Sense and Nonsense: The Philosopher Pope

The Holy Father’s last encyclical on the Eucharist reads: “The Son of God became man in order to restore all creation, in one supreme act of praise, to the One who made it from nothing.” Such words have haunted me—”Everything is there!” Karol Wojtyla could explain things tersely.

The purpose of the Incarnation is first to restore, then to reestablish our ultimate purpose: to praise God in the one way that God has taught us to praise Him. We come from nothing but, because of the Incarnation, we do not ultimately return to nothing, but to everything that is. Plato understood that our world is not complete if no one in it can be amazed by its grandeur. Karol Wojtyla said the same thing in the more precise way we Christians understand the world, God, and ourselves.

I have long subscribed to L’Osservatore Romano, as well as The Pope Speaks, organs of record for John Paul II’s many works. I read in an obituary that he produced more than 100,000 pages of writing during these years, and he had a good record before he became pope. The New York Times called Karol Wojtyla “the philosopher pope” on the occasion of his publication of Fides et Ratio. But he was already the philosopher pope from his first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis. Of course, this pope was a philosopher and more in everything that he did. To stress the intellectual side of Catholicism and of this pope is a needed exercise, but human life is more than brains.

One of the last letters the pope wrote was in preparation for the upcoming World Youth Day in Cologne, an event he promised to make. No doubt he will, but in another way. Surely Cologne will provide the first forum for Benedict XVI to succeed him. In that letter, John Paul II again showed his realism and his idealism. “Be worshipers of the only true God, give Him pride of place in your lives!” he wrote. He added: “Idolatry is an ever-present temptation. Sadly, there are those who seek the solution to their problems in religious practices that are incompatible with Christian faith. There is a strong urge to believe in the facile myths of success and power; it is dangerous to accept the fleeting ideas of the sacred which present God in the form of cosmic energy….” Isn’t it revealing that this pope saw that it is not hedonism but idolatry that is more of a problem with modern youth?

It is almost like reading the Old Testament and wondering why Yahweh spent so much time warning Israel of false gods. The great temptation today is not atheism, about which less and less is to be said. The great temptation is other religions that claim a simple truth against the intellectual complexity and thoroughness of classic Catholicism.

When John Paul II first became pope, he gave two brilliant lectures on Aquinas. In words the importance of which our universities have never acknowledged, he said: “The philosophy of St. Thomas deserves to be attentively studied and accepted with conviction by the youth of our day by reason of its spirit of openness and of universalism, characteristics which are hard to find in many trends of contemporary thought.” Here is the only “liberalism” worth worrying about.

At least twice, the pope mentioned the relation of the death of Christ and the death of Socrates. The death of John Paul II likewise taught the world just how to die at the end of one’s natural life. But, as he said on the first day of his pontificate, even here we are not afraid. He died in the Lord for us all, be we humble or great, to see. The “culture of death” finally saw what death really is. The deaths of Socrates, Christ, and now Karol Wojtyla, philosopher and pope, are in the same ascending path.

“The Son of God became man in order to restore all creation, in one supreme act of praise, to the One who made it from nothing.”


  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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