restricted access The Enduring Relevance of Karol Wojtyła’s Philosophy
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The Enduring Relevance of Karol Wojtyła’s Philosophy

Thanks to his pioneering work in the theology of the body, St. John Paul II has already earned a place of distinction among twentieth- century theologians. In Fergus Kerr’s popular book on prominent theologians of that century, Karol Wojtyła is singled out along with Karl Rahner, Henri DeLubac, and Yves Congar for his notable contribution to theological discourse. According to Kerr, encyclicals such as Ut Unum Sint have "immense significance for ecumenism and ecclesiology."1 But what about the Pope’s philosophical works? Does the philosophy of Karol Wojtyła have relevance and resonance for modern philosophers? What precisely is Wojtyła’s philosophical legacy?

It is unlikely that the substantive content of Wojtyła’s complex thought will find its way into the currents of contemporary philosophy, which is largely analytical and postmodern, and typically hostile to any form of Thomism. Nonetheless, a persuasive case can be put forth that Wojtyła’s ingenious philosophy represents a substantial contribution to the phenomenological movement and also to twentieth-century Catholic philosophy, which stands out for its commitment to relational ontology and personalism along with its [End Page 17] efforts to revitalize natural law doctrine. Wojtyła’s Thomistic personalism unfolds in meditations that pose the anthropological problem on a different level in terms of the intimate correlation between person and action. At the center of his philosophical system is the issue of personal freedom and the correlative notion of authenticity. Arguably, few philosophers of the last century have given us a comparable analysis of the nature of freedom and its intrinsic relationship to truth. Wojtyła’s philosophy of freedom remains faithful to Thomism, but goes beyond Thomism by carefully exploring the subjective, lived experience of freedom. Like Aquinas, he locates the ontological ground of freedom in necessity, but he does so without explicitly linking his arguments to an Infinite Being, as he seeks to provide a conception of freedom that even nonbelievers might be persuaded to accept. As a result, through the lens of phenomenology, we get a fresh insight into human freedom that grounds all responsibility. Wojtyła also surpasses the metaphysical categories of Aquinas by linking the moral subject’s authenticity with moral realism. Wojtyła takes seriously the moral ideal of authenticity whereby the moral subject remains true to himself, but he argues that this ideal must be centered not on the self-absorbed individual but on the truth about the good.

Karol Wojtyła’s philosophical prose is dense and sometimes prolix. However, we should read his philosophy not only because it helps us to better comprehend his later writings as Pope John Paul II, but because it enlightens us about what it means to be a free human person, an innately social being, who thrives by living and working in communion with others. Wojtyła’s philosophy can be construed as a revival of a metaphysically grounded anthropology enriched by phenomenological realism. A cohesive anthropology constitutes the necessary foundation for engaging in ethical inquiry. Wojtyła not only rejects Levinas’s "ethics without ontology," he also insists that there cannot be "ethics without anthropology." Wojtyła’s nuanced conception of the embodied person creates a proper framework to satisfactorily address many of the issues in sexual morality that have been [End Page 18] mishandled by some theologians who have enthusiastically endorsed different versions of anthropological dualism.

It is instructive to review in concise form the particular themes in Wojtyła’s philosophical writings that should earn him a place of esteem among his fellow philosophers and are especially relevant for stimulating philosophical reflection today. We begin by considering how the saint’s philosophical synthesis can serve as a model for Catholic philosophers seeking to integrate the Thomist tradition with contemporary thought. We then examine Wojtyła’s theory of action anchored in the exercise of causal power, his nuanced conception of freedom and its dependence on truth, and, finally, his social philosophy, which deftly elaborates the proper relationship between the person and community. The centerpiece of Wojtyła’s entire philosophical achievement is the theory of freedom that is...