Pope John Paul II and the Dignity of the Human Being

By Coughlin, John J. | Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

Pope John Paul II and the Dignity of the Human Being


Coughlin, John J., Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy


Since his election in 1978 as the Successor to the Apostle Peter, His Holiness Pope John Paul II has remained one of the principal protagonists on the global stage for the dignity and value of every human being. (1) Although the popular press and media sometimes have been slow to recognize this message, an online search of the Holy Father's copious encyclicals, addresses, and homilies reveals that he has advocated human dignity literally hundreds of times during the course of his twenty-five year pontificate. (2) In fact, long before his election as Pope, Karol Wojtyla was developing his understanding of the dignity of the human person in his philosophical and theological writings. (3) In a 1968 letter to the French theologian Henri de Lubac, Wojtyla wrote

   The evil of our times consists in the first place in a kind of
   degradation, indeed in a pulverization, of the fundamental
   uniqueness of each human person. This evil is even much more of
   the metaphysical order than of the moral order. To this
   disintegration, planned at times by atheistic ideologies, we must
   oppose, rather than sterile polemics, a kind of "recapitulation" of
   the inviolable mystery of the person.... (4)

The belief that each human being possesses a metaphysical value simply in the fact of his or her existence remains at the root of John Paul II's indefatigable defense of human dignity. In this brief essay, my purpose is not to afford a comprehensive presentation and critique of the philosophical and theological foundations of human dignity, but rather to highlight certain features of John Paul II's thinking that raise questions about disturbing trends in the law.

I.

The philosophical foundation for John Paul II's defense of the dignity of the human being begins with two ancient truths. First, it posits the universality of one human nature that transcends the limits of history and culture. One must admit that, historically, the idea of the universality of human nature has stemmed from Aristotelian cosmology, which mistakenly understood the universe as fixed and immutable. (5) Because he desires a philosophical approach consistent with the modern scientific method, John Paul II attempts to retrieve essential aspects of the tradition through the adoption of a radical realism and the human capacity to know it. His philosophical method requires a turn to the human subject and a phenomenological analysis of the somatic, emotional, intellectual, and moral dimensions of human experience. (6) Nonetheless, he refuses to embrace a skepticism that denies the possibilities for the apprehension of truth in the human intellect. Rather, John Paul II's reflection on experience leads to his affirmation of a universal human nature and permanent natural law contained within the human person. (7) In his view, the dignity of the human person, human rights language, and an objective moral order all depend on the universality of human nature. (8)

Second, John Paul II accepts the classical metaphysical view, which understands the human person as characterized by the intellect and free will. (9) In accordance with the modern starting point, John Paul II believes that reflection on human experience reveals the human being as a dynamic and irreducible unity of body and spirit. (10) The intellect signifies the interior consciousness of the human being in which the multi-faceted interplay of somatic, emotional, reasoned, aesthetic, and spiritual awareness form the concept of self in relation to others and to the world. (11) Free will means that the human being may pursue goals identified in the intellect to constitute oneself through action. (12) The interrelatedness of the intellectual and intentional faculties enables the human being to constitute oneself in accordance with the understanding of value recognized through the intellect and appropriated through the intentional act of the will. In Pope John Paul II's understanding, each human person remains "a remarkable psychophysical unity, each one a unique person, never again to be repeated in the entire universe.

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