Sunday, February 03, 2013

John Paul II's Interpretation of the Second Vatican Council

Jaroslaw Kupczak
"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
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.1 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 the 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 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?"5 The inductive and phenomenological nature 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 the 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."6 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.7
It is solely against this anthropological background that Bishop Wojtyla brings in other topics that the 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 of 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.8
An anthropological emphasis and a certain personalistic sensibility is present in all conciliar interventions of bishop Wojtyla: those concerning the document De ecdesia,9 De libertate religiosa,10 and Schema XIII, which later became the constitution Gaudium et spes.n 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.12
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 right 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.13
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."14
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 best theologians in the Church and who will shortly publish some important theological books of his own.15
Second, Wojtyla goes to the council as a young bishop without much international experience16 and he comes back as a metropolitan archbishop fascinated 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.17 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 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.18 In these texts, biblical exegesis is deeply harmonized with philosophical, phenomenological anthropology and Thomistic metaphysical theology.19 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 accepted it 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.20
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 pontificate 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 were, 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?"
In the newly elected pope's speech one can detect already a certain distancing from the way Vatican II was interpreted in the 1960s and 1970s:
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 that 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 those 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 seeds 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. Second, he devoted a significant amount of writing and attention during his pontificate to 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 communio 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 communio, or "eucharistic ecclesiology" as Joseph Ratzinger would call it.21
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.22
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 traveling to Rome in October of 1978, Cardinal Wojtyla confesses that he is constantly rereading Gaudium et spes.23 Certainly, John Paul II's social teaching, as presented in his social encyclicals—Laborum exercens, Solicitudo rei socialis, and Centessimus annus—is closely related to the style of reflection present in Gaudium et spes.
The council's teaching on the sacraments from the constitu­tion Sacrosanctum 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 subject of John Paul II's reflections in his encyclicals and apostolic exhortations. Three documents regarding the priesthood—Optatam totius (Decree on the Training of Priests), Presbyterorum ordinis (Decree on the Life and Ministry of Priests), and Christus Dominus (Decree on the Pastoral Office of Bishops in the Church)—became the subject of John Paul II's reflection in the apostolic exhortation Pastores dabo vobis (1992).
The conciliar decree Perfectae caritatis was devoted to the subject of the renewal of religious life. John Paul II devoted two of his important documents to this subject. First, Redemptionis donum (1984) and then Vita consecrata (1996). With regard to the Church ad extra, the decree Ad gentes on the Church's missionary activity was expanded upon in John Paul II's encyclical on the permanent validity of the Church's missionary mandate, Redemptoris missio (1990). The conciliar decree Apostolicam actuositatem on the apostolate of the laity was continued in the apostolic exhortation Christifideles laici (1988), and the decree on ecumenism Unitatis redintegratio—in the encyclical Ut unum sint (1995). With regard to the decree Inter mirijica on the means of social communication, besides being himself a living example of prudence and wit in using the mass media, between 1979 and 2005 John Paul II wrote twenty-six messages for World Communications Day which is usually celebrated on the Sunday before Pentecost.24
Besides constitutions and decrees, the council published three declarations which also became the subject of intensive reflection and reinterpretation of John Paul II. The conciliar declaration on Christian education, Gravissimum educationis, was expanded upon in John Paul II's apostolic exhortation on catechesis in our time, Catechesi tradendae, signed by the pope on the first anniversary of his election to the papacy, 16 October 1979. The conciliar declaration on the Church's relations with non-Christian religions, Nostra aetate, was an inspiration for John Paul II's many interreligious initiatives, e.g., an intensive and profound dialogue with Judaism and the interreligious meeting in Assisi. Last but not least, we have to mention Dignitatis humanae, the declaration on religious liberty. It was the source of many papal initiatives, messages, and talks. The papal defense of human rights, above all the right to religious freedom all over the world, along with all he has said and done, can be seen clearly as an implementation of Dignitatis humanae.
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 Polish theologian Robert Skrzypczak to describe a unity and synthesis of opposing attitudes and horizons.25 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 "universality," 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 . . .26
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 strong criticism of communism he was seen as a rightist; because of his interfaith (interreligious) 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.
An excellent example of John Paul II's ability to integrate some apparently opposite theological ideas into his thinking can be found in his ecclesiology. During the council debate on the schema De Ecclesia, Wojtyla criticized the somehow one-sided emphasis on the idea of "the people of God" and pointed out, prophetically foreseeing some post-conciliar problems in Catholic ecclesiology, that this Old Testament notion is in danger of being interpreted only horizontally and sociologically. Therefore, Wojtyla thought that the term "people of God" should be balanced by the concept of the Church as the Body of Christ (Corpus Christi). Starting with his analysis of the council in the Sources of Renewal, Wojtyla began to interpret the council more and more through the concept of communio. The extraordinary Synod of Bishops in 1985 chose communio as the most adequate interpretation of Vatican II ecclesio­logy.
A fact worth noting, however, is that Wojtyla, in Sources of Renewal, as well as in his other publications following the council, also used the term "people of God." He liked this ecclesiological concept for two reasons. First, it stressed the historical dimension of the Church as the pilgrim people walking through the centuries toward the final recapitulation and renewal of all things in Christ. Second, the concept of the Church as the people of God pointed to the fact that the Church is immersed in the world that she has to transform and renew.
The second characteristic trait of John Paul II's interpretation of Vatican II lies in his christocentric anthropology. On the one hand, anthropology has always been a part of the Church's dogmatic teaching on creation and incarnation, original sin, nature and grace, justification and final judgment, etc. On the other hand, christo­centric anthropology became a distinct element of the teaching of Vatican II, particularly because of the structure and content of Gaudium et spes. The citation from the documents of Vatican II that most frequently appears in John Paul II's writings is GS, 22. This passage is not only a part of the content of the constitution but also in the most profound way defines the structure (form) of this document. I would hold that Wojtyla, and later John Paul II, reads Gaudium et spes, and correspondingly the whole council, through the lens of this text. Therefore, it is necessary to comment on its profound Christology and anthropology.
One reads in GS, 22: "The truth is that only in the mystery of the incarnate Word (mysterium Verbi incarnati) does the mystery of man (mysterium hominis) take on light. For Adam, the first man (primus homo), was a figure of Him Who was to come (figura futuri), namely Christ the Lord. Christ, the final Adam (novissimus Adam), by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love, fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear" (GS, 22).
Let us point out the most theologically significant elements of this quotation. First, Adam, the first man, was a figure of Christ, the final Adam, who is the perfect man. Therefore, it is only in Christ that man can know himself. The biblical reference brings to this picture a profound theological vision present in the first chapter of the Letter to the Colossians where we read: "He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him" (Col 1:15—16).
In interpreting the text, the focus is often on the anthropological and christocentric statement "Christ fully reveals man to man himself." For Karol Wojtyla/John Paul II, however, this statement is grounded in the comprehensive theology of human history. The word "figure" (Latin figura, Greek xwkoq), crucial for understanding the council's statement that "Adam, the first man, was a figure of Christ," appears in the New Testament in two places: Rom 5:15 and 1 Col 10.27 In Romans 5, St. Paul refers to the person of Adam in Genesis 1—3 in order to emphasize the universality of salvation brought by Jesus. As Adam brought death and the universal reign of sin as consequences of his first transgression, redemption brought by Jesus introduces grace and justification for everyone into human history.28
The biblical notion of tutcoq is not just a literary compari­son. It reveals a certain theological ontology, crucial for Karol Wojtyla's/John Paul II's christocentric anthropology and his theology of history; this is, notably, an aspect often missed by the critics of GS.29 It can be clearly observed in the second instance where this notion is in evidence: 1 Cor 10. In this text the word Timcx; refers to the relation between the events described in the Old Testament and those that happen in the eschatological reality in which St. Paul writes to the Corinthians.30 This comparison is foremost of a spiritual character. St. Paul points out the similarity between the experience of the Israelites in the desert, their spiritual fight with temptations and their own weakness, and the situation of the addressees of his own letter. In this sense the events from the time of Moses may serve as spiritual examples (tutcoi) for the Corinthians.31
This spiritual comparison between the Old and the New Testament is grounded in a certain theological ontology. St. Paul makes a comparison between the Israelites' way through the desert and the Christian sacramental order, emphasizing above all the sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist when he writes that the Israelites "were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea" (2) and that "all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink" (3). Then, he writes: "they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ" (4).
Certainly, this verse has to be interpreted in the light of the whole Christology of St. Paul, particularly his hymns about the pre-existence of Christ (cf. Eph 1:3-13; Col 1:15—20) which form the primary biblical background and reference point for Gaudium et spes. In this context, St. Paul's statement that it was Christ himself who had accompanied the Israelites in the desert is a logical conclusion to these phrases found in the Letter to the Ephesians: in Christ we were chosen "before the foundation of the world" (Eph 1:4), in Christ we were blessed "with every spiritual blessing" (3), the Father in Christ has made the decision referring to "the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him" (9-10). St. Paul's identification of the rock from the time of the Israelites' wanderings through the desert with Christ is a logical consequence of the truth that only Christ is the mediator between God and man, and that the Father acts only with his Son and through his Son (cf. Jn 1:1—3).
Gaudium et spes read in the light of Eph 1 and Col 1 presents a powerful and profound theological vision of human history, culture, and anthropology. This vision entails a specific relationship between creation and redemption, nature and grace. Everything that was created {primus Adam) has been created because of Christ (novissimus Adam) and for Christ who appears in the human body at the end of time, born of the Virgin Mary. This "Christology from above" looks at human history from the point of view of a mysterious plan (Greek, mysterion, Latin, sacramentum) conceived by God in the Son before the beginning of the world.32 The biblical sources of GS, 22 (Eph 1 and Col 1) move us to adopt such a vision.
In this theological vision of GS, 22, adopted by John Paul II, the created order has only relative autonomy and independence; its real purpose is to point toward the completion of everything in Christ (recapitulatio). From this perspective, one can interpret this sentence from GS, 10 with which we started this reflection: Christ is "the key, the focal point and the goal of man, as well as of all human history" (clavis, centrum et finis totius humanae historiae). This conciliar statement opens the first encyclical of John Paul II: Redemptor hominis.
There remains a whole cluster of questions to be addressed. Let me end with some points that should be expanded in a further reflection. First, the limited independence and autonomy of the created order does not violate a certain autonomy of creation or the possibility of a realistic philosophical knowledge thereof. Karol Wojtyla educated in Thomistic realistic metaphysics, always retained elements of this realistic thinking as witnessed especially in his encyclicals Veritatis splendor and Fides et ratio.
The second point should address the question of the philosophical language adopted by John Paul II, especially the notions of human rights and human dignity. For Karol Wojtyia/ John Paul II, human dignity is a theological, or rather christological notion, since only in the light of Christ's redemptive death for the salvation of all does the dignity of every human person, born and unborn, called to be a child of God in the reality of eternal life, become clear. One may add, however, that John Paul II's celebrated defense of human dignity in his social pronouncements refers to a modern, though limited and self-corrupting notion.33 It seems that modern human history in which God, the Lord of history, acts in mysterious ways, helps the Church to point to some specific treasures of her theological heritage.54 Christian revelation, however, remains the ultimate and corrective point of reference. This hermeneutical circle, presented especially in the encyclical Fides et ratio as a dialogue and exchange between philosophy and theology, is possible only under the condition that human history is ruled by the Lord (Kyrios).
A similar analysis can be applied to the notion of human rights, especially the right to religious freedom. This right is not a privilege given to the human person by the modern state or the modern democratic order, but is part of what the human person is, as is made evident by a traditional theological analysis of actus fidei and voluntarium.35 In the face of modern idolatry of the political order, made particularly manifest by the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century, the notion of human rights, especially the right to religious freedom, became a useful tool to defend the human person in his or her unique relationship to God.
4. Concluding remarks
John Paul II was the last pope from among the council fathers. Because of this he could convey the real interpretation of the Second Vatican Council to us in a special way. This is exactly what Benedict XVI expressed in the interview given for Polish public television on 20 September 2005: "We know that the pope was a man of the council, that he really took its spirit and letter to his heart. Through his writings he makes us aware of what was really the intention of the council, and what was not, and helps us to become truly the Church worthy of our times—present and future."36       □
JAROSLAW KUPCZAK, O.P., is director of the Center of Research on the Thought of John Paul II at the Pontifical University of John Paul II in Krakow.

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