It’s hard to put into words the significance of Pope John Paul II. He was a breath of fresh air for the Church: a poet and playwright; a priest who resisted Communist occupation of his native land and helped bring about the end of European Communism as they knew it; someone who travelled to the farthest reaches of the earth in order to connect with the disconnected in the Church; not to mention being a man of philosophical and theological genius.

His Theology of the Body will never be forgotten as a timely antidote to what Pope Francis has called a ‘throwaway culture’ – a culture where human persons are not accorded the dignity they are due, and where shallow notions of love masquerade as the real thing.

It’s never a bad thing to revisit some of the key ideas of his pontificate in order to remember the way in which he rocked the Catholic world and beyond.

Faith, Reason, and the mystery of the Incarnation

In his encyclical Fides et ratio, the Pope explores one of the most hotly contested issues in the history of modern thought: the relationship between faith and reason. Historically, he said, there has been an organic and indissoluble unity between the two, embodied most clearly in the medieval universities and the great minds that emerged from them (§45). In recent times there has been a more decisive break, whereby reason has sought to supplant faith and exile it to the realms of superstition and credulity, as an exercise that has nothing to offer the human pursuit of truth. On the contrary, he wrote with those famous opening words:

Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth’ (§1).

Philosophical inquiry is something innately human. It is an exercise of the rational intellect which is one of the spiritual powers of the human person. Still, there does exist something called ‘philosophical pride’, whereby people present their imperfect view of the world as the complete reading of reality to the exclusion of all others (§4). What revelation offers, and faith simply refers to our submission to this revelation, is something that we could not otherwise achieve by reason alone: knowledge of the mystery of who God is and who we are in light of that.

‘The Incarnation,’ he wrote, ‘will always remain the central point of reference for an understanding of the enigma of human existence’ (§80).

In this vein, one passage from Gaudium et Spes was always a favourite of his, and he referred back to it constantly.

The truth is that only in the mystery of the Incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light’ (GS §22).

In the light of Christ, the Word made flesh, we receive a response to the most ancient and basic tenets of philosophical inquiry: Know thyself. In a way, this revelation brings human knowledge and philosophy to its ultimate consummation in Christ.

Pope John Paul II during a visit to the Baltimore Basilica in the 1990s Photo by Carol M. Highsmith (Wikipedia Commons)

Sacredness of life

One of the prominent themes of his pontificate was also the sacredness of human life. In his encyclical Evangelium Vitae, Pope John Paul II makes the point that while there were many crimes against humanity that took place in the twentieth century under the authority of totalitarian governments, there are more sinister crimes against humanity that are taking place today under the authority of so-called democratic ideals and parliamentary votes: crimes against the unborn, where human life is completely defenceless and at its frailest (§20). These crimes are not only done in the name of democracy, but also in the name of bodily autonomy, health care, and freedom. In doing so, democracy betrays its very foundations and becomes a tyrant in the guise of democracy.

A ‘culture of death’ has set in, in which the human body is stripped of its value as a personal reality oriented towards love, in which the human person is de-personalised and instrumentalised in the name of freedom. At the root of this culture of death, he said, is ‘the eclipse of the sense of God and of man’ (§21). To lose the sense of God is also to lose the sense that the human person is a creature mysteriously unique and possessing a dignity nobody has the right to violate.

The Gospel at its core is concerned with life: The mystery of Christ crucified and risen is the mystery of the God who brings about new and eternal life. The first step in bringing about cultural transformation, Pope John Paul II said, is to form consciences to realise the intrinsic connection between life and freedom, between freedom and love, and between freedom and truth (§96). Only when this organic and intrinsic unity between them is restored can we be a people that reveres the sacredness of human life and sees its deepest meaning in the vocation to love.

John Paul II in Austria L'Osservatore Romano

Theology of the Body

The series of Wednesday audiences that ended up being Pope John Paul II’s teaching on the theology of the body is not simply the theology of sex. It truly is the theology of the body. In trying to understand the human person, both through revelation and through reason in the givenness of creation, John Paul said that the human body was a ‘primordial sacrament’ – it was created in order to communicate ‘in the visible world the invisible mystery hidden in God from eternity . . . the mystery of Truth and Love, the mystery of divine life, in which man really participates.’ The nature of a sacrament is that, as something visible, it points to the invisible. Our bodies were meant to communicate the mystery of divine love.

This is why he also said that the body has a ‘spousal meaning’. Creation itself, called from nothing and declared to be good, is revealed as nothing other than a gift of divine love. There is nothing necessary about creation. The fact that it was called from nothing communicates creation’s sheer giftedness. This idea of the gift is how John Paul interpreted the body, as something inherently oriented towards being a gift; oriented towards being given away in love.

Both masculinity and femininity only truly find themselves – only truly come to fulfilment – when they enter into a relationship of mutual, reciprocal, life-giving love. It was these ideas through which John Paul would bring to light the moral problems posed by the practices of the culture of death. But in so doing, he also offered the world one of the most coherent and beautiful accounts of the human person ever seen, unrivalled in the history of thought.

Pope John Paul II during his 1986 visit to Australia Queensland State Archives (https://www.flickr.com/photos/queenslandstatearchives/)

The Catholic Church in Australia celebrates the memorial of St Pope John Paul II on 22 October.