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Biography: Karol Wojtyla

From 1920
 to 2005

“Freedom is offered to man and given to him as a task. He must not only possess it but also conquer it. He must recognize the work of his life in a good use, in an increasingly good use of his liberty. This is the truly essential, the fundamental work, on which the value and the sense of his whole life depend.”

When Cardinal Karol Wojtyla pronounced these words during the Eucharistic Congress in Philadelphia in 1976, he articulated his answer to the philosophical question that he had pursued for decades: What is the nature and purpose of human liberty?

The grandeur and dilemma of freedom gripped the mind of this Polish priest-philosopher from the beginning of his intellectual life. Having endured systematic Nazi oppression only to find himself subject to another totalitarian regime, Wojtyla, like many Polish Roman Catholic intellectuals, sought to understand what made humans capable of both profoundly evil deeds and superhuman acts of love. Such reflections called into question modern philosophy's tendency toward ethical relativism and therefore sought to explain how the insights of ancient and medieval philosophy, with their decidedly objective character, might be explained to a modern world that, for all its virtues, had difficulty accepting an inalienable bond between freedom and truth.

Wojtyla's medium for pursuing this intellectual project was the study of human action. Through reading Thomas Aquinas, John of the Cross, Max Scheler, and Immanuel Kant, Wojtyla concluded that the human person could, despite pressures to the contrary, act in ways that reflected the free choice to live in truth. Freedom is more, he insisted, than being free to choose. In books such as Love and Responsibility and Person and Act, Wojtyla stressed that freedom is that moment of transcendence that people may realize–even in the most marginalized circumstances–by freely choosing to actualize that which is truly good for the human person: virtue. A person who constantly acts in this way is truly free. Wojtyla's insight amounts to a restatement of the Judeo-Christian understanding of the bond between truth and freedom that is captured in Deuteronomy 30:19: “I set before you life or death, blessing or curse. Choose life, then, so that you and your descendants may live.”

Nowhere was Wojtyla's commitment to this vision more powerfully demonstrated than in his interventions during the Second Vatican Council's debates over religious liberty. Wojtyla insisted that religious liberty is essential if people are to know and freely choose the truth. Wojtyla also, however, maintained that this liberty has to be understood as inseparable from the responsibility to pursue truth. The Declaration on Religious Freedom that resulted from the Council's debates, Dignitatis Humanae, fully reflected these themes–themes that would be proclaimed to global audiences during Wojtyla's pontificate as John Paul II.

Sources: Witness to Hope: The Biography of John Paul II by George Weigel (HarperCollins, 1999), and Challenging the Modern World: Karol Wojtyla/John Paul II and the Development of Catholic Social Teaching by Samuel Gregg (Lexington Books, 1999).