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John Paul II, 1920-2005

The first modern pope was a radical thinker who tried to anchor modernity in truth, liberty, and respect for human dignity.

2:00 PM, Apr 2, 2005 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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A particularly striking example is John Paul II's teaching on men and women, sex and marriage. Wojtyla's first book was on the ethics of married life, and it celebrated human sexuality as a gift of God for the sanctification of husband and wife. Decades later, John Paul proposed what Weigel calls "one of the boldest reconfigurations of Catholic theology in centuries," as he addressed the challenges of the sexual revolution and feminism. He argued that the distinct roles of men and women are consistent with their equal dignity, and that marriage, with "the self-giving love of sexual communion," can be the experience "that begins to make God comprehensible to human beings." The pope's argument cuts through the stale debate between liberationists and traditionalists, and makes a distinctive contribution not merely to Catholic thought, but to thought simply.

And that is a sign of the third aspect of John Paul II's achievement: his intellectual significance. Early on, Wojtyla came to the view that the crisis of the modern world was first of all a crisis of ideas. Never believing it was enough simply to lament a falling away of faith or to assume that the formulations of the past were unproblematically adequate, Wojtyla sought from the beginning to discover a metaphysical foundation for modern humanism and democracy. His early philosophical work, Person and Act, was an attempt to put an Aristotelian-Thomistic "philosophy of being" together with a "psychology of consciousness" derived from such thinkers as Max Scheler--to figure out the relation between the objective truth of things and the subjective and personal experience of that truth.

Wojtyla's effort to tie together freedom and truth, and indeed to argue the identity of the true and the good, is a deep and difficult project. It was intended to be, as Weigel says, "accessible to everyone no matter what his or her religious disposition." One has to stop for a moment to recognize just how significant this is. A major player on the world stage and the administrative leader of the world's largest organized religion set himself the profound philosophical task of defending, for believers and non-believers alike, the intelligibility of the world against the radical skepticism and moral relativism of the age.

In the end, however, one returns to what was most simple and most evident about John Paul II: his courage--physical, moral, and intellectual. Aristotle claims that courage is the first of the virtues, because it makes possible all the others. John Paul II demanded that we "learn not to be afraid," that we "rediscover a spirit of hope and a spirit of trust." He grounded that hope and trust on his faith that man "is not alone" but lives with the abiding presence of God. His life invites us to admire human excellence--and to reflect on the question of whether or not such excellence depends on a conviction, like John Paul II's, that man is not, in some fundamental sense, alone.

William Kristol is editor of The Weekly Standard. This piece is adapted from the essay, "The Man of our Age," a review of George Weigel's Witness to Hope , from the October 18, 1999 issue.