John Paul II and Max Scheler on the Meaning of Suffering

By Colosi, Peter J. | Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture, Summer 2009 | Go to article overview

John Paul II and Max Scheler on the Meaning of Suffering


Colosi, Peter J., Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture


I. Introduction

DURING HIS WEDNESDAY AUDIENCE at the end of Lent in the year 2001, Pope John Paul II said: "At the heart of this sacred Triduum is the mystery of an unbounded love, namely, the mystery of Christ who, 'having loved his own who were in the world, loved them to the end.'" (1) One could, from a purely philosophical point of view, ponder what the meaning of "loving to the end" might be. And perhaps, straight away, two meanings emerge:

First: "Loving to the end" could mean that all the while Christ was suffering, he didn't let it get the better of him, and simultaneously with that suffering, he never stopped loving. Second: "Loving to the end" could mean that Christ kept suffering right up to his death because if he had stopped suffering so intensely that would have meant precisely to stop loving so intensely also.

The first meaning indicates that two things were happening simultaneously to and in Christ during those last seventy-two hours of his life, namely, an intense suffering and an intense love. We might find it surprising that a person could continue to love while being tortured, and we might admire the strength of such a person. But in this first possible interpretation of the phrase "He loved them to the end," there is no expression of an intrinsic link between suffering and love, only an astonishment that someone could suffer and love at the same time.

With the second interpretation of the phrase "He loved them to the end," however, an inextricable link between suffering and love is expressed, almost like a mountain and a valley, such that if the suffering were to vanish, so necessarily would the love--perhaps not all of the love, but a certain intensity and fullness of it would be lost. This second understanding of the meaning of the Crucifixion and death of Christ is one that perplexes many people. The most radically perplexed end up concluding that Christianity, with its intrinsic connecting of love and joy to suffering, is at best nonsense, and at worst masochism.

John Paul had a profound grasp of the inner link between suffering and love, and I believe that the depth with which he penetrated this mystery was greatly facilitated by the depth with which he absorbed Max Scheler's notion of "the innermost union of suffering and love in Christian doctrine." (2)

II. The Relation between the Work of Scheler and Karol Wojtyla/Pope John Paul II

Karol Wojtyla deeply absorbed the thought of Max Scheler (3) during the time he devoted to phenomenology when preparing his Habilitationsschrift. (4) And, when one author deeply absorbs another, the influence is lasting and can be detected in many ways. Scheler and John Paul have both written profound texts exploring the meaning of suffering, and the purpose of this article is to show, through a textual comparison, the influence of Scheler on John Paul by revealing the similarity of their positions on the topic. I will also thematize some of the more difficult questions concerning suffering that captured the imagination of both authors.

III. Three Foundational Questions Concerning Suffering

Three foundational questions concerning suffering can be posed:

  1. What is the origin of suffering? (5)

  2. What is the metaphysical status of suffering? (6)

  3. Given the reality of suffering, what is its inner meaning, how
  does it relate to the other aspects of our lives, and what should
  our response to it be? (7)

Although both authors touch on the first two questions in the texts we will examine, they are predominantly concerned with answering the third, and they give strikingly similar answers. One foundational idea in John Paul's Salvifici doloris is that the reason for suffering in the world is to "unleash love." This is also the foundational idea concerning this question for Scheler. Both also express the vivid difference between the Christian approach to suffering and prominent non-Christian (philosophical and religious) approaches.

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