One of the hallmarks of the Catholic faith is an authentic theological development. From the starting point of divine revelation (Scripture and Tradition), new insights into the meaning and implications of the faith are found, under the guidance of the magisterium.
Theology is “faith seeking understanding” (St. Anselm), so while the faith does not change, the Church’s understanding of it deepens.
At first glance, the theology of the body seems entirely new. Instead of studying the objective natures of things, as Catholic philosophers have traditionally done, it reflects on human experience, in order to discover the essential elements of experience as they appear in the consciousness of the human person.
Since it concerns human “experience,” and not human nature, its critics often view it as a purely subjective method, incapable of producing universally valid results.
As it turns out, the philosopher Karol Wojtyla (later Pope John Paul II) agrees with some of this criticism.
Studying the use of the “phenomenological method” in the early 1950s, then-Father Wojtyla immediately saw its usefulness as a means of insight into the human person’s appreciation of moral value and the formation of conscience. This, in fact, had already been demonstrated in the 1920s by the great German philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand and by his fellow student of the method, St. Edith Stein.
Deciding to adopt it himself, the future Pope recognized that in order to be useful the method’s results had to be judged by both theology and an objective philosophy, such as that of St. Thomas Aquinas. Otherwise, there was a danger of experience itself being the ultimate standard and of the user falling into subjectivism or emotionalism.
It was this early study of the value of the method, as well as his recognition of its deficiencies, that led the Pope to develop an approach often called “Thomistic personalism.”
For Pope John Paul II, the study of the person’s experience of the world is immensely important for moral and spiritual formation, but it is only theological and pastorally valid when understood within the framework of Catholic theology and objective philosophy.
Outside of this framework, the very same method is untrustworthy. Indeed, the often failed results of such methods in secular circles, where subjective experience drives philosophy, the human sciences and the culture, has amply demonstrated this to be true.
The Pope’s use of this method, therefore, adds a complementary insight, not a contradictory one, to St. Thomas’ synthesis of theology and philosophy. To the objectivity of revelation and that of objective philosophy, the Holy Father has added a third dimension: an understanding of how the human person perceives the world.
In the last several decades, its pastoral value, when used in the cautious manner proposed by the Pope, has already been amply shown. However, as the Pope’s biographer George Weigel has stated, it will take centuries for the Church to fully understand the new light which the Pope’s method and teaching has shone on unchanging truths.
Colin Donovan, STL, is vice president for theology at EWTN.