Pope John Paul II as the philosopher of neoconservatism
recent articles, I have argued that modern conservatives are in agreement with liberals in many key respects, for example, in their support for indiscriminate mass immigration
. The patriotic and Christian right, as I pointed out, backs the same open borders policy as the atheistic, anti-American left. The explanation for this paradox lies in the very nature of modern conservatism. Modern conservatism professes allegiance to moral and national essences that go beyond the liberal values of individual rights and freedoms, and so it seems
conservative. Yet (and here is the secret to the puzzle) modern conservatism defines those moral and national essences solely in terms of individual rights and freedoms, which makes it, in actual fact, a type of liberalism. This combination of conservative, traditional-sounding rhetoric with liberal, individualist substance is neoconservatism, a term that can be properly applied not just to the ideology of a well-known coterie of intellectuals and journalists, but to modern conservatism itself.
As becomes clear from a reading of George Weigel’s massive biography of John Paul II, Witness to Hope, many of the Pope’s views fit all too easily into this broadly defined type of neoconservatism; indeed, he emerges as one of its leading exponents.
I will attempt to illustrate this idea by commenting on Weigel’s account of the Pope’s speech to UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, delivered in Paris in 1980. Weigel writes:
The Pope regarded his UNESCO speech on June 2 as one of the most important addresses of his life. It was very much the product of Karol Wojtyla, philosopher of culture, and included several excursions into technical philosophical language that must have puzzled the delegates who were not simply lost. At one point, John Paul, speaking in French, described the human person as “the only ontic subject of culture” … [emphasis added]
To describe the human person as the only ontic subject of culture—meaning, presumably, that the human person is the only bearer of culture that has the attribute of being—echoes the approach of modern American conservatism discussed above. American conservatives say they believe in country (which makes them sound traditionalist, affirming something larger than the individual person), but it turns out that they define country purely in terms of the individual person. In the same way, the Pope says he believes in culture (which makes him sound traditionalist, believing in something larger than the individual person), but it turns out that he defines culture purely in terms of the individual person. If the larger cultural or national whole exists only in terms of the human person, then that whole has no transcendent reality of its own beyond the individuals that constitute it. This verbal allegiance to some larger whole, combined with exclusive concern for its individual members and their rights, is what we have defined as neoconservatism.
Weigel’s account of the Pope’s speech continues, with my comments interspersed:
… Culture had a spiritual core, and could not be understood, as Marxists understood it, as a byproduct of various economic forces.
By “spiritual core” of a culture, the Pope is referring once again to the individual person, not to some intrinsic value of the culture apart from its individual members.
So he had come to UNESCO to “proclaim my admiration before the creative riches of the human spirit, before its incessant efforts to know and strengthen the identity of man.”
This sentence, making man the object of our admiration instead of or alongside of God, echoes the Religion of Man announced by Pope Paul VI at the closing session of Vatican II.
The defense of human persons who must be loved, not for their utility but for the grandeur of their “particular dignity,” linked the message of Christ and his Church and the modern quest for human dignity and freedom.
While it is certainly true that Christianity raises human dignity to a higher level, the Pope by appealing to the liberal shibboleths of “dignity” and “freedom” seems to be erasing any distinction between the spiritual goals of Christianity and the humanistic goals of secular modernity.
The evidence that the religious impulse was of the essence of the “whole man” was right before their eyes …. The truth about the “whole man” demanded to be expressed.
This is not a bad argument. Modern society claims to be devoted to the goal of human fulfillment; so the Pope is telling the representatives of modernity that real human fulfillment lies in Christ. Yet, since culture and not Christianity per se is the subject of the speech, the question arises whether it’s possible to be a whole man without a real culture—and it is precisely the possibility of such a culture that the Pope denies by making the individual person the focus of everything. Note also that when John Paul needs to convey a sense of concrete wholeness and reality, he gives up that sterile, humanistic expression to which he’s addicted, “the human person,” and speaks of “man
The same was true of national cultures. Try as oppressors might, the “sovereignty of society which is manifested in the culture of a nation” could not be completely suppressed, because it was through that cultural sovereignty that the human person “is supremely sovereign.”
The challenge before UNESCO was to guard the fundamental spiritual sovereignty of the human person, which expressed itself through the creativity of individuals and the cultures of nations. The delegates should oppose any “colonialism” by which a materially stronger political force tried to subjugate the spiritual sovereignty of a culture…. [Witness to Hope, pp. 377-78.]
Throughout the speech, John Paul II keeps evoking the larger wholes of culture and nation, but only in light of their subordinate function in fulfilling the spiritual strivings and psychological needs of the individual person. The larger whole has no existence or transcendent value in itself. Not only that, but to the extent that the Pope does value culture in itself, as when he speaks of “the spiritual sovereignty of a culture,” he seems to value it only insofar as it is threatened by Communist or colonialist domination. This explains why he has passionately defended the Polish national culture in the face of Communist tyranny, but has shown no concern about the self-undoing of America’s national culture through its attack on its own particularity. In this regard, and especially in light of his advocacy of open immigration, he’s behaving just like a multiculturalist. That is, when a culture (and thus its individual members) is being oppressed, he insists that it be defended and strengthened, in order to liberate its individual members from spiritual slavery. But when a culture is not being oppressed, but rather is voluntarily destroying itself
through the same cult of individual rights and open borders that the Pope himself supports
, he treats that culture as irrelevant. This shows how making the “human person” the criterion of all cultural values leads to the radical devaluing of actual cultures.
In his portrayal of the human person as the sole focus and meaning of culture, the Pope seems less a “philosopher of culture” than a kind of ideologue, that is, one who treats a single aspect of the totality of things as though it were the totality, and seeks to advance that one aspect at the expense of all others.
Traditionalists are not ideologues. For example, when I criticize the Pope’s one-sided stress on the individual person at the expense of the larger whole, I am not running to the opposite extreme of saying that the larger whole is all there is or that it should overpower the individual and his rights. A nation is not a god or even a person, yet it performs an indispensable function in the scheme of things. That function is derived from man’s own nature. Man is a social animal, which means that he becomes what he most truly is when he is part of a concrete society—a society that is not simply a set of contracts or an arena for competition or a system for the protection of human rights, but something real. And that’s what we traditionalists are seeking—that the nation (along with the other larger wholes that have been denigrated by modern ideology) resume its natural place in the scheme of things, that the nation once again be something, instead of, as now, being drained away into nothing and replaced by other peoples and cultures.
Posted by Lawrence Auster at August 03, 2002 07:53 PM | Send
You are misreading the post-Vatican II emphasis on the diginity of the person as akin to the Enlightenment dogma of the autonomy of the individual. Please see Jacques Maritain’s “Person and the Common Good” for an excellent explanation of the essential difference. In short, St. Thomas, as Maritain shows, taught that the individual is as part to whole in relation to society or culture, when we regard him as an individuated instance of a human nature; but this is to regard him in his merely animal nature. If we look at man in his spiritual nature, that is, as a whole among other wholes, and not an mere individual, we see that he is a whole entirely by himself, having an immortal soul and a spiritual substance that can know, will, and love. In this sense, society, or the common good, exists primarily to fulfill the human person, because human happiness is the goal of politics and culture. Yes, the common good is a participatory good that is in a sense “higher” than the good of the individual, as it is only made possible through the sacrifice of individuals, in some sense, to its exigencies; nevertheless, the common good itself is only one, partial good, albeit a major one, of the many other goods that constitute human happiness. All of the goods for man—health, virtue, worship, and the political or cultural common good—when taken together, fulfill man as a person, even though as as individual man himself he is as a part to a larger whole, the larger whole of the polity.
The end of the state is the common good, but the end of the common good is the good of persons. The end of man as individual is the good of society, but the end of man as a person is the good of God, which is a personal good, secured in common but enjoyed individually (in communion with others, of course). We all participate in the common good of society, but the common good of society is only partial good subservient to the whole of goods that make man as a person happy. This is not liberalism.
JPII, in his official teachings at least, only reiterates this traditional Catholic teaching. If you disagree, then you must believe that man is not a whole existing in the subservient whole that is society, but only a subservient part to a impersonal whole. You them regress to Aristotleanism, whose implicit denigration of the human person was superseded by the elevation of the individual human being through the Incarnation of the God-man and expressed philosophically by St. Thomas Aquinas. JPII’s teachings are merely a development of the Gospel.
Neo-con’s use the language of “person” and “dignity” to propogandize Enlightenment individualism, I grant you. But the post-Vatican II emphasis on the person need not be cited as a cause of their evident betrayl.
My particular concern in this discussion (and let me say that I am not a student of Catholic thought, I am simply someone reading the Pope’s words and reflecting on them) is the preservation and defense of the cultural good. Mr. Kozinski places the individual good on one side, which is animal nature, and the spiritually autonomous good of the spiritual person on the other. Neither of those address my concern, which is the middle ground of culture. He notes that “society, or the common good, exists primarily to fulfill the human person, because human happiness is the goal of politics and culture.” Let’s say for the sake of discussion that I agree with that statement. It still remains the case that in order for culture to fulfil that goal of human happiness it needs first of all to exist. And in order to exist it must have its own integrity apart from the individuals or persons who constitute it, who are born and die, while the society itself outlives them. It’s clear to me that the Pope’s personalistic, humanistic worldview leaves culture no existence apart from serving the needs of its individual members.
While I lack the philosophical background to engage Mr. Kozinski satisfactorily on Aquinas and Aristotle, I doubt that the Pope’s personalism—this artifact of 20th century humanism—is as in conformity with Aquinas as he suggests. Traditional Catholic teaching recognized the integrity and value of national cultures. The Pope, in the manner of a neocon as I have described him, seems to recognize the importance of national cultures, but with a subtle verbal shift of emphasis that leaves those cultures in the void of a world that just consists of “persons.”
Even George Weigel, a virtually uncritical devotee of the Pope, acknowledges the excess of “rights” talk in the current Papacy. At page 860 of Witness to Hope he writes: “Papal and Holy See human-rights rhetoric continues to reinforce the UN-sanctioned pattern of describing virtually every desirable human good as a ‘human right,’ a practice that some Catholic thinkers say confuses the core rights essential to human dignity.”
Mr. Auster’s recent article on the Pope is what we’ve come to expect from him: thought provoking, intelligent, and well stated. Not having read _Witness to Hope_ I can’t comment on anything but Mr. Auster’s article itself, and I won’t attempt to answer every question it raises.
Trying to dissect an intentionally precise philosophical work by a man of genius like Kant or Acquinas or John Paul II can be tricky and fun; but one of my first reactions was to wonder what all the hoopla is over JPII saying that the human person is the only ontic subject of culture. Notice that he didn’t say the ontic object — that is, he did not say that culture is ontologically just an aggregation of humans, which would be a silly (but no doubt tragically commonplace) thing to say on its face. But since the only possible ontic subjects at all are humans, God, angels, animals, monads, demons, space aliens, Gaia, sentient artificial intelligences and other actual personal conscious agents it doesn’t seem terribly profound or outrageous to claim humans as culture’s only ontic subject. It might irritate PETA, but not anyone with half a brain and Christian beliefs.
On the other hand, I don’t have reason to doubt that JPII sees this as a profound basis upon which he can attempt to reconcile modern politics with authentic Christianity. If after all the things of Caesar are the things of Caesar then the political part of his job description ought to be enlisting them for Christ’s ends, and it is tough to do so while denouncing them categorically. I see this as exactly parallel to using the Golden Rule as a basis from which to build a Christian discourse that doesn’t categorically reject equality and all of its modern “rights” discourse.
In both cases the trap is a two-sided nonsequiter that implies liberalism on the one hand and nominalism on the other. In the case of the Golden Rule the fact that we should treat others as we would want to be treated ourselves cannot be reduced to the perfect abstraction of equality without throwing away the actual human being that is supposed to benefit from the rule. In the case of culture having humans as its only ontic subject it does not follow that the liberal idea of culture as nothing but a superposition of individual humans and their individual purposes is true. In both cases an authentic conservative (or any sort of anti-liberal) can be reduced to nominalism by attempting to force-fit liberal categorical claims into “tendencies and emphasis” in an effort not to be any more radical than is strictly necessary. But if we allow words to be reduced to emphasis and tendencies then the world is lost.
Undermining liberalism while adding strength to nominalism is a heads they win, tails we lose proposition. I have the same sort of reservations about the Pope’s attempt to reconcile our specific modern liberal culture with authentic traditionalism as I have with most conservatives’ attempt to reconcile a specific late 1700’s liberal culture with authentic traditionalism. The parallel I drew in an earlier discussion between what the Pope is trying to do and what most conservatives are trying to do may have more validity to it than Mr. Auster has yet realized. Saying that “traditionalists are not ideologues” and trying to avoid extremes are all well and good, but when that leads to the avoidance of categories it is de-facto nominalism, in which case there is quite literally no point to any traditionalism. If there are no authoritative categories then what is there, independent of our will, for tradition to reveal?
There are more things that could be said about the article, and as usual one rejects Mr. Auster’s analysis as superficial at one’s peril. But I think the parallel I drew in an earlier comment between the religious conciliarity of the Pope and the cultural conciliarity of American conservatives, even of the paleo variety, is reinforced rather than undermined.
The only part of Matt’s comment that I can understand is that he thinks my article is thought provoking, intelligent, and well stated!
“St. Thomas, as Maritain shows, taught that the individual is as part to whole in relation to society or culture, when we regard him as an individuated instance of a human nature; but this is to regard him in his merely animal nature.”
This point troubles me. The lower animals don’t have anything that corresponds to French culture, or Switzerland as a national society, or English language and literature, or particular standards of honor or good manners. We become human in part through participation in such things, and they are appropriate objects of attachment and loyalty for us. It therefore seems that to view us as subordinated to such things is not to view us simply as animals. Such things have nothing to do with animals.
In reply to Mr. Auster:
Well, the important part of it is the following: much of what the Vatican has published recently validates the use of liberal-speak in an effort to push liberalism away from incoherence and toward something that is true. I think that is what Mr. Auster meant to advocate as well when he said in an earlier comment:
“That’s why it’s necessary for traditionalists, not to turn against the American Founding, as some misled souls on the right would like to do, but to go back and see the flaws in the founding along with its strengths and try to re-articulate it in a way more consonant with enduring social and spiritual order.”
I don’t see why Mr. Auster would reject what the Pope is doing as intrinsically liberal on the one hand and yet make this recommendation to Americans on the other. Isn’t he criticizing John Paul II for doing exactly what he himself recommends: that is, don’t diss these liberals, just re-articulate them in a way more consonant with enduring social and spiritual order?
The key difference between the Pope’s efforts and Mr. Auster’s seems to be that the actual concrete culture Mr. Auster wants to re-articulate is the American founding, while the actual concrete culture the Pope wants to re-articulate is the actual culture that we live in today. If the process is valid then I don’t see why we should be more loyal to the one than to the other, or why we should expect that one makes a better tactical starting place than the other.
As I’ve mentioned in other comments, I am not categorically against these efforts but I have questions about their wisdom and prospects.
In reply to Mr. Kalb:
Your last paragraph about animals and culture is exactly what I take John Paul II to mean when he says that the human person is “the only ontic subject of culture”. The statement does not assert what culture *is*, it asserts that human persons are the only subjects who have, perceive, and participate in culture; and this is why I made the flip remark that JPII’s assertion might offend _People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals_.
In reply to Matt, I don’t see the two ideas as corresponding with each other.
Traditionalists look at the American Founding, they see many great things in it but also serious flaws which, though they were not all apparent at the beginning, have over time opened the way to the total triumph of liberalism and the dissolution of society. So the idea is to re-articulate the Founding with a less abstract and liberal, more concrete and traditionalist, understanding of society.
The Pope as I understand it is not injecting a Christian or traditionalist understanding into modern society so much as disseminating a liberalized version of Christianity. The Pope, as Weigel says over and over, sees himself as the legatee and representative of Vatican II. Vatican II was for its participants a spiritually transformative event in which the Church embraced the modern world, making modern man the object of its love and concern. Let’s leave aside my personal view that this was a spiritual delusion of the first order. The fact is that the Church in Vatican II re-articulated its mission as one of embracing the modern world instead of standing apart from it and calling it to something higher. John Paul II reaches out to the modern world, he wants to make as many contacts with it, to touch as many people, as he can. And in order to do this he thins out Christianity to the lowest common denominator to make it acceptable to everyone.
I’m not saying there’s not some truth in what Matt says. In various of the Pope’s statements, he cleverly re-articulates liberal ideas in a Christian sense, as I pointed out in my article. He will say, “You believe in freedom, but real freedom is in Christ.” That kind of thing. But (and here’s the catch) this Christian message, in order to be mass-communicated to the modern world along the lines of Vatican II, has already been thinned out and turned into some generic spirituality.
So I don’t see the Pope trying to re-articulate the liberal order in traditionalist Christian terms. He’s trying to re-articulate the liberal order in personalist/humanist Christian terms. The net result of the Pope’s efforts is thus an increase in liberalism rather than an increase in traditionalism.
And to add a further difference:
The American Founding was basically sound. Its flaw was that the traditionalist elements that were present in the Founding were not explicit. Re-articulating the Founding means making the traditionalist elements explicit.
One cannot say the same about the modern liberal order. It does not contain sound though unarticulate traditionalist elements. It represents a thoroughgoing dissolution of all tradition. So the analogy between traditionalism and what the Pope is doing is unsustainable in my view.
“St. Thomas, as Maritain shows, taught that the individual is as part to whole in relation to society or culture, when we regard him as an individuated instance of a human nature; but this is to regard him in his merely animal nature.”
Jim Kalb wrote:
“This point troubles me. The lower animals don’t have anything that corresponds to French culture, or Switzerland as a national society, or English language and literature, or particular standards of honor or good manners. We become human in part through participation in such things, and they are appropriate objects of attachment and loyalty for us. It therefore seems that to view us as subordinated to such things is not to view us simply as animals. Such things have nothing to do with animals.”
Jim, you are right. I should not have said “animal” nature—that is a misstatement. What Maritain actually says is “material” nature. Therefore, we have:
“St. Thomas, as Maritain shows, taught that the individual is as part to whole in relation to society or culture, when we regard him as an individuated instance of a human nature; but this is to regard him in his merely MATERIAL aspect.”
Angels do not have ethnicity, culture, local attachments, etc. because they are not material. We have them because we are constituted in matter, through which our spiritual substance is incarnated. We can have no real identity outside of concrete, material attachments and particularites; liberals try to destroy them and replace them with abstract, non-partcularist categories in a perverse imitation of the angels. This goes back to Descartes, as Maritain shows in his “Three Reformers.”
Liberalism is man playing angel (the individual trying to be a whole, immaterial species unto himself) Communism or materialism is man playing animal (the individual trying to be ONLY a part of a bigger and more important species and not ALSO a whole-spiritual-nature (person) unto itself to which the material species itself is subordinate.
But the idea of the person is neither of these, transcending both. A person is both spiritual and material, and whole and a part. Liberalism emphasizes the part and makes it into a pseudo-whole, denying the ontic reality of society, which is a moral person (but not a substantial person) greater than the sum of its parts. Communism emphasizes the part but denies the wholeness of the human person, for whom the common good of culture exists, making the person into a means sacrificed to an impersonal (and inferior) whole.
Catholic personalism is the mean between these extremes, and modern Catholic social teaching is simply emphasizing the wholeness of the person at this time, as opposed to the transcendent and whole nature of culture that Mr. Auster has been emphasizing. Maybe thie emphasis is imprudent, but it is not erroneous in principle.
I want to reply to what I think is an unexamined assumption on the part of modern Christianity, of Vatican II, of the Pope, and of those who defend the Pope from my criticisms.
The assumption is that is it NECESSARY for the Church to adjust to modernity and speak the lingo of modernity in order to convey the Christian message in the modern world. I think this is not only false but harmful, since it makes modernity dominant in the relationship and Christianity subordinate.
I’ve previously talked about the rector of my (Anglo-Catholic) parish in New York, whose sermons focus exclusively on Christ and the Gospels. He makes no mention of modern issues or political issues. He uses no modern terminology. The words “the human person” have never passed his lips. The depressing smog of liberalism and humanism and personalism is entirely absent from his homilies. He explicates Christ and the Gospels and the traditional teachings of Christianity. And that’s all that’s needed. The Gospels are timeless and forever new. They don’t have to be rendered into some modern mode to be made interesting or relevant.
But modern Christianity as a whole fell into the disastrous error of thinking that the message had to be changed; because modernity seemed so imposing, the Church had to adjust to it rather than the other way around. I once read a book about Christianity in America that said the great transition occurred in the early 20th century. Up to that point, the churches had guided society. But with the increasing material success and attractiveness of society, the churches began to follow society instead of leading it.
And that in a nutshell is what happened at Vatican II. It made modern man and modern society the principal focus, it recognized modern man and celebrated him and determined to reach out to him AS HE WAS. As Paul VI said at the closing session, the Council was concerned with man, “with living man, with man totally taken up with himself, with man who not only makes himself the center of his own interests, … The discovery of human needs, AND THESE ARE SO MUCH GREATER NOW THAT THE SON OF THE EARTH HAS MADE HIMSELF GREATER, absorbed the attention of the Synod…. A current of affection and admiration overflowed from the Council over the modern world of man … [The Catholic religion] proclaims itself to be entirely in the service of man’s wellbeing…. the Catholic faith exists for humanity … “
In determining to place itself entirely at the service of man’s well-being, that is, with the well-being of living man, man as he actually is today, the Church naturally had to modernize its entire approach in liturgy, in language, in sacrament.
Most of these changes were not necessary, and have been terribly harmful.
Thanks to Mr. Kozinski for the clarification and the amplification. The analyses of liberalism (the individual trying to be a whole, immaterial species unto himself) and communism (the individual trying to be ONLY a part of a bigger and more important species) are very suggestive. I suppose fascism and Naziism are like communism, only the bigger species does not include the whole of homo sapiens.
Could one add that in liberalism the essence of the species is choice, in communism it is productive labor, and in fascism/Nazism it is collective will identified with the will of the Leader and realized in struggle for victory, so that in each case the species generates its own world?
I’m still a little dissatisfied with the Maritain formulation. Maybe I’d like it better if the “merely” were struck. The fact Maritain was French does result from the fact that he was materially embodied, but to view him as French—and therefore in important ways as a member of a particular human society and culture—is not to view him in his merely material aspect.
Mr. Kozinski says that Catholic personalism is the mean between liberal personalistic fragmentation on one side and Communist subordination of the person to the state on the other.
But the question is: Why should the Church have defined itself in terms of liberalism and Communism in the first place? The truth of Christianity transcends these things entirely. Catholic personalism seems to be the product of 20th century intellectuals who were trying to find a way to articulate Christianity in modern intellectual terms. They accepted the existence of liberalism and Communism as givens, and tried to figure ways to inject a Christian idea into the mix. So they adopted a new “ism”: “Catholic personalism.” But because this personalism, as Mr. Kozinski seems to suggest, originated as an effort to find a mean between the ideologies of liberalism and Communism, it is foreover caught up and implicated in their terms and assumptions.
By trying to find a Christian alternative to modern ideologies, but by trying to do so within the very terms of modern ideology, the Church inevitably subjected itself to modernist, ideological modes of thought.
I repeat that this was not necessary.
Mr. Auster stands astride 400 years of Western Protestant history and finds it necessary to view the American rebellion as authentic but in need of careful articulation. Pope John Paul stands astride 2000 years of Catholic history and finds it necessary to view Vatican II as authentic but in need of careful articulation. None of this is a surprise, and neither man needs my personal help in making their case; indeed the notion is laughable. But it does reinforce the point I made in an earlier comment: the liberal question “yeah, but which tradition?” is not entirely without merit. If Mr. Auster gives any ground he might find himself in need of becoming Catholic, and if the Pope gives any ground he might find himself in need of becoming Protestant.
There are a few more things worth saying, though.
Mr. Auster has repeated on several occasions that Vatican II makes it NECESSARY to engage in liberal discourse. I don’t see why he refuses the usual articulation of it as a prudential judgement based on the priority of saving souls. If it is a prudential judgement about process then, as with justice Scalia and the death penalty, there is no schism involved in thinking it utterly foolish. Now it may be that Mr. Auster has reasons for believing in this necessity in much the same way that I have articulated the necessarily categorical nature of equality, but if so that remains to be seen.
On balance I am largely in agreement with Mr. Auster and believe that liberalism needs to be directly engaged and refuted rather than rearticulated to attach liberal discourse to an alternate ontology. I have great empathy for the Lebfeverites and with those protestants whose rebellion was motivated in the direction of orthodoxy. But at the end of the day Christ did not say that Peter would always be smart and do the right thing; he just said that Peter’s decisions would be held bound on earth as in heaven. Human authority is not and cannot be expected to be perfect.
One of the blessings I received for participating in a different thread on VFR recently was a better appreciation for exactly why the Pope takes the approach he does. There are really two separate issues: one in the use of language and the other regarding Christian mission.
Taking the latter first, it is clear that modern times have changed our basic evangelical circumstances fundamentally. It used to be that the heathens were separated from the Church primarily by geography, and thus the evangelical commission required travel to foreign lands in order to inculturate the Gospel (certainly that was the easiest way to spread the good news, since as a rule strangers are more likely to find us credible than our neighbors). But the unexplored terrain is no longer there. The geography that separates souls from the Church and the sacraments in modern times is congenitally ideological rather than geographic, and the methods necessary to traverse ideological distances to inculturate the Gospel are fundamentally different from getting on a boat or strapping on a backpack. Someone brought up as a liberal is perhaps more intractably separated from the Church and the sacraments than natives who have never before seen a Christian; though the danger of a given missionary going native is certainly very real in both cases.
So I think that what the Pope is trying to do is take Christian mission seriously. The fact that the entire world has been explored geographically does not allow us to claim that the job is done. Clearly experience on VFR and elsewhere demonstrates that just because someone has heard some words this does not imply that they have been able to see through ideology, understand them, and take them seriously. The gulf that separates such a person’s understanding from what is actually said can span continents.
Where I think the approach has significant problems is in John Paul II’s presumption that in order to speak to the modern world you have to start with phenominalism. There is nothing inherently methodologically wrong in starting with actual persons and experiences, and working your way outward from subjective experiences to objective truth. That is certainly not the same thing as _denying_ objective truth. But as an approach to evangelizing the lost in the modern world it seems horribly confusing. It alienates the orthodox on the one hand but is not liberal enough to satisfy the heterodox on the other. I don’t think it is surprising that the Karol Wojytla who was trained in phenomenology might think it a concrete, personal approach to reaching actual people where they actually live; but I think in practice it creates confusion and fosters liberal dissent.
The basic dilemma he faces is a real one, though. How do you evangelize the world when speaking to others in even the most precise possible terms still virtually guarantees misunderstanding (e.g. the distinction between ontic subject and ontic object above)? How do you take the evangelical commission seriously when even those who speak the same language can no longer communicate with each other?
Excuse me for not taking JPII seriously. When he took power, the American branch of the RCC was dominated by modernists and social workers. Today, the same regime is in power, and ON HIS WATCH the old guard produced a new generation of do-gooder squish-heads. Some say phenomenology is a cop-out and I’m tempted to agree.
That could be. I don’t deny the possibility, although I don’t think that there is enough evidence to warrant standing before God personally and pronouncing that to be my own judgement.
There are those who think that there has been de-facto schism in the American church since Humanae Vitae was published and almost universally ignored in America, and that everyone knows it but the laiety. That also strikes me as a very real possibility.
But even if JPII is a heretical antipope of the worst sort the basic dilemma described in my second and last paragraphs above remains. I haven’t seen any realistic attempts at answering it, and critics of JPII generally demonstrate no basic recognition of even the existence of the dilemma.
I agree with Matt that the problem of communication under contemporary conditions is a very great one. For example, in the time of the Gospels, people understood psychological language, they understood the language of parables and so on. That is much less true today, understanding is much more literal. There is also the problem (as I think Voegelin put it) that in such a thoroughly ideological age we are not just in Plato’s cave—we are in the cave below the cave, requiring much more sophisticated measures to reach us and draw us to the light.
At the same time, the problem of understanding can be exaggerated, and I think Matt is exaggerating it a bit. The Gospels are as true now as they were two thousand years ago. The truth conveyed by the liturgy is as true now as it ever was. These things just need to be communicated truly, and people can be reached by them.
But what all these modern religious figures have done, including the Pope, is to be so wowed by modernity that they have made modernity first and the truth of Christianity second; the latter must be assimilated into the former, rather than the other way around. As I wrote recently about Bishop Rowan Williams, the main approach of Anglican and Episcopal bishops is to “negotiate” between secular modernity and Christianity rather than preaching and teaching Christianity. The phenomological approach of the Pope that Matt speaks of is another example of the same fallacy. The mistake is to make too much of the subjective state of the persons one is trying to reach.
Of course the subjective state of people needs to be understood and skillfully dealt with. Think of Jesus. On every page of the Gospels Jesus is encountering some person, and he always seems to know exactly where that person is at, and always speaks exactly the words that that person needs to hear. He perfectly understands and relates to the subjective state of the person, in order to bring that person to the truth. He doesn’t turn the subjective state of the person into a thing of importance in itself, into a “cult,” the cult of man. Yet THAT is what Vatican II and the Pope have done.
Well, my only quibble with this is that I think that rather than modernity having been put first it is actual people who have been put first, and that the actual people to be evangelized happen to be moderns. That is, the phenomenological approach starts with actual people and reaches out toward truth rather than starting from truth and reaching out toward actual people. I think that approach is very problemmatic to say the least, and I agree for example that too much is being made of the subjective states of individuals as a result. I am sure there is a range on what Mr. Auster refers to as the problem of understanding as well and I no doubt have my own biases.