In 1960 a young professor at the Catholic University of Lublin, Poland, published the first edition of his book, Milosc i odpowiedzialnosc. A second, fuller edition appeared two years later. A third edition came out in 1964, published by a Polish Diaspora press in London.

By the middle-1960s, the book appeared in French and Italian. Rumor has it that some Spanish cardinals took copies into the 1978 conclave. The book didn't appear in English, however, until 1981. By that time, its author had already spent two years as Pope John Paul II.

The book is Love and Responsibility. Without exaggeration, it should be numbered as one of the most important books of the 20th century, certainly one of the most important in philosophy and theology.

Thanks to that book, I became a moral theologian. Love and Responsibility became the core of my Fordham doctoral dissertation.

Is the book easy to read? No. Its author is, after all, a philosopher. Plumbing all of Karol Wojtyla's points takes time, but it repays the effort. Frankly, in reading Love and Responsibility I discovered an intellectually satisfying explanation of truths about God, love and sex that I had learned, in much simpler language, from my mother. And that is the beauty of this book: It provides a rigorous proof of truths Catholics had long heard, in simpler language, at their mother's knees. I figured that if the Pope and my mother both agreed, there had to be something to this.

The Prism of Personalism

Remember that opponents of Humanae Vitae branded the encyclical as “physicalistic,” subordinating the “person” to “biological functions.” Now everybody admitted that John Paul II was a Christian personalist through and through. If that was the case, how could he reach the same conclusions Pope Paul VI did in Humanae Vitae? Love and Responsibility tells you how.

In the space of a single article, it isn't easy to summarize a complex, 319-page book. But certain points do stand out, truths worth reminding today's world of.

Persons should be loved, never used. Wojtyla argues clearly that, ultimately, there are two ways of relating to another person. You can love the other person, or you can use him. To love a person means to love him as he is, completely and totally, in a full and integral vision of the person. To use a person can take two forms. One can use a person by simply making him a means to one's own ends. Or, in the area of sex, one can use a person simply for the purpose of deriving pleasure. Persons, however, are worthy only of love, not use. In this, modern philosophy and Judaeo-Christian thought coincide: Kant's dictum that the person is always an end and never a means dovetails with the Great Commandment to love one another.

The human sexual urge has an existential meaning. That God endowed the human person with a sexual urge is apparent. The question that has plagued much of 20th-century thought, however, is: What is that urge for? What is the meaning of the sexual urge? Wojtyla argues that there are three main ways of understanding the sexual urge. The “rigorist” position, which he rejects, claims that sex exists only for procreation, with the pleasures associated with it a necessary evil. The “libidinistic” position, which he also rejects, sees sex merely as a quest for pleasure. The meaning of the sexual urge, Wojtyla insists, is “existential": It promotes existence, persons. Because of the sexual urge, human persons come into existence and human persons express themselves as co-creators with God. The sexual urge is not concerned with mere biological material; it is concerned with human persons. That's why the question of how persons come into existence is not and cannot be a merely “physicalistic” problem.

Chastity as a virtue is not a ‘no.’ It is not a denial of sex. So what is it, really?

Love is, in the last analysis, a choice. The love between a man and a woman is made up of many components. Both physical attraction and emotional satisfaction enter the picture. Both of these are components of love between men and women. But they are not full-grown love. Love demands an act of will, a choice, a decision to seek the genuine and authentic good of the other. In doing so, one does not deny physical attraction or emotional compatibility, but it does put them in proper perspective. Because if, in the last analysis, one chooses a spouse “for better, for worse,” that vow is binding — even if beauty pales or feelings sour. A love not based on decision lacks a backbone.

Chastity is about persons. Because human love is made up of components like physical and emotional attraction and rests upon the fragile choice of the human will, there are times when mere physical attraction might be mistaken for real love. Given the fact that people can deceive themselves into believing that lust is really love, chastity exists to protect persons. Chastity as a virtue is not a “no.” It is not a denial of sex. Rather, chastity is an affirmation of the person, always challenging us to raise our sights from the other as merely an object of physical attraction and gratification to the level of the person, whom we are called to love and not to use.

Parenthood is a share in God's creative work. Having children is not just a biological phenomenon, because children are not just physical realities. They are persons, and since only God can create a soul, each child is a recapitulation of God's creative work in which human parents are invited to share. Parenthood is thus a conscious collaboration with God, with purposes that transcend the parents' own.

Sharing in God's creative work demands justice to the creator. God always remains God and we always remain creatures. It is God who made us and God who endowed sexual intercourse with its existential meaning. We are free to engage in sex or not, but we are not free to redefine the meaning of sexual intercourse in a way to exclude God from what God himself created and which shares in his creative work. Acknowledging what sexual intercourse means and admitting who we are and who God is merely renders God his due: It is justice to the creator.

Principles of Persuasion

The principles Karol Wojtyla set forth in Love and Responsibility more than four decades ago remain vital and important — and today seem even more urgent than when they were first written. Why? Because this is a book about principles. It is not about particular issues in sexual ethics.

When Karol Wojtyla was writing in 1960, the debate over the pill was just beginning to stir. Looking back over the years since then, Catholic sexual ethics has in many ways lost time, sometimes failing to give the unadulterated Gospel witness to the Christian meaning of life and love because it was bogged down in debates with dissident theologians trying to justify homosexual coupling, cohabitation, contraception, artificial reproduction and sometimes even abortion. Whatever particular debates it may have been mired in, Catholic sexual ethics has always been challenged to return to its principles, its vision of the meaning of life and love.

And it has received no better challenge than the creative thought that has informed the papal magisterium of Pope John Paul II, all the way from his catechesis on the human body through encyclicals like Evangelium Vitae. But to understand Pope John Paul II, one needs to go back to the underlying principles. Reviewing Love and Responsibility 21 years ago, Joseph O'Leary described the book as articulating a persuasive vision its author was not likely to abandon. Indeed, as a faithful servant, he hasn't. Rereading Love and Responsibility today can rekindle our enthusiasm for just how persuasive those principles really are.

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John M. Grondelski, a moral theologian, writes from Warsaw, Poland.