleological view of nature has been replaced by subjectivist personalism. Here is how Wojtyla understands the word “meaning”:

By appealing to the meaning of the conjugal act, the Pope places the whole discussion not only and not so much in the context of the nature of the act, but also and even more in the context of human awareness, in the context of the awareness that should correspond to this act on the part of both the man and the woman—the persons performing this act. (3)

In order to avoid playing out the order of nature and the order of human awareness against each other, one should read this passage together with a text already quoted:

The ends of marriage, in the order mentioned, are incompatible with any subjectivist interpretation of the sexual urge, and therefore demand from man, as a person, objectivity in his thinking on sexual matters, and above all in his behavior. This objectivity is the foundation of conjugal morality (Love and Responsibility, 66).

According to John Paul II, the main reason why so many people in our time find it difficult to understand and accept the Church’s teaching on contraception is precisely the reaffirmation in Humanae Vitae of the traditional Catholic teaching on the natural ends of marriage. Teleology is difficult to accept, he says, because of the widespread dominance of natural science and its mechanistic picture of the world. I find the main passage on this subject in Love and Responsibility very penetrating.

The expressions ‘the order of nature’ and ‘the biological order’ must not be confused or regarded as identical, the ‘biological order’ does indeed mean the same as the order of nature but only in so far as this is accessible to the methods of empirical and descriptive natural science. . . . This habit of confusing the order of existence with the biological order, or rather of allowing the second to obscure the first, is part of that universal empiricism which seems to weigh so heavily on the mind of modern man, and particularly on modern intellectuals, and makes it particularly difficult for them to understand the principles on which Catholic sexual morality is based. According to those principles . . . the sexual urge owes its objective importance to its connection with the divine work of creation of which we have been speaking, and this importance vanishes almost completely if our way of thinking is inspired only by the biological order of nature. Seen in this perspective the sexual urge is only the sum of functions undoubtedly directed, from the biological point of view, towards a biological end, that of reproduction. Now, if man is the master of nature, should he not mould those functions—if necessary artificially, with the help of the appropriate techniques—in whatever way he considers expedient and agreeable? The ‘biological order’, as a product of the human intellect which abstracts its elements from a larger reality, has man for its immediate author. The claim to autonomy in one’s ethical views is a short jump from this. It is otherwise with the order of nature, which means the totality of the cosmic relationships that arise among really existing entities (Love and Responsibility, 56-7).

What I find so penetrating in this passage is that it identifies a way of thinking and seeing that is deeply hammered into the minds of children in school and that is reinforced daily in all adults by the cultural establishment, namely, the way of thinking and seeing defined by a mechanist form of natural science. In that way of thinking and seeing, the world is an elaborate machine that follows certain laws and is driven by chance. Man can take his place as the master of nature without any questions, except perhaps environmental questions. To this way of thinking contraception seems the most “natural” thing in the world. We sterilize cats. Why not men and women?

I think Pope John Paul II is right that the dominance of natural science is the single most important obstacle to an understanding of Humanae Vitae. It is the single most important historical circumstance of the controversy preceding and following the publication of Humanae Vitae.

Thus we come to my first major conclusion. Whatever personalism precisely means in the writings of John Paul II, it is not opposed to the traditional understanding of marriage in terms of its primary natural end, the procreation and education of children. In Love and Responsibility John Paul II writes:

In the order of love a man can remain true to the person only in so far as he is true to nature. If he does violence to ‘nature’ he also ‘violates’ the person by making it an object of enjoyment rather than of love (Love and Responsibility, 229-30).

It seems to me that the evidence I have presented is already sufficient to argue that John Paul II stands in harmony with St. Thomas in his teaching on marriage. Of course, I would have to go through all other issues to confirm what this test-case suggests. Since this is an essay and not a course, or a cycle of courses, I will take a short-cut. What particular doctrine of St. Thomas would you like as the most striking confirmation? How about the doctrine of prime matter? Prime matter is the doctrine in which Aristotle differs most clearly and deeply from the Pre-Socratics and from Descartes and the natural science that is indebted to his mechanist principles. Here is a passage from John Paul II’s book The Acting Person:

In its metaphysical significance, the soul is “form” and its relation to the body is as Aristotle and St. Thomas define the relation between form and matter. One should add that what is at stake here is prime matter, materia prima.

These two sentences are not only important as a testimony to John Paul II’s agreement with a key Aristotelian and Thomistic doctrine, but also as a testimony to the great problem of the English edition of The Acting Person. I have translated the two sentences from the German and Italian translations of the Polish original. If you look for them in the English translation they should be on page 257, but you will not find them. Anna Teresa Tymieniecka, the editor of the English translation, cut them out from the English text. The sentence before and the sentence after them are both there. In fact, Tymieniecka seems to have been rather systematic in eliminating or weakening most texts in which John Paul II explicitly agrees with Aristotle and St. Thomas.

In one of his essays John Paul II refers to himself quite naturally with the phrase, “We in the Thomistic school, the school of ‘perennial philosophy’ . . . .” (4) These are his own words. The evidence I have presented suggests that we should accept his own words about himself as true. Of course, if one restricts the label “Thomist” to those who use primarily scholastic terminology and reproduce primarily scholastic arguments, then Wojtyla is certainly not a Thomist, but the same is true of St. John of the Cross or Josef Pieper for that matter. In fact, I am not aware of a single philosophical or theological disagreement between John Paul II and St. Thomas, except for the Immaculate Conception.


I now turn to the second part of my paper, in which I intend to show that the personalism of John Paul II is rooted in the thought of St. John of the Cross, rather than in the phenomenologist Max Scheler.

As a habilitation thesis (which is similar to a book required for tenure in the American academic system), John Paul II wrote a book with the title, Evaluation of the Possibility of Constructing a Christian Ethics on the Assumptions of Max Scheler’s System of Philosophy. George Weigel writes in his biography,

That [Wojtyla] looked to Scheler as a possible guide, and that he put himself through the backbreaking work of translation so that he could analyze Scheler in his own language, suggests that Wojtyla had become convinced that the answers [to the question “Why ought I be good?”] were not to be found in the neo-scholasticism of Father Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange. (5)

It does nothing of the sort. The book is a relentless critique of Scheler that does not leave a single brick on top of another. John Paul II writes, “It is, therefore, due to its phenomenological principles that Scheler’s system is unsuitable for the interpretation of Christian Ethics. . . .” (6) And again, “These investigations convince us that the Christian thinker, especially the theologian . . . must not be a Phenomenologist.” (7)

Before I proceed further, let me define the terms “phenomenology” and “personalism.” “Phenomenology” consists of two Greek words: “-logy” comes from “logos” and means account. An account of what? The answer is supplied by the other Greek word, “phainomenon.” A phenomenon is something that appears, something given in our conscious attention. Phenomenon implies a contrast with what is not itself present to us in our conscious attention, but is merely thought and spoken about in its absence. For example, when you look at the front of a building, the front is a phenomenon, the back is not. When you have a toothache, it is given in your conscious attention. You might remember that you had a toothache yesterday as well, but it is no longer itself a phenomenon. You are not experiencing it. So, one can define phenomenology as an account of what is itself present or given in our conscious awareness or experience.

Phenomenology was defined as a method and then as a philosophical school by Edmund Husserl in opposition to the great systems of German idealism, especially Kant. Husserl argued that these systems were constructions. In the vocabulary of phenomenology, constructing is the mortal sin. Only outright lying is worse. A philosopher “constructs” when he builds up an account that is not based on what is actually apparent to him. He overlooks what he sees and constructs something he doesn’t see. He is a poet, not a philosopher. He makes, he does not seek knowledge. Husserl’s battle cry was “back to things themselves” by which he meant, take a look at what is actually present or given to you, what stands before your eyes instead of constructing systems.

So far so good. Troubles arise when Husserl further defines what can and what cannot be considered a phenomenon. Real existence, he says, is always a matter of uncertainty, which shows that it cannot be immediately given as a phenomenon. Here one can see Husserl’s indebtedness to Descartes and Kant. The only things that can be immediately given are essences as objects of consciousness or, as Husserl says, “such-being” rather than “that-being” or existence. On the basis of this premise, phenomenology became an account restricted to essences as objects of consciousness. Real being disappears and we are locked in consciousness. This exclusion of real being is the main point for which John Paul II criticizes phenomenology, particularly in the form it took in Max Scheler. There are phenomenologists who do not follow Husserl in this exclusion of real being, for example, Dietrich von Hildebrand and Husserl’s one-time assistant, Edith Stein.

Let us look at the other word. “Personalism” is formed by adding the suffix –ism to “person.” This suffix goes back to the Greek suffix “–ismos” via the Latin “–ismus.” St. Ignatius of Antioch speaks of “Christianismos” (Rom. 3:3) and St. Augustine of “Christianismus” (Civ. Dei, 19, 23, 1). We use another Latin suffix with a similar meaning to form the word “Christianity.” In Christianismos and Christianismus Christ plays a central role. In Thomism St. Thomas plays a central role. In personalism the person plays a central role. The first use of the word “personalism” I know of is in Schleiermacher’s speeches on religion published in 1799. Schleiermacher uses the Latin “Personalismus” to characterize the traditional Christian view that God is a personal being with reason and will as opposed to an anonymous force devoid of intelligence. (8) In 1957 Pius XII said in a speech to representatives of European cities and counties,

In a situation in which the centralizing tendencies of modern nations aim at a far-reaching limitation of the freedom of local communities and individual persons, you call to mind the primacy of values of the person. . . . As Europe is being born we must create a broad and reliable majority of federalists who maintain as principles of a healthy personalism a concept of civil society, as we may call it, in which individual persons find a normal possibility for development and can serve the community in freedom. (9)

It is quite clear in this text what Pius XII means by “personalism,” at least in this instance. If Pius XII is right in saying that there is a healthy personalism, there is most likely also an unhealthy personalism. John Paul II, in fact, speaks of the danger of “egotistical personalisms” in religious life (10) and of “pseudo-liturgical personalisms” in liturgical life. (11) In one of his prayers, he turns to Mary and says, “You are stronger than all egotistical and personalistic ambitions.” (12) He speaks of “Kant’s formalistic personalism” (13) and “Kantian personalism.” (14) He calls Scheler a personalist even though Scheler radically opposes Kant’s account of the person.

The great Thomist Charles De Koninck uses the term “personalism” in a negative sense to refer to the position that the dignity of the person as individual by itself or as a whole is greater than the dignity of the person as a part ordered to the common good. Like John Paul II he speaks of “Kantian personalism,” (15) which is indeed the supreme expression of exalting the dignity of the individual at the expense of the common good. De Koninck thinks that the very term “personalism” contains a vice. He urges his Catholic readers to avoid the term altogether. I do not think he is right. The original coining of the word was not the work of Kant, who never uses the term, or Scheler, who uses it frequently. It was the work of a theologian, admittedly the subjectivist Protestant Schleiermacher, yet not as a way of expressing his own subjectivist views, but as a way of characterizing the traditional Christian teaching about a personal God.

To conclude, “personalism” is used in many senses. What is common to all is that the person plays a central role. What the term “person” means differs widely and what role the person plays differs widely as well. When Pius XII exhorts his audience to adopt a healthy personalism, he means something quite different than John Paul II when he calls Kant a personalist and prays to Our Lady that all personalistic ambitions may be rooted out. What is it that personalism means to John Paul II in particular when he uses the term positively? It means an emphasis on the rationality of human beings, more specifically their rational life as moral agents aware of themselves. The main opposites he has in mind are utilitarianism and Marxism, both of whom eliminate the acting person. Among other things, personalism therefore means, as you will see further when we look at St. John of the Cross, a particular emphasis on lived conscious experience.

Let us now turn to Scheler. According to John Paul II, Scheler’s ethics attracted the attention of Catholic thinkers for two main reasons. First, Catholic ethics had always focused on the object of human acts, i.e., the good. By criticizing Kant for his failure to do justice to the object of acts, Scheler became attractive to Catholics. The second point of contact is more specific.

There were also more particular theses that caused immediate associations with Christian ethics, especially with the ethical teaching of the Gospels. In his system Scheler underlines that love for the person and imitating an exemplary person [namely, Jesus] have great importance and play a central role in ethical life as a whole. (16)

The sub-title of Scheler’s main work in ethics is, “A New Attempt toward the Foundation of an Ethical Personalism.” (17) Scheler’s attempt can rightly be called personalistic, John Paul II explains, because he places a particular emphasis on the person in moral life: the moral perfection of the person is proposed as a goal; love for the person and imitation of model persons are central. (18) The opposite of personalism in this sense is utilitarianism, which is primarily interested in the useful consequences of moral acts.

At the end of John Paul II’s analysis of Scheler, it is clear that Scheler disappoints the two hopes Catholics placed in him. First, he does not give a sufficient account of the objective moral goodness of the person. Second, he does not allow for a genuine imitation of exemplary persons. His philosophy is not personalistic enough. The person, in the end, gets lost.

The point John Paul II selects to test the suitability of Scheler’s philosophy for a Christian ethics is the Gospel’s teaching on the imitation of Christ. Among the Gospel texts John Paul II quotes and comments on are the following. “If anyone wants to come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me” (Matt. 16:24). “If I, your Lord and teacher, have washed your feet, you also must wash one another’s feet” (John 13:14).

The Gospel’s ideal of moral perfection in imitation of Jesus, John Paul II argues, has three main characteristics. (19) 1) It is a real ideal, because it aims at a real perfection of the person in imitation of a real perfection already found in Jesus. 2) It is a practical ideal, because it is realized by acts which the person can actually perform in following the exemplar. The person is the responsible cause of these acts and of their moral goodness. 3) It is a religious ideal, both because the perfection to be imitated is that of Jesus and because moral goodness establishes the right relation with God. The ideal thus has three characteristics: it is formal, efficient, and final.

John Paul II devotes one chapter to each of these three points. In the first he argues that the phenomenological method as Scheler understands it does not allow him to give an account of moral good and evil as objectively real attributes of the person, because he considers them only as phenomena, as objects of consciousness.

Despite its objectivist tendencies, Scheler’s ethical system is not suitable for interpreting an ethics that has an objective character as Christian Ethics does. There is no doubt that Scheler’s insufficient objectivism springs from his phenomenological principles. Because of these principles the ethical value always remains in an intentional and—despite everything—subjective position. In order to grasp ethical value in its real and objective position, one would have to proceed from different epistemological premises, namely, meta-phenomenological and even metaphysical premises. (20)

In the second chapter John Paul II argues that Scheler, in contrast to the Gospel, does not portray the person as the responsible origin of moral acts:

. . . [D]ue to its phenomenological principles, Scheler’s system cannot directly grasp and express that the human person in its acts is the origin of moral good and evil. The whole difficulty is the result of the phenomenological premises of the system and we must assign the blame to these principles. (21)

The third chapter deals with the religious character of the ideal of moral perfection in the Gospels. The final question John Paul II takes up is the question of the final end, of blessedness in the beatific vision.

We see that in the teaching of revelation, all emphasis in the doctrine of eternal blessedness falls on the object of blessedness, namely, the divine nature, which is this object. In Scheler’s phenomenological system, of course, this doctrine cannot be grasped and expressed. . . . [According to Scheler] man draws the greatest happiness and the greatest suffering from within himself, he himself is its source for himself. This point of view seems to separate us completely from the Christian teaching. Given such a point of view, can we establish any point of contact with the revealed truth according to which the object of man’s final blessedness is the divine nature? (22)

The answer is No. In another work he pinpoints the reason for the loss of the final end in Scheler.

Again the analysis of the systems of Kant and Scheler shows the conclusion that a consistent teleology . . . has no room in the philosophy of consciousness. Of course, the end is something contained in consciousness, and the end is always some good or value, but as a [mere] content of consciousness the end loses its perfective character. It possesses such a character only in connection with real being on the premises of a philosophy of the real. Only on this basis can one speak of a consistent teleology. (23)

In another text he writes,

The philosophy of consciousness would have us believe that it first discovered the human subject. The philosophy of being is prepared to demonstrate that quite the opposite is true, that in fact an analysis of pure consciousness leads inevitably to an annihilation of the subject. (24)

Let me summarize. In the form in which Husserl and Scheler hold it, Phenomenology, according to John Paul II, loses real being and annihilates the person. For this reason it cannot be a rigorous form of personalism. To the degree in which personalism is rigorously phenomenological, it is not sufficiently personalistic.

Is there any good in the phenomenological method? John Paul II asks himself in the final paragraphs of his book on Scheler. He answers: What we must not do is follow Husserl and Scheler in bracketing real being. The goal of philosophy is to understand real being. Yet, what Husserl and Scheler say before this erroneous point has some truth in it. It is good to pay close attention to the phenomena, that is, to things as we actually experience them, as we are actually aware of them in our lived experience. Such attention to the phenomena, however, can only play a secondary and assisting role in philosophy and theology.

[The theologian] . . . should not forego the great advantages which the phenomenological method offers his work. It impresses the stamp of experience on works of ethics and nourishes them with the life-knowledge of concrete man by allowing an investigation of moral life from the side of its appearance. Yet, in all this, the phenomenological method plays only a secondary assisting role. . . . At the same time, these investigations convince us that the Christian thinker, especially the theologian, who makes use of phenomenological experience in his work, must not be a Phenomenologist. (25)

Of course, given the qualified sense of “phenomenology” that one gets when one strips away the erroneous exclusion of real being in Husserl and Scheler, every good philosopher has and will use the phenomenological method in a secondary assisting role, Plato no less than Aristotle. The extent to which he uses the method might differ; the degree to which he conceives it clearly as a method might differ; but he will use it.

Yet not even in this more general sense of attention to actual experience are Husserl or Scheler the main source for John Paul II. It is in St. John of the Cross that John Paul II found a rigorous theological personalism that paid much attention to lived awareness and experience. In 1941, one year before he entered the underground seminary of Kraków, when he was still a student of Polish literature, he had a profound encounter with St. John of the Cross. Adolf Hitler played an instrumental role. The Gestapo stripped Polish parishes of most of their priests to break the spiritual backbone of Polish cultural and religious resistance. They sent them to concentration camps where most of them were killed. As a consequence, young Karol, then twenty-one years old, came under the spiritual guidance of a layman who introduced him to St. John of the Cross. He was so struck by the Mystical Doctor that he immediately learned Spanish to read him in the original. This is how he describes the event in an interview in 1994.

Before entering the seminary, I met a layman named Jan Tyranowski, who was a true mystic. This man, whom I consider a saint, introduced me to the great Spanish mystics and in particular to Saint John of the Cross. Even before entering the underground seminary, I read the works of that mystic, especially his poetry. In order to read it in the original, I studied Spanish. That was a very important stage in my life. (26)

Seven years after this first encounter, he defended his dissertation on the understanding of faith in St. John, directed by Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange at the Angelicum in Rome. Looking back at more than forty years of familiarity with St. John of the Cross, John Paul II said in 1982,

. . . [T]o him I owe so much in my spiritual formation. I came to know him in my youth and I entered into an intimate dialogue with this master of faith, with his language and his thought, culminating in the writing of my doctoral dissertation on “Faith in St. John of the Cross.” Ever since then I have found in him a friend and master who has shown me the light that shines in the darkness for walking always toward God. (27)

The profound influence of St. John of the Cross on John Paul II is beyond doubt. Both Galvin and Modras hold that the terms John Paul II uses in his account of love, particularly of married love, are drawn from personalist phenomenology. This is not the case. They are drawn from St. John of the Cross. Consider the following text, which contains most of the terms that both Galvin and Modras consider telltale signs of personalist phenomenology.

Sexuality, by means of which man and woman give themselves to one another through the acts which are proper and exclusive to spouses, is by no means something purely biological, but concerns the innermost being of the human person as such. It is realized in a truly human way only if it is an integral part of the love by which a man and a woman commit themselves totally to one another until death. The total physical self-giving would be a lie if it were not the sign and fruit of a total personal self-giving, in which the whole person, including the temporal dimension, is present: if the person were to withhold something or reserve the possibility of deciding otherwise in the future, by this very fact he or she would not be giving totally (John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio, 11).

The only phenomenologist in whom John Paul II could have heard this way of speaking about love is Dietrich von Hildebrand, who published a book about marriage in 1929 that has a similar vocabulary. Yet, long before he had a chance to read Hildebrand and had any notion of phenomenology, John Paul II found the same vocabulary in St. John. In stanza 3 of The Living Flame of Love, St. John of the Cross writes,

O lamps of fire! in whose splendors the deep caverns of feeling, once obscure and blind, now give forth, so rarely, so exquisitely, both warmth and light to their Beloved.

In his commentary on this stanza, St. John writes:

Since God gives himself with a free and gracious will, so too the soul (possessing a will more generous and free the more it is united with God) gives to God, God himself in God; and this is a true and complete gift of the soul to God.

It is conscious there that God is indeed its own and that it possesses him by inheritance, with the right of ownership, as his adopted child through the grace of his gift of himself. Having him for its own, it can give him and communicate him to whomever it wishes. Thus it gives him to its Beloved, who is the very God who gave himself to it. By this donation it repays God for all it owes him, since it willingly gives as much as it receives from him.

Because the soul in this gift to God offers him the Holy Spirit, with voluntary surrender, as something of its own (so that God loves himself in the Holy Spirit as he deserves), it enjoys inestimable delight and fruition, seeing that it gives God something of its own that is suited to him according to his infinite being. It is true that the soul cannot give God again to himself, since in himself he is ever himself. Nevertheless it does this truly and perfectly, giving all that was given it by him in order to repay love, which is to give as much as is given. And God, who could not be considered paid with anything less, is considered paid with that gift of the soul; and he accepts it gratefully as something it gives him of its own. In this very gift he loves it anew; and in this re-surrender of God to the soul, the soul also loves as though again.

A reciprocal love is thus actually formed between God and the soul, like the marriage union and surrender, in which the goods of both (the divine essence that each possesses freely by reason of the voluntary surrender between them) are possessed by both together. They say to each other what the Son of God spoke to the Father through St. John: All that is mine is yours and yours is mine . . . [Jn. 17:10]. (28)

St. John describes the soul’s relation to God as a cycle of mutual giving. The deep satisfaction and happiness of love is found in this cycle as a cycle of giving, not only as receiving.

In the text I just quoted, what the bride gives is God himself to God, who has given himself to her. Self-gift is not explicit, but certainly implicit. In other texts St. John speaks more directly of the bride giving herself.

There he gave me his breast; there he taught me a sweet and living knowledge; and I gave myself to him, keeping nothing back; there I promised to be his bride. (29)

In this stanza, the promise “to be his bride” seems to express in alternate words what immediately precedes it, “I gave myself to him, keeping nothing back.” St. John comments,

In this stanza the bride tells of the mutual surrender made in this spiritual espousal between the soul and God, saying that in the interior wine cellar of love they were joined by the communication he made of himself to her. . . . In that sweet drink of God, in which the soul is imbibed in him, she most willingly and with intense delight surrenders herself wholly to him in the desire to be totally his and never to possess in herself anything other than him. . . . Hence, not only in her will but also in her works she is really and totally given to God without keeping anything back, just as God has freely given himself entirely to her. This union is so effected that the two wills are mutually paid, surrendered, and satisfied (so that neither fails the other in anything) with the fidelity and stability of an espousal. She therefore adds: there I promised to be his bride. Just as one who is espoused does not love, care, or work for any other than her bridegroom, so the soul in this state has no affections of the will or knowledge in the intellect or care or work or appetite that is not inclined entirely toward God. She is as it were divine and deified, in such a way that in regard to all she can understand she does even suffer the first movements contrary to God’s will. (30)

I have quoted these two texts at some length, because most of the characteristic teachings of John Paul II can be directly derived from them. The characteristic feature of the spousal love between human beings and God, according to St. John, is the totality of the gift of self, which is reflected in the totality of the orientation of affections toward the spouse. “I gave myself to him, keeping nothing back; there I promised to be his bride.” This is the language that turns up in John Paul II’s description of spousal love in the book Love and Responsibility.

Betrothed [=spousal] love differs from all the aspects or forms of love analyzed hitherto. Its decisive character is the giving of one’s own person (to another). This is something different from and more than attraction, desire or even goodwill. These are all ways by which one person goes out toward another, but none of them can take him as far. . . . The fullest, the most uncompromising form of love consists precisely in self-giving, in making one’s inalienable and non-transferable ‘I’ someone else’s property. (31)

The core of John Paul II’s teaching on love can be summarized in three theses. First, love between persons can be described as a gift of self. St. Thérèse of Lisieux, also an attentive disciple of St. John of the Cross, offers this quasi-definition: “To love is to give everything and to give oneself” (St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Pourquoi je t’aime, ô Marie!, stanza 22). Second, the fullest and clearest realization of this gift of self in our experience is spousal love between man and woman. Third, the origin and paradigm of love and giving is the Trinity. These same three theses can also be found in St. John of the Cross.

Another close bond between St. John and John Paul II is the attention they both pay to the lived experience of the person. Rocco Buttiglione claims that John Paul II “. . . read in St. John of the Cross a kind of phenomenology of mystical experience.” (32) The point should be put the other way around: John Paul II read in Phenomenology a kind of Sanjuanist sensitivity to the lived experience of the person. He came to know St. John first.

There is a certain similarity between St. John and the philosophers of consciousness. St. John’s writings are in part a response to Luther, a specifically modern response in which the lived experience of personal subjectivity plays a pronounced role, yet without any polemical edge against the objective content of faith and its elaboration in scholastic theology. St. John of the Cross lived from 1544 to 1591. Descartes lived from 1596 to 1650. Buttiglione is mistaken when he focuses primarily on Descartes and the philosophers of consciousness who follow in his train to explain the turn to the subject, the attention to personal consciousness, awareness and experience in John Paul II.

As a student, St. John had a thorough formation in St. Thomas. Throughout his works he quotes the Angelic Doctor often. Nevertheless, St. John’s language is for the most part not the technical language of St. Thomas. The reason is not that he disagrees with St. Thomas. Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange, who directed John Paul II’s thesis on John, shows in many of his books how deeply St. Thomas and St. John agree with each other, despite these differences of language. I think the same can be shown for John Paul II in relation to St. Thomas.

Let me give you an example of the difference between the way St. Thomas usually speaks and a more personalist way of speaking about the same point.

When a man is admitted by divine grace to participating in heavenly beatitude, which consists in the vision and enjoyment of God, he becomes, as it were, a citizen and member of that blessed society which is called the heavenly Jerusalem, according to Ephesians 2:19: “You are citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.” A man who is in this way counted as part of the heavenly city must have certain freely given virtues which are the infused virtues. The right exercise of these virtues requires a love of the common good that belongs to the whole society, which is the divine good as the object of beatitude. (33)

St. Thomas describes the love of the common good in very objective terms without unfolding the experiential side of the matter, at least not in this text. Here is a text that says the same thing St. Thomas says, but in a more personalist language, bringing out the lived experience of the person much along the lines of St. John of the Cross and John Paul II. It is a characteristically modern text.

In seeing God, Peter sees what is greater than anything which could be his proper good for he knows that he is only Peter; he sees that God is infinitely more communicable than He is to Peter himself, and it is this infinity of goodness Peter loves, because he loves God in Himself and in that bounty which, of its very nature is diffusive of itself. . . . And if there be also John to share the vision, Peter cannot fail to rejoice, because the superabundance of the divine good is his joy. And if the share of John be greater than his own, Peter will again rejoice, for the prime measure of their happiness is neither Peter nor John, but the immeasurable liberality of the divine good. (34)

The author of this beautiful passage is Charles De Koninck, a faithful disciple of St. Thomas and author of The Primacy of the Common Good: Against the Personalists. Yet this passage, taken from The Primacy of the Common Good, is deeply personalistic in the sense in which John Paul II uses that word.

Let me close with a final word, more a kind of epilogue than a true conclusion. There is one phrase in the text by John Galvin quoted at the beginning of this essay that is likely to score a point with many disciples of St. Thomas who have attempted to understand John Paul II. The phrase is “an impenetrable philosophy of interpersonal relationships.” I think it is the attitude expressed in this phrase that has done the most damage to a proper reception of Pope John Paul II among some disciples of St. Thomas. It is easy to forget the experience all of us had when we first read a page of Aristotle or St. Thomas. “Impenetrable” is the word. We kept reading, because people we trusted told us it was worth the effort and in the end we found out that it was indeed worth the effort. It would have been foolish to give up halfway simply because the effort took some pains. I have had a similar experience with Pope John Paul II. I have spent much time in the last seven years on his writings. Right now I am at work on a book project entitled, Common Good and Gift of Self: The Communion of Persons in St. Thomas and John Paul II. My studies so far have convinced me, first, that there is a deep harmony between St. Thomas and John Paul II, and, second, that it is worth studying John Paul II and St. Thomas together, because they throw much light on each other and they complement each other in throwing light on the truth of things themselves. John Paul II unfolds and develops many important points that are merely implicit or briefly mentioned in St. Thomas.

One of the main reasons why faithful Catholics spend much time on Aristotle and St. Thomas is that St. Thomas has been proposed to us by many Popes as the common teacher of the Church. If the reason why we accept St. Thomas is the authority of the popes, should we not be interested in the writings of the most recent Pope? Undercutting his relevance as a teacher is to undercut the authority of St. Thomas, which rests on Papal teaching, not on private judgment.


  1. John Galvin, “Humanae Vitae: Heroic, Deficient—or Both,” The Latin Mass 11 (2002) 7-17, at 14-15.
  2. Ronald Modras, “Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body,” in John Paul II and Moral Theology, edited by Charles E. Curran and Richard A. McCormick (New York: Paulist, 1998) 149-56, at 150-1.
  3. Karol Wojtyla, “The Teaching of the Encyclical Humanae Vitae on Love: An Analysis of the Text,” in Person and Community: Selected Essays (New York: P. Lang, 1993), 301-14.
  4. Karol Wojtyla, “The Human Person and Natural Law,” in Person and Community: Selected Essays (New York: P. Lang, 1970 [1933]), 279-99, at 181.
  5. George Weigel, Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (New York: Harper Collins, 1999), 128.
  6. Karol Wojtyla, [Evaluation of the Possibility of Constructing a Christian Ethics on the Assumptions of Max Scheler’s System of Philosophy] Über die Möglichkeit eine christliche Ethik in Anlehnung an Max Scheler zu schaffen, ed. Juliusz Stroynowski, Primat des Geistes: Philosophische Schriften (Stuttgart-Degerloch: Seewald, 1953 [1980]), 97. The text will be hereafter cited as Scheler.
  7. Wojtyla, Scheler, 196.
  8. Friedrich Schleiermacher, Über die Religion: Reden an die Gebildeten unter ihren Verächtern. Edited by Rudolf Otto (6th Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1967), 256-8.
  9. Pius XII, Address to the Italian Section of the Council of European Communities, December 6, 1957.
  10. John Paul II, Discourse to Religious, Quito (Ecuador), January 30, 1985, Insegnamenti 8/1 (1985), 273-7, §4.
  11. John Paul II, Discourse to the Center of Liturgical Action, November 30, 1984, Insegnamenti 7/2 (1984), 1340-3.
  12. John Paul II, Prayer to Mary, Vaduz, Liechtenstein, September 8, 1985, Insegnamenti 8/2 (1985), 638-40. The German translation of the Italian prayer does not reproduce the word “personalistic” but has the word ego instead of person, “all egotistical striving for self-realization.”
  13. Karol Wojtyla, Love and Responsibility, trans. H.T. Willets (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1960 [1993]), 133.
  14. Karol Wojtyla, The Acting Person, trans. Andrzej Potocki. This definitive text of the work established in collaboration with the author by Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka for publication in the Reidel book series Analecta Husserliana (Dordrecht, Boston, London: D. Reidel, 1969 [1979]), 22, note 8 printed on page 302.
  15. See Charles De Koninck, “On the Primacy of the Common Good against the Personalists,” Aquinas Review 4 (1997), 1-71, at 68, footnote 72.
  16. Wojtyla, Scheler, 38.
  17. Max Scheler, Formalism in Ethics and Non-Formal Ethics of Values: A New Attempt toward the Foundation of an Ethical Personalism. Translated by Manfred S. Frings and Roger L. Funk. 5th (Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University, 1973).
  18. Wojtyla, Scheler, 75-6.
  19. See Wojtyla, Scheler, 74-5.
  20. Wojtyla, Scheler, 109.
  21. Wojtyla, Scheler, 115.
  22. Wojtyla, Scheler, 183-4.
  23. Karol Wojtyla, “[The Good and Value] Das Gute und der Wert,” in Lubliner Vorlesungen, ed. Juliusz Stroynowski (Stuttgart-Degerloch: Seewald, 1956 [1981]), 105-249, 244.
  24. Karol Wojtyla, “The Person: Subject and Community,” in Person and Community: Selected Essays (New York: P. Lang, 1976 [1993]), 219-61, 219-20. The paragraph containing this sentence was omitted in the first English publication of this essay in Review of Metaphysics 33 (1979/80), 273-308, perhaps because the judgment expressed in it is so categorically negative.
  25. Wojtyla, Scheler, 196.
  26. Pope John Paul II and Vittorio Messori, Crossing the Threshold of Hope (New York: A.A. Knopf, 1994), 142. See also Pope John Paul II, Gift and Mystery: On the Fiftieth Anniversary of my Priestly Ordination (New York: Doubleday, 1996), 23-5.
  27. John Paul II, Homily at Segovia, Nov. 4, 1982.
  28. Living Flame of Love, B 78-80. Saint John of the Cross, The Collected Works, ed. Kieran Kavanaugh, Revised ed. (Washington: ICS Publications, Institute of Carmelite Studies, 1991), 705-6, emphasis added.
  29. Spiritual Canticle, stanza B 27.
  30. John of the Cross, Works, 581-2, emphasis added.
  31. Wojtyla, Love and Responsibility, 96 and 97, emphasis added.
  32. Rocco Buttiglione, Karol Wojtyla: The Thought of the Man who Became Pope John Paul II (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1997), 45.
  33. Thomas, De Virtutibus, 2.2 c.
  34. Charles De Koninck, “In Defence of St. Thomas: A Reply to Fr. Eschmann’s Attack on the Primacy of the Common Good,” Aquinas Review 4 (1997 [1945]), 171-349, 305-6.