On the 100th Birthday of St. John Paul II

The thought of St. John Paul II will resonate for generations to come.

Pope John Paul II in August 1999.
Pope John Paul II in August 1999. (photo: © L'Osservatore Romano)

Monday, May 18, marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Karol Józef Wojtyła, a boy who would grow up to become Pope John Paul II 58 years later. There will undoubtedly be numerous articles about the significance of his life; permit me to share these thoughts about his and mine.

I was a college sophomore getting ready for a test in American History at St. Mary’s College in Orchard Lake, Michigan, when one of our faculty members ran through the room shouting “they elected a Polish Pope!” That we now had the first non-Italian pope in 450+ years was significant, but what made it especially significant in Orchard Lake was that the Schools had been founded in 1885 as the “Polish Seminary,” intended to prepare priests for the growing Polish American community in the United States. Over time, a separate college — St. Mary’s, which also admitted lay students — emerged, and it also had a Polish American focus. (The College is now defunct). We soon knew that things had changed: that evening, we celebrated a Mass of Thanksgiving in the Shrine Chapel. Detroit’s John Cardinal Dearden was telling us how much he loved Poles and Orchard Lake. We thought he might even take up Mae West’s old invitation to “come out and see me sometime.”

For me, however, Karol Wojtyła was more than ethnic pride. Three years later, I began my graduate studies in theology at Fordham University in New York. My first semester included a seminar in sexual morality. Near Fordham was a Pauline Sisters bookstore, where I found a set of John Paul’s first Genesis talks about the “theology of the body.” I talked Father Gleason into letting me do my seminar paper on that evolving set of Wednesday General Audience messages. I’ll admit it was a struggle to figure out sometimes what his point was but, as I began to work on his thought, I also began to appreciate it. I started to appreciate it for two reasons — reasons that I might call “Father Kośnik” and “Mom.”

Father Kośnik. Father Anthony Kośnik was a faculty member in my days at Orchard Lake. He taught us the undergraduate introduction to moral theology/ethics. He had also gained a certain notoriety as lead author of the Catholic Theological Society of America study, Human Sexuality: New Directions in American Catholic Thought. For me, it was a telling thing that, back in the late 1970s, the book had managed to get both the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome and the U.S. bishops to say it did not represent Catholic teaching. Since it really had no moral absolutes in it, that was true.

Having been interested in moral theology and wanting to study it further, I found Kośnik disappointing. That’s why I was initially so taken by Karol Wojtyła — I was convinced a Polish Catholic should do better than what Kośnik had produced, and here was my model.

Mom. Karol Wojtyła was not the easiest person to read, but when I finally began to figure out what his message was and what values that drove his approach to Catholic morality, including sex, I had an “ah-ha moment.” My “ah-ha” was that the values that drove Wojtyła were the same ones I had heard from my mother. Sure, his were more “sophisticated” and scholarly, wrestling with other great thinkers (but he always left out the footnotes!). But, in the end, what he was saying and what mom said tallied. This was what I understood Catholic moral teaching to be. What I heard from Kośnik was not Catholic moral theology, but excuses to get around Catholic moral teaching. I was hooked.

Throughout my graduate studies, I kept digging deeper. The next semester, in a semester on divorce and remarriage (the first time I heard the name “Walter Kasper” and the stuff Cardinal Kasper is now reselling) I dove into a paper on “Divorce in the Light of Karol Wojyła’s Jeweler’s Shop,” which had just been translated. Then came an M.A. thesis on the Vatican Declaration Persona humana and its congruence with Wojtyła’s thought.

Back then, moral revisionists like Kośnik were pedaling the narrative that Vatican II had adopted a “personalist” approach to sexuality, but Humanae vitae had derailed the whole “turn-to-the-subject” and betrayed the Council’s vision by reverting to a “physicalist” approach to sexual moral norms. Well, here was Karol Wojtyła, whom everybody acknowledged to be a “personalist,” for whom the human person was central to his thought … and he completely agreed with Humanae vitae. That eventually led to my dissertation, “Fruitfulness as an Essential Dimension of Acts of Conjugal Love: An Interpretive Study of the Pre-Pontifical Thought of John Paul II.”

I have tried to stay with that personalist focus of John Paul’s over the years. It eventually brought me to a closer relationship with the Catholic University of Lublin (KUL), where Karol Wojtyła was a faculty member. Back in the 1980s — when Poland was still behind the Iron Curtain and KUL a bête noire as the only free and Catholic university behind that whole Iron Curtain — it wasn’t the easiest place. But at least there were people there who were thinking about John Paul and the implications of his thought; among most American theologians, he was still the “somewhat backward Pope from Poland” whose thought hadn’t yet struck them as interesting.

It was in that context that I first met the Pope. Because of the restrictions being behind the Iron Curtain imposed, KUL began finding a louder voice through Rome. The John Paul II Institute in Rome, which operates the Polish Pilgrims Home on Via Cassia, sponsored an annual “Summer School of Polish and Christian Culture,” in which many KUL professors lectured. I signed up in summer 1989. We attended the Pontifical High Mass for the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul on June 29. That evening, the students met the Pope.

I had the privilege of giving him a copy of my dissertation. Father Wylężek introduced me, saying I wanted to present a copy of my dissertation. The Pope asked, “What subject is it in?” I told him “moral theology.” His eyes opened. “Do you know I was a moral theologian?” “Yes,” I said. “What was your exact topic?” “You.”

He opened it at that point and pointed to an article noted in a footnote. “I remember that.” Then, closing it, he added, “I have to read this.”

I’m sure, with everything he had to do, it went to a library. But that’s what I’ve always worried about in terms of John Paul’s thought. Lots of people, especially in Poland, have focused on interpreting what he once said. They treat him as a library item.

I’ve tried to take that thought in a different direction. What the Pope once said is interesting. But he said it — and it doesn’t have to be resaid, in more words, in a dissertation.

What has to happen is, inspired by its fundamental insights, to apply and develop it. Take one example. Love and Responsibility is first and foremost about love. What love is has implications for what sexual love is. That is the basic framework. Obviously, then, that has implications for contraception, which Wojtyła also addresses in the book. But what is essential — and what I learned from him — is to identify where the focus lies. You don’t start with contraception and figure out why it is moral or immoral. You start with love and, once you understand that, you have your answer why contraception is immoral.

When Karol Wojtyła was an active scholar, contraception was the neuralgic issue in sexual ethics: how could you have sex without babies? The flip side of that question arose in the year he became pope, 1978: Can you have babies without sex? The same year he became pope, the first “test tube” baby was born through in vitro fertilization. Wojtyła’s pre-papal writings never touch the major bioethical issues of our day, but the foundations of his thought are rife with implications for them.

If there is anything, then, that I think is worth doing on the 100th anniversary of Karol Wojtyła’s birth, it’s not just in remembering him (although I hold many good memories). It’s about making his thought resonate and guide a new generation to the mysteries of the person and love which are, after all, what the Christian message is all about. After all, as he indefatigably reminded us, “Jesus Christ fully reveals man to himself.”