Reflecting on John Paul II’s heritage and linking it to his unique focus on themes of human love, marriage and the family is both obvious and necessary in order to highlight at least one of the issues that was at the very heart of his testimony and magisterium.
While avoiding any undue absolutism, such an exercise is undoubtedly legitimate and invites us to critically develop the sense of, and understand the reasons for, the uniqueness of the Polish Pope.
It is a known fact that the special interest shown by John Paul II to the theme of human love had its roots in the life-story of Karol Wojtyla. It was there in his philosophical-theological reflections, as well as his great pastoral work as a priest and a bishop.
It is no wonder that having become pontiff, (without ever omitting his peculiar humanity in his Petrine ministry) his Polish roots – adapting from within the whole life experience of this particular man into the universality of the role of the Successor of Peter – called into play his whole fascination for the experience of human love.
Could this be regarded as a satisfactory to our question?
Certainly not, if we keep in mind that John Paul II has on more than one occasion indicated, within the various themes pertaining to human love, a space to deal with what is historically going on in the present and which he liked to call “the dispute on the humanum”. In the choice of the Polish Pope there was, therefore, a happy synthesis between a unique personal sensibility and a judgement on what can be called signs of the times; even better, that sensibility has perhaps allowed him to capture in an original way that sign of the times.
In this way we may free the development of the topic of human love in the recent magisterium of the Church from the risk of its simplistic reduction to a biography of Wojty?a, and try to grasp from the very depth the knowledge of the central meaning to the question posed by the here and now of the history of man to the life and intelligence of the Christian believer.
What precedes the acts of the pontifical magisterium may be useful in clarifying the intentions, sensibility and philosophical foundations on which they are rooted. In this sense, the historical background to Wojtyla’s pontificate does not confine the magisterial acts within the scope of his earlier ecclesial experience and theological/philosophical knowledge (this would be unduly confusing and lead to reducing their own specific weight); conversely, such background can (and must) be used in order to shed light on the same magisterial acts. If, in fact, they should be placed within the broader context of Church and tradition (tradition being fundamental to interpreting the magisterium of the Church), in the same way these magisterial acts cannot be abstractly separated from the existential context of the subject who poses them.
Human love presents itself just as immediately “interesting” – as always eluding the clutches of interpretation. The fact remains, however, that man cannot remain uninterested in love, because he is well aware that it is part of his very existence, of the possibility of an adequate fulfillment of his desire for happiness.
Therefore, if it is impossible not to recognize such interest, which road should one follow to gain a satisfactory knowledge of the experience of human love? A simple narration of man’s love life does not appear adequate because it is not complete: when this narration reaches its own level of artistic expression in all its forms the philosopher and the theologian have much to learn. At the same time, however, just as many doubts can be raised before the possibility of a complete “theory” of human love. Plato already warned us about this when he concluded his Lysis in an abrupt and almost provocative manner: “how ridiculous that we […] should imagine ourselves to be friend – this is what the bystanders will go away and say – and as yet we have not been able to discover what a friend is!” (Lysis, 223b). The awareness of the unique statute of the amorous experience and how this is just so involving as it is difficult to explain, echoes the words of Bernard of Clairvaux: “Love is enough to itself: it pleases in itself and by itself. Love is its own merit and reward. I love because I love; I love for love's own sake” (On Song of Songs, 83, 4).
Within the same perspective we may place John Paul II’s affirmation by from his autobiography: “Love is not something which you learn, and yet there is nothing which is so necessary to learn. As a young priest I learnt to love human love” (Crossing the Threshold of Hope).
In the face of the dichotomy between the impossibility to learn to love and the pressing necessity of this learning, the Polish Pope observes that, instead, it is possible “to learn to love love.” Such a statement appears to suggest, on the one hand, the awareness of the impossibility of reducing love to something about which one can elaborate a theory easy to be transmitted and applied. On the other hand, the conclusion overcomes the minimalist alternative stating that love is a fact escaping all possibilities of critical knowledge and therefore transmittable (that is, suitable to somehow be taught and therefore learnt).
Certainly, love cannot be learnt, but one can learn to love love. Saying so opens the way to knowing the unique “irreducibility” of love that finds the elements of its grammar and of syntax in itself, in such a way that it can be known and learnt only through loving.
It is not exaggerated to say that the large part of the intensive work of K. Wojtyla the philosopher, poet, theologian, just like huge sections of his magisterium, were dedicated to support this affirmation, investigated above all for its anthropological foundations.
Even if one were only to look at the words of the first encyclical of John Paul II, one would find two texts that, in a certain way, trace the coordinates that his teaching and his reflective commitment have always retained, albeit expressing them in a great variety of forms.
The recognition of the primacy of love in human existence is very clear: “Man cannot live without love. He remains a being that is incomprehensible to himself, his life is senseless, if love is not revealed to him, if he does not encounter love, if he does not experience it and make it his own, if he does not participate intimately in it” (RH 10).
In line with this, to look at the Redeemer as the One who immediately poses Himself as the interlocutor of the love experience, without whom man cannot live, not only exalts His unique redemptive claim but manifests the historical and theological place where such claim can be recognized and embraced by man. Such a place can only be the act of human freedom, without which love is not conceivable, through which freedom can accept the call, address Christ and be determined by Him.
At the same time, however, the encyclical also indicates the methodological perspective enabling us to acquire this primacy; but above all points to the appropriate anthropological approach to justify its pertinence and impelling reasons. It is useful to refer directly to the text:
“Man in the full truth of his existence, of his personal being and also of his community and social being – in the sphere of his own family, in the sphere of society and very diverse contexts, in the sphere of his own nation or people (perhaps still only that of his clan or tribe), and in the sphere of the whole of mankind – this man is the primary route that the Church must travel in fulfilling her mission: he is the primary and fundamental way for the Church, the way traced out by Christ himself, the way that leads invariably through the mystery of the Incarnation and Redemption” (RH 14).
The metaphor presented in Redemptor Hominis by the notion of “way” applied to both Christ and man, according to the same viewpoint (Christ, as well as man, is the Church’s way), invites the conclusion that according to John Paul II to say Christ, in His uniqueness of being the Son of God, Incarnate and Redeemer, leads first of all to say man; at the same time, to look at man according to the totality of the factors constituting his existence leads to Christ just as immediately, as Christ is the only fact in which the human event is completely understood and enhanced.
When man is designated as the “primary and fundamental way of the Church”, it seems this is something more than the simple reaffirmation that he is the destinée of the Church’s mission. There is, perhaps, in this expression a deeper suggestion to be considered than just a movement towards man: in taking care of his complete existence, the Church must bear in mind that man is not only the “object” of the ecclesial action, but that he is also the “method” which has to lead to such action. It is, in fact, characteristic of the anthropological sensibility of John Paul II to highlight the fact that a man’s exclusive experience of his own self represents the point of departure of every attempt to understand and interpret the self. It is known that this represents a peculiar fact and the methodological path of all the philosophical works of K. Wojtyla, which he has above all explored and justified in his speculative and demanding work Person and Act, where he underlines several times the irreducibility of the experience which every man makes of himself, and how all experiences with others pass through it.
In particular, it is worth underlining the dense articulation of the primacy of experience, the centrality of the acting person and the clear recognition of the auto-teleological dynamism of the human person. These last three elements are constantly discussed in the light of the conviction that experience, taken in its totality, has its own intrinsic logos, since “every human experience is therefore also a kind of understanding of that which I am experiencing […] We hold, that is, that the act is a particular moment of the vision – or rather of the experience – of the human person.”
We can thus affirm that the teaching of John Paul II stresses the fact that there is no possible anthropological reflection except that which moves from the self-reflection, particularly because undoubtedly this is much more than a simple question of meaning. In fact, this reflection is the act designating the ultimate level without which man does not exist, and which allows him – equally – to acquire knowledge of the transcendence of his own subjectivity. Having clarified, in fact, the role played by human subjectivity in view of an adequate anthropology “which seeks to understand and interpret man in that which is essentially human”, it is understood, in such a context, that the reflection on himself does not simply represent the initial input of a journey which from the early stages should lead man to find the answer which can completely fulfill his proper subjectivity in something outside himself. If this were the case, it would follow that man would only be capable to express a question, which in its insurmountable formality should leave aside any relevant anthropological contents. On the contrary, such a reflection is that factor without which – in its actuality – man cannot find himself and cannot become aware of the dynamism of his own self-transcendence.
In the light of this re-reading of the primacy of man in the mission of the Church, strongly characterized in a methodological sense, the text of the encyclical immediately leads us to a Christocentric perspective (“a way undertaken by Christ Himself, which invariably passes through the incarnation and redemption”), putting into action the other great constitutive aspect of the Wojtylian reflection. This, in fact, is always found in taking into consideration the centrality of the mystery of Christ to the condition of man in history: the constant recalling of the words of Christ which indicate the “beginning”, almost a leitmotiv in the texts where he reflects on love and marriage. It seems always necessary to look at man from a historical perspective that includes the work of Him who in history has placed Himself as the only Lord and Redeemer.
The words of Redemptor Hominis suggest the need to look and talk not about an “abstract”, but a real man, a “concrete”, “historical” man (Redemptor Hominis, 13). Such actuality has a precise content: each man is objectively included in the one “historical” event of the Redemption and, because of it, he really is the way his Father has wanted him. Accordingly, the problem of finding a middle term establishing a convincing relationship between man and Christ needs reconsidering. In fact, by the primacy granted to the historical form of man’s existence and the event of Christ, these can only relate to each other through their primary historicity, that is, through their freedom. In this way, the Church-world question is taken back to that of the relationship between Christ and each historical human being.
The Pope takes it upon himself to show the actual anthropological relevance of the origin by showing its “exemplary” aspect; that is, by showing how, if the anthropological elements present in the origin belong to a life condition that no longer is fully attainable (the original state), they are, nevertheless, still decisive for the elaboration of an “adequate anthropology”. The whole proposal contained in the Catechesis on human love (1979-1984) must be verified: without a convincing explanation of the reasons why the origin is an indispensable instance of man in the here and now of his historical existence, the contents and outlook on human existence conveyed by the catechesis would inevitably lose their unique interest.
Fr. Gilfredo Marengo was ordained a priest for the Diocese of La Spezia, Sarzana and Brugnato, Italy in 1979. He earned his doctorate in Sacred Theology under the direction of Cardinal Angelo Scola. He has served as a visiting professor at the Maryvale Institute in Birmingham, UK and Seat of Wisdom Catholic University in Lima, Peru and is a member of the Center for the Studies on the Second Vatican Council of the Pontifical Lateran University. He has published and edited several books, including his most recent, "John Paul II and the Council – A challenge and a task." Currently, he is a Professor of Theological Anthropology at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies in Marriage and Family in Rome.