Pope John Paul II and the Christ-centered Anthropology of Gaudium et Spes

The late pontiff consistently summarized Gaudium et Spes in terms of the dynamism of its Christological anthropology.

Editor’s Note: The following article originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in the July/August 2000 issue of Catholic Faith magazine. It is republished here to mark the feast day for Blessed John Paul II during the Year of Faith and the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council.


A thorough study of the anthropology of Gaudium et Spes (GS) would be preceded by a study of the general purpose of the Pastoral Constitution. This would include considerations of how Gaudium et Spes articulates the relation of the Church to the world, and vice versa. It would also include its conception of the relationships of creation and redemption in Christ, nature and grace, reason and faith. Detailed evaluation of these themes is beyond the scope of this article.

For our purposes it will suffice to become familiar with the way in which Pope John Paul II understood and interpreted the pastoral purpose of Gaudium et Spes. That will follow these introductory remarks, which focus on the link between Gaudium et Spes and Fides et Ratio.

That Pope John Paul II was profoundly formed by and faithful to the general pastoral purpose and style of Gaudium et Spes throughout his pontificate is easy to show. He not only made constant reference to Gaudium et Spes, 22 and 24, referring to the former as encapsulating the motif of his pontificate, his encyclical, Fides et Ratio, stressed the unity of the two orders of knowledge, natural and supernatural. There is a “unity of truth” assured by the fact that God is Creator and Redeemer and thus the Author of what is revealed through creation and through the economy of salvation.

The fundamental presupposition of Gaudium et Spes is precisely this unity of truth as it pertains to the human person, that is, to anthropology. “For though the same God is Savior and Creator, Lord of human history as well as of salvation history, in the divine arrangement itself, the rightful autonomy of the creature, and particularly of man is not withdrawn, but is rather re-established in its own dignity and strengthened in it” (GS, 41). [1] There is a truth about the human person that is accessible to those without faith. This truth is not only confirmed by revelation, but also deeply enriched by it. How else can the Church enter into a dialogue with those without faith than to find some common ground, some starting point upon which both are in agreement?

Fides et Ratio was an alarm bell. The more serene tone and optimistic outlook of Gaudium et Spes ceded to a direct and serious warning that the “crisis of man” had reached a new, critical point. [2] Modern man has become so confused about himself that the very presuppositions for human fulfillment have been nearly eradicated: that there is objective and absolute truth; that man is made to search out this truth; and that he is capable of discovering it. These are under attack, being systematically rejected. Without them there is no foundation for the dispositions that create openness to a deeper understanding of the meaning of life based on faith. And without those dispositions, meaningful dialogue is impossible.

According to Fides et Ratio, if modern man is not searching for the meaning of life, then he lacks an essential openness to the Gospel. For the Gospel is precisely “the definitive, superabundant answer to the questions that man asks himself about the meaning and purpose of his life.” [3] Indifference to religion has become indifference to truth, and living as if God does not exist has led to the near annihilation of man’s most characteristic action, seeking the truth.

In Fides et Ratio the Pope called for a rediscovery of the integrity of the created order and of man’s place in it as one called to realize himself by seeking and discovering the truth, and of the mutual complementarity of faith and reason. The fundamental assertion of Gaudium et Spes about man is that by being faithful to himself in seeking the truth, he is in fact being faithful to God, Who is the Author of human nature and thus of the innate desire to seek the truth. By seeking the truth man is in fact seeking God: “For God has willed that man remain ‘under the control of his own decisions,’ so that he can seek his Creator spontaneously, and come freely to utter and blissful perfection through loyalty to Him” (GS, 17). [4]

Another document of Vatican II, The Decree on Religious Liberty, put it this way:

It is in accordance with their dignity as persons–that is, beings endowed with reason and free will and therefore privileged to bear personal responsibility–that all men should be at once impelled by nature and also bound by a moral obligation to seek the truth, especially religious truth. They are also bound to adhere to the truth, once it is known, and to order their whole lives in accord with the demands of truth. [5]

In all his activity a man is bound to follow his conscience in order that he may come to God, the end and purpose of life. [6]

In Fides et Ratio there is an essential continuity with Gaudium et Spes. The Church’s service to the world and modern man entails leading him to the rediscovery of the created order and its relation to God, and of his natural orientation toward the truth, and thus to God. In the set of present circumstances, this is not at all an easy task. Consequently, what we need is a “boldness of reason” that is parallel to “the parrhesia of faith.” [7] Such “boldness of reason” is the ideal, and necessary environment for the dialogue between the Church and the world. The re-reading of GS was never more necessary.

The Pastoral Nature of Gaudium et Spes and the Question-Answer Dynamic of Faith

Pope John Paul II consistently summarized Gaudium et Spes in terms of the dynamism of its Christological anthropology. Jesus Christ is the answer to man’s most profound questions about the meaning of life. [8] There is a dialogical structure to revelation itself: “Vatican II sees in revelation the reply to man’s eternal questioning.” [9] “Redemption is the answer to man’s perennial questions, but not only in the sense that it explains ‘the mystery of man.’ Redemption at the same time offers man a source of enlightenment and strength to respond to his own supreme vocation.” [10]

Gaudium et Spes “displays the dynamism of the Church’s mystery” insofar as “it ‘actualizes’ the truth of redemption by bringing it close to the experience of modern man.” [11] This is precisely the goal of the constitution, to develop “a specific kind of anthropocentrism emerging through the Christocentrism which the Constitution reflects so clearly.” [12] Christ and modern man, these are the essential poles of the dialogue between the Church and the modern world.

1. The description of the human condition

In Gaudium et Spes the Church engages in “reading of the signs of the time and interpreting them in the light of the Gospel.” This effort is at the service of the Church’s mission, which takes the concrete form of a dialogue in which the Church “should be able to answer the ever recurring questions which men ask about the meaning of this present life and of the life to come,” and do so “in language intelligible to every generation” (GS, 4).

The description of the human condition in Gaudium et Spes allows the Church to articulate the questions modern man is asking, the answers to which are found in Jesus Christ. [13] This has several objectives. First, from the perspective of the Church and those with faith, it is necessary to have a precise understanding of those to whom she is called to extend God’s love. How can the Church serve without a deep understanding of those she is called to serve?

This corresponds to the overall pastoral purpose of Vatican II. To a narrow view of pastoral theology John Paul II contrasted a broader understanding that Vatican II did not invent but simply rediscovered. The full meaning of “pastoral,” he has written:

must reflect the integral vision of the Church that was restored to our consciousness by the Second Vatican Council. The Council did not create this image of the Church and pastoral ministry but merely restored it, for it is already wholly contained in revelation, in the sources of the Church’s thought and life. Pastoral theology in the broader sense is not limited to a theological investigation of the tasks and activities of ordained ministers alone. Rather, it concentrates primarily on concern for salvation, on concern for the overall temporal and eternal welfare of the human person and community, a concern entrusted to the whole People of God and to its individual members according to their proper vocation.” [14]

Pastoral concern means the search for the true good of man, a promotion of the values engraved in his person by God; that is, it means observing that “rule of understanding” which is directed to the ever clearer discovery of God’s plan for human love, in the certitude that the only true good of the human person consists in fulfilling this divine plan. [15]

No doubt this pastoral concern for man is the reason that “On a number of occasions, the Second Vatican Council stressed the positive value of scientific research for a deeper knowledge of the mystery of the human being.” [16] However, the principle of the unity of truth dictates that there can be no conflict or opposition between the objectively true findings of the human sciences and what God has revealed about man. If such a conflict arises, it cannot be resolved by an alteration of the data of revelation without serious repercussions. For example, certain theories of psychology and sociology conflict with the Christian view of human freedom and thus undermine responsibility. When uncritically employed in theology and pastoral practice, this contributes to the loss of the sense of sin. As a consequence, man is not disposed to embrace the call to conversion. [17]

A second objective of setting forth the human condition is that it can create a positive disposition in non-Catholics and non-Christians to be open to the answer that the Church provides. If the Church’s analysis and descriptions are accurate and cogent, she gains credibility. If the words she puts to the experiences common to people assist them in understanding themselves, then the credibility gained here can be transferred to the answer.

Finally, this process benefits believers in no small way. The description of man’s condition in the world serves to help keep the fundamental questions alive for believers, so that the relevance of their faith is more profoundly perceived and appreciated. “Faith hears the answer because it keeps the question alive. It can receive the answer as such only if it is able to understand its relevance to the question.” [18] St. Paul, apparently, employed a similar process in chapters seven and eight of Romans, contrasting life without the Holy Spirit and life in the Holy Spirit. [19] Those with faith value that faith more when they consider what life would be like without it, that is, when they see it an answer to real questions.

To lose sight of the relation between faith and fundamental questions is to invite a crisis of faith:

Religion is an answer to man’s ultimate questions. The moment we become oblivious to ultimate questions, religion becomes irrelevant, and its crisis sets in.

In the process of thinking, an answer without a question is devoid of life. It may enter the mind; it will not penetrate the soul. It may become a part of one’s knowledge; it will not come forth as a creative force. [20]

For the late Pope, the consciousness of the correlation between the Gospel and experience makes it possible for Christians to integrate into a profound unity the “attitude of human identity” and the “attitude of participation in the life and mission of Jesus Christ.” [21] Believers thus discover, and live in the awareness of the fact, that there is no opposition between being fully human and being a Christian. All alienation is overcome, [22] and Christians know experientially that: “Whoever follows after Christ, the perfect man, becomes himself more of a man” (GS, 41).

Discovering in faith that in Jesus Christ God has given the definitive answer to man’s questions is precisely what gives faith its existential value. Existential faith is “a state of consciousness and an attitude” that give rise to actions by which the content of faith is lived out because it is seen to give meaning to life. [23] This, in turn, is the antidote to “the split between the faith which many profess and their daily lives [which] deserves to be counted among the more serious errors of our age” (GS, 41). [24] The awareness of the correspondence between those questions, rooted as they are in human nature, [25] and God’s answer in Jesus Christ, is the foundation for the joint witness of our own spirit and the Holy Spirit that Christians are adopted sons of God (see Romans 8:16).

2. Christ is the Answer

Whenever Pope John Paul II gave a summary of GS, he turned to article 22:

The truth is that only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light. For Adam, the first man, was a figure of Him Who was to come, namely Christ the Lord. Christ, the final Adam, by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love, fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear. It is not surprising, then, that in Him all the aforementioned truths find their root and attain their crown.

The same article returns to the theme when it states: “Such is the mystery of man, and it is a great one, as seen by believers in the light of Christian revelation. Through Christ and in Christ, the riddles of sorrow and death grow meaningful. Apart from His Gospel, they overwhelm us.” The previous article also contains the theme:

Meanwhile every man remains to himself an unsolved puzzle, however obscurely he may perceive it. For on certain occasions no one can entirely escape the kind of self-questioning mentioned earlier, especially when life’s major events take place. To this questioning only God fully and most certainly provides an answer as He summons man to higher knowledge and humbler probing (GS, 21).

It is above all in suffering and death that the questions about life’s meaning arise, questions that only Christ can answer. The anthropology of Gaudium et Spes does not shy away from acknowledging the reality of suffering. However, it’s authors were keenly intent on leading readers to realize that the root of all suffering is found within man himself: “The dichotomy affecting the modern world is, in fact, a symptom of the deeper dichotomy that is in man himself” (GS, 10).

Immanent and Transitive Acts

Pope John Paul II observed that the Council distinguished between the exterior and interior dimensions of man’s concrete situation: “in outlining his situation in the modern world, it always passed from the external elements of this situation to the truth within humanity.” [26] As evidence he cited Gaudium et Spes 10: “In man himself many elements wrestle with one another. . . . Hence he suffers from internal divisions.” This theme is taken up in article 13 where we read that “man is split within himself.”

The foundation for this movement toward the interior is the conviction that “by his interior qualities man outstrips the whole sum of mere things” (GS, 15). The Pope recognized that the description of man “from the outside” is limited. For a proper analysis man must be looked at “from the inside.” [27]

Without a doubt, this movement from the external and observable to the internal and secret aspect of human life and experience is a hallmark of the Holy Father’s magisterium. In an unmistakable way he links this to the distinction between immanent and transitive action when defining human work as “a ‘transitive’ activity, that is to say, an activity beginning in the human subject and directed toward an external object.” [28]

Though many may immediately pair “transcendent” with “immanent,” in the anthropology of Thomas Aquinas, immanent activity is an intransitive activity. That is, immanent activity remains within the human agent, and is distinguished from transitive activity that originates in man but results in an alteration of something outside the man. Knowing and loving are the defining immanent activities of man, and they constitute his perfection. [29]

In more contemporary language, Rocco Butiglione, summarizing the thought of Karol Wojtyla, gives a restatement of immanent activity being the perfection of human agents. “The fact that the person realizes himself through a free act is more important than the content of the act itself. That a man acts as a man, guided by his intelligence and following the impulse of his will, is more important and of greater value than the objective modification itself which his act introduces into the world. By acting freely, in fact, man inserts himself into the personalist order, which is his proper order. The personalist value of the action precedes the moral value in the sense that only an action of the person can have moral value.” [30]

Without employing terminology specific to the Catholic theological tradition, Gaudium et Spes applies this principle in its rendition of the binding force of an erroneous conscience when it teaches: “Conscience frequently errs from invincible ignorance without losing its dignity” (GS, 16). Another application is the assertion that more harm comes to those who commit acts that are opposed to life and human dignity than to those who are the victims of such acts. [31] That this constitutes a potential point of encounter with non-Christians is evident in the fact that Socrates valued his own internal integrity of virtue more than life itself, declaring that he would rather be the victim of an injustice than to commit an injustice.

Two other applications of the principle are, first, the Constitution’s consideration of “all men of good will in whose hearts grace works in an unseen way”(GS, 22), and, second, the concern for the split between the faith professed and daily life (GS, 41). Regarding the latter, Gaudium et Spes stands in the tradition of the OT prophets, and Jesus Himself, in their charge that religious practices and ritual–even sacrifice (see Heb 10:5-9)–do not constitute justification. Faith, the entrusting of oneself to God, justified Abraham before he fulfilled the command to be circumcised (see Romans 4), and Jesus declares that the woman who gave quantitatively the least gave the most because of her immanent act of faith (Mk 12:43).

Gaudium et Spes frequently introduces considerations of the moral order into its treatment of the pressing issues confronting man in the modern world. The point is that technology, science and efficiency are not adequate means to the realization of man’s dignity; nor are they adequate means for addressing problems regarding the family, economics, politics, and questions of war and peace. Ultimately, in order to make the world more human and more worthy of human dignity, man must learn to conduct himself as a moral agent. Concretely, this means that he must be guided by a properly formed conscience, and attend to his immanent actions of knowing and loving as constituting his perfection.

The assertions of Gaudium et Spes on the primacy of moral norms for human conduct and for the proper ordering of all action and relationships are spread throughout the document. This makes it possible for the theme to be overlooked by a casual reader. Pope John Paul II made this theme the focus of his first encyclical, Redeemer of Man.

Dignity, Image of God, and Conversion

The Church’s mission, in the mind of John Paul, is to serve human dignity. Within the Church, all pastoral and spiritual authority “must be directed towards developing and making evident the dignity of man.” [32] The Church exists to defend, promote, reconstitute and elevate human dignity. “To rediscover and make others rediscover the inviolable dignity of every human person makes up an essential task, in a certain sense, the central and unifying task of the service which the Church and the lay faithful in her are called to render to the human family.” [33]

These texts make it clear that to understand the Church’s mission one must have a clear notion of human dignity. Further, Vatican II as a pastoral council stressed human dignity because this is an important point of contact between the Church and the world. In its pastoral dialogue with the world, Gaudium et Spes stresses that “the recognition of God is in no way hostile to man’s dignity, since this dignity is rooted and perfected in God” (GS, 21).

What, precisely, is human dignity? For Gaudium et Spes, it is defined in terms of man’s capacity, and thus his vocation, to enjoy communion with God.

The root reason for human dignity lies in man’s call to communion with God. From the very circumstance of his origin man is already invited to converse with God. For man would not exist were he not created by God’s love and constantly preserved by it; and he cannot live fully according to truth unless he freely acknowledges that love and devotes himself to His Creator (GS, 19).

The reference here to man’s origin is significant. God the Creator placed in man the capacity for communion in truth and love. As the Pope has put it: “man is called to realize the dignity of his own person and the basis of this vocation must be sought in his very nature, that is to say, in the work of creation.” [34] This is why the “consciousness of creation” is an integral element of Christian self-awareness. [35] This consciousness of creation as “the first and fundamental expression of God” [36] is also the foundation for the “primacy of receptivity” in a Christ-centered anthropology. [37] Creation is God’s first advance toward man, the first outflow of His love with a view to giving Himself to man and establish communion with him. Thus, human dignity is considered a vocation, something that can be realized or fulfilled. It is linked to the invitation to communion with God, and both the vocation to dignity and the vocation to communion are given to man “by reason of his own inner nature.” [38]

God created that capacity, not for frustration, but for fulfillment. With such capacity comes a natural desire to actualize it, and this desire and the actions that it animates manifest that “God inscribed in the humanity of man and woman the vocation . . . of love and communion.” [39] Because every human person possesses the capacity for communion and is the recipient of this vocation, there exists an equality of dignity among all men (GS, 29).

Without recognition of God and the call to communion with him, as well as the mission of Jesus Christ, man has no hope of fulfilling his most fundamental capacity and his dignity “is most grievously lacerated” (GS, 21). The Church believes that its understanding of human dignity, rooted as it is in God’s acts of creation and redemption and fully revealed in Jesus Christ, is the safeguard against the misconceptions about man that lead to a diminishment of his dignity. Ultimately, man cannot protect, advance, or fully realize his dignity by his own efforts and institutions alone (GS, 41).

The communion with God, and its conditions and aspects of its content, are variously described by Gaudium et Spes and linked with dignity. Thus, “the very dignity of man postulates that man glorify God in his body and forbid it to serve the evil inclinations of his heart” (GS, 14). Particularly important is freedom:

Hence, man’s dignity demands that he act according to a knowing and free choice. Such a choice is personally motivated and prompted from within. It does not result from blind internal impulse nor from mere external pressure. Man achieves such dignity when, emancipating himself from all captivity to passion, he pursues his goal in a spontaneous choice of what is good, and procures for himself, through effective and skillful action, apt means to that end” (GS, 17).

This understanding of dignity aligns with that of St. Thomas, for whom “the supreme grade of dignity in man is that he is directed to the good by himself, not by another.” [40] For St. Thomas, “dignity signifies the goodness of something due to what it is.” [41] God has bestowed a unique goodness upon man, making him capable of knowing his own end precisely as end, and of freely moving himself to that end, which is God. The specific act by which man directs himself to God is obedience to the concrete demands of God’s law as these are known in the conscience. “To obey the law of God is the very dignity of man” (GS, 16). “It is precisely the conscience in particular which determines this.” [42]

Pope John Paul II richly developed this connection between dignity and conscience throughout his writings. Two texts in particular manifest the Pope’s pastoral approach regarding conscience and dignity, concerned as he was to show that precisely here we have the most fundamental point of contact between the Church and the world. In a remarkable passage, he stated: “When a man goes down on his knees in the confessional because he has sinned, at that very moment he adds to his own dignity as a man. No matter how heavily his sins weigh on his conscience, no matter how seriously they have diminished his dignity, the very act of truthful confession, the act of turning again to God, is a manifestation of the special dignity of man, his spiritual grandeur.” [43]

The other text is his description of conversion as the “laborious effort of conscience” responding to remorse caused by sin. Conversion begins with a sense of remorse for sin, that is, a spiritual form of suffering over moral evil. He connects this with the suffering of Christ on the Cross, which was also suffering on account of sin, and concludes that “When the Spirit of truth permits the human conscience to share in that suffering [of Jesus Christ], the suffering of conscience becomes particularly profound, but also particularly salvific.” [44]

For the Pope, the entire history of salvation and history of the human race are most profoundly grasped anthropologically, that is, with reference to conscience: “the conscience is the most important dimension of time and history. For history is written not only by the events which in a certain sense happen ‘from outside’; it is written first of all ‘from within’: it is the history of human consciences, of moral victories and defeats. Here too the essential greatness of man finds its foundation: his authentically human dignity. This is that interior treasure whereby man continually goes beyond himself in the direction of eternity.” [45] Of course, to locate the meaning of history at the level of the conscience is to make it simultaneously a God-centered and Christ-centered history, since the object of the conscience is the voice of God and Christ died in order to sprinkle clean our consciences by His blood. [46] The drama of history, both human and salvation, is captured in Christ’s appearing before Pilate in order to be judged. The reversal of sin, described by Augustine as the love of self to the contempt of God, is presented by the Pope as man sitting in judgment of God and, in Christ, God’s willingness to “make himself ‘impotent'” by subjecting Himself man’s judgment of conscience. [47] There is no other way for God to penetrate the human heart while respecting His freedom.

It is important to note that in the anthropology of Gaudium et Spes, as well as the development of John Paul II’s thought, dignity is used to signify both the capacity for communion with God given in creation and essential to human nature, and the realization of that capacity. As a result, it is possible to talk about an essential dignity, common to all, that is a property of human nature, and a qualified or fully realized human dignity, that is, the quality of a person who acts in conformity with his nature and enjoys communion with God.

The developments of Pope John Paul II prolong and enrich the direction provided by Gaudium et Spes. If Christ is the answer to the questions occasioned especially by suffering, then conversion is the answer. Christ’s answer can only be personally appropriated through a transformation of the inner man. This theme is found in Gaudium et Spes in several texts: “renewal of attitudes” that is assisted by the Holy Spirit (26); “purification and perfection” of all human activity that is disordered because of pride and inordinate self-love (37); inner renewal (13 and 22); “fashioned anew” (2).

Arguably the pinnacle of John Paul II’s anthropological teaching is Veritatis splendor. In it he developed his teaching on truth and conscience. It is significant, however, that the encyclical begins with a lengthy reflection on the encounter between Jesus and the rich young man. Often overlooked in favor of attention to his reiteration of the validity of teaching on the natural law, this pastoral introduction is important, not only because it employs the question-answer dynamic, but also because in doing so it shows that the essential meeting place between God and man is the moral dimension. More than anything else, God wants to speak to us about the state of our moral conscience: “Christ asks you about the state of your moral awareness, and at the same time he questions you about the state of your conscience. This is a key question for man.” [48] The more technical consideration of moral theology concerning the natural law must be seen in terms of a personal encounter with Christ, a dialogue of salvation at the level of conscience. The Pope wanted people who study moral theology to realize that there is more at stake than merely theological options. Human dignity itself, that is, our relationship with God, hangs in the balance.

Some Developments of Pope John Paul II

1. Living in the awareness of gift

In Sign of Contradiction Cardinal Wojtyla stressed the principle that man can only know himself in reference to God–“Without the Creator, the creature would disappear” (GS, 36)–in terms of awareness of gift or love. Translating into different terms the concern of Gaudium et Spes to develop an understanding of man in relation to God, he saw that Gaudium et Spes invites man to “rediscover the law of gift” in all the fields of his life and activity that are considered in the Constitution. [49]

This was a theme running through his pontificate, as seen for example in Evangelium Vitae: “It is the outlook of those who do not presume to take possession of reality but instead accept it as a gift, discovering in all things the reflection of the Creator and seeing in every person his living image (cf. Gen 1:27; Ps 8:5)” (EV, 83). Living with an awareness of having been loved coincides precisely with the “primacy of receptivity” discussed above.

2. The threefold mission of Jesus Christ

Pope John Paul II developed the Christocentric anthropology of Gaudium et Spes in terms of the three messianic offices of Jesus: Prophet, Priest and King, elaborated in Lumen gentium. “This idea in Lumen gentium has to be linked with the central theme of Gaudium et Spes in which Christ is presented as a revealer of the full mystery of man and of human dignity.” [50] The three offices of Christ correspond to the natural desire to fulfill the capacity of the image of God in everyone. “Gaudium et Spes teaches that the Christian’s proper attitude of participation in the threefold mission of Christ is and should be permeated by all that is authentically human.” [51]

As Prophet, Christ reveals the truth of God’s wisdom, the central content of which is that God is love and that man, made in His image, is invited to participate in this love. For the human person, “his relationship with truth is the deciding factor in his human nature and it constitutes his dignity as a person” and “is an integral part of the ‘mystery of man.'” [52] Participation in the prophetic office of Christ is offered to everyone because “Every man is born into the world to bear witness to the truth according to his own particular vocation.” [53]

The Church’s continuation of Christ’s prophetic office, then, “is one of the fundamental points of encounter between the Church and each man.” [54] By exercising this office, the Church, and all those individuals who participate in the prophetic office, respond to the right that all have to the truth.

Concerning the priestly office, a full understanding of it requires a return “to the ‘mystery of man’ as it shows itself in the ‘mystery of the Incarnate Word,’ that is to say the mystery of Christ the priest.” [55] After citing Gaudium et Spes, 10 on the essential questions that man cannot avoid asking, and on the conflict and imbalance man experiences within himself, the Pope gave a general definition of priesthood as the answer to the questions about the meaning of the world. “Priesthood is an expression of the meaning given to man and the world by their relationship with God.” “Priesthood reaches to the depths of the whole existential truth of the created world, and above all the truth of man.” [56] Priesthood realizes man’s capacity and vocation to live in relationship through self-giving love.

In Redemptor Hominis the Pope’s teaching on the prophetic office focused on the sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist. Still, he does not fail to make the link with the mystery of man. “By guarding the sacrament of Penance, the Church expressly affirms her faith in the mystery of the Redemption as a living and life-giving reality that fits in with man’s inward truth, with human guilt and also with the desires of the human conscience.” [57]

When considering the kingly office, the Pope asserted that “The conciliar teaching concerning this kingly function seems remarkably akin to present-day man’s thinking and feeling.” “This kingly character is embedded within the structure of the human personality.” [58] While this kingly character expresses itself through human work by which man exercises dominion over the earth, there is another kind of dominion that is even more fundamental: dominion over oneself. This is achieved through obedience to one’s conscience, and such obedience is the realization of human dignity. This is the foundation of authentic human freedom, as martyrs make clear. Since all desire freedom, “The Church truly serves mankind when she guards this truth with untiring attention, fervent love and mature commitment and when in the whole of her own community she transmits it and gives it concrete form in human life through each Christian’s fidelity to his vocation.” [59]

3. The Primacy of Love and Relationships

It would be difficult to overstate the importance that John Paul attributed to the final statement of Gaudium et Spes, 24:

Indeed, the Lord Jesus, when He prayed to the Father, “that all may be one . . . as we are one” (John 17:21-22) opened up vistas closed to human reason, for He implied a certain likeness between the union of the divine Persons, and the unity of God’s sons in truth and charity. This likeness reveals that man, who is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself, cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself.

Gaudium et Spes 12 had already stated that “by his innermost nature man is a social being, and unless he relates himself to others he can neither live nor develop his potential.” And, article 16 links the pursuit of truth and conscience to communion with God and others in love: “In a wonderful manner conscience reveals that law which is fulfilled by love of God and neighbor.”

These texts are the foundation in Gaudium et Spes for an anthropology according to which love has the primacy. For the Pope, the final sentence of Gaudium et Spes, 24 “can be said to sum up the whole of Christian anthropology.” [60] Commenting on the passage in his Letter on the Dignity of Women, he made this capacity to love the hallmark of what it means to be made in God’s image: “To say that man is created in the image and likeness of God means that man is called to exist ‘for’ others, to become a gift.” [61]

The Pope did not hesitate to link this self-giving to the principle that the good is diffusive of itself (bonum diffusivum sui). This principle is the non-personal, philosophical equivalent to love as self-giving, and it is what “explains” the creative generosity of God. [62] He linked bonum diffusivum sui to the “sincere gift of self” of Gaudium et Spes, 24:

Families should pray for all of their members, in view of the good which the family is for each individual and which each individual is for the whole family. Prayer strengthens this good, precisely as the common good of the family. Moreover, it creates this good ever anew. In prayer, the family discovers itself as the first “us”, in which each member is “I” and “thou”; each member is for the others either husband or wife, father or mother, son or daughter, brother or sister, grandparent or grandchild.

Are all the families to which this Letter is addressed like this? Certainly a good number are, but the times in which we are living tend to restrict family units to two generations. Often this is the case because available housing is too limited, especially in large cities. But it is not infrequently due to the belief that having several generations living together interferes with privacy and makes life too difficult. But is this not where the problem really lies? Families today have too little “human” life. There is a shortage of people with whom to create and share the common good; and yet that good, by its nature, demands to be created and shared with others: bonum est diffusivum sui: “good is diffusive of itself.” The more common the good, the more properly one’s own it will also be: mine–yours–ours. This is the logic behind living according to the good, living in truth and charity. If man is able to accept and follow this logic, his life truly becomes a “sincere gift”. [63]

In this text we reach the zenith of the anthropology of Gaudium et Spes as developed by Pope John Paul II. Made in God’s image, we are made for communion, for relationships of mutual self-giving in love based on the truth. [64] This is so because God Himself is love, and it is proper to love to give of oneself: “For a lover’s first gift is his own heart, and when this gift is received and deeply appreciated by his beloved, it joins the two by an intense inner bond.” [65] Such is the inner life of God.

By love we become one with the common good, so that to will that good for another is in fact to make a sincere gift of oneself to that person. In Christian terms: If it is true that by grace there is a oneness with Christ–“I live now no longer I, but Christ lives in me” (Gal 2:20)–then by reason of this oneness when I give Christ to others I give myself, and vice versa. Christians do not simply imitate God in His loving self-giving, as it were from the outside, reproducing the pattern revealed in Jesus Christ. By grace, we are made participants in God’s own act of self-giving love.


[1] Other texts in which the Creator/Redeemer relation is expressed are Gaudium et Spes 23, 50 (twice), and 61. Perhaps the “spirit” of how this principle is applied is best seen in Gaudium et Spes, 13: “What divine revelation makes known to us agrees with experience.”
[2] For the relation of Vatican II to the “crisis of man,” see the study by John Kobler, Vatican II and Phenomenology: Reflections on the Life-World of the Church (Dordrecht/ Boston/ Lancaster: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1985).
[3] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 68.
[4] Emphasis added.
[5] Dignitatis Humanae, 2; emphasis added.
[6] Dignitatis Humanae, 3; emphasis added.
[7] Fides et Ratio, 47.
[8] See, for example, his address of November 8, 1995, to a Congress celebrating the 30th anniversary of Gaudium et Spes, and his address of February 27, 2000, to the Conference studying the implementation of Vatican II.
[9] Sources of Renewal, p. 63.
[10] Sources of Renewal, p. 74.
[11] Sources of Renewal, p. 69.
[12] Sources of Renewal, p. 75.
[13] “The phenomenological description given by the Council is therefore not an end in itself, but is a help to a better service of man. If the Church scrutinizes the signs of the times, it is because she is more concerned about man than man is about himself; it is because she exists solely for the salvation of human beings” (Latourelle, Man and His Problems, p. 19). This could be applied to Pope John Paul II’s analysis of modern man in Redemptor Hominis.
[14] Karol Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II), “Pastoral Reflections on the Family,” in Person and Community: Selected Essays (New York: Peter Lang, 1993), pp. 343f.
[15] Pope John Paul II, General Audience of July 25, 1984. The anthropological foundation of “pastoral” is clear here. There is also an ecclesiological dimension in that the Church exists to serve man (see Redemptor Hominis). This service to man is fundamentally setting him free by the truth about himself and God: “To diminish in no way the saving teaching of Christ constitutes an eminent form of charity for souls” (Humanae Vitae, 29). “The Church has always considered education to be an essential part of its mission and the synod on consecrated life clearly highlighted this. Consequently, I warmly invite you to treasure your original charism and your traditions, in the knowledge that preferential love for the poor finds a privileged expression in the services of education and training” (Pope John Paul II, July 22, 1999).
[16] Fides et Ratio, 61. A note in Fides et ratio refers to Gaudium et Spes, 57 and 62. In addition, see: Optatam Totius, 2 and 20; Apostolicam Actuositatem, 32; Christus Dominus, 17.
[17] See Reconciliatio et paenitentia, 18.
[18] Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, The Nature and Mission of Theology (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995), p. 23.
[19] In doing so, Paul drew from his own experience, which enabled him to “relate the truth of redemption to the experience of men of his day, making use of his observation of their lives and also sometimes of introspection; and in that case the consciousness of redemption was united with the inner experience of the Apostle himself” (Sources of Renewal, pp. 69-70).
[20] Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism, pp. 3-4.
[21] Sources of Renewal, p. 272-73.
[22] On overcoming alienation, which is described as “talking about essentially human phenomena without referring them to their cause which is in man himself” and thus also without referring them to God, see Sources of Renewal, pp. 272-273.
[23] Sources of Renewal, pp. 18, 20, 24, 27, 224.
[24] This theme is developed in Christifideles laici, 44 and 59.
[25] “The Spirit, therefore, is at the very source of man’s existential and religious questioning, which is occasioned not only by contingent situations, but by the very structure of his being (Redemptoris Missio, 28).
[26] Redemptor Hominis, 14. See also Sources of Renewal, p. 277.
[27] Sources of Renewal, p. 72.
[28] Laborem Exercens, 4.
[29] For St. Thomas’ understanding of immanent activity, see St. I, Q. 18, a. 3, ad 1; 54, a. 1 ad 3; Q. 56, a. 1.
[30] Butiglione, Rocco, Karol Wojtyla. The Thought of the Man Who Became Pope John Paul II (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 1997), pp. 181-82).
[31] GS, 27.
[32] Sign of Contradiction, p. 144.
[33] Christifideles Laici, 37.
[34] Sources of Renewal, p. 115.
[35] See Sources of Renewal, pp. 45-52.
[36] Sources of Renewal, p. 47.
[37] On the primacy of receptivity, see the article of David Schindler, “Christology and the Imago Dei: Interpreting Gaudium et Spes,” in Communio 23 (Spring 1996), pp. 167-184.
[38] Sources of Renewal, p. 117.
[39] Familiaris Consortio, 11.
[40] Super Epistolam ad Romanos, Ch. II, lect. III (Marietti, 217).
[41] Scriptum super Libros Sententiarum III, d. 35, Q. 1, a. 4, q. 1, c. See ST I-II, Q. 6, a. 1 for an elaboration of the principle.
[42] Dominum et Vivificantem, 43.
[43] Sources of Renewal, p. 142. It is possible that the Pope has been inspired by St. Thomas’ in ST III, Q. 89, a. 3.
[44] See Dominum et Vivificantem, 45.
[45] Letter to the Youth of the World (Dilecti amici), 6.
[46] See Hebrews 9:14. John Paul gives a rich commentary/ reflection on this in Dominum et Vivificantem, 42-45.
[47] See Crossing the Threshold of Hope, pp. 64-65.
[48] Letter to the Youth of the World (Dilecti amici), 6.
[49] Sign of Contradiction, p. 58.
[50] Sign of Contradiction, p. 118.
[51] Sources of Renewal, p. 272.
[52] Sign of Contradiction, p. 119.
[53] Sign of Contradiction, p. 119.
[54] Redemptor Hominis, 19.
[55] Sign of Contradiction, p. 129.
[56] Sign of Contradiction, pp. 130, 131.
[57] Redemptor Hominis, 20.
[58] Sign of Contradiction, pp. 137, 138.
[59] Redemptor Hominis, 21.
[60] Dominum et Vivificantem, 59.
[61] Mulieris Dignitatem, 7.
[62] See Sign of Contradiction, p. 22, and Dominum et Vivificantem, 37.
[63] Letter to Families, 10.
[64] In Fides et Ratio, such relationships are identified as constituting human perfection.
[65] John of St. Thomas, The Gifts of the Holy Spirit (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1951), p. 31.

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About Douglas Bushman 19 Articles
Douglas Bushman is Director of Parish Formation and Mission at the Church of St. Joseph in West St. Paul, MN. He is well-known as past director of the Institute for Pastoral Theology at Ave Maria University and the University of Dallas and for his courses on Ecclesiology, Catholic Spirituality, John Paul II, Vatican II, Pastoral Theology, and the New Evangelization. He is the author of The Theology of Renewal for His Church: The Logic of Vatican II’s Renewal In Paul VI’s Encyclical Ecclesiam Suam, and Its Reception In John Paul II and Benedict XVI(Wipf and Stock, forthcoming).