John Paul II’s Interpretation of the Second Vatican Council
“Wojtyla… managed to divert the text of Dignitatis humanae from political deliberations about the proper relation between Church and the state… to a deep anthropological reflection about the state… to a deep anthropological reflection about the necessary conditions of actus fidei, and the relation of the human person to his own conscience and to the truth.”
“The Redeemer of man, Jesus Christ, is the center of the universe and of history” (Redemptor hominis Iesus Christus est centrum universi et historiae) – this is the first sentence of Redemptor hominis (1979), John Paul II’s first encyclical, is the profession fidei of the new pope, elected five months prior to the publication of this document. At the same time it is also a crucial text for interpreting John Paul II’s teaching and the many achievements of his pontificate. In regard to the purpose of this paper, it is worth noting that this sentence is a quotation taken from the Second Vatican Council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et spes, where we read as follows: “The Church… holds that in her most benign Lord and Master can be found the key the focal point and the goal of man, as well as of all human history clavis, centrum et finis totius humanae historiae)” (GS, 10). Before we unveil the meaning of this Christocentric theology of human history, culture, and anthropology, it is important to start with some preliminary remarks.
1. Shaped by the council
Before John Paul II elaborated his own interpretation of the Second Vatican Council, it was the council itself that had in many ways shaped and influenced the young bishop from Poland. It was a forty-two-year-old Wojtyla who arrived at the opening of the first session of the council in the fall of 1962; he had been a priest for sixteen years and a bishop for four. He was one of the youngest bishops present.
Wojtyla took the floor twenty-four times: he spoke eight times, including twice on behalf of the Polish Episcopate (allocutions); he also submitted sixteen written interventions (animadversions scriptae) at the Secretariat of the council. Among the written interventions, three were not presented in St. Peter’s Basilica. Cardinal Angelo Scola points out: “Cardinal Wojtyla belongs to those whose contribution to eh council was unique, rich in quantitative terms, and particularly rich and diverse on the doctrinal level… There are not many council Fathers who would speak out at the General Assembly as frequently as did the bishop of Krakow.”
It seems that the most important dimension of Bishop Wojtyla’s contribution to the council consisted in his emphasis on Christian anthropology. This was already clear in Wojtyla’s first contribution to the council, which took place long before it began. In December 1959, in answer to a request by the Ante-Preparatory commission (Commissione Ante- Praeparatoria) of the council, the capitular vicar of Krakow sent his response, in which he outlines the main topics that the council should address.
George Weigel rightly draws attention to the unique nature of Bishop Wojtyla’s response to Cardinal Tardini’s request, “Many bishops submitted outlines of internal Church matters they wanted to discuss. Bishop Karol Wojtyla sent the commissioners an essay – the work of a thinker, not a canon lawyer. Rather than beginning with what the Church needed to do to reform its own beginning with what the Church needed to do to reform its own beginning with what the Church needed to reform its own house, he adopted a totally different starting point. What, he asked, is the human condition today? What do the men and women of this age expect to hear from the Church?” The indicative and phenomenological nature of the rest of the text written by the bishop of Krakow already clearly proclaimed a method which – after many internal struggles and discussions – would be adopted by the council.
In this essay sent to the Ante-Preparatory Commission, Bishop Wojtyla stresses that the key problem of our modern times, marked by materialism, is a proper understanding of the human person. Therefore, the specific function of the council should be to show the values of Christian personalism and to distinguish it from other contemporary anthropologies, marked by individualism or materialistic economism. The author of the document emphasizes several basic elements of such a presentation of Christian personalism in his text.
First, the full truth about man is revealed only in the light of faith: ‘that which can only partially be known in the light of reason, and completely in the light of divine revelation, requires distinguishing man as a person from other visible beings of this world because the others are not personal beings.’ Hence, the Christian faith fully reveals the truth about man as person:
After all, the human personality is expressed particularly in the relationship of the human person to a personal God – this is the very height of all religion, especially of the religion based on supernatural Revelation. Participation by grace in the divine nature and in the inner life of the Holy Trinity, by which we expect perfect union in a blessed vision – all this can be found only among persons.
It is solely against this anthropological background hat Bishop
Wojtyla brings in other topics thatthe council should address: the
importance of a proper ecclesiology, the proper presentation of the
role of the laity in the Church, the importance of the formation of
the clergy, the renewal or religious life, etc. We can say that a
‘personalistic sensibility,’ the factual basis of which was laid out in
the first part of the essay sent to the Commission, permeates all
other topics dealt with there.
An anthropological emphasis and a certain personalistic sensibility is present in all conciliar interventions of bishop Wojtyla: those concerning the document De Ecclesia, De libertate religiosa, and Schema XIII, which later became the constitution Gaudium et spes. We will discuss Gaudium et spes in greater detail later on in this paper. Of particular importance in Wojtyla’s interventions was the anthropological emphasis in the discussions about De libertate religiosa. Wojtyla was one of the council fathers who managed to divert the text of Dignitate humanae from political deliberations about the proper relation between Church and the state which was the usual theological form of approaching the issue in the previous documents of the Church, to a deep anthropological reflection about the necessary conditions of actus fidei, and the relation of the human person to his own conscience and to the truth.
For Karol Wojtyla, participation in the council was an experience of growing and maturing. John Paul II recalls in his Crossing the Threshold of Hope:
At the beginning of my participation in the Council, I was a young bishop. I remember that at first my seat was righty next to the entrance of St. Peter’s Basilica. From the third session on – after I was appointed Archbishop of Krakow – I was moved closer to the altar… Naturally, the older and more expert bishops contributed the most to the development of the Council’s thought. At first, since I was young, I learned more than I contributed. Gradually, however, I came to participate in the Council in a more mature and creative manner.
Undoubtedly, as the pope himself says, his moving toward the altar meant not only respect for the dignity of the new metropolitan archbishop, but also his greater and more mature participation in the work of the council, which was also associated with the intellectual and spiritual maturation of Wojtyla himself. George Weigel writes about this in the following way: ‘By the end of the Council in 1965, the young bishop who arrived in Rome in 1962 as the unknown vicar capitular of Krakow was one of the better-known churchmen in the world, to his peers, if not to the world press. And he was known, not primarily by contrast to the overwhelming personality of his Primate, Cardinal Wyszynski, but as a man with ideas and a striking personal presence in his own right.’
The council shaped Bishop Wojtyla in many ways. Let us briefly point out some of the most fundamental influences. First, Wojtyla goes to the council as a philosopher without any prior important publications in theology. He leaves the council as a theologian, who for four years has been engaged in writing serious theological texts with some of the gest theologians in the Church an who will shortly publish some important theological books of his own.
Second, Wojtyla goes to the council as a young bishop without much international experience and he comes back as a metropolitan archbishop fasacinated by and in deep love with the universality of the Church that he encountered there.
Third, the council changes Wojtyla intellectually in many ways. For example, as a result of his work on the constitution Gaudium et spes he adopts Christocentric anthropology into his thinking in a profound and significant way – in lieu of his earlier theological anthropology. Also, the council helps Wojtyla to interpret theologically his previously held philosophy of the gift, in terms of the Trinitarian, ecclesiological, sacramental, and anthropological notion of communion.
Fourth, the council has an immense influence on Wojtyla’s theological language. As Robert Skrzypczak rightly points out, Wojtyla’s interventions in Latin during the council are formulated in the very traditional rigid language of metaphysical Thomistic theology. One can almost sense a tension between the biblical quotes and the rest of the text. The profoundly biblical character of the final formulations of the council’s documents presented the final formulations of the council’s documents presented the young phenomenologist with some new perspectives that he would come to use fully about ten years afterward, in his written meditations on the theology of the body. In these texts, biblical exegesis is deeply harmonized with philosophical, phenomenological anthropology and Thomistic metaphysical theology. In addition, all the encyclicals of John Paul II, starting with Redemptor hominis, have a deeply biblical character.
The council was undoubtedly a formative experience for Karol Wojtyla. On the other hand, we must not forget the unique testimony given by a close friend and collaborator of Wojtyla, Wanda Poltawska, when she wrote in her diary on 21 February 1968:
I am reading the council’s documents and I can see that all of it was in Karol Wojtyla’s book, everything now presented by the council, and I now realize why the council was not a ‘revelation’ for me: I knew it all from this book [Love and Responsibility]; all of it was the prophetic concept of Karol Wojtyla. What was a revelation for me was his concept of love and I immediately accept4d as my own, therefore the conciliar writings have nothing new to reveal to me about love, because it was already there in this book. His thinking was ahead of the council! The council only confirmed his thinking
2. The pope and the council: gratitude and implementation
John Paul II is clearly aware that the Second Vatican Council had been the most important event for the Catholic Church in the twentieth century. He always speaks of it in the most elevated theological terms, e.g., as the new Pentecost, the event of the Holy Spirit, etc. His relation to Vatican II can be expressed in two terms: gratitude and implementation. The earliest speeches and homilies of the newly elected pope reveal that from the beginning he had a clear awareness that the primary goal of his pointificate would consist in the implementation of Vatican II.
In his first Urbi et Orbi message, the day after the election to the papacy, John Paul II emphasized that the priority of his pontificate would be to put the council’s teaching into practice in the daily life of the Church: ‘we wish to point out the unceasing importance of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, and we accept the definite duty of assiduously bringing it into effect. Indeed, is not that universal Council a kind of milestone as it we4re, an event of the utmost importance in the almost two thousand year history of the Church, and consequently in the religious and cultural history of the world?”
However, as the council is not limited to the documents alone, neither is it completed by the ways of applying it which were devised in these post-conciliar years. Therefore we rightly consider that we are bound by the primary duty of most diligently furthering the implementation of the decrees and directive norms of the same Universal Synod. This indeed we shall do in a way that is at once prudent and stimulating. We shall strive, in particular, that first of all an appropriate mentality may flourish. Namely, it is necessary that, above all, outlooks must be at one with the council so that in practice whose things may be done that were ordered by it, and that those things which lie hidden in it or – as is usually said – are ‘[implicit’ may become explicit in the light of the experiments made since then and the demands of changing circumstances. Briefly, it is necessary that the fertile sees which the Fathers of the Ecumenical Synod, nourished by the word of God, sowed in good ground (cf. Mt. 13, 8, 23) – that is, the important teachings and pastoral deliberations should be brought to maturity in that way which is characteristic of movement and life.
Today, dozens of thousands of pages of Pope John Paul II’s teaching can serve as an authoritative commentary on the conciliar documents and as a reference point for their adequate reading. Let us indicate how the main documents of John Paul II’s pontificate relate to the documents of Vatican II.
Of the four constitutions of the Second Vatican Council, Lumen Gentium (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church) and Gaudium et spes (Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World) were certainly the focus of John Paul II’s interest. First, he participated most actively in writing these two documents.
Lumen Gentium becomes the main subject of Karol Wojtyla’s first theological book, Sources of Renewal: The Implementation of the Second Vatican Council (Krakow, 1972). The focus on the Church ad intra leads John Paul II to call a synod on the twentieth anniversary of the end of the council. One of the fruits of the extraordinary Synod of Bishops from 1985 lies in his choosing the notion of communion as the primary ecclesiological notion expressing the character of the Church. Also, the last encyclical of John Paul II, Ecclesia de Eucharistia, could certainly be interpreted as a last attempt to form an ecclesiological definition in terms of communion, or ‘Eucharistic ecclesiology’ as Joseph Ratzinger would call it.
In speaking about the constitution Lumen Gentium one must mention the Mariology of John Paul II, so important for his private devotion as well as his theology. During the well-known conciliar discussion about the place of Mariology, the Archbishop of Krakow held that it should remain a part of the constitution on the Church.
As for Gaudium et spes, we know that Karol Wojtyla was intensely engaged in the preparation of this document. In one of his remarks from the time shortly before travelling to Rome in October of 1978,Cardinal Wojtyla confesses that he is constantly rereading Gaudium et spes. Certainly, John Paul II’s social teaching, as presented in his social encyclicals – Laborem exercens, Solicitudo rei socialis, and Centesimus annus – is closely related to the style of reflection present in Gaudium et spes.
The council’s teaching on the sacraments from the constitution Sacrosantum concilium (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy) became the subject of John Paul II’s reflection in the apostolic exhortation Reconciliatio et paenitentia (1982) and his encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia (2003).
The second Vatican Council published nine decrees. Most of them became the subjectof John Paul II’s reflections in his encyclicals and apostolic exhortations. Three documents regarding the priesthood – optatam totius (Decree on the Training of Priests), Presbyerorum ordinis (Decree on the Life and ministry of Priests), and Christus Cominus (Decree on the Pstoral Office off Bishops in the Church) – became the subject of John Paul II’s reflection in the apostolic exhortation Pastoreos dabo vobis (1992)….
3. Distinctive elements of John Paul II’s interpretation of Vatican II
I would like to call the first characteristic element of John Paul II’s interpretation of Vatican II a ‘complexio oppositorum,’ a term used by the Poliish theologian Robert Skrzypczak to describe a unity and sysnthesis of opposing attitudes and horizons. Skrzypczak wrote thus about this specific trait of the pope’s teaching and behavior:
He presented contrasting concepts together: dialogue and identity, innovation and tradition…. After all, ‘Catholic’ stands for ‘univerality,’ or ‘completeness.’ That’s what the latest council was looking for – a theologically mature view of the nature and mission of the Church involving a synthetic rather than an analytical approach. Henceforward the pope would no longer stand alone without a college of bishops nor the bishops without the pope; there would be no Scriptures without Tradition nor Tradition without the Scriptures; no longer the sacraments alone without evangelization or evangelization without the sacraments and the liturgy….
Father Skrzypczak rightly points out that the difficulty the Western mass media have in placing John Paul II expresses well this coincidentia oppositorum, as well as the broad vision of the pope. Because of his concern for the poor he was seen as a leftist, but because of his trong criticism of communism he was seen as a rightist; because of his interfaith (inter religious) initiatives he was seen as a liberal, but because of his strong stance on ethical issues, especially his defense of Humanae vitae, he was seen as a conservative, etc. …. (to be continued and hopefully finished).