John Paul II’s Christian humanism ‘rescues’ Vatican II document, Weigel says

John Paul II's biographer George Weigel
John Paul II's biographer George Weigel


Gaudium et Spes, the Pastoral Constitution of the Second Vatican Council, rightly recognized that the question of man’s identity is central to modern life but failed to anticipate many of the changes in modern worldviews and lifestyles. So says George Weigel, Catholic commentator and biographer of Pope John Paul II, who argued on Thursday that the teachings of the late Pope complement the document’s omissions.

Speaking at an international symposium on the Second Vatican Council and the Pontificate of John Paul II at the Seraphicum in Rome, Weigel argued that the late Pope's “new humanism” could “rescue” the insights of Gaudium et Spes from the document’s more dated aspects.

Weigel emphasized that Gaudium et Spes was written against the background of the nuclear age and the Cold War, citing as pivotal events the nuclear attacks on Japan in 1945 and the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. The latter crisis took place in the beginning months of the Second Vatican Council.

“That juxtaposition of the Council’s opening with the terrifying high point of the Cold War had its effects in the Church’s life in the years immediately following,” Weigel said.

Gaudium et Spes was concerned with “pastoral dialogue” with modernity and with “modern man,” beginning with a reflection on the “human situation in the contemporary world,” the lecturer explained.

The second part of Gaudium et Spes, Weigel said, anticipated Pope John Paul II’s approach in his encyclical Centesimus Annus in its description of a “tripartite” modern society in which politics, culture and economics are in “vigorous interaction.”

“This scheme cleared the path in the development of Catholic social thought to John Paul II’s teaching on the free and virtuous society as one composed of a democratic polity, a free economy, and a vibrant public moral culture, with the last being crucial to the proper functioning of the other two,” Weigel argued.

Weigel suggested that Gaudium et Spes can seem “curiously, even strangely, dated” because its description of the modern world turned out to have been a world that “would soon self-destruct because of internal tensions and contradictions the Council did not address.” The world would not be that of modern man “living under the shadow of nuclear war” but rather “post-modern man,” whom Weigel claimed is beset by more, “and arguably graver” dangers than the Council Fathers imagined.

Listing the positive points of the Vatican II document, Weigel praised its “sympathetic treatment of the contemporary human quest for freedom,” its “dialogical approach” to modern atheism, its celebration of the “genuine achievements” of science and democracy, its ecclesiology of a Church that “proposes, but does not impose” and its teachings on conscience.

He said the Council Fathers’ Pastoral Constitution rightly focused on the human person as modern life’s crucial question.

What Gaudium et Spes Did Not Foresee

While saying the document’s insights remain pertinent and worthy of gratitude, Weigel focused on what he believed Gaudium et Spes did not see or anticipate.

He indicated that doing so would make it possible to understand why the “new humanism” of Pope John Paul II remains “essential” to recover the Pastoral Constitution and for the New Evangelization.

Though Gaudium et Spes acknowledges the changes of a world formed by Freud and Darwin, it did not take advances in genetics into account. It “did not anticipate that biology and the other life sciences would rapidly displace the hard sciences (such as physics) as the source of Promethean threats to the human future – and to man’s self-understanding,” Weigel remarked.

While the Pastoral Constitution depicted Marxism and Sartrean existentialism as the chief philosophical challenges to Christianity, Weigel noted that Marxism was soon to be “in the ash can of history” and Sartrean existentialism is now only of “antiquarian interest.”

Gaudium et Spes, in Weigel’s view, did not perceive that the utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham and others “would mount a more forceful challenge to the Christian view of the human person (and to the possibility of a truth-centered public moral discourse) than Sartre ever managed.”

Though the Pastoral Constitution welcomed the new roles for women, it also does not seem to have anticipated the “harder-edged forms of the new feminism” that would become mainstream in Western culture a few years after the document’s promulgation.

Likewise, it did not anticipate the emergence of the two-worker family and its effects, the “global plague of abortion,” or the “gay rights” movement and the future “worldwide and historically unprecedented struggle over the very definition of marriage.”

Weigel argued Gaudium et Spes “gave us few, in any, hints that a new gnosticism, teaching the radical plasticity of human nature, was about to hit the western world like a cultural tsunami.” Focused on nuclear weapons, it did not anticipate the changes threatened by biotechnology predicted by Adolus Huxley years before.

Similarly, its counsels on population growth did not foresee the demographic decline of the present age, nor the rise of millions out of poverty. Its suggestion that economic inequality would be a major cause of wars also does not seem to have been born out,

Weigel noted that Gaudium et Spes also did not anticipate globalization and the rise of the Internet, which has made the world almost “a single time zone.” Further, Weigel claimed, the document did not envisage radical secularism or academia’s replacement of an overall coherence of truth with “theories of the inevitable fragmentation and incoherence of knowledge.”

While the document explores modernity’s crisis of religious faith, Weigel asserted it did not question the “secularization hypothesis” about advancing secularism and did not imagine a world that is becoming more religious and more affected by religious belief.

Gaudium et Spes also held that an “intellectually assertive atheism” would continue to challenge the Church, not anticipating a “massive religious indifferentism” that would descend upon Europe.

“Boredom in both its spiritual and metaphysical forms – a debonair indifference to the question of God, and a stultifying lack of awe and wonder at the very mystery of being – would turn out to be a far more lethal, and far more effective, challenge to the biblical view of man than ‘scientific atheism’ or existentialism ever was,” Weigel said.

John Paul II’s Insight Into Man

Weigel emphasized that despite these gaps in Gaudium et Spes, the Pastoral Constitution nonetheless realized that the “anthropological question” is fundamental, an insight continued by the papacy of John Paul II.

He summarized the questions asked in the future Pope’s essay recommending suggestions for the Second Vatican Council: “What, he asked, was the human condition today? What do people expect to hear from the Church, and what do they need to hear from the Church?”

According to Weigel, John Paul II thought the world needed an “integral vision of the human person, nobler and more comprehensive than other understandings of man then being proposed.

“Defective, truncated, even demonic ideas of human nature, human community, human origins, and human destiny were everywhere; the most lethal of those false ideas created the cultural conditions for the possibility of the civilizational catastrophes of the first half of the 20th century.”

Weigel claimed the future Pope held such atrocities had been made possible by “desperately defective ideas of who man is, which had led to distorted human aspirations and grotesque political projects.”

According to Weigel, then-Bishop Karol Wojtyla emphasized “Christian humanism” as the Council’s focus.

Inspired by St. John of the Cross, the future pontiff acknowledged the “interiority” of human existence and its origin in God, and saw that the intellectual “turn towards the subject,” rightly understood, opens up the question of God.

Bishop Wojtyla based his new humanism in St. Thomas Aquinas’ “realistic ontology,” which trusts in human experience and defends man’s capacity to know truth; which allows a synthesis of past and present thinkers and questions; and which rejects scientific or philosophical reductionism.

Following Max Scheler and early phenomenologists, he learned “feeling and sensibility can disclose metaphysical and moral truths – and that this, too, was part of dealing with man ‘in full ’.”

Weigel claimed that Bishop Wojtlya’s philosophical explorations centered upon the “question of freedom,” in dialogue not only with influential thinkers but also the political situation of post-Stalinist Poland. His resulting thought was positioned “to challenge both the false humanisms of late modernity and the post-modern reduction of freedom to a matter of individualist, autonomous ‘choice’.”

For Bishop Wojtyla, freedom is not a “free-floating faculty of choice” which can attach to anything, but rather a “freedom for excellence” directed towards choosing the good and doing so out of moral habit. In fact, he saw the first view of freedom as the ability to choose indiscriminately as “dehumanizing” and not autonomy but “a prison, with bars of solipsism and locks of ignorance.”

“The post-modern ‘autonomy project’ leads to both auto-enslavement at the personal level and relativism-imposed-by-authoritarianism at the societal level,” Weigel argued, saying that John Paul II challenged this with his belief that freedom is grounded in the Holy Trinity, is always “tethered to truth,” and is always ordered to goodness.

John Paul II’s work continues to be relevant, as his 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus anticipates many present challenges, Weigel remarked.

Weigel also named the Pope’s “Theology of the Body” as “perhaps the Church’s most compelling response to the new gnosticism of post-modernity, and challenges postmodern man to rediscover his sacramentality and the sacramentality of the world.”

The Pope critiqued moral relativism in Veritatis Splendor and in Fides et Ratio he challenged post-modern man to achieve a mature humanism. Further, the Catechism produced under his pontificate provided a “comprehensive and coherent account” of Christian life and belief.

“The new humanism of John Paul II,” Weigel concluded, “is a living thing, a growing body of thought that must be nurtured and developed by the late Pope’s intellectual disciples in the decades ahead, if the Church is to respond adequately to the anthropological question that lies at the heart of so many postmodern dilemmas.”

However, Weigel argued that criticisms of that humanism needed to be considered, such as whether his personalism is effective in issues of state power and whether it leads to a “functional pacifism.”

The personalist approach, while pastorally effective, could also weaken the Church’s sense of the moral law. The late Pope’s emphasis on the ministry of Christ risks forgetting the “sovereignty of the Risen Lord” who judges as well as serves the world.

All of these concerns aside, Weigel was confident that engaging these questions will strengthen the position of John Paul II’s thought as a “uniquely valuable resource” in engaging the “anthropological question” of the modern world.

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