St. John Paul II Is More Relevant Than Ever

An informative, comprehensive, well-written, and persuasive book, The Splendor of Marriage was published by Angelico Press to mark the 50th anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae (1968). In a culminating chapter, Richard Spinello lays out the argument of Humanae Vitae and makes it clear why the document is so central to Catholic doctrine and life. This analysis is bolstered by a thorough account of St. John Paul II’s defense and elaboration of its central concepts and arguments. Through a well-developed Thomistic personalism, Pope John Paul II wrote some powerful and insightful accounts of love, marriage, and family. From his early treatise on Love and Responsibility, to various essays on love, marriage, and ethics, as well as his Person and Act, Cardinal Wojtyła used philosophical reason and phenomenology to clarify and defend the truth about the human good, particularly as it pertains to marriage and family. As pope he wrote various encyclicals and exhortations such as Familiaris Consortio, Letter to Families, Gospel of Life, Splendor of Truth, and his sustained meditations on human sexuality and marriage (now compiled and called Theology of the Body).

Drawing upon many resources to make his case—literary, theological, philosophic, and phenomenological—John Paul II is rightly praised by his successor Pope Benedict as offering “a way of thinking in dialogue with the concrete, founded on the great tradition, but always in search of confirmation in present reality. It is a form of thought that springs from an artist’s gaze and, at the same time, it is guided by a pastor’s care…. This comprehension of man beginning not from abstractions and theoretical principles, but seeking to grasp his reality with love, was—and remains—decisive for the pope’s thought” (My Beloved Predecessor, pp. 8-9). Thus, Pope John Paul II must be credited with raising out of Humanae Vitae an exquisitely articulated and argued account of Catholic doctrine on marriage which displays the beauty and explains the rightness and goodness of a life lived out of profound respect for the gift of fertility. Those enemies of the Church without and the legion of dissenters within must continue to resort to caricature and reduction of Humanae Vitae to its prohibition of artificial contraception and to ignore its ample defense made by John Paul II.

Spinello’s book, The Splendor of Marriage, brings our attention back to the great achievement of Saint John Paul II. This is all the more needed in the Church given the ambiguities and dubia surrounding the doctrine as of late. It was curious and disturbing to hear that in 2016 our present pontiff attempted to rehabilitate the most bitter dissenter who frequently attacked St. John Paul II, namely, Bernard Haring. Haring was a mentor and inspiration to Charles Curran. Indeed, Catholic moral theology needed renewal after the Council but Haring and John Paul II traveled different paths. Which one was the true path? This book makes the answer abundantly clear.

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Spinello, who has written previous books on John Paul II, has attained a masterful command of the textual sources and he discusses various milestones in the life of John Paul II in order to illuminate his rich teaching and witness to life. The book contains ten chapters. The first two set the context by explaining why this pope was indeed “The Pope of the Family” and by sketching the many political, ideological, and moral threats posed to the integrity of marriage and family in our day. John Paul II wanted to be known as the pope of the family.  In Crossing the Threshold of Hope, he wrote: “As a young priest I learned to love human love. … 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. After all, young people are always searching for the beauty in love.” Many young people followed him throughout their lives, forming a group called “Środowisko,” the importance of which one may gather from Weigel’s biographies.

Spinello devotes a chapter at the end of the book to John Paul II’s writings on the family, especially his Familiaris Consortio (1981) and Letter to Families (1994). “The family is the first and most important path” for a person walking “a path from which man cannot withdraw.” The vocation to motherhood and fatherhood is realized in the family. It is the heart of education of the young, a community of service, founded on the law of free giving, and a domestic church. The current of the civilization of love passes through the family. It is no wonder that Pope John Paul II devoted so much effort and care to nurturing family life and defending it against the efforts to redefine it, subvert it, and limit its influence.

Church Teaching in Light of the Current Crisis
The present crisis in the Catholic Church is marked by so many problems it is difficult to know where to begin or find the unifying theme and subsequently how to find a coherent and effective solution. Richard Spinello correctly assesses the crisis and the path towards a solution in terms of the clash between the culture of life and the culture of death, as it swirls around the life of love, marriage, and the family. He cites the remarks of Sr. Lucia: “The final battle between the Lord and the reign of Satan will be about marriage and the family. Don’t be afraid because anyone who works for the sanctity of marriage and the family will always be fought and opposed in every way, because this is the decisive issue” (1981). Five years earlier when he was a cardinal visiting various locations in the United States—Orchard Lake, Michigan, among them—he said:

We are now facing the final confrontation between the Church and the anti-Church, of the Gospel and the anti-Gospel…. It is a trial of not only our nation and Church, but in a sense a test of two thousand years of culture and Christian civilization with all of its consequences for human dignity, human rights, and the rights of nations. As the number of people who understand the importance of this confrontation increase in Poland and America, we can look with greater trust towards the outcome of this confrontation. The Church has gone through many trials, as has the Polish nation, and has emerged victorious even though at a cost of great sacrifice.

In his Letter to Families, he stated that “the family is placed at the center of the great struggle between good and evil, between life and death, between love and all that is opposed to love” (LF §23). Precisely to keep the vision of John Paul II alive and to equip the faithful to meet the challenge of the day, Spinello offers this book. “Those who dare to enter onto the battlefield will need weapons. And some of the most potent weapons are the refined writings of St. John Paul II.”

The problem, according to Spinello, must be traced to the crisis of truth: the abandonment of the full truth about man and God. The terms love, freedom, marriage, and even person no longer convey their essential meanings and have been redefined through a secularist and historicist ideology. Such ideologies reject the natural order and refuse to affirm the created universe as a gift to be gratefully accepted and cultivated by the human person. Thus many people are now convinced that human sexuality does not have any intrinsic relationship to procreation, or to sexual differentiation and complementarity. The proponents of the “new green deal” question whether children should be brought into a world they see as polluted. More disturbing yet are those in the Church who “go along with this secular morality, to breezily exchange relevance for truth.” They fail to defend the whole truth, labeling it as an “ideal” that may conveniently be cast aside.

I would suggest that Spinello’s book be read in conjunction with Philip Lawler’s The Smoke of Satan. Lawler shows how the crisis of today has been brewing for decades—particularly through the habits of denial of the failures to live chastely and the specific refusal to teach and support Humanae Vitae. Lawler remarks that he has not once heard a homily on Humanae Vitae. I have heard more than one such homily, many by priests in various lay movements, but also in a parish setting by the late Fr. Bill Carmody of Corpus Christi Parish in Colorado Springs, Colorado. But I have also heard Humanae Vitae mocked numerous times by the clergy. At our Cana Weekend for marriage preparation over 35 years ago, a priest responded to my question about Humanae Vitae as follows: “If you are hung up on the authority bit, then go follow it, but the rest of you just follow your conscience.”

The Defense of Humanae Vitae
The principles for a proper understanding and defense of Humanae Vitae are laid out in three chapters on personhood and freedom, the personalistic norm, and the manifold and essential characteristics of true love. These philosophical principles are intricately connected and they are available to thought through a reflection upon human experience. The reader must work through the arguments as Spinello lays out seven key themes for our reflection and study. I will just briefly mention some of them. In the chapter on personhood he explains the notions of nature and person and balances the aspects of freedom and truth in personal existence. As John Paul II once said that the root error of socialism is anthropological, so too we could say that Western liberalism has a faulty anthropology in its exaltation of personal freedom and its subsequent ideas of personal self-sufficiency and the measure of utility through satisfaction of the manifold appetites of persons. It neglects or denies the truth of the good; it neglects or denies the communion of persons through gift.

Freedom and responsibility find their fulfillment in love. Sexuality must be understood in this context if it is to be human and the act of a person. Love is a relational dimension of personal existence. The differentiation and complementarity of male and female are signs of the gift character of personal existence and its fulfillment in spousal love. The importunities of concupiscence and the habits of life that follow from yielding to the selfish use of others typically blind the human person to the true characteristics of love and the demands it makes upon us. It is difficult to rise to the honesty of George Herbert: “Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back, guilty of dust and sin.” The personalistic norm, that one not use the other as a means to selfish satisfaction, shines forth as a bright line. Mutual affirmation of the person and mutual recognition of a vocation to motherhood and fatherhood are the spirit of that norm when it comes to sexual activity.

Spinello follows Wojtyła, in his Love and Responsibility, in tracing out the many aspects of love such as fondness and attraction, desire, reciprocity, sympathy, and friendship to arrive at the spousal gift of love by which is established the communion of persons called marriage. Such a communion of persons is a covenant—more than a contract because of this total and mutual self-giving. Marriage is a promise for a permanent and perpetually binding commitment and is characterized by the properties of unity, fidelity, and fruitfulness. The identity and vocation of spouses to be mother and father are essential to this relationship and this bond.  Spinello summarizes these three key chapters on foundational principles as follows:

We have shown that interpersonal self-giving and receiving is the natural way of life for the human person, who can achieve fulfillment only in union or solidarity with others. Therefore, “man and woman were created for marriage,” because every person has a vocation to spousal love, and marriage is the primary way of living out that vocation. We have also uncovered the unique character of spousal love, this mutual belonging or personal communion, which is created by the free and total bodily gift itself. That total self-gift is not present in other forms of love, such as friendship or parental love. Sexual relations are appropriate only for spousal love, where sexual union is the sign and means of this authentic union of persons. (82)

These chapters are followed by one on chastity, to which I shall return, and then chapters on the sacramental dimension of marriage and the encyclical Humanae Vitae. The encyclical simply defends the long-standing tradition of the Church and, of course, most societies; marriage has a fundamental procreative purpose which should not be subverted. Spinello notes that there was a great confidence in science and technology that inclined people to believe that life from birth could be controlled by medical techniques. And with the rise of new theologies—forms of existentialism and proportionalism—dissenters found a ready audience throughout Western liberal societies. Pope Paul VI took a prophetic stand—for now we see how this technology has not provided a magic bullet but has brought much abuse and disorder into personal lives, families, and society as a whole. And the new theologies have been overcome by the true renewal that has arisen through Vatican II; John Paul II drew upon these sources of renewal to make his case in defense of Pope Paul VI, his mentor.

In this chapter, Spinello again shows his mastery of the many rich sources to reveal the mind of Pope John Paul II. His essay on the anthropological vision and particularly his defense of Humanae Vitae in Theology of the Body provide a superb explanation of the teaching. He gives a more vigorous and reasoned account of these aspects of Catholic teaching that needed to be restated and defended in light of modern culture and other modern developments. The Church’s teaching on marriage, family, and family planning are particularly important points where this holds to be the case. And in the Wednesday audience talks on the encyclical he is particularly good in showing how the teaching of Vatican II, especially Gaudium et Spes, fully supports the teaching of Pope Paul VI. The hermeneutic of continuity is in full display in his careful examination of the texts.

Reasserting the Importance of Chastity
I would like to conclude this review by returning to the chapter on chastity. The dearth of chastity has much to do with the crisis of our time. As our cultural elite now shames and pillories those men who have taken advantage of others, the need for chastity never seems to occur to them as the only way to overcome such abuse. And so, too, the crisis in the Church that is now unfolding. I’ve heard firsthand accounts that there are certain religious orders that teach their novices and seminarians that celibacy simply means that the clergy do not get married and that it doesn’t require strict continence. This means they can rationalize and tolerate homosexual activity in the seminaries and in the priesthood. If continence is not seen to be obligatory, all the more does the virtue of chastity become absurd to a significant number of religious and laity. But how can there be any response to a universal call to holiness if there is a near universal mockery of chastity or at least the neglect of chastity?

Spinello once again shows the tremendous work done by John Paul II on the role of chastity in living a life of integrity in marriage and family. Chastity is the virtue that enables us to effectively deal with concupiscence and the disorder of desire. This virtue needs to be rehabilitated and its proper meaning restored. Chastity is not just about moderation or self-control but it is an inner attitude of respect for the other, an attitude of apprehending the beauty of the embodied person. John Paul II said that chastity is “a transparency of interiority without which love cannot be itself.” The essence of chastity is “the habitual readiness to affirm the value of the person in every context and to elevate the personal above all sensual or affective reactions.” The personalistic norm and the virtue of chastity save us from the depersonalization of sexuality and offer the only safeguard from the flood of sexual abuse and exploitation.

Josef Pieper, in Four Cardinal Virtues, explains the significance of temperance and chastity. The natural urge to sensual enjoyment, manifested in delight in food and drink and sexual pleasure, is “the echo and mirror of man’s strongest natural forces of self-preservation (self and species).” Further, he says that “these forces are closely allied to the deepest human urge towards being, they exceed all other powers of mankind in their destructive violence once they degenerate into selfishness.” So even if temperance be the “least of the virtues,” the so-called sins below the belt should by no means be dismissed as of no account. Pieper explains that “temperance extends its ordering mastery down to the fountainhead from which the figure of moral man springs up.” Wojtyla wrote that there is a “distinct possibility about the failure to integrate love” and so temperance and chastity are necessary for a life lived according to the loving kindness that rejects using others and affirms the beauty of the other. Chastity in our day is indeed a heroic virtue, not because of the difficulty of chastity as if it were a stoic resolve to be joyless, but because of the magnanimous heart of love whose joy is true.

The great Dominican Lacordaire (1802-1861) in Catholicism and Chastity proclaimed that chastity is the “ground on which the world and the gospel never meet an accord and harmony, they must always remain as poles asunder.” The philosophers and men of the world are powerless to overcome concupiscence. The triumph of the Church, he says, comes from the chastity that it alone can produce, and particularly it needs the chastity of the priest. For he says “the heart remains ardent, like fire, by charity but firm, like granite, by chastity.” He wisely notes that the Catholic people will forgive the priest many faults as long as the sign of chastity remains upon his brow. He asserts that “the priesthood and chastity will ever be one and the same dignity, one and the same expression of the God Who saved the world upon the cross.”

In the nineteenth century, Lacordaire could exclaim that through twenty centuries the priesthood had undergone a trial but despite isolated scandals had remained safe and secure. Thus for good reason many have urged that the pontiff place the issue of active homosexuality in the priesthood on the agenda to solve the abuse crisis. Sins against chastity must not be dismissed as mere sins below the belt whose significance is inconsequential. For on this virtue stands the Catholic teaching on marriage and family, on it stands the honor and respect for the priesthood, and on it stands a bright witness in a world marked by deep despair and disgust of the human condition and hearts shriveled by the lack of a magnanimous love.

We are in great debt to Professor Spinello for clearly explaining the essentials of the Catholic teaching on love, marriage, and family and for highlighting the special contribution that the many gifts of John Paul II brought to the Church and the world in his own celebration and defense of the family. John Paul II is indeed the pope of the family. For this reason, Spinello’s book offers many needed answers to the crisis in the Church and in our world today.

(Photo credit: CNA / L’Osservatore Romano)


  • John Hittinger

    John Hittinger is a professor in the Center for Thomistic Studies at the University of St Thomas, Houston and the author of Liberty, Wisdom and Grace: Thomism and Democratic Political Theory. He is the founder and director of the Pope John Paul II Forum for the Church in the Modern World and president of the International Catholic University, founded by Ralph McInerny (1929-2010), the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He is also developing a MA in John Paul II studies at the University of St. Thomas in Houston.

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