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Pope John Paul II and the Christ-centered Anthropology of Gaudium et Spes | Douglas Bushman | Ignatius Insight | Part Two | Part One

God created that capacity, not for frustration, but for fulfillment. With such capacity comes a natural desire to actualize it, and this desire and the actions that it animates manifest that "God inscribed in the humanity of man and woman the vocation . . . of love and communion." [39] Because every human person possesses the capacity for communion and is the recipient of this vocation, there exists an equality of dignity among all men (GS, 29).

Without recognition of God and the call to communion with him, as well as the mission of Jesus Christ, man has no hope of fulfilling his most fundamental capacity and his dignity "is most grievously lacerated" (GS, 21). The Church believes that its understanding of human dignity, rooted as it is in God's acts of creation and redemption and fully revealed in Jesus Christ, is the safeguard against the misconceptions about man that lead to a diminishment of his dignity. Ultimately, man cannot protect, advance, or fully realize his dignity by his own efforts and institutions alone (GS, 41).

The communion with God, and its conditions and aspects of its content, are variously described by Gaudium et Spes and linked with dignity. Thus, "the very dignity of man postulates that man glorify God in his body and forbid it to serve the evil inclinations of his heart" (GS, 14). Particularly important is freedom:
Hence, man's dignity demands that he act according to a knowing and free choice. Such a choice is personally motivated and prompted from within. It does not result from blind internal impulse nor from mere external pressure. Man achieves such dignity when, emancipating himself from all captivity to passion, he pursues his goal in a spontaneous choice of what is good, and procures for himself, through effective and skillful action, apt means to that end" (GS, 17).
This understanding of dignity aligns with that of St. Thomas, for whom "the supreme grade of dignity in man is that he is directed to the good by himself, not by another." [40] For St. Thomas, "dignity signifies the goodness of something due to what it is." [41] God has bestowed a unique goodness upon man, making him capable of knowing his own end precisely as end, and of freely moving himself to that end, which is God. The specific act by which man directs himself to God is obedience to the concrete demands of God's law as these are known in the conscience. "To obey the law of God is the very dignity of man" (GS, 16). "It is precisely the conscience in particular which determines this." [42]

Pope John Paul II richly developed this connection between dignity and conscience throughout his writings. Two texts in particular manifest the Pope's pastoral approach regarding conscience and dignity, concerned as he was to show that precisely here we have the most fundamental point of contact between the Church and the world. In a remarkable passage, he stated: "When a man goes down on his knees in the confessional because he has sinned, at that very moment he adds to his own dignity as a man. No matter how heavily his sins weigh on his conscience, no matter how seriously they have diminished his dignity, the very act of truthful confession, the act of turning again to God, is a manifestation of the special dignity of man, his spiritual grandeur." [43]

The other text is his description of conversion as the "laborious effort of conscience" responding to remorse caused by sin. Conversion begins with a sense of remorse for sin, that is, a spiritual form of suffering over moral evil. He connects this with the suffering of Christ on the Cross, which was also suffering on account of sin, and concludes that "When the Spirit of truth permits the human conscience to share in that suffering [of Jesus Christ], the suffering of conscience becomes particularly profound, but also particularly salvific." [44]

For the Pope, the entire history of salvation and history of the human race are most profoundly grasped anthropologically, that is, with reference to conscience: "the conscience is the most important dimension of time and history. For history is written not only by the events which in a certain sense happen 'from outside'; it is written first of all 'from within': it is the history of human consciences, of moral victories and defeats. Here too the essential greatness of man finds its foundation: his authentically human dignity. This is that interior treasure whereby man continually goes beyond himself in the direction of eternity." [45] Of course, to locate the meaning of history at the level of the conscience is to make it simultaneously a God-centered and Christ-centered history, since the object of the conscience is the voice of God and Christ died in order to sprinkle clean our consciences by His blood. [46] The drama of history, both human and salvation, is captured in Christ's appearing before Pilate in order to be judged. The reversal of sin, described by Augustine as the love of self to the contempt of God, is presented by the Pope as man sitting in judgment of God and, in Christ, God's willingness to "make himself 'impotent'" by subjecting Himself man's judgment of conscience. [47] There is no other way for God to penetrate the human heart while respecting His freedom.

It is important to note that in the anthropology of Gaudium et Spes, as well as the development of John Paul II's thought, dignity is used to signify both the capacity for communion with God given in creation and essential to human nature, and the realization of that capacity. As a result, it is possible to talk about an essential dignity, common to all, that is a property of human nature, and a qualified or fully realized human dignity, that is, the quality of a person who acts in conformity with his nature and enjoys communion with God.

The developments of Pope John Paul II prolong and enrich the direction provided by Gaudium et Spes. If Christ is the answer to the questions occasioned especially by suffering, then conversion is the answer. Christ's answer can only be personally appropriated through a transformation of the inner man. This theme is found in Gaudium et Spes in several texts: "renewal of attitudes" that is assisted by the Holy Spirit (26); "purification and perfection" of all human activity that is disordered because of pride and inordinate self-love (37); inner renewal (13 and 22); "fashioned anew" (2).

Arguably the pinnacle of John Paul II's anthropological teaching is Veritatis splendor. In it he developed his teaching on truth and conscience. It is significant, however, that the encyclical begins with a lengthy reflection on the encounter between Jesus and the rich young man. Often overlooked in favor of attention to his reiteration of the validity of teaching on the natural law, this pastoral introduction is important, not only because it employs the question-answer dynamic, but also because in doing so it shows that the essential meeting place between God and man is the moral dimension. More than anything else, God wants to speak to us about the state of our moral conscience: "Christ asks you about the state of your moral awareness, and at the same time he questions you about the state of your conscience. This is a key question for man." [48] The more technical consideration of moral theology concerning the natural law must be seen in terms of a personal encounter with Christ, a dialogue of salvation at the level of conscience. The Pope wanted people who study moral theology to realize that there is more at stake than merely theological options. Human dignity itself, that is, our relationship with God, hangs in the balance.

Some Developments of Pope John Paul II

1. Living in the awareness of gift

In Sign of Contradiction Cardinal Wojtyla stressed the principle that man can only know himself in reference to God--"Without the Creator, the creature would disappear" (GS, 36)--in terms of awareness of gift or love. Translating into different terms the concern of Gaudium et Spes to develop an understanding of man in relation to God, he saw that Gaudium et Spes invites man to "rediscover the law of gift" in all the fields of his life and activity that are considered in the Constitution. [49]

This was a theme running through his pontificate, as seen for example in Evangelium Vitae: "It is the outlook of those who do not presume to take possession of reality but instead accept it as a gift, discovering in all things the reflection of the Creator and seeing in every person his living image (cf. Gen 1:27; Ps 8:5)" (EV, 83). Living with an awareness of having been loved coincides precisely with the "primacy of receptivity" discussed above.

2. The threefold mission of Jesus Christ

Pope John Paul II developed the Christocentric anthropology of Gaudium et Spes in terms of the three messianic offices of Jesus: Prophet, Priest and King, elaborated in Lumen gentium. "This idea in Lumen gentium has to be linked with the central theme of Gaudium et Spes in which Christ is presented as a revealer of the full mystery of man and of human dignity." [50] The three offices of Christ correspond to the natural desire to fulfill the capacity of the image of God in everyone. "Gaudium et Spes teaches that the Christian's proper attitude of participation in the threefold mission of Christ is and should be permeated by all that is authentically human." [51]

As Prophet, Christ reveals the truth of God's wisdom, the central content of which is that God is love and that man, made in His image, is invited to participate in this love. For the human person, "his relationship with truth is the deciding factor in his human nature and it constitutes his dignity as a person" and "is an integral part of the 'mystery of man.'" [52] Participation in the prophetic office of Christ is offered to everyone because "Every man is born into the world to bear witness to the truth according to his own particular vocation." [53]

The Church's continuation of Christ's prophetic office, then, "is one of the fundamental points of encounter between the Church and each man." [54] By exercising this office, the Church, and all those individuals who participate in the prophetic office, respond to the right that all have to the truth.

Concerning the priestly office, a full understanding of it requires a return "to the 'mystery of man' as it shows itself in the 'mystery of the Incarnate Word,' that is to say the mystery of Christ the priest." [55] After citing Gaudium et Spes, 10 on the essential questions that man cannot avoid asking, and on the conflict and imbalance man experiences within himself, the Pope gave a general definition of priesthood as the answer to the questions about the meaning of the world. "Priesthood is an expression of the meaning given to man and the world by their relationship with God." "Priesthood reaches to the depths of the whole existential truth of the created world, and above all the truth of man." [56] Priesthood realizes man's capacity and vocation to live in relationship through self-giving love.

In Redemptor Hominis the Pope's teaching on the prophetic office focused on the sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist. Still, he does not fail to make the link with the mystery of man. "By guarding the sacrament of Penance, the Church expressly affirms her faith in the mystery of the Redemption as a living and life-giving reality that fits in with man's inward truth, with human guilt and also with the desires of the human conscience." [57]

When considering the kingly office, the Pope asserted that "The conciliar teaching concerning this kingly function seems remarkably akin to present-day man's thinking and feeling." "This kingly character is embedded within the structure of the human personality." [58] While this kingly character expresses itself through human work by which man exercises dominion over the earth, there is another kind of dominion that is even more fundamental: dominion over oneself. This is achieved through obedience to one's conscience, and such obedience is the realization of human dignity. This is the foundation of authentic human freedom, as martyrs make clear. Since all desire freedom, "The Church truly serves mankind when she guards this truth with untiring attention, fervent love and mature commitment and when in the whole of her own community she transmits it and gives it concrete form in human life through each Christian's fidelity to his vocation." [59]

3. The Primacy of Love and Relationships

It would be difficult to overstate the importance that John Paul attributed to the final statement of Gaudium et Spes, 24:
Indeed, the Lord Jesus, when He prayed to the Father, "that all may be one . . . as we are one" (John 17:21-22) opened up vistas closed to human reason, for He implied a certain likeness between the union of the divine Persons, and the unity of God's sons in truth and charity. This likeness reveals that man, who is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself, cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself.
Gaudium et Spes 12 had already stated that "by his innermost nature man is a social being, and unless he relates himself to others he can neither live nor develop his potential." And, article 16 links the pursuit of truth and conscience to communion with God and others in love: "In a wonderful manner conscience reveals that law which is fulfilled by love of God and neighbor."

These texts are the foundation in Gaudium et Spes for an anthropology according to which love has the primacy. For the Pope, the final sentence of Gaudium et Spes, 24 "can be said to sum up the whole of Christian anthropology." [60] Commenting on the passage in his Letter on the Dignity of Women, he made this capacity to love the hallmark of what it means to be made in God's image: "To say that man is created in the image and likeness of God means that man is called to exist 'for' others, to become a gift." [61]

The Pope did not hesitate to link this self-giving to the principle that the good is diffusive of itself (bonum diffusivum sui). This principle is the non-personal, philosophical equivalent to love as self-giving, and it is what "explains" the creative generosity of God. [62] He linked bonum diffusivum sui to the "sincere gift of self" of Gaudium et Spes, 24:
Families should pray for all of their members, in view of the good which the family is for each individual and which each individual is for the whole family. Prayer strengthens this good, precisely as the common good of the family. Moreover, it creates this good ever anew. In prayer, the family discovers itself as the first "us", in which each member is "I" and "thou"; each member is for the others either husband or wife, father or mother, son or daughter, brother or sister, grandparent or grandchild.

Are all the families to which this Letter is addressed like this? Certainly a good number are, but the times in which we are living tend to restrict family units to two generations. Often this is the case because available housing is too limited, especially in large cities. But it is not infrequently due to the belief that having several generations living together interferes with privacy and makes life too difficult. But is this not where the problem really lies? Families today have too little "human" life. There is a shortage of people with whom to create and share the common good; and yet that good, by its nature, demands to be created and shared with others: bonum est diffusivum sui: "good is diffusive of itself." The more common the good, the more properly one's own it will also be: mine--yours--ours. This is the logic behind living according to the good, living in truth and charity. If man is able to accept and follow this logic, his life truly becomes a "sincere gift". [63]
In this text we reach the zenith of the anthropology of Gaudium et Spes as developed by Pope John Paul II. Made in God's image, we are made for communion, for relationships of mutual self-giving in love based on the truth. [64] This is so because God Himself is love, and it is proper to love to give of oneself: "For a lover's first gift is his own heart, and when this gift is received and deeply appreciated by his beloved, it joins the two by an intense inner bond." [65] Such is the inner life of God.

By love we become one with the common good, so that to will that good for another is in fact to make a sincere gift of oneself to that person. In Christian terms: If it is true that by grace there is a oneness with Christ--"I live now no longer I, but Christ lives in me" (Gal 2:20)--then by reason of this oneness when I give Christ to others I give myself, and vice versa. Christians do not simply imitate God in His loving self-giving, as it were from the outside, reproducing the pattern revealed in Jesus Christ. By grace, we are made participants in God's own act of self-giving love.


[1] Other texts in which the Creator/Redeemer relation is expressed are Gaudium et Spes 23, 50 (twice), and 61. Perhaps the "spirit" of how this principle is applied is best seen in Gaudium et Spes, 13: "What divine revelation makes known to us agrees with experience."
[2] For the relation of Vatican II to the "crisis of man," see the study by John Kobler, Vatican II and Phenomenology: Reflections on the Life-World of the Church (Dordrecht/ Boston/ Lancaster: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1985).
[3] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 68.
[4] Emphasis added.
[5] Dignitatis Humanae, 2; emphasis added.
[6] Dignitatis Humanae, 3; emphasis added.
[7] Fides et Ratio, 47.
[8] See, for example, his address of November 8, 1995, to a Congress celebrating the 30th anniversary of Gaudium et Spes, and his address of February 27, 2000, to the Conference studying the implementation of Vatican II.
[9] Sources of Renewal, p. 63.
[10] Sources of Renewal, p. 74.
[11] Sources of Renewal, p. 69.
[12] Sources of Renewal, p. 75.
[13] "The phenomenological description given by the Council is therefore not an end in itself, but is a help to a better service of man. If the Church scrutinizes the signs of the times, it is because she is more concerned about man than man is about himself; it is because she exists solely for the salvation of human beings" (Latourelle, Man and His Problems, p. 19). This could be applied to Pope John Paul II's analysis of modern man in Redemptor Hominis.
[14] Karol Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II), "Pastoral Reflections on the Family," in Person and Community: Selected Essays (New York: Peter Lang, 1993), pp. 343f.
[15] Pope John Paul II, General Audience of July 25, 1984. The anthropological foundation of "pastoral" is clear here. There is also an ecclesiological dimension in that the Church exists to serve man (see Redemptor Hominis). This service to man is fundamentally setting him free by the truth about himself and God: "To diminish in no way the saving teaching of Christ constitutes an eminent form of charity for souls" (Humanae Vitae, 29). "The Church has always considered education to be an essential part of its mission and the synod on consecrated life clearly highlighted this. Consequently, I warmly invite you to treasure your original charism and your traditions, in the knowledge that preferential love for the poor finds a privileged expression in the services of education and training" (Pope John Paul II, July 22, 1999).
[16] Fides et Ratio, 61. A note in Fides et ratio refers to Gaudium et Spes, 57 and 62. In addition, see: Optatam Totius, 2 and 20; Apostolicam Actuositatem, 32; Christus Dominus, 17.
[17] See Reconciliatio et paenitentia, 18.
[18] Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, The Nature and Mission of Theology (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995), p. 23.
[19] In doing so, Paul drew from his own experience, which enabled him to "relate the truth of redemption to the experience of men of his day, making use of his observation of their lives and also sometimes of introspection; and in that case the consciousness of redemption was united with the inner experience of the Apostle himself" (Sources of Renewal, pp. 69-70).
[20] Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism, pp. 3-4.
[21] Sources of Renewal, p. 272-73.
[22] On overcoming alienation, which is described as "talking about essentially human phenomena without referring them to their cause which is in man himself" and thus also without referring them to God, see Sources of Renewal, pp. 272-273.
[23] Sources of Renewal, pp. 18, 20, 24, 27, 224.
[24] This theme is developed in Christifideles laici, 44 and 59.
[25] "The Spirit, therefore, is at the very source of man's existential and religious questioning, which is occasioned not only by contingent situations, but by the very structure of his being (Redemptoris Missio, 28).
[26] Redemptor Hominis, 14. See also Sources of Renewal, p. 277.
[27] Sources of Renewal, p. 72.
[28] Laborem Exercens, 4.
[29] For St. Thomas' understanding of immanent activity, see St. I, Q. 18, a. 3, ad 1; 54, a. 1 ad 3; Q. 56, a. 1.
[30] Butiglione, Rocco, Karol Wojtyla. The Thought of the Man Who Became Pope John Paul II (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdman's Publishing Company, 1997), pp. 181-82).
[31] GS, 27.
[32] Sign of Contradiction, p. 144.
[33] Christifideles Laici, 37.
[34] Sources of Renewal, p. 115.
[35] See Sources of Renewal, pp. 45-52.
[36] Sources of Renewal, p. 47.
[37] On the primacy of receptivity, see the article of David Schindler, "Christology and the Imago Dei: Interpreting Gaudium et Spes," in Communio 23 (Spring 1996), pp. 167-184.
[38] Sources of Renewal, p. 117.
[39] Familiaris Consortio, 11.
[40] Super Epistolam ad Romanos, Ch. II, lect. III (Marietti, 217).
[41] Scriptum super Libros Sententiarum III, d. 35, Q. 1, a. 4, q. 1, c. See ST I-II, Q. 6, a. 1 for an elaboration of the principle.
[42] Dominum et Vivificantem, 43.
[43] Sources of Renewal, p. 142. It is possible that the Pope has been inspired by St. Thomas' in ST III, Q. 89, a. 3.
[44] See Dominum et Vivificantem, 45.
[45] Letter to the Youth of the World (Dilecti amici), 6.
[46] See Hebrews 9:14. John Paul gives a rich commentary/ reflection on this in Dominum et Vivificantem, 42-45.
[47] See Crossing the Threshold of Hope, pp. 64-65.
[48] Letter to the Youth of the World (Dilecti amici), 6.
[49] Sign of Contradiction, p. 58.
[50] Sign of Contradiction, p. 118.
[51] Sources of Renewal, p. 272.
[52] Sign of Contradiction, p. 119.
[53] Sign of Contradiction, p. 119.
[54] Redemptor Hominis, 19.
[55] Sign of Contradiction, p. 129.
[56] Sign of Contradiction, pp. 130, 131.
[57] Redemptor Hominis, 20.
[58] Sign of Contradiction, pp. 137, 138.
[59] Redemptor Hominis, 21.
[60] Dominum et Vivificantem, 59.
[61] Mulieris Dignitatem, 7.
[62] See Sign of Contradiction, p. 22, and Dominum et Vivificantem, 37.
[63] Letter to Families, 10.
[64] In Fides et Ratio, such relationships are identified as constituting human perfection.
[65] John of St. Thomas, The Gifts of the Holy Spirit (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1951), p. 31.

This article originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in the July/August 2000 issue of Catholic Faith magazine.

Douglas Bushman holds a licentiate in sacred theology from the University of Friebourg. He is Director of the Institute for Pastoral Theology at Ave Maria University, and author of the adult faith enrichment program, In His Image, published by Ignatius Press. Professor Bushman and his wife, JoAnn, home school their six children in Green Bay, Wisconsin.

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