As the spiritual leader to almost a billion Roman Catholics for the past 22 years, Pope John Paul II has stood astride the world stage as few others. But the magnitude of his influence is not just a function of the numbers of his followers. As George Weigel argued in The Final Revolution: The Resistance Church and the Collapse of Communism (Oxford, 1992), the current pope played a greater role in defeating communism in Central and Eastern Europe than any figure besides, perhaps, Ronald Reagan. This fact is all the more remarkable since, unlike his pre-modern predecessors in the papacy, the current pontiff commands no armies and thus can neither impress nor intimidate his opponents with military might. Unlike Reagan, then, John Paul’s role in world history is unambiguously a result not of weapons and the threat of warfare, but of words and ideas.
In a battle fought with argument and rhetoric, most contemporary statesmen would find themselves defenseless against the current pope. After all, here is a world leader who holds two Ph.D.s (in philosophy and sacred theology) and is fluent in virtually every language of the West. And although Karol Wojtyla was an accomplished author long before he was elected to be the 263rd successor to St. Peter in 1978, he has, if anything, become more prolific in the intervening years. Since 1979, he has produced no less than 13 book-length encyclicals, as well as countless speeches, letters, and other public pronouncements, on subjects ranging from the moral foundation of human rights to the strengths and weaknesses of capitalism as an economic and social system. One need not be a Catholic to recognize and admire the formidable power of John Paul’s intellect.
And yet, strangely, the pope’s considerable intellectual contribution to our times is far from being widely recognized. In the U.S., at least, only conservative Catholics and their liberal antagonists take regular note of John Paul’s writings — the former first and foremost because of religiously-inspired veneration, the latter out of contempt for what they take to be his indefensible moral conservatism and inegalitarianism. Aside from Michael Novak’s acclaimed writings on the subject, Weigel’s magisterial 1999 biography of John Paul, Witness to Hope (Cliff Street Books), is the greatest work to emerge from the first group. At 1,000 pages, the book attains a level of thoroughness unlikely to be matched for some time. Like most authorized biographies, its approach to its subject is largely admiring; this in turn leaves room for a more exhaustive critical assessment of the pope and his ideas. As for the liberal Vatican-watchers, Garry Wills’s recent book, Papal Sin (Doubleday, 2000), is particularly noteworthy, both for its venom and for the transparency of the author’s theological-political agenda. Reading his book, one gets the sense that Wills would be satisfied with nothing less than the wholesale transformation of Catholicism into Unitarianism — and that his indignation at the Papacy arises above all from its resistance to such a transformation.
As for the rest of us, the pope’s ideas are greeted largely with indifference (in vivid contrast to the considerable attention the media pay to his actions — for example, his recent and much heralded visit to Israel). The reason for this neglect is far from clear. Maybe it arises from the anti-intellectualism in American life that Richard Hofstadter noted some years ago; if so, our lack of interest in the pope would be little more than an instance of our indifference to the life of the mind more generally. Or perhaps, instead, it has its roots in very old American worries about "sectarianism" — that is, in suspicions about Catholicism’s presumption to speak for all Christians and its history of seeking a very public role for religion. Many Americans seem to attribute the remarkable degree of religious freedom and pluralism in their country to the rejection of both opinions; apparently it is democratic bad taste for one sect to consider itself superior to others, and, as its corollary, for such a religion to make public pronouncements intended to apply to all. The current pope, one might conclude, ends up perpetuating these old illiberal errors by seeking to engage in intellectual disputation about political issues. Far from being a defect, then, choosing to ignore him might seem to be a sound course of action for a public-spirited citizen of a nation concerned for the fate of liberty.
But whatever the ultimate cause of our reluctance to engage — or even acknowledge — John Paul’s intellectual contribution to our times, we are clearly the ones who lose out by turning a deaf ear to what he has to say. To begin with, like the best of his predecessors in the Catholic tradition, he bases many of his views on rational arguments accessible to all human beings, Catholic or not, Christian or not. This is remarkable in itself. For much of the Church’s history, popes have been far more interested in taking part in political intrigue on the Italian peninsula than with fostering discussion and debate within (let alone outside of) the Christian world. To the extent that the spirit of inquiry flourished within Christendom, it was found in provincial universities and monasteries, not in Rome. Although the Papacy began to seek a greater public role for itself with Pope Benedict XIV’s publication of the first modern encyclical in 1740, its pronouncements attained a level of intellectual seriousness only rarely, arguably reaching a pre-1978 peak with Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum of 1891.
But even compared with this classic document or the frequently impressive policy declarations of Pope Pius XII (1939–1958) and Pope John XXIII (1958–1963), John Paul’s writings stand apart. Unlike the explicitly antimodern popes of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, for instance, John Paul is thoroughly conversant in and respectful of much of modern culture, including those aspects of it with which he profoundly disagrees. In this, he exhibits considerably greater intellectual ambition than many of his predecessors, as well as greater curiosity and tolerance. Just as to this day the arguments of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas engage readers of all faiths — and even those of no faith — so John Paul intends his writings to be studied, disputed, accepted, and rejected on their own merits, not because of his sacerdotal authority. He is interested above all in dialogue and disputation, not in issuing infallible edicts from on high.
Of course, none of this is meant to portray John Paul as anything other than the demanding leader of an otherworldly religion. His open-mindedness and tolerance certainly have their limits, as one would expect. But, perhaps surprisingly, it is above all this very steadfastness — his insistence on grounding his arguments in a holistic view of human life — that makes his writings worth taking seriously today. For ours is an age in which specialization has come to take the place of comprehensive reflection on the human condition. From software programmers to public policy intellectuals, we live our lives focused on details, and we treat problem-solving as the highest virtue. Even our philosophers — those traditionally charged with raising the most fundamental questions of human life — devote themselves to academic minutiae or bend over backward to demonstrate the practicality of their endeavors as professional "ethicists." While John Paul does his best to master the facts and remain informed on the subjects about which he writes, he differs from many of us in never allowing himself to get lost in the particulars or losing sight of the larger picture. We may not all agree with every element of his account of that picture, but in placing his views about the political and economic parts of our lives where they belong — in the context of his views about human life as a whole — his work attains a scope, depth, and profundity rarely reached (or even attempted) by intellectuals in our time.
The surface of things
If the greatest strength of John Paul’s work is its comprehensiveness, this quality also contributes to the considerable challenge it poses to contemporary sensibilities. We are, for example, accustomed to being understood and analyzed in the light of the modern sciences. Indeed, television news magazines, best-selling books, and the morning newspapers regularly and enthusiastically report on the latest breakthroughs in the attempt to further scientific knowledge of mankind. While granting science its place, the pope breaks from this currently fashionable trend by denying that human beings can be adequately understood using scientific terms. To take a few examples from recent headlines, cracking the human genome might help us to predict our susceptibility to certain diseases, but it won’t tell us anything about the meaning of our ever-longer and healthier lives. Likewise, trying to model the human mind on a computer might teach us how the brain performs certain tasks, but it does not bring us any closer to probing the mysteries of consciousness. And perhaps most tellingly, political scientists might be able to teach us something about politics by assuming that political actors are primarily motivated by a desire to get themselves elected and then re-elected, but they can tell us nothing about why winning and losing matters so profoundly to the politician — or why understanding politics matters so very much to the political scientist himself. Each of these sciences reveals an aspect of humanity but fails to grasp the whole.
Rejecting science as a means to truth might sound odd or even dangerously dogmatic to us, but continental European philosophy has a long tradition of searching for ways to capture the holistic character of human experience that eludes the sciences. Karol Wojtyla was educated in this tradition, and to this day his work can be understood as growing out of its richest philosophical innovation: phenomenology. First articulated by Edmund Husserl in the early years of this century, phenomenology was eventually developed in various directions by some of the century’s greatest philosophers, including Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Jan Patocka, and Max Scheler (the subject of one of Wojtyla’s dissertations). All of these thinkers shared the conviction that the gateway to human truths could be found in the surface of things — with how they appear to us. Phenomenology thus begins with the rejection of what it sees as the reductionism of science, its tendency to look beneath the surface of things — beneath their appearances — for a more fundamental account that explains (or explains away) those appearances. For instance, a geneticist would say that human beings might seem to be radically different from other forms of life, but our DNA shows that we really differ from them only in minor ways. Similarly, cyberneticists would say that it might seem like we differ fundamentally from man-made devices, but we really are nothing more than highly complex computers. Lastly, political scientists would say that it might seem like politicians sometimes act for the sake of the common good, but they really are rational calculators of their self-interest.
Phenomenology refuses to engage in any such reductionism when it comes to understanding mankind. In the place of scientific explanations, it proposes to substitute a largely descriptive account of human experience, and then, on the basis of that description, to develop a comprehensive view of human life. The finest example of John Paul’s use of the phenomenological approach can be found in his most recent encyclical, Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason), from 1998. There he begins by noting that certain "fundamental questions . . . pervade human life" across every culture: "Who am I? Where have I come from and where am I going? Why is there evil? What is there after this life?" These questions have their root in "the quest for meaning which has always compelled the human heart." Picking up on age-old theme in the philosophical tradition, John Paul argues that the "desire for truth" is thus "part of human nature itself." It is "an innate property of human reason to ask why things are as they are." We find evidence for this fundamental human truth in the scientist’s selfless devotion to his research — as well as in his half-hidden opinion that there is something noble in this devotion. We find it in the curiosity of those who seek to familiarize themselves with his discoveries by reading newspaper articles and watching TV reports that explain them. And we find it above all in the experience of "wonder" that is awakened by our contemplation of the world around us: "Human beings are astounded to discover themselves as part of the world, in a relationship with others like them," and they ultimately long to know the truth about — and the meaning of — this experience.
According to John Paul, two contemporary trends prevent us from fulfilling this longing by blinding us to its presence within ourselves. First, our very proficiency at seeking truth through scientific methods has distracted us from our own true motives. Constantly bombarded by information, we have "wilted under the weight of so much knowledge." As a result, our reason has become fixated on details and no longer recognizes that what drives us to seek information in the first place is our desire for truth about the whole of things. As he writes, "little by little" our reason has "lost the capacity to lift its gaze to the heights, not daring to rise to the truth of being." At the same time, popular forms of skepticism and relativism (often referred to as "postmodernism") form a second obstacle to self-awareness by inspiring "distrust of the human being’s capacity for knowledge." With a "false modesty, people rest content with partial and provisional truths, no longer seeking to ask radical questions about the meaning and ultimate foundation of human, personal, and social existence."
The practical consequences of this self-satisfaction are deeply distressing. "Without wonder," men and women "lapse into deadening routine." Moreover, the "legitimate plurality of positions" that can inevitably be found in a given society gives way to "an undifferentiated pluralism based upon the assumption that all positions are equally valid." According to John Paul, this easygoing relativism is "one of today’s most widespread symptoms of the lack of confidence in truth." In such circumstances, "everything is reduced to opinion" and there comes to be "a sense of being adrift" amidst the "rapid and complex change" of modern life. We might be better off economically than any generation in human history, but we are spiritually lost, lacking "valid points of reference" and "stumbl[ing] through life to the very edge of the abyss without knowing where [we] are going."
Although his description of our current situation might sound bleak, John Paul does not wish to counsel despair. We might very well live at a time when "the ephemeral is affirmed as a value and the possibility of discovering the real meaning of life is cast into doubt," but it is still possible to make a "patient inquiry into what makes life worth living." Wearing his phenomenological training on his sleeve, he maintains that one need only look at, listen to, and honestly describe what human beings continue to do and say. Even the most cynical postmodern critics, for example, think their own skepticism reflects the truth about man and the world, and the critics themselves care deeply about that truth. Otherwise, they would never bother to think through the arguments in favor of those views, let alone go through the effort of writing or publishing them. For John Paul, our actions betray us, whatever we may think we believe — they tell us that Aristotle was right to note that "all human beings desire to know," for our experience shows us that no one is "genuinely indifferent to the question of whether what they know is true or not." Despite what they might say (or not say), today’s geneticists, cyberneticists, political scientists, and even postmodern theorists are united (with the rest of us) in seeking
an absolute which might give to all their searching a meaning and an answer — something ultimate, which might serve as the ground of all things. In other words, they seek a final explanation, a supreme value, which refers to nothing beyond itself and which puts an end to all questioning. Hypotheses may fascinate, but they do not satisfy. Whether we admit it or not, there comes for everyone the moment when personal existence must be anchored to a truth recognized as final, a truth which confers a certitude no longer open to doubt.
According to John Paul, this longing for transcendent truth is coeval with human existence: All men and women "shape a comprehensive vision and an answer to the question of life’s meaning." And it is in the light of this vision and answer that "they interpret their own life’s course and regulate their behavior."
A false autonomy
It will surprise no one to learn that the pope believes this longing is ultimately a desire and nostalgia for God — or that he is convinced there is something to satisfy it. What is more unexpected is how difficult it is to dismiss his arguments about the need for free societies to base themselves on a religious foundation. This claim will strike many of us as absurd — as the predictable assertion of a man of God who leads a church with a long history of theocratic ambitions. In contrast, we tend to think that our pluralistic society can get along just fine without an established church. Indeed, we believe the nation can thrive even when the government acts in a way overtly hostile to religion, as it has tended to do over the past 50 years. Civil libertarians tell us that being left alone to do or think anything you wish (short of violating anyone else’s right to do the same) is the necessary and sufficient condition of a free society.
But is it? John Paul is no proponent of ecclesistical establishment. But throughout his writings, he makes a powerful case that if rights are not grounded in a religious notion of innate human dignity they will be exceedingly fragile. Individuals will assert their own rights when it is in their interest to do so, but they will also seek to violate the rights of others when they think they can get away with it. According to the pope, then, genuine social and political freedom depends on more than self-interest; rights must be based on the absolute moral principle that it is wrong in itself to violate another’s rights, regardless of the consequences (or lack of consequences). This is why he argues in Evangelium Vitae (On the Value and Inviolability of Human Life) that "there can be no true democracy without a recognition of every person’s dignity" and goes on to claim that it is
urgently necessary, for the future of society and the development of a sound democracy, to rediscover those essential and innate human and moral values which flow from the very truth of the human being and express and safeguard the dignity of the person: values which no individual, no majority and no State can ever create, modify or destroy, but must only acknowledge, respect and promote.
Without such an inviolable notion of human dignity, man gets reduced in his own eyes to a mere "thing," which, like other things we encounter in the world, can be controlled and manipulated. Moreover, when we begin to forget that democracy is not an end in itself but rather only a means to the end of ensuring the protection of human rights, public opinion threatens to become the only standard of moral truth. Instead of recognizing that the value of "democracy stands or falls with the values which it embodies and promotes," we look to polling data as the ultimate arbiter of right and wrong. But this is, of course, no standard at all. Modern man — like man simply — needs to be shown why he should treat certain basic human rights as inalienable, no matter what common opinion might say.
John Paul claims that we can find a ground for human dignity — and thus also a basis for the inalienability of rights — if we "foster, in ourselves and in others, a contemplative outlook" on life. This is
the outlook of those who see life in its deeper meaning, who grasp its utter gratuitousness, its beauty and its invitation to freedom and responsibility. It is the outlook of those who do not presume to take possession of reality but instead accept it as a gift, discovering in all things the reflection of the Creator and seeing in every person his living image.
Only on the basis of this "deep religious awe" can we learn to "revere and honor every person" in the way societies founded on individual rights call on us to do. In making this argument, John Paul appears to stand with Thomas Jefferson who, we should recall, claimed in the Declaration of Independence that our "inalienable rights" were an endowment granted to us by our "Creator." And he also joins many conservatives in the U.S. today who doubt that there can be any basis for rights other than a religious one.
There are, of course, many obstacles to recalling modern democracies to their theological roots, not the least of which is the view, currently fashionable in the American academy, according to which democracy needs no foundation other than the "autonomy" of human reason or thought. Found in various forms in philosophers from Immanuel Kant through John Rawls, the ethic of autonomy is, for John Paul, the height of folly. To the extent that the university professors who advocate it continue to behave decently and fulfill their civic duties, they demonstrate that they have fallen short of genuine autonomy. Far from relying on their reason alone, they covertly derive their moral principles from the societies in which they live, deluding themselves and their students into believing that they were able to generate them out of thin air. True autonomy, in contrast, would look very different. Rather than issuing in respect for rights and human dignity, autonomy is indistinguishable from license to satisfy all of one’s passions, from the most innocuous to the nastiest, without the slightest hint of restraint. It is, in the words of his Centesimus Annus (On the Hundred Anniversary of Leo XII’s Rerum Novarum), freedom detached
from obedience to the truth, and consequently from the duty to respect the rights of others. The essence of freedom then becomes self-love carried to the point of contempt for God and neighbor, a self-love which leads to an unbridled affirmation of self-interest and which refuses to be limited by any demand for justice.
John Paul argues that we must reject the call to cast off the limits to our freedom, for "only by admitting his innate dependence can man live and use his freedom to the full, and at the same time respect the freedom of every other person." It is, paradoxically, by accepting limitations to our autonomy — by acknowledging the existence of fixed moral boundaries that ought never to be transgressed — that authentic human freedom becomes possible. Without such limits, man lacks both a measure for his actions and a circumscribed sphere in which to actualize his freedom.
Communism and capitalism
John Paul’s unshakable belief in mankind’s innate dignity has led him to issue some of the Catholic Church’s most controversial statements of dogma and doctrine in recent years — his passionate denunciations of abortion, euthanasia, and (in somewhat more muted tones) capital punishment. Refusing to mince words, he argues that the prevalence of these practices is a disturbing sign that societies around the globe are embracing a "culture of death." As is well known, no issue arouses John Paul’s ire as much as abortion. Morally indistinguishable from infanticide in his teaching, abortion and its widespread acceptance within nations claiming to uphold human rights are an indication of "an extremely dangerous crisis of the moral sense, which is becoming more and more incapable of distinguishing between good and evil, even when the fundamental right to life is at stake." Faced with this indifference to morality, the proper course of action is clear. We must speak the plain truth: that "procured abortion is the deliberate and direct killing, by whatever means it is carried out, of a human being in the initial phase of his or her existence." According to John Paul, this conclusion follows necessarily from the same view of human dignity that must undergird the belief in inalienable human rights more generally.
But the pope’s insistence on grounding rights in dignity has political implications that go far beyond the issue of abortion. Most important, it contributes in a decisive way to his controversial assessment of communism and capitalism, both of which have come in for harsh criticism in his writings over the years. Of course, John Paul is no relativist, and he has never engaged in spurious moral equivalences. Yet, neither has he ever openly endorsed one social system over the other. He has preferred instead to point out weaknesses in each social arrangement in the hope that he might be able to inspire the reforms he believes that morality demands.
In the case of communism, the pope’s criticism is admirably elegant and recalls many of the arguments espoused by thoughtful intellectuals in the West throughout the Cold War. As he writes, "the fundamental error of socialism is anthropological." That is, it misunderstands human nature. For communism treats the individual as "an element, a molecule within the social organism," and in doing so, it completely subordinates him to the collective. But that is not all. Communism makes the additional mistake of assuming that the goodness of an individual and a community can be separated from considerations of whether that individual or community makes good or evil choices. For a communist, what matters is not whether an act is morally right or wrong in itself, but whether the act furthers the larger goal of "the movement." Communism is thus Machiavellianism raised to the status of a world-historical principle; it excuses any deed, as long as that deed can be shown to be a means to achieving its end. The practical effect of these errors is the attempt to transform man from a responsible agent into a being whose existence is defined by its role in the "functioning of the socio-economic mechanism." But the simple fact is that man requires a political and social life that reflects his nature rather than one that tries, in vain, to make him into something other than what he is. Communism collapsed throughout the world when it finally and definitively became apparent that this attempt to transform humanity could never succeed.
But for all of the theoretical errors of communism and the damage done in its name, John Paul maintains that it did have one strength: the identification of alienation — or the "loss of the authentic meaning of life" — as a serious problem within modern societies. To be sure, the Marxist analysis of alienation in materialistic terms is false, just as its claim that alienation would be eliminated in a collectivist society has proven to be illusory. However, the experience of alienation needs to be recognized as real and its true cause identified. For John Paul, that cause is clear: Alienation arises when man gives himself over to a "purely human plan for reality, to an abstract ideal or to a false utopia." By attempting to treat the disease of alienation with just such a "human plan" and "false utopia," communism greatly exacerbated the very malady it was devised to cure. The only true way to combat alienation is to create a form of "social organization, production and consumption" that encourages man to see "in himself and in others the value and grandeur of the human person." Without such encouragement, man "deprives himself of the possibility of benefiting from his humanity and of entering into [a] relationship of solidarity and communion with others."
Which raises the question of whether, contrary to what Marxism always asserted, capitalism contains the resources necessary to combat alienation. The pope’s answer is, as he admits, "complex":
If by ‘Capitalism’ is meant an economic system which recognizes the fundamental and positive role of business, the market, private property and the resulting responsibility for the means of production, as well as free human creativity in the economic sector, then the answer is certainly in the affirmative. . . . But if by ‘Capitalism’ is meant a system in which freedom in the economic sector is not circumscribed within a strong juridical framework which places it at the service of human freedom in its totality, and which sees it as a particular aspect of that freedom, the core of which is ethical and religious, then the reply is certainly in the negative.
There can be little doubt from his many writings on the subject that John Paul believes that capitalist nations all too often end up far closer to the latter, libertarian position than they do to the former, religiously communitarian one that he ultimately advocates. When they come to embrace their own form of materialism, capitalist societies can easily be made compatible with the denial of "an autonomous existence and value to morality, law, culture and religion." To the extent that they do, capitalism comes to "agree with Marxism, in the sense that it totally reduces man to the sphere of economics and the satisfaction of material needs."
According to John Paul, capitalism and its ideological partisans forget at their peril that "the mere accumulation of goods and services, even for the benefit of the majority, is not enough for the realization of human happiness," as he writes in Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (On Social Concerns). When this happens, capitalists make an anthropological error no less grave than the one committed by their communist rivals. They begin to strive toward an ideal of "superdevelopment, which consists in an excessive availability of every kind of material goods," which, in turn, "makes people slaves of ‘possession’ and of immediate gratification, with no other horizon than the multiplication or continual replacement of the things already owned with others." Echoing social critics from Jean-Jacques Rousseau to Aleksandr Solshenitzyn and Vaclav Havel, John Paul argues that the "crass materialism" that accompanies "pure consumerism" leads inexorably to "a radical dissatisfaction" on the part of individuals. Beneath the noisy clatter of "publicity and the ceaseless and tempting offers of products," citizens within capitalist societies begin to sense that their "deeper aspirations" are "unsatisfied and perhaps even stifled." They lose sight of the fact that "having" is far less important than "the quality and the ordered hierarchy of the goods one has."
In order to turn capitalism away from its excesses and realize the authentically communitarian potential within it, John Paul tells us that we must raise our sights above mere economic calculation. As he writes, "of itself, an economic system does not possess criteria for correctly distinguishing new and higher forms of satisfying human needs from artificial new needs which hinder the formation of a mature personality." For this reason, "a great deal of educational and cultural work is urgently needed, including the education of consumers in the responsible use of their power of choice." The ultimate end of this education must be the creation of "lifestyles in which the quest for truth, beauty, goodness and communion with others for the sake of common growth are the factors which determine consumer choices, savings and investments." In short, the key to transforming capitalism into a social order capable of solving rather than aggravating the problem of alienation is directing our gaze upward, to a higher common good than economic prosperity.
The duties of governments
Although John Paul explicitly denies that he intends to be advocating a communitarian "third way" between capitalism and communism, it is clear that a social system in which progress was "measured and oriented to . . . man seen in his totality" rather than to man seen merely as an acquiring animal would look very different from America in the year 2000. And indeed, the pope’s recent encyclicals do contain a series of public policy proposals designed to inject a large dose of morality and communal spirit into capitalist societies. As with so many of his ideas, these proposals cut across traditional party lines in the United States. Just as many of the policies he advocates would delight the most leftward members of the U.S. House of Representatives, the arguments he uses to justify them are reminiscent of the views associated with the religious right. He has, in other words, a number of important affinities with the distinguished tradition of Christian (and especially Catholic) socialism.
Unlike many American conservatives, for whom moral decline and the growth of government are mutually reinforcing forms of corruption, the pope’s answer to spiritual decay is not less government, but more of it. The first step in cutting through the materialism that infests our society is to show that, contrary to what John Locke and his libertarian admirers would have us believe, the right to private property, though an important component of freedom, is not inviolable. "The possession of material goods is not an absolute right," he claims, "and . . . its limits are inscribed in its very nature as a human right." It is essential, as he puts it in Laborem Exercens (On Human Work) that we come to conceive of our right to private property "within the broader context of the right common to all to use the goods of the whole of creation: the right to private property is subordinated to the right to common use, to the fact that goods are meant for everyone."
Once we begin to accept that we are not morally entitled to take everything we can for ourselves, we will, he thinks, see the justice of providing substantially for the less fortunate members of the human community. From the "right to life and subsistence," John Paul derives a duty of the government to provide unemployment benefits, set a livable minimum wage, and ensure that health care is available to all and that workers are compensated for injuries incurred on the job. The workplace must be regulated to ensure the safety of employees, just as the "right to a pension and to insurance for old age" should be recognized by the state. The "right to rest" implies that workers ought to be given at least one weekly day of rest as well as a yearly vacation. Moreover, the pope would have the government provide "family wage" subsidies to enable women to stay at home to raise children if they choose. And, lest anyone feel excluded from the community, provisions must be made to help the disabled to find work that is suited to them.
In short, all the tasks of the contemporary welfare state — and some as yet only dreams in the minds of its greatest advocates — receive a moral endorsement from the Roman pontiff. Reading his writings would thus be a bracing experience for an American conservative, were it not for an important qualification in John Paul’s political theory. Recognizing that "the social nature of man is not completely fulfilled in the state," the pope makes an argument that has been popularized in the United States by such figures as Novak and Father Richard John Neuhaus — namely, that social programs are most effective when they are instituted and administered by "intermediary groups" in civil society rather than the state. To be sure, the government must intervene directly on the behalf of the disadvantaged by "defending the weakest, by placing certain limits on the autonomy of the parties who determine working conditions, and by ensuring in every case the necessary minimum support for the unemployed worker." But its indirect role is even more crucial. In keeping with what the pope calls the "principle of subsidiarity," the government must create the conditions in which sub-political institutions will be encouraged to contribute to realizing the common good. Rather than taking over the role played by private charities, churches, families, local governments, and other intermediate institutions, the state should nurture "the internal life" of the larger community while "support[ing] it in case of need and help[ing] to coordinate its activity." On closer inspection, then, John Paul’s political proposals arguably place him closer to the "compassionate conservatism" of Marvin Olasky than to the bureaucratic paternalism of Eurosocialism.
Means and ends
Still, one wonders if "subsidiarity" is enough to solve the problems that plague us. John Paul is certainly right to emphasize that free societies can only hope to achieve the right balance of economic dynamism and communal solidarity when all of their citizens, and especially those who toil in poverty, come to see "work as a duty." And yet, he has very little to say about how the poor in his ideal state — bestowed as they are with generous public and private benefits — will be brought around to this view of the world. At times, he writes as if the spiritual benefits of labor are so obvious that the poor will embrace work as soon as it is made available to them. But surely this is naïve. If the recent history of American public policy has shown anything, it is that the state can and must sometimes act in a way that falls somewhat short of Christian charity in order to elicit the behavior the pope would have us believe arises spontaneously.
This is not to say that John Paul is unaware of the role the state can play in altering human conduct. He realizes, for instance, that the bureaucratic apparatus of the government can produce "passivity, dependence, and submission," and in the worst cases even destroy "the spirit of initiative, that is to say the creative subjectivity of the citizen." But he nonetheless hesitates to draw the right public policy implications from his insight: that the best of intentions can produce social pathologies in the poor that can only be remedied by refusing to coddle them.
That the pope refuses to entertain the possibility that the individual as well as collective good can sometimes be brought about by means that, viewed in isolation, appear to be morally suspect is a sign of a larger problem in his political thought. Let’s call it a lack of appreciation for the role of moral ambivalence in politics. Although the impulse to avoid Machiavellianism — the view that the end justifies the means — is a decent one, it is easy to take this aversion too far, to blind oneself to the fact that Machiavellian considerations aren’t always altogether evil. When, for example, they alert us to the harsh fact that being a force for good in the world occasionally requires a willingness to transgress the bounds of ordinary decency, Machiavellian insights can actually contribute to realizing that good. The ends don’t always justify the means, but they sometimes do.
Nowhere are the problematic consequences of John Paul’s refusal to accept this fact more apparent than in his comments on foreign affairs. Embracing a view that comes perilously close to pacifism, he condemns virtually all uses of military force, including the "tragic war in the Persian Gulf." Going further, he also denounces the "insane arms race" that was precipitated by the Cold War, thereby refusing to acknowledge the role it played in bringing down the Soviet Union. And as for those nations that have "an unacceptably exaggerated concern for security," the pope has nothing but contempt, since, in his view, they are the primary obstacle to bringing about a situation in which all the nations of the world are "united [in] cooperation . . . for the common good of the human race."
The problem with these views is not that they are based on a faulty assessment of the character of warfare. After all, who among us would deny that war is an evil — that, especially in the modern age, it "destroys the lives of innocent people, teaches how to kill, throws into upheaval even the lives of those who do the killing and leaves behind a trail of resentment and hatred"? But, at the same time, we are also entitled to ask if it is really true that warfare always "makes it more difficult to find a just solution of the very problems which provoked the war [in the first place]." History — and above all the bloody history of the twentieth century — proves otherwise.
It is a sad fact — but a fact nevertheless — that from time to time war is necessary, and that it can even further the cause of justice every once in a while, despite the orphans and widows it leaves in its wake. In proposing a political theory that fails to take account of this aspect of political life, the pope ends up in the same moral quandary as Kofi Annan, who advocates "humanitarian intervention" in the atrocities of the world while lacking the resources and the resolve to take brutal and decisive action — the only things that could make a real difference.
John Paul’s view can hardly be said to lack foundation. Here, however, his philosophy and his religious faith collide, and where other religious thinkers have sought to distinguish between just and unjust wars, John Paul chooses to defer to the straightforward meaning of Jesus’s words. As a statement of absolute moral purity, for instance, the Sermon on the Mount is unrivaled; it thus justly commands our respect and admiration. But as a proposal for political practice, it is a recipe for disaster. We might very well be moved by hearing that we ought to "love our enemies," but what if our enemy is Hitler, or Stalin, or Mao, or the Khmer Rouge, or machete wielding thugs in Somalia or Sierra Leone? What if "turning the other cheek" means allowing evil to triumph in the world and the cause of human decency to be vanquished? What if acting as submissively as the "lilies of the field" leads to the victory of intolerant ideologies that would brutally stamp out freedom, as it surely would have if the West had laid down its arms in 1939, 1945, 1962, or 1981? The craving for consistency might lead us to think that "no man can serve two masters" — both "God and mammon" — but is it not our fate in this life to have to do just that?
In following Christ’s most stringent teachings to the letter, John Paul ends up espousing a view that apparently would require him, as well as all truly righteous Christians, to resist some future tyrant seeking to wipe Christianity from the face of the Earth with no more than prayer and passive resistance. One wonders if this would be sufficient. The historical record suggests it would not.
None of these concerns should be taken as reason to call into question the overall depth and profundity of John Paul’s intellectual contribution to our times. Like all genuine philosophers, his arguments and ideas are worth more as catalysts for independent thinking than as frozen and flawless creeds that must be swallowed whole or not at all. But John Paul’s work is important for more than just the views he articulates on this or that subject. In an age when original, comprehensive reflection on the human condition and the political situation of mankind has all but died out, the pope’s voluminous writings are also a reminder of the greatness of which the human mind is capable when it sets itself to the task of understanding. For this as well as the considerable wisdom contained in those writings, Pope John Paul II deserves to be judged among the most remarkable minds of the twentieth century.