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The Personalism of John Paul II

Samuel Gregg's book, Challenging the Modern World, ventures to identify the fundamental ideas in the social teachings that John Paul II has influenced and to show the extent to which this development is rooted in his writings prior to becoming pope. Given John Paul's stated intent to supply a Christian alternative to (purely) humanistic philosophies, the concern of his papacy for ethics, and the fact that this is the longest and most dynamic papacy of this century, Samuel Gregg's investigation is indeed an important one.

More specifically, the social teachings under examination are Gaudium et Spes (1965), Populorum Progressio (1967), Octogesima Adveniens (1971), Laborem Exercens (1981), Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (1987), and Centesimus Annus (1991). The primary pre-papal texts are Love and Responsibility (1960), The Acting Person (1969), Sources of Renewal (1972), and Sign of Contradiction (1977). The choice of these works is representative, and they make for a truly informative yet manageable work. Further, Gregg tackles as case studies the subjects of industrial relations, capitalism, and relations between developed and developing countries. For Gregg's project, the papal encyclical Gaudium et Spes is the foundational ecclesial document since it sums up prior teaching and lays out the agenda for future documents; John Paul was deeply influenced by the agenda in Gaudium et Spes.

In this agenda, Gregg picks out four important points. First, he explores the important distinction drawn by the document between what we commonly call “progress” (such as a simple increase in technology or affluence) and genuine progress toward the Kingdom of God (progress in genuine human realization). Second, the church must discern the signs of the times to teach, to learn, and to discern the activity of God. Third, the heuristic method of dialogue between the church and the modern world is advanced as a humble approach by which understanding of this genuine progress might be advanced, thereby leading to transformation of the world. And fourth, the understanding of private property is quite solid and simply stated.

For Gregg, the pursuit of the common good requires that the right to private property be generally affirmed yet subject to the principal of common use. That is to say, property rights are never absolute; it is necessary to share with those in need for basic necessities. Not only is Gregg's analysis useful for his own purposes–to show the important ideas which influenced John Paul–but it also provides a good introduction to the key ideas about how the church views itself and its relation to the modern world. These four points are also major substantive, methodological commitments in the work of John Paul.

An Unshakable Thomist

Nevertheless, I do have reservations about Gregg's theoretical understanding of development in Roman Catholic social thought. The understanding of development is important because, in a sense, the entire work is about the development of doctrine. From the outset, Gregg asserts that development in all of the documents proceeds only “from the fact that the linguistic formulations used by the Church do not exhaustively encapsulate the revealed truth. Hence, the Church periodically improves upon the language used.…” For Gregg, development does not involve increasing knowledge or realization about society or revelation and cannot involve repudiation of what was believed in the past. Strangely, no theory of development is explained. Whether one agrees with him on all of these assertions (I do not), they do cry out for deeper substantiation. This is the only significant criticism of the work, which is otherwise carefully nuanced and well documented.

The most basic question that Wojtyla seeks to answer in his work is the ethical-anthropological one: What is man? For Gregg, Wojtyla's consistent perspective is a sound Thomism informed by, and in dialogue with, modern existentialism, phenomenology, and personalism. Unlike much of other modern philosophy, Wojtyla insists on the existence of an objective moral order and the need to recognize the connection between ethics and anthropology. Correcting the mistaken interpretations of some scholars (Gregory Baum, to name one), Gregg understands Wojtyla as an unshakable Thomist, not among those trying somehow to correct Marxism from within and reconcile it to Catholic thinking.

This basic perspective worked out by Wojtyla, combined with the data of Gaudium et Spes, have a powerful impact on his theoretical constructs as pope. Laborem Exercens, for example, brings many of the personalist themes about action and ethics from Wojtyla's early work into full bloom, especially in the teaching about the subjective nature of work–that is, first and foremost, man shapes himself in the act of work. Only secondarily does one consider work in the objective sense (the goods and services that are created).

Illuminating, Balanced, Accurate

After a fine job of examining the sources (the foundational documents of Catholic social thought and the Wojtyan pre-papal writings mentioned above), Gregg, in the case studies, delivers on his promise to demonstrate convincingly how development in Catholic social thought is rooted in John Paul's writings prior to becoming pope. For example, the chapter on industrial relations discusses Laborem Exercens and shows how modern economic errors in industrialization are “actions” rooted in human “choice,” actions that constitute a denial of the “subjectivity” of exploited workers. Action, choice, and subjectivity are all concepts well rooted in Wojtyla's earlier work.

Precisely because exploitation is rooted in choice and is not a necessity based on the structure of economic relations, John Paul is never anti-capitalist, per se. Indeed, an underlying subtext throughout the entire book is that a Marxist reading of almost anything in John Paul is grievously mistaken. (Writer Gregory Baum, who gives the documents such a reading, is repeatedly criticized.) For example, as Gregg sees it, John Paul distances himself from Marxism and some liberation theologies when, consistent with the Wojtyan view that persons are the proper subject of free moral choice, he stresses that the root of sin is personal sin and not “evil economic structures.” As Gregg states in brief, “from a moral-anthropological viewpoint, personal sin is at the root of problematic structures and perpetuates their existence.”

The case study of capitalism in chapter six is a good example of Gregg's illuminating, balanced, and accurate style of interpretation in the face of a controversial issue. In Centesimus Annus, Wojtylan moral-anthropological thought is seen as providing the supporting foundation for capitalism understood as a system that “recognizes the fundamental and positive role of business, the market, private property, and the resulting responsibility for the means of production, as well as free human creativity in the economic sector” (no. 42). Indeed, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis vivifies the role of the capitalist entrepreneur with the spirit of the Wojtylan anthropology. John Paul states that there is a right to economic initiative for human subjects who must be permitted to exercise their freedom and creativity for self-realization and the common good. At the same time, the very same thought opposes capitalism as a “system in which human freedom in the economic sector is not circumscribed within the service of human freedom in its totality” (no. 42). As Gregg notes, “laissez-faire models remain unacceptable.”

Challenging the Modern World is appropriate for any reader who possesses a basic knowledge or better of Catholic social thought and who wants to understand more about the subtleties of a living tradition. While this book does not come fully to grips with the concept of development in a theoretical sense, it offers the reader an original and insightful understanding of Christian personalism and Catholic social thought, especially as it has been shaped by Pope John Paul II.