Wojtyla's Thought, John Paul II's Pontificate

As the years of his pontificate mount up, so do the books devoted to this singular pope, with the promise of some good things still in store, notably the forthcoming biography by George Weigel. From many angles, one has sought to fathom John Paul II’s secret, or perhaps to glimpse his distinctive gifts at work, a contemplative actor surely but patiently shifting the tumblers of the vault of history. There are already several biographies to choose from, numerous collections of papal writings and speeches, clever analyses grinding any number of axes, and (for the intrepid) a cloudy and somewhat misleading translation of his Polish phenomenological studies.

The present volume is not another book about Pope John Paul II; rather, as the English translators’ title rightly suggests, it is about the thought of that private man, Karol Wojtyla, who stands in disjunct continuity with the present incumbent of the chair of Peter in Rome. For with the election of Karol Cardinal Wojtyla as the 264th pope of the Roman Catholic Church, the philosophical project of Wojtyla came to an end, and Pope John Paul II’s magisterial teaching, which is to be interpreted according to quite other methods than his philosophy and which carries an entirely different weight, situated itself athwart the line of Wojtyla’s intellectual investigations. However, even if a papal encyclical is to be understood primarily as a continuation of a series inaugurated by his episcopal predecessors in their office of teaching apostolic doctrine, it is nonetheless also true that a pope’s personal cultural formation informs and therefore somewhat illumines his official writings. It is also the case that the incomplete private intellectual investigations of such a man as Wojtyla may still provide valuable clues for new lines of inquiry. Buttiglione’s book, then, is at once an inscription of historical record, a purveyor of supplemental background, and an invitation to participate in the construction of a new philosophy of man.

Fresh Perspectives of an Unconventional Political Philosopher

The English translators, Paolo Guietti and Francesca Murphy, have supplemented Buttiglione’s text–long available in the original Italian edition (1982) and in French and Spanish translations–with a detailed afterword summarizing the fifteen years of Wojtyla studies that have elapsed since the first publication of this book, and also with a useful appendix that supplies Buttiglione’s introduction to the third (and definitive) Polish edition (1994) of Karol Wojtyla’s key philosophical work, The Acting Person. This appendix has a particular interest for friends of the Acton Institute; it amplifies the subtle hints contained throughout the book as to how Buttiglione evaluates and proposes to continue Wojtyla’s philosophical work.

Buttiglione is a true Renaissance man. He is a politician, serving as chairman of Italy’s Partito Populare. He is quondam Vice Rector of the International Academy of Philosophy in Liechtenstein. He is author of many books and a dialectician of no mean ability. The reader who would use this book only to bolster up a predetermined political thesis would rob himself of much it has to offer: fresh perspectives of an unconventional political philosopher and hints limning a clearsighted and judicious philosophico-political project. An American unfamiliar with continental philosophy or intellectual history can approach Buttiglione’s project most readily through its social and political dimensions, although he should be warned that Buttiglione is not a publicist who is merely content to gesture toward the roots and ground of culture; he expertly excavates them.

What first emerges from Buttiglione’s reading of Wojtyla’s philosophical work is a picture of classical Thomistic philosophy of being and order, supplemented by a phenomenological emphasis on human subjectivity and freedom. Thus, typically modern concerns with such subjective phenomena as the dynamism of the passions, cultural constructions, the value of democratic political participation, and human rights and freedom are integrated into an objective, nonrelativistic metaphysical framework. In contrast to several similar syntheses, Wojtyla does not attempt to reconstruct metaphysics and anthropology on a strictly phenomenological basis, but instead seeks to show the necessity of fulfilling his initial phenomenological description through a metaphysical understanding.

Irreducibility of the Acting Person

This has ramifications, as Buttiglione demonstrates, for Wojtyla’s moral philosophy, for his studies of human action and community, and for his appropriation of the documents of the Second Vatican Council. It even manifests itself in his drama and poetry. Throughout, Buttiglione exhibits the integral role of cultural formation by his luminous summaries of Wojtyla’s Polish intellectual background in comparison with Buttiglione’s own, more Italian, Wissenschaft. For many American readers, finding references to Kotlarczyk, Norwid, Krasinski, Lubicz-Milosz, Swiezawski, Del Noce, Vico, Mazzini, and Rosmini, side by side with such old stand-bys as Saint Thomas Aquinas, Kant, Scheler, Marx, and Adorno, will be plowing new territory. But even if the body of scholarship that forms the horizon of this book may be unfamiliar, the issues are readily accessible. One is not compelled to go to an intellectual reeducation camp run by Derrida, Lacan, Levinas, or Vattimo.

For the first audience of Wojtyla’s intellectual works–Eastern Europeans during the communist era–the immediate effect of his phenomenological supplement to classical Thomistic philosophy was to open up an alternative to the all-encompassing Marxist dialectic that robbed human life of its meaning by expunging any reference to the personal subject. Hence, Wojtyla’s emphasis on the irreducibility of the acting person. Without forgetting this lesson, Buttliglione’s appendix points to aspects of Wojtyla’s thought that still remain to be followed up under contemporary circumstances, both in Eastern Europe and the West.

Buttiglione sets aside the common notion that Eastern European countries, after the collapse of communism, are simply playing catch-up to their more advanced Western neighbors. The Eastern European experience of coming out from under communist tyranny (including the intellectual component of this struggle documented in works like Wojtyla’s) bears an important lesson that the West, too, must now assimilate for the sake of its own identity. Although the market economies of the West seem to be fundamentally healthy, Western democracy is not at all immune from a crisis of its own. Buttiglione’s understanding of this crisis is precise: It is rooted in an ethical deficiency, which drives certain political demands that issue in economic fiasco, entailing the crisis of the state.

More concretely, the reign of ethical relativism evacuates the public realm of all non-arbitrary criteria of judgment and thereby removes the grounds of authority of the “political class.” Unconstrained by any commonly intelligible rationale, organized social groups are set free to push their own interests and seek special privileges from the state. The political class, with no publicly accepted criteria to discriminate among these claims, seeks to appease discontent by yielding to the strongest pressures brought to bear upon it.

But this is fool’s counsel straight to a stance set in quicksand, because “everyone is convinced of being at a relative disadvantage in comparison with luckier ones who obtained more.” The state budget courts financial disaster, attempting to satisfy every powerful social claim. State debts can shift costs for the short term, but when the time eventually comes to repay the debts, the “crisis of the state” has arrived. Buttiglione’s argument here is to be distinguished from Marx’s prognostications about the crisis of capitalism. The crisis Buttiglione identifies is not in essence economic but is, rather, the political crisis of a democracy whose moral relativism sends it off into the future, flying blind.

Individualism, Collectivism, Community

Clearly opposed to the politics of unprincipled redistribution, Buttiglione dismisses as merely “the other extreme” that individualistic proposal that would go beyond dismantling the welfare state and altogether repudiate the role and value of the political sphere itself, including “the rights and duties of the state in regard to political intervention in the economy.” He notes, however, that there is a striking parallel between the methodological individualism of Ludwig von Mises or Israel Kirzner, which traces the economic phenomenon back to the individual agent engaged in it, and the objective personalism of Karol Wojtyla, which analyzes the fulfillment of human destiny through free action. Thus “a comparative reading of Mises’ Human Action with [Wojtyla’s] The Acting Person would be very engaging.“ According to Buttiglione, Wojtyla’s personalism introduces a new inflection and does not offer a simple endorsement or Polish carbon copy of the Austrians’ individualist premises. Wojtyla thematically treats the community as an intrinsic dimension of the individual subject’s action and not a totalitarian intrusion upon it: ”Acting together with others is a fundamental dimension of acting.“ Thus, the integrity of the political sphere, together with the rights of the market, can be grounded on a concrete understanding of ”acting together with others.“

If the proper autonomy of the political sphere marks one boundary to the extension of market logic, the other is traced out by the autonomy of ethical discourse. Wojtyla’s ethics is founded on the “objective value of the human person.” Recurrence to this primary phenomenon should “frame” the economic act as a “decisive but not exhaustive part of the whole.”

Buttiglione is, of course, aware that by marking these boundaries he merely hints at possible developments to be taken in concrete practice. The hard work of assimilating Wojtyla’s analyses and deducing new and unexpected consequences from them, for example, of reading Human Action together with The Acting Person in order to flesh out Buttiglione’s suggestions, is a task yet remaining. That Michael Novak, Richard John Neuhaus, and the Acton Institute have, in various ways, contributed to this work explains Rocco Buttiglione’s collaboration with them. (Buttiglione recently went so far as to seize upon Lord Acton’s name for an institute he himself was helping to organize in Italy). Buttiglione’s brilliant reading of the Wojtyla corpus in this book, one hopes, will further collaboration along these lines and provoke other fresh applications of Wojtyla’s fertile thought.