John Paul II and The Mystery of The Human Person

By Cardinal Avery Dulles, 22 October 2021
Pope John Paul II at an audience with New York firefighters, November 10, 2001. Image: Vatican News/FILE.


To honour today’s Memorial of Pope St John Paul II, Catholic Outlook is republishing a series of articles about the beloved Pope, who created our Diocese of Parramatta on 8 April 1986.

This article was originally published in February 2004.

As the literary output of Pope John Paul II has accumulated, expanding almost beyond the assimilative powers of any one reader, and as he celebrates the silver jubilee of his pontificate, I have been asking myself, as I am sure that many others have: What lies at the very heart of his message? Is there some one concept that could serve as a key to unlock what is distinctive to this pope as a thinker? My thesis will be: the mystery of the human person. As pope he is of course bound to the whole dogmatic heritage of the church, but he presents it in a distinctive way, with his own emphases, which are in line with his philosophical personality.

Bishop Wojtyla enthusiastically accepted the council’s teaching that the human person is “ex-centric” rather than egocentric. Paradoxically, we cannot fulfill ourselves except through transcending ourselves and giving ourselves in love toward others. Sometimes John Paul II calls this the “law of the gift.” He thus provides an anthropological grounding for the paradoxical sayings of Jesus in the Gospels about how we can find true life by dying for his sake and unintentionally find spiritual death by clinging selfishly to life.

At the council and many times since, John Paul II has quoted from Jn 8:32: “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (e.g., Redemptor Hominis, No. 12; Veritatis Splendor, Nos. 34 and 87). Throughout his pontificate he has never ceased to be a firm champion of human freedom, including religious freedom. He is on principle opposed to physical and moral coercion as infringements of human dignity.

In The Acting Person, a work first published in Polish in 1969 before he became pope, Cardinal Wojtyla expounded a theory of the person as a self-determining agent that realizes itself through free and responsible action. Activity is not something strictly other than the person; it is the person coming to expression and constituting itself. Persons, moreover, are essentially social and oriented to life in community. They achieve themselves as persons by interaction, giving to others and receiving from them in turn. To reconcile the good of the community with that of its individual members, Wojtyla proposed a theory of participation. All must contribute to the common good, which then redounds to the benefit of the individual members. This teaching on participation and the common good contains an implicit critique not only of Marxist collectivism but also of libertarian individualism and anarchist alienation.

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Cardinal Avery Dulles, S.J., is the Laurence J. McGinley Professor of Religion and Society at Fordham University, Bronx, N.Y. This article was originally delivered as the Laurence J. McGinley Lecture on Oct. 21, 2003.

With thanks to America Magazine and Cardinal Avery Dulles SJ, where this article originally appeared.


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