John Paul II and the Law: Some Preliminary Reflections

Article excerpt

At the deepest levels of his self-understanding and sense of vocation, the late Pope John Paul II was a Christian disciple and a pastor of Christ's Church. Precisely as such--as a disciple, a priest, and a bishop--John Paul II exerted what many believe to be the greatest influence on world affairs of any pope since the high Middle Ages.

His pivotal role in the collapse of European communism is now widely acknowledged. In time, his influence in the democratic transitions in Latin America and East Asia will also be recognized (as will another less-heralded contribution, his refusal to give up on Africa at a moment when other world leaders seemed prepared to let that continent fall off the edge of history into the abyss). At two crucial moments in the late twentieth century--in 1979, during a particularly perilous period in the Cold War, and in 1995, as the West was taking a holiday from history while clandestine and malign forces gathered strength--John Paul II stood at the center of what much of the world thinks of as power, the great marble rostrum of the General Assembly of the United Nations, to defend the universality of human rights and the capacity of human reason to grasp the truth of things, including the moral and political truth of things.

By demonstrating that the Gospel without compromise is the true "liberation theology," John Paul II illustrated the vision of the Second Vatican Council's Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, (1) a document which he helped draft. The Council Fathers had proposed that the Church be a culture-forming Communion of Saints that helps bend politics and economics in a more humane direction by speaking truth to power and by forming Christian men and women who can bring the leaven of the Gospel to the affairs of state. Yet his message had an edge. For in the wake of the communist crack-up and the seeming triumph of the democratic idea throughout the world, John Paul II also proved an acute and prescient analyst of the new threats to human freedom that would result from the misunderstanding of freedom as radical personal autonomy, which was (and is) widespread in democracies old and new alike.

It would be an exaggeration to suggest that the Magisterium during John Paul II's reign dealt in detail with the debates that now dominate the complex world of legal theory. Yet John Paul II did have important things to say about public life, politics, the nature of law, the limits of law, and the citizen's relationship to the law. Before noting here some of the key themes in John Paul II's teaching on law, however, it would be well to pause briefly and locate those themes in the broader context of the late Pope's thinking about the free and virtuous society.

History, which may well call the late Pope "John Paul the Great," may also remember Karol Wojtyla as the "Pope of Freedom." Yet the latter appellation, well-deserved as it is, is not quite sufficient, for in John Paul II's mind, freedom and virtue, freedom and truth, were always linked. Thus, the social ideal in John Paul II's view was not simply "the free society," but "the free and virtuous society." (2) Freedom, for John Paul II, could never be understood as a neutral faculty of choice, capable of attaching itself legitimately to any object. Freedom, properly conceived, is always freedom ordered to the truth.

Understood as such, true freedom--truly human freedom--is the capacity to choose freely, and as a matter of moral habit, the objective good: those things that make for genuine human flourishing. Freedom untethered to the truth about the human person can never be freedom-ordered-to-goodness; it can only be freedom-as-autonomy. And that kind of anarchic personal freedom can never be the secure foundation on which to build a free society. For when autonomous selves clash over disputed goods, and there is no transcendent horizon of judgment by which to settle the argument over which option really does lead to true human flourishing, then one of two things happens: either someone's power is going to be imposed on someone else (a condition Pope Benedict XVI describes as "the dictatorship of relativism" (3)), or chaos ensues, followed by the imposition of authoritarian order. …