by John F. Crosby
Cardinal Newman once said, surveying the history of the Church, that the popes have usually not taken the initiative in theological inquiry—that it has usually been others who have given the impetus for doctrinal development. The genius of the Church of Rome shows itself mainly in a negative way, namely by critically testing what others propose. Though Newman was able to produce much historical evidence in support of this generalization, he would have surely admitted that the pontificate of John Paul II represents a great exception. He would have seen in John Paul a pope who has taken the initiative in theological and philosophical inquiry: one who has rethought traditional teachings with great originality, and broken much new ground with his Christian personalism.
John Paul leads the Church, not only as the guardian of the deposit of the faith, but also as one who has inspired some of the most fruitful developments in the understanding of the faith. This rare dimension of papal leadership is nowhere so clearly in evidence as in John Paul’s teaching on man and woman. Here we have one of the richest legacies of his pontificate.
And yet this is a legacy that is not easy to understand fully. On the one hand, the critics of John Paul denounce him as an obstinate old man who only knows how to say no; they think that in all sexual and marital matters he is only holding the line in a rigid and pastorally insensitive way. They are completely innocent of the originality of his personalist vision of man and woman. On the other hand, the friends and supporters of John Paul—while they do indeed listen respectfully to him and notice the boldness of his teaching on man and woman—are often taken aback and in some cases even slightly scandalized, as they were when John Paul announced his commitment a few years ago to a "new feminism." The hostile critics need to be challenged to listen to the Pope, and his supporters need to be helped in understanding him. In this essay I hope to offer something of the needed challenge to the one group as well as something of the needed help to the other.
Karol Wojtyla has had a special affinity for the love between man and woman from the very first days of his priestly ministry. In his Crossing the Threshold of Hope, he writes:
As a young priest I learned to love human love [that is, the love between man and woman]. This has been one of the fundamental themes of my priesthood. . . . If one loves human love, there naturally arises the need to commit oneself completely to the service of "fair love," because love is fair, it is beautiful.And the young Father Wojtyla not only possessed this special affinity for the love between man and woman; early on he also showed an unusual ability to reflect on man and woman and the love between them. His first book, Love and Responsibility, born of his pastoral experience with young couples, is a deep and original study of "fair love." As bishop of Krakow he set up an institute for marriage and family, as he did later in Rome in the first years of his pontificate. He had hardly been elected pope when he began his famous five-year cycle of Wednesday addresses on man and woman. While he himself was personally called to the celibate life of a priest, which required the sacrifice of renouncing "fair love" in his own life for the sake of the kingdom of God, he was given a rare gift for understanding this love and even for becoming a kind of prophet of it.
The personalism of John Paul II
Personalism is the only possible point of departure for understanding his thought on man and woman. His personalism underlies and informs all his teaching on "fair love," as it underlies and informs all the other areas of his teaching. When John Paul speaks of the "anthropological basis" for his teachings, he is referring to this underlying personalism. Much that seems puzzling in John Paul’s teaching on man and woman becomes intelligible as soon as it is traced back to its personalist foundations.
His own way of introducing his personalism is to quote the following sentence from the Vatican Council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, 24: although man is "the only creature on earth that God has wanted for its own sake," it is nevertheless true that man "can fully discover his true self only in a sincere giving of himself." This passage expresses a fundamental polarity of self-possession and self-donation in the makeup of the human person.
On the one hand, God wills each human being for his own sake—which means that God recognizes each human person as a being of his own, existing in self-possession, as one who cannot exist as a mere part of some whole, or as a mere instrumental means of achieving some result. This is why God would never use persons in a merely instrumental way, as we can see from the way in which he appeals to and respects our freedom. When we respect each other as persons, giving each other the "space" in which each can be his own end, and abstaining from all "using" in our relations to each other, then, the Pope says, we share in God’s vision of human persons.
On the other hand, each human person is made for self-donation, for communion with other persons; this is why he can only find himself by making a sincere gift of himself. We are not only beings of our own, belonging to ourselves, as if we were in the end completely closed in upon ourselves, but we are also beings for others, made to exist not only with but for others, as John Paul puts it. Since God exists as a community of three divine persons, he cannot create an image of himself in a person who can thrive in solitude; he can only create persons who thrive living in the communion of love with one another.
John Paul adds that there is a genuine polarity here: the self-possession of persons does not interfere with their vocation to interpersonal communion, but rather makes it possible. If persons did not belong to themselves, then their union would be sub-personal. Persons are empowered precisely by their self-possession to enter into communion with others. Not only that, but they are never so much themselves as beings of their own as when they share their lives by self-donation.
Equality of man and woman
Now that I have introduced John Paul’s personalism, I can proceed to introduce his teaching on man and woman. I begin with the equality of man and woman as persons, which follows directly from his personalism. Aristotle and the Aristotelian tradition in philosophy had denied this equality, teaching that the standard case of a human being was the man, and that the woman was a "deformed male." Aristotle explained himself in terms of his metaphysics of matter and form, saying that at the conception of a man, form dominates matter in the right way, whereas when matter interferes with the due dominance of form the deficient result is the conception of a woman.
John Paul disagrees with Aristotle, not only because he knows more about the biology of conception than Aristotle could have known, but above all because he thinks of man and woman in terms of a category unknown to Aristotle: the category of the person. He says that man and woman are both equally persons; the formula of the person used by the Second Vatican Council, which brings together self-possession and self-donation, applies no less to woman than to man. In fact, John Paul has gone so far in this direction as to say that the relation of man and woman in marriage is one of "mutual submission." He has even raised some eyebrows among his supporters by speaking not only of a submission performed by the wife towards her husband, but rather of a mutual submission of husband and wife to each other.
Some critics charge that John Paul has betrayed the equality of man and woman by solemnly teaching that the Church has no authorization to ordain women to the priesthood. He responds that the reservation of the priesthood for men is in no way based on any supposed superiority of man over woman, as in Aristotle. We have here a diversity of roles, which does not imply an inequality of personhood. The fact that God entrusts the conceiving, gestating, and nurturing of a new human being to women rather than to men does not imply that men are inferior as persons. And so if he chooses to entrust a certain sacerdotal function to man rather than to woman, he does not thereby cast woman into a position of inferiority.
This truth about the equality of man and woman has to be balanced by the truth about the complementarity of man and woman. The very principle of their equality, namely their personhood, is decisively modified by their gender, so that we have masculine and feminine persons. Each gender has its own "genius." As a result, man and woman, for all their equality, are called to complete each other in a unique kind of unity. Nothing could be farther from the mind of John Paul than to affirm equality at the expense of this difference and the complementarity that is based on it. (We return below to this theme of complementarity.)
Respecting man and woman as persons
Let us now apply to man and woman the first part of the conciliar statement about the polar structure of the person: the idea that each person exists in a sense for his own sake and is therefore willed by God for his own sake. What violates this "selfhood" of the person is any and every instrumental attempt to "use" a person. Thus whenever John Paul asks whether this or that form of man-woman relation involves any using of the one by the other, he is basing his argument on this article of his personalism.
One may recall the firestorm of ridicule leveled at John Paul in the international press in 1980 when he said in an address that the "adultery in the heart" condemned by Christ can be committed even within marriage. From the point of view of his personalism this is so obvious as to be hardly worth mentioning. The fact that a man and a woman are married to each other is no guarantee at all that in their marital intimacy the one will not use the other as a mere object of gratification. If one does use his spouse in this way, he violates her as a person; if their using is mutual then they violate each other. The fact that they are married, and even open to the procreation of children, does not necessarily make this violation impossible. Sexual intimacy is not personalized until in and through it each person affirms and loves the other for his own sake.
This much-reviled address of John Paul is closely akin to his personalist rethinking of the old idea that one of the purposes of marriage is the remedium concupiscentiae, or the relief of concupiscence. This phrase was all too often interpreted to suggest that marriage provides the only setting in which selfish sexual concupiscence can be "legally" lived out, or burned off and in some way "relieved." It is not too much to say that John Paul abhors any such interpretation. Given his personalism, he cannot abide the idea that marriage exists in part to legalize lust. The true "relief of concupiscence," he says, is something altogether different. It is a work of love whereby the sexual energy of a man or woman is deprived of its selfish sting and made to express and serve spousal love. Only in this way is sexual love personalized, formed in such a way that man and woman do not sin against the respect due to each other as persons.
I could offer many other examples of John Paul explaining in this personalist way the rights and wrongs of sexual behavior. But instead I would like to consider the other part of the conciliar definition of the human person: the part dealing with our vocation to self-donation.
John Paul thinks that the call to self-donation is in scribed in our very being by the fact that we are divided into man and woman. There is a complementarity of man and woman that predestines them to a unique kind of love: spousal or conjugal love. In fact, the man-woman difference is for John Paul so intimately connected with the capacity of each human being to love, that he is led to make a bold theological move. He sees the image of the triune God in the man-woman difference. Previously theologians had looked for this image in the soul of each individual human being, commonly following St. Augustine in looking at various triads within each individual soul. It is an entirely new idea to look for the image of God in interpersonal relation, and not just in the most spiritual forms of interpersonal relation, but in the man-woman relation. As far as I know, no pope before John Paul ever spoke of the image of God in this way: "Man becomes the image of God not so much in the moment of solitude as in the moment of communion"—and especially in the communion based on the complementarity of man and woman.
The human body and pagan detractors
When I cited the Council as teaching that each human person—while being his own—is called to self-donation, I made no mention of the human body. Now in the personalism of John Paul it is vitally important to understand and to affirm the embodiment of each person. In his view the modern world is not only afflicted by a materialism that reduces man to the body, recognizing nothing else in man but the body; it is also afflicted by a certain aversion to the body—John Paul speaks of a widespread "neo-Manichaean culture"—that conceives of persons as estranged from their bodies, and merely using their bodies in an instrumental way. This may be a new idea for many Christians, who perhaps take it for granted that the only real enemy is materialism, but in his great encyclical on moral theology, Veritatis Splendor, John Paul traces much of the disorder in present-day moral theology back to the failure to do justice to the embodiment of persons.
Too many of our contemporaries think of the body as raw material available for instrumental use and manipulation by persons. They think that man is at liberty to impose on the body, or abolish from it, whatever meaning he wants. One can see what results when they apply this disparagement of the body to our subject of man and woman. They can think of the gender difference only as an evolutionary product which just happened to come out as it did; compared with the fact that all human beings are persons, the gender difference sinks to the level of the accidental. Man and woman are properly studied in an empirical way by the natural and social sciences, they believe, so that all that can be known about man and woman is of a neutral, factual nature; there is no metaphysical nature expressed in man and woman, nor any intrinsic value. We persons can make of man and woman whatever we like; we can take the physical givens of male and female and can construct masculine and feminine any way we like.
While no Catholic teacher could accept such an account of man and woman, John Paul is distinguished by the depth at which he has overcome it and by the originality with which he has unfolded the truth: that our personhood is embodied, and embodied as man and woman, so that all kinds of personal meanings are inscribed in our sexuality. He has given a personalist rereading of the truth that the body is not just something physical but something sacramental—a sign, an expression of the person—and that from the beginning the body in all its masculinity and femininity participates in the life of the person. Indeed the body is a dimension of the being of each human person. With this I come to the heart of my essay.
John Paul’s theology of the body
In his rich "theology of the body," presented in the first years of his pontificate (although the material was written before his election), John Paul unfolds the idea that the vocation of persons to self-donation, as discussed above, is expressed in the bodies of man and of woman. The truth that it is not good for us to be alone—that we can find ourselves only through a sincere gift of ourselves—has its fundamental bodily expression in our existing as man and woman, and in fact cannot really be understood apart from the difference and complementarity of the sexes. It is as man and woman that we are first raised out of our solitude, and ordered one to another, and called to self-donation. The capacity of the masculine body and of the feminine body to serve self-donation is called by John Paul the "nuptial meaning" of the human body. This is a concept that stands at the center of his theology of the body. Through this nuptial meaning the body is more than biological, more than an object of biological science; it is rather inserted with all its maleness and femaleness into the life of the person and so made to be something as truly personal as it is biological.
It follows that John Paul’s approach to the image of God in man is even more original than we have indicated above. Traditionally one not only looked for this image in each individual person, but in the soul or spirit of each; John Paul finds it not only in interpersonal communion, but also in the bodily masculinity and femininity of men and women. Even the human body images the triune God, and does so through its nuptial meaning. Only a God who exists as a communion of divine persons would create embodied persons who are turned toward each other as man and woman.
John Paul unfolds the self-donation for which man and woman are made by the masculinity and femininity of their bodies. He says that this love, which he calls spousal or conjugal love, is distinguished from all other human love, including even maternal love, by the gesture of self-surrender that belongs to it. In spousal love self-donation takes the form of self-surrender—that is, of abandoning oneself in love to the other and willing to make oneself belong to the other. Hence spousal love is exclusive; there is no room in the human heart for living this self-surrender toward more than one person at the same time. The nuptial meaning of the body stands in the service of this mutual self-surrender. It also stands in the service of non-spousal love, according to John Paul, conditioning as it does all interpersonal communion; but in a unique way it serves spousal love. This is why we can say, in arguing against the Manichaean personalism mentioned above, that the body is not something merely biological, merely factual and value-free; it is also made for personal love. Its spousal meaning has not been constructed by us, but has been established by God at the creation of man and woman.
With this recognition we are led to the sexual intimacy of man and woman. It is in their sexual intimacy that they live and enact, in an incomparable way, their spousal self-surrender. Indeed one can hardly understand just what this self-surrender is without referring to the sexual union of man and woman. It is not that spousal self-surrender is nothing more than its sexual enactment; it is rather that this self-surrender, in itself something properly personal, finds an irreplaceable expression when man and woman be come one flesh. Anyone who abstracts from the bodily being of man and woman and from their bodily union is in no position adequately to understand what spousal self-surrender is, so intimately do the bodily and the spiritual, the biological and the personal, interpenetrate here.
Notice that John Paul speaks here of a meaning of the marital act that is altogether distinct from procreation. For centuries Catholic teachers explained the meaning of the marital act almost exclusively in terms of procreation; only in this century did they begin to explain it in terms of the enactment of spousal love as well. Pope Pius XII was, as far as I can determine, the first pope who strongly affirmed the love dimension, or as Paul VI called it, the unitive dimension, of the marital act. John Paul has gone well beyond his great predecessors in explaining how this dimension is grounded in the nuptial meaning of the body. Of course, John Paul also rethinks the procreative meaning of the marital act in his theology of the body, as we shall soon have occasion to note.
John Paul has not only explored the nuptial meaning of the body, but also, and with great realism, the way in which this meaning gets lost in man-woman relations. As a result of the fall, the body can so thoroughly obscure the person that it becomes an impediment to interpersonal communion. With extraordinary depth and originality John Paul analyzes the way in which a man looks lustfully at a woman, seeing her body without experiencing its nuptial meaning and without seeing the feminine person who should be revealed in it. The body of the woman ceases to be expressive of that woman as person and so ceases to invite the man to self-donation. In this lustful perception, men see women—and in an analogous way women see men—as an object of selfish consumption rather than as a person to be loved; their look violates the personal selfhood of the other and ignores the fact that each other person is "an enclosed garden," and "a fountain sealed"—to use a pair of expressions taken by John Paul from the Song of Songs, 4:12, and applied to men and women as persons.
Inspired by Max Scheler’s study of shame, John Paul goes on to show that there is a noble sexual shame which is a kind of "personalist instinct," whereby women protect themselves from the lustful concupiscent look of men. His idea is that when a woman realizes that she is an object of male lust, she naturally tries to subdue all that could be sexually provocative about her appearance—not because she fears or despises her sexuality, but because she wants to defuse the male concupiscence which she feels threatening her. The same woman who knows how to feel this sexual shame, will have no such reserve about revealing herself to the man who loves her, for she can trust him to look at her so as to see her as person. Of course, the man can also feel shame in this way, but for obvious reasons John Paul gives particular attention to the shame felt by the woman.
In order to retrieve the nuptial meaning of the body for fallen, concupiscent men and women, John Paul in his theology of the body goes back "to the beginning," back to man and woman as they lived their bodily being before the fall. This leads him to his profound analyses of the "original innocence" and the "original nakedness" of man and woman. He says that the first man and woman did not experience any shame in their nakedness because each could see in the body of the other another person, and because the attraction of masculinity and femininity stood completely in the service of love. It is not merely that they mastered this attraction by strong self-control and made a right use of it by their will; this would express for John Paul an unduly extrinsic dominion of soul over body. Rather, the person dwelt so intimately in the body that the body expressed to the other nothing but the worth and splendor of the person; bodily sexuality was completely absorbed in the energy of spousal love. But with the sin of our first parents a rupture appeared in the body-soul unity; the body now acquired the capacity to obscure the person as well as to reveal him; it could now awaken the selfish desire to consume as well as the desire to give oneself in spousal love; the freedom of original nakedness gave way to the anxiety of feeling shame.
The "redemption of the body," about which John Paul has much to say in his theology of the body, refers to the restoration of the lost integrity of our being. It refers to the re-integration of bodily sexuality and personhood, to the radical "personalization" of masculinity and femininity. The redemption of the body, although it will be consummated in eternity, begins already now in time. Man and woman as they existed in the beginning, and as they will exist in the end, constitute a fundamental norm for men and women now living on earth.
John Paul gives much thought to the eschatological aspects of the theology of the body. In reflecting on the fact that there will be no marriage in the world to come, he asks whether the masculinity and femininity of the body will also be abolished. He answers that it will not; the glorified human bodies will retain their masculinity and femininity and they will retain their nuptial meaning, even if this meaning will not be lived out in the form of marriage. And here we have one of the keys to John Paul’s thought on consecrated virginity. He affirms emphatically that the consecrated virgin does not turn away from his or her body with all its nuptial meaning. The renunciation of marriage does not lead to a "neutering" of human beings, for the masculinity and femininity of the body, and its nuptial meaning, are more fundamental than marriage, and can serve love in other than marital ways. If space permitted I might illustrate this with reference to John Paul himself; we could explore the very convincing fatherhood that he radiates.
Studying the person through personal subjectivity
In explaining the nuptial meaning of the body and other aspects of man and woman, John Paul is constantly speaking of the "subjectivity" of persons. I doubt that any previous pope ever spoke of "subjectivity." With this John Paul is referring to the self-experience of persons. But you may ask, why does he make this turn towards self-experience? Why should he make concessions to the culture of experience, when the task before us is to restore a sense of objective reality, as he has himself stressed in the encyclical, Fides et Ratio? We have to answer these questions if we are to understand the thought of John Paul regarding man and woman.
In one of his pre-papal studies Karol Wojtyla distinguishes between what he calls a predominantly cosmological understanding of man and a predominantly personalist understanding. In the former, man is considered from the outside; one stresses the analogies between man and subhuman beings, and tries to understand man in terms of categories that are taken from nature and comprise man along with all kinds of other beings. In the personalist approach, by contrast, one takes man as irreducible to all other beings and explores his identity through those categories that are appropriate precisely to man but not to other beings. Now John Paul teaches that in order to get at that which distinguishes man from everything else—and this is, of course, for him the personhood of man—one must stop looking at man from without and consider how he reveals himself to us from within—how he lives his own being from his own inner center. But this means that we adequately understand man as person only in understanding him in terms of his self-experience, or in other words his interiority.
We can render his thought more concrete by connecting it with our present theme of man and woman. Considered cosmologically the meaning of the marital act is primarily procreation; from this point of view one will be struck by its likeness to subhuman sexual union. Only if we enter into the subjectivity of the marital act do we notice something that has no counterpart in the subhuman animals, namely the enactment of spousal love. This love dimension of the marital act is not a cosmological fact but a personalist fact; it is found in the self-experience of spouses, in their spousal subjectivity, and it reveals the deep personalist significance of the two in one flesh. Even the procreative meaning of the marital act reveals new and specifically personal dimensions of itself when considered from the point of view of spousal subjectivity.
We find John Paul doing this again and again in his teaching on man and woman. He brings out the personal by consulting the evidence of subjectivity and intersubjectivity. Thus in his magnificent commentary on the Genesis accounts of the creation of man and woman, he notices that one of the two accounts in Genesis 2 is more subjective than the other; it explains man and woman, for instance, in terms of the solitude of man before the creation of woman, or in terms of the shame they felt before each other after sinning. John Paul centers his commentary primarily on this subjective account; he finds it more congenial to his personalist reading of man and woman. Or recall his analysis of depersonalized sexuality in terms of a certain kind of lustful looking; John Paul is here exploring the subjectivity of fallen sexuality as it expresses itself in this way of looking.
We see, then, that in turning to personal subjectivity John Paul does not fall into subjectivism, but rather finds an all-important resource for developing his profound Christian personalism.
Contraception and the "new feminism"
I cannot omit mentioning John Paul’s approach to contraception, since he tells us that one main incentive for him in developing the theology of the body was the desire to understand more deeply and to give a more convincing account of the Church’s controverted teaching about the wrong of contraception. John Paul teaches that the consummation of spousal love in the sexual intimacy of the spouses, while in itself distinct from procreation, is intrinsically connected with openness to procreation. The fertility of man and woman is also not merely biological; it too is situated in the realm of their personal love. He proceeds to explain exactly how it is connected with the personal.
The bodily expression of spousal love is so intimately united with possible procreation that whenever the marital act is deliberately sterilized it suffers as an expression of spousal love, and it begins to be replaced with selfish using. The original insight of John Paul is that openness to new life is not only important for the sake of new life, it is also indispensable for the integrity of the spousal self-donation. Critics of the Church’s teaching on contraception typically say that this teaching, when lived, cramps the expression of spousal self-surrender; John Paul responds that this teaching in fact guarantees the personalist character of spousal self-surrender.
Some Catholic teachers have been suspicious of the growing recognition of not one but two meanings of the marital act, fearing that the door is opened to contraception if the marital act has some meaning over and above its procreative meaning. They also say that if we must have two meanings of the marital act, then at the very least the procreative meaning must be clearly ranked above the unitive meaning, and they are very worried that John Paul does not even do this—that he simply speaks of them as two equally fundamental meanings. John Paul responds to their concern by saying that the unitive meaning is so thoroughly interrelated with the procreative meaning that union is compromised if the spouses do not remain open to procreation; spouses have to remain open to new life, not only for the sake of new life itself, but also for the sake of the integrity of their union. This is why his teaching on the unitive meaning of the marital act does not undermine, but rather supports, the Church’s teaching on contraception.
The Holy Father thinks that people have such a hard time understanding this because, being so accustomed to treating the body as raw material that can be instrumentally manipulated for human purposes, they cannot help treating bodily fertility in the same way. If only they can recover a sense of their embodied personhood, and hence of their masculine and feminine personhood, and hence of their paternal and maternal personhood, they will learn to see their fertility in a new personalist light.
Just when his followers thought they had caught up with John Paul and his many original insights into man and woman, he leapt out ahead of them again a few years ago when he announced his commitment to a "new feminism." This important new theme of his teaching should not pass unmentioned in this essay, especially since many women fear that his teaching on contraception undermines the legitimate concerns of a real Christian feminism.
In his feminism the Pope calls attention to and celebrates what he calls "the genius of woman." He ex plains this genius in personalist terms, just as we would expect. He says that woman is gifted with a special sense for the concrete person; she is less inclined than man to think of people in terms of stereotypes or of achievements. By nature woman is more sensitive to the being rather than the having of persons. John Paul makes his own the idea that modern technological civilization is unilaterally masculine and needs nothing so much as the "genius of woman" to protect it from becoming ever more depersonalized.
John Paul thinks that it is the maternal vocation of woman, whereby she can receive a new human being into herself, that disposes her to see the person in others. He says that men need to learn this sensitivity to persons from women. He thinks that all the regions of human life, including the life of the Church, will be vastly enriched when the "genius of woman" makes itself much more strongly felt within them. This is why he encourages women to become more present with their femininity in society and in the Church. Of course, in accordance with the whole Catholic tradition, he reminds women that their contributions to society and the Church should not be made at the expense of their vocation to maternity. Yet he brings something new out of this tradition by saying that the maternal vocation should not be lived at the expense of these contributions. He wants Catholic women to be first of all wives and mothers, but then also to be bearers of the "genius of woman" in the contemporary world.
John Paul has gone so far as to apologize to women for the complicity of many Catholics in the neglect and disparagement of the genius of woman over the centuries. In the great ecclesial self-examination that he has initiated as a preparation for the new millennium, he has found something to repent in the way members of the Church have conducted themselves toward women. He thinks that people in the Church have to be converted from certain patterns of thinking and evaluating, if they are going to do justice to the equality of man and woman and to the genius of woman. He speaks of the immeasurable gain that he expects for the Church from a greater presence of woman with her genius.
We see, then, that the pope’s teaching on contraception has nothing to do with confining women to childbearing and child-rearing, as if they had no other meaningful task.
Now the reader can see for himself why I said at the outset that John Paul has exercised a kind of leadership that the popes have rarely exercised. He has led the people of God in deepening their understanding of man and woman and in bringing to light aspects of man and woman that have not yet received their due. His critics often caricature him as insensitive and inflexible simply because he does not grant them all the sexual license that they want. Too many of them are like ill-mannered children, clamoring for some permission from their parents; they have ears only for the Yes or No and are incapable of hearing anything, however thoughtful, that the parents might be saying in explanation of their No.
If these critics could only bring themselves really to listen to John Paul on man and woman, they would marvel at the freshness and originality of his personalist rereading of sexual and marital morality. They would be astonished at how positive and winning the traditional teachings, reread in John Paul’s personalist vein, can become. They had thought that personalism led away from these teachings; now they have to deal with the challenging fact that in the hands of John Paul personalism leads back to these teachings. The critics of whom I speak, if they were once really to take this Pope seriously, would be forced to admit that he really does understand some of their own deepest concerns and that, as a result of this shared understanding, he convincingly challenges some of their dearest sexual freedoms. They may still not agree with all of his teaching, but they will have to admit that he has done for sexual and marital morality exactly what Vatican II wanted to do for the whole Church: to let her enter into closer relation with the "joy and hope, the grief and anguish of the men and women of our time" (Gaudium et Spes, 1). They may even begin to understand those of us who venerate him as a prophet of the mystery of "fair love."
Dr. John F. Crosby is a professor of philosophy at Franciscan University of Steubenville and author ofThe Selfhood of the Human Person (Catholic University of America Press).