Ethics & Public Policy Center

The Human Person is Still the Issue

Published in The Catholic Difference on January 19, 2005


George Weigel

Distinguished Senior Fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies


Forty years ago this month, a meeting that would have important consequences for the world Church was convened in Ariccia, just outside Rome. Bishops and lay experts had been called there to hammer out a final draft text for the hot potato of Vatican II: the document that would eventually be called the “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World” or, in its Latin title, Gaudium et Spes [Joy and Hope].

In those days it was known as “Schema XIII,” and it had had a very rocky run through the Council. Its original sponsors, the Belgian Cardinal Suenens and Milan’s Cardinal Montini (who would be elected as Pope Paul VI in 1963), wanted the Council to demonstrate that what the modern world experienced, celebrated, and suffered was also “the joy and hope, the grief and anguish of the followers of Christ” (as Gaudium et Spes finally put it). It sounds unexceptionable today. But the idea that an ecumenical Council should address the political, economic, social, and cultural conditions of the modern world with an appreciative as well as critical eye was thought dangerous nonsense by some Council Fathers.

It didn’t seem nonsense in January 1965 to the newly-appointed Archbishop of Cracow, a Pole named Karol Wojtyla. He joined vigorously in the debates at Ariccia, where his fellow-participants included such theological luminaries as the French Jesuits Jean Danielou and Henri de Lubac and the French Dominican Yves Congar. Congar found in Wojtyla’s personality “a magnetic power, prophetic strength, full of peace and impossible to resist;” still, it was de Lubac with whom Wojtyla struck up an enduring friendship.

Schema XIII was finally approved at the end of the Council’s fourth period, in December 1965, but the argument over “the Church in the modern world” has continued ever since. Some found the document naively optimistic in its appraisal of modern society and culture – a critique they believed vindicated when the West seemed to come apart at the seams in 1968. Others were inclined to think that Gaudium et Spes was being read out of context, and that the Pastoral Constitution had to be understood in light of the Council’s most important theological product, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church. Still other argued that Gaudium et Spes “didn’t go far enough” and should have embraced “progressive” views of sex, economics, ecology, and politics more fervently.

Gaudium et Spes 22 (Christ reveals the truth about our humanity) and Gaudium et Spes 24 (life is to be lived as self-gift) have been the conciliar texts most frequently cited by John Paul II. Yet the process of reflection the Ariccia meeting intensified in Karol Wojtyla has also had an enduring impact on what it means to be “the Church in the modern world.” In 1968, Wojtyla wrote his Ariccia colleague, Father de Lubac, about his new intellectual project:

“I devote my very rare free moments to a work…on the mystery of the PERSON. It seems to me that the debate today is being played out at that level. 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….”

Awful things were being done to human beings; that was the evil in the “moral order.” In many cases, those awful things were the by-products of desperately defective ideas of what a human being is; that was the evil in what the future pope called the “metaphysical order.” Marry those bad ideas to modern technology, and you get Auschwitz, the Gulag, a “Prague Spring” crushed by Soviet tanks, Mao’s lunatic cultural revolution, mayhem in Southeast Asia, and all the rest.

That was 1968; but the basic issue remains the same today. As the challenge of the biotech revolution demonstrates, to be “the Church in the modern world” means to be a Church in defense of the inalienable dignity of the human person – a dignity that neither science and the state bestows, but which science and the state must acknowledge. The Ariccia debate, begun two generations ago, continues.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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