John Paul II and the Truth about the Human Person
by Fr. Joel O. Jason, SThL
(On the occasion of Pope John Paul II's Beatification on May 1, 2011, let's get to know a little about the man. This essay is a revised version of the author’s contribution to the John Paul II Commemorative Issue of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conference (FABC) periodical Info on Human Development, March-May 2005 issue.)
Pope John Paul II passed on to the house of the Father on the evening of April 2, 2005, liturgically a Second Sunday of Easter, which he dedicated during his papacy to be Divine Mercy Sunday. May 1, 2011, happens to be also the Second Sunday of Easter, the Feast of the Divine Mercy and on that day John Paul II will be beatified as Blessed John Paul II, a step away from being canonized as Saint of the Catholic Church.
While the sea of humanity that gathered at St. Peter’s for his funeral clamored “santo subito!” (sainthood now!), and the multitudes all over the world now cannot refer to him without calling him “Il Grande” (the great), critics on the other hand view John Paul II as “naïve” and his papacy “a great disappointment” mostly for his stand on feminist concerns, contraception, and human freedom among others. As the world prepares for his beatification on May 1, it is opportune to ask once again what did John Paul really teach on these issues?
John Paul II and genuine freedom
Reflecting on the biblical imagery prohibiting partaking of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, “You are free to eat from any of the trees…except the tree of knowledge of good and bad” (Gen 2:16-17), John Paul teaches in Veritatis Splendor (The Splendor of Truth) that it is not because God does not want us to know what is good and what is bad. It is symbolic language, the biblical way of telling us that it is not for man to decide what is good and what is bad. To decide what is good and what is bad is God’s alone, “ …the power to decide what is good and evil does not belong to man, but to God alone.” (Veritatis Splendor 35) That was temptation of the serpent, “ the moment you eat you shall be like Gods…” (Gen 3:5) The first man and woman were indeed imago Dei, - image of God, but they fell into the seduction of wanting to be image of God apart from God and not with God. Eve, and later Adam fell into that temptation. And so began the entry of sin in history, and the distortion of human freedom.
Goodness is based on the truth and truth is objective. Man does not and cannot invent the truth. Man only discovers the truth and must cling to that truth as revealed in Scriptures (Divine Law), and in rational reflection on human nature (natural law). In that truth we become free. What if for example, lawmakers decide to vote and ignore the law of gravity. What if the president signs it into a law and then they celebrate their victory by jumping off the roof of Malacañang. Will they be able to break the law of gravity? Obviously not. The only thing that they will break is their bones. Sir Isaac Newton did not invent the law of gravity. He merely discovered the law of gravity, a law that is objective, a law that we obey, a law that makes us truly free.
For John Paul II, freedom for man is counterfeit if it is understood as the power to do what I like, regardless of its consequence on myself and others. Freedom however becomes liberating when understood as the power to choose what I ought, to do what is good. Counterfeit freedom is based on personal likes and dislikes. Genuine freedom is founded on the truth. To illustrate, false freedom tells me to beat the law of the red light in traffic. In the process, I harm or kill myself and others. Genuine freedom prompts me to embrace that law and to choose to stop. Then I become more free, because it keeps me alive and others as well.
John Paul II sees the pro-choice philosophy as founded on the same serpentine seduction. I choose abortion because this is what I like, regardless of what that choice will mean for the rights of another living person, regardless of the truth of the existence of another person over whose life I have no sovereignty. Counterfeit freedom is actually the product of our confusing freedom with license – which is the power to do what I like. (Wonder why people issued with a drivers’ license behave the way they do in the streets? Maybe it’s time to call it drivers’ freedom) And license is a sin specifically condemned in Scriptures “…from within people…come evil thoughts…licentiousness, envy, blasphemy…” (Mark 7:21-22). Freedom cannot be achieved apart from the law.
With insightful distinction, John Paul proposes that genuine freedom is not anomy ( a- without; nomos – law) or the absence of law. Genuine freedom is actually autonomy (autos – self; nomos - law) or the integration of the law within one’s self. But more precisely, in the Christian point of view, genuine freedom is a participated theonomy (theos – God; nomos – law ), i.e., a participation in God’s law. John Paul summarizes this point in Veritatis Splendor 41 saying, “ Genuine moral autonomy in no way means the rejection but rather the acceptance of the moral law, of God’s command…of theonomy, or participated theonomy, since man’s free obedience to God’s law effectively implies that human reason and human will participate in God’s wisdom and providence.”
John Paul II and genuine feminism
A necessary consequence of John Paul’s teaching on the human person and genuine freedom is the affirmation that men and women will experience true fulfillment in discovering and remaining in the truth of who they really are as men and as women. John Paul II proposes that the true liberation of the sexes happens in the discovery of who humanity really is. And that means a re-affirmation and re-appreciation of the truth about their singularity, uniqueness, and complementarity, not necessarily uniformity. Adam expressed his benediction in the discovery of Eve, “this one at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (Gen2:23), his proper complement. At last, masculinity has found in femininity its proper fulfillment, and vice versa. This, John Paul II calls “the essence of the gift.” Masculinity can give femininity what it does not have just as femininity can gift masculinity that which it does not have. The difference of the sexes is no accident of nature. Rather, it is the necessary condition which paves the way for the man and woman to establish a communio personarum ( communion of persons), the sacrament on earth of the communion of Persons that exists in the very life of the Trinity. This is important in a world that sees the sexual differences as irrelevant and accidental and proposes gender equality as uniformity.
In Mulieris Dignitatem (The Dignity of Women) John Paul warns against the seduction that deceives women into thinking that it is only outside of marriage, maternity and the family that they can find fulfillment and the satisfaction of their legitimate longings for equality. Indeed, there are evident patriarchal biases in society that compromise the rights of women and their dignity. But it will not be solved simply by turning the wheels of imbalance in favor of women, or of pitting women against men. Then, the same cycle of deprived wholeness, and therefore deprived holiness, is perpetuated.
One letter to the editor in a broadsheet newspaper criticized John Paul II for canonizing saint, a modern-day woman who chose that should complications arise, her child be allowed to live instead of her. It was not specific but she must be referring to Gianna Beretta Molla who was beatified by Pope John Paul II on April 24, 1994, during the international Year of the Family. The letter asked, “What signal did it send? That it was alright to die and leave other children behind?” No. The signal it sends is “Can a mother forget her infant, be without tenderness for the child in her womb?” (Isaiah 49:15) The woman was canonized not because one life is better than the other. She was canonized because the signal her life sends is “ No greater love a man can have, than to lay his life for a friend.” (John 15:13) John Paul canonized that modern-day woman because motherhood is the first school where we learn these values. And some misguided feminist philosophies are robbing motherhood of its nobility.
Another developing trend nowadays is women who want children apart from a husband or marriage. Thus, the proliferation of in vitro ( in a petri dish) fertility clinics and womb-for-hire practices. Ironically, this feminist mentality all the more objectifies the women hired as surrogates. They are only as good instrumentally as their womb or their ova. Sadly, the children too are objectified. John Paul in Familiaris Consortio reminds us that children are gifts of the marital covenant. They are not properties we can have at our whim. As gifts, the first inherent right children deserve is to be nurtured in the context of a family and the paternal and maternal presence it provides. Truly, it is unfortunate that there are single parent families. We do not fault these single parents for they are not necessarily to be blamed. But to subject children purposely into such situation by our whims would be grossly irresponsible and selfish on the part of us adults.
John Paul also taught eloquently about the human body and the respect it commands. His “theology of the body” is the core of his teachings on sexual responsibility, purity, and chastity. We hear it often said, “If you have it, flaunt it” for even Sacred Scripture affirms in Genesis 2:25 that “the man and his wife were both naked yet they felt no shame.” But this is a gross misreading of the biblical text. For John Paul II, nakedness without shame is not synonymous with shamelessness. Nakedness without shame is the tranquility of the beloved, naked before his loved one because she is confident that her body-person is appreciated in a non-utilitarian way. Some things are hidden or kept private not because it’s ugly. On the contrary, some things are kept private because they are beautiful, too beautiful in fact as to be sacred. This is why couples celebrate the marital act not in parks but in the privacy of their rooms. This is why we feel violated when others invade our “inner sanctums”, the things/persons we hold sacred. Following John Paul II’s line of thought, the malice of pornography and immodesty is not because it reveals too much. On the contrary, it reveals too little of the human person. It restricts and arrests the interest we have on the another person only in his/her sexual attractiveness. It reduces the human body (most of the time, the female body) to a commodity and an object of pleasure. The true liberation of women lies in the rejection of this profound lie, something which contemporary culture has brainwashed ourselves into believing.
A recent editorial also blamed John Paul II’s teaching on contraception as the reason for the poverty in the world. Such a statement betrays a great misunderstanding of the issue. Some clarifications are in order. John Paul, nor the Church has never taught that couples should have as many children as they could. Couples are only to raise children that they could reasonably look after and provide for. The Church does not even teach that each act of marital intercourse should always result in a child because it does not. The woman is a largely “infertile” person. She is technically fertile only a few days in a month. The natural periods of female infertility point to this. What John Paul II (in Love and Resposibility and Familiaris Consortio ) and the Church teach is that each act of marital intercourse should remain open to the possibility of parenthood. This openness couples manifest when they do not resort to acts or methods (contraception) that have as its intent that no life shall be conceived from this particular act of intercourse.
In the mind of John Paul, contraception is morally problematic not because it is artificial. There are many things that are artificial that the Church finds no problem with, like artificial limbs, the use of pacemakers for those with heart problems and the like. Rather, contraception (whether chemical like contraceptives or surgical like ligation and vasectomy) is morally problematic because it is contraceptive – i.e., against life - it aims to damage the ability of the couples to conceive and prevents life from being conceived. It does not treat fertility as a good but rather as a curse to be avoided. Natural family planning or NFP (specifically the Billings Ovulation method and Symptho-Thermal Method) is essentially different. It is morally acceptable not because it is natural or not “artificial”, but because it is not contraceptive. While the intention may be not to conceive for the moment or indefinitely, in NFP, fertility and the ability of the couples to conceive is not destroyed and compromised because the couples simply appreciate the natural fertility/infertility cycles of the woman, the way God intended her to be. With a 99.5% accuracy, it is unarguably more scientific, accurate, physiologically and psychologically healthy than the so called “modern family planning” methods championed by the RH bill proponents. How could it not be? God designed the human body and NFP simply tunes in to the science of that design. Couples simply behave accordingly in tune with that design.
In NFP, no such life is destroyed or prevented from coming to be. It is simply sex in its most natural beauty, with its natural period of fertility and infertility, the way God intended it to be. For women, this is genuine CHOICE, empowerment and real control over their body. Contraception if at all shows a lack of control. With its high failure rate and inherent medical side effects, it is leaving everything to chance.
Some brand this teaching as “biologism” or “physicalism”. I beg to disagree. What is physicalist is to believe that man and woman is powerless before his physical/sexual urges. NFP tells us otherwise. The only birth control worthy of the human person is self control. Why do we neuter dogs and cats? Because they do not have the ability to say “no.” What then does it say about ourselves when we likewise neuter ourselves chemically or surgically? What is physicalist is to ascribe to a pill and rubber what is properly the realm of human responsibility.
Obviously, this requires discipline and dialogue from couples. Herein lies the beauty of NFP. Responsible parenthood becomes a shared responsibility. Dialogue is promoted and the husband is taught to treat the wife or vice versa, not as a passive property but as a partner. In NFP, the woman is truly respected because we do not dump her body with harmful and potentially fatal chemicals to control her fertility. In NFP, we do not pass on to chemicals something that should be owned by human responsibility and discipline.
The Church of Pope Benedict XVI
While the Cardinals prepared in conclave to choose the next Pope to succeed John Paul II, speculations of whether the next Pope should be “traditional” or “liberal” abounded. Papal biographer George Weigel, when asked how John Paul II will be remembered by history answered succinctly. “ He is the great Christian witness.”
When the Cardinals that gathered in conclave on the 18th of April 2005 chose Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as the 264th successor of Peter, I believe traditional or liberal was not the primary in the agenda. What I believe they asked the Holy Spirit for is a man of witness – a witness to the truth about God, love and humanity. In beatifying John Paul II, the man he endearingly refers to as “continuously looking upon us from the window of the Father’s house,” Pope Benedict XVI is embracing the same challenge of being a witness.
Blessed John Paul II, pray for us!
June 2001 audience with soon Blessed Pope John Paul II