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Pope John Paul II's Unfinished Work

Saturday Book Pick: Interrupted by his election to the Chair of Peter, Karol Wojtyla never got back to Man in the Field of Responsibility.


| Posted 10/15/11 at 5:17 AM


In 1969, then-Cardinal Karol Wojtyla published a book that would be known in English as The Acting Person. The book was subtitled “an anthropological study,” intended to examine how the human person expresses himself through human acts. Philosophical anthropology is the philosophy of man: Who is the human person, and what are his possibilities?

In the mid-1970s, Cardinal Wojtyla started work on another book, one intended to examine the other side of the picture: how human action forms, shapes and affects the person. Wojtyla intended to write the book jointly with his senior assistant in the chair of ethics at the Catholic University of Lublin, Tadeusz Styczeń. The cardinal had developed a detailed preliminary draft but, with his pontifical election on Oct. 16, 1978, the project died.

That draft was eventually published in Poland in 1991, but only now has appeared in English as Man in the Field of Responsibility. It’s long overdue. I know: I did my own translation back in 1992, but sat on it. Happily, Kenneth Kemp and Zuzanna Kieroń did not sit on theirs.

This is an important book, but it won’t be a popular one. For one thing, it is unfinished. Even more importantly, it is an academic treatise that presupposes a fairly good knowledge of theoretical ethics. It was said, jokingly, that priests in Krakow assigned readings from The Acting Person as penances for serious sinners; this book could also be used to that end.

That said, it is an extraordinarily valuable book that should stimulate vital discussion. Cardinal Wojtyla creatively synthesizes the history of ethics to cull the best of modern and contemporary philosophy (especially phenomenology and Kant) while renewing the heritage of Thomistic realism. But Wojtyla’s starting point is unique: He begins with the “experience of morality,” with the fact that all normal people feel themselves at times bound by moral obligations they have not imposed on themselves (indeed, would sometimes rather avoid). Closer analysis of this phenomenon opens up a whole range of moral questions:

“We have seen many times that ethics does not grow as a simplistic collection of imperative statements, but as a … response to man’s eternal question about good and evil. … For now, it is certain that ethics, together with people from all ages, is searching for the answer to the question: What is morally good, and what is evil — and why? And that search, as can be seen from the very character of the question, has a philosophical dimension and tends to show the proper nature of all our moral duties, including the ultimate ones.”

Wojtyla begins not with theory, but with the common human experience of moral duty, probing that experience deeply to tease out the full reality and significance of that experience. He employs the perspectives of realistic philosophy to interpret it, and thus reveals that the insights of perennial philosophy still remain highly relevant to illuminating people’s experience.

In these pages, one encounters a first-class philosophical mind honestly engaging modern thought. He recognizes both limits in the Thomistic tradition as well as the personalistic promise of Kant. He exposes the false dichotomy often drawn today (including by many revisionist “Catholic” moral theologians) between natural law and Christian personalism, ultimately showing that love for the person presupposes respect for personal human nature, which itself is part of the objective moral order.

This is ultimately a book for professional ethicists. Its incomplete character is a loss for academic thought, though many of these ideas were developed in other ways during Blessed Pope John Paul II’s pontificate. The most lasting tribute would be for Catholic thinkers to build on what Wojtyla launched 35 years ago.

Register correspondent John M. Grondelski writes from Perth Amboy, New Jersey.


by Karol Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II). Translated by Kenneth W. Kemp and Zuzanna Maślanka Kieroń

St. Augustine’s Press, 2011

84 pages, $17

To order:

(800) 651-1531