Wojtyla and the Council: Religious Liberty as the Heart of Vatican II

Karol Wojtyla’s entire philosophical work has as its center the Ecumenical Council Vatican II, in which the author, who was consecrated bishop July 4, 1958, took part as capitular administrator, later archbishop, of the diocese of Krakow. The Acting Person (1969), the book which crowns and concludes Wojtyla’s philosophical activity, was probably conceived in its essential lines during the Council, as an attempt to give an account at the level of philosophical analysis of the conception of man presupposed in the conciliar documents.

To understand this connection it is necessary that we look closely both at Wojtyla’s participation in the Council and at the particular interpretation he gave it. What was the nucleus of the conciliar event, according to Wojtyla? If we understand this, we may understand the connection between that extraordinary spiritual experience and the fundamental thesis of The Acting Person.

The heart of the conciliar event is the acknowledgment of freedom of conscience as a natural and inalienable right of the human person. This acknowledgment is accompanied by an open confession of the fact that in the past, although the Church always maintained that no one can be forced to believe, churchmen often did not live up to this theoretical statement and tried, directly or indirectly, to obtain assent to the faith through coercive means. Articulated in the most explicit and complete way in the “Declaration on Religious Liberty,” this affirmation also represents the fundamental cornerstone of the “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World” and has an important influence on the “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church” and on all the other conciliar documents.

The “Declaration on Religious Liberty” poses a problem to Catholic philosophy and theology which appears difficult to solve, whether one remains within traditional categories or whether one chooses to abandon them to borrow the way of thinking typical of the modern philosophy of consciousness. Faith gives man the certainty that Jesus Christ, dead and risen again for human salvation, is truly the Lord of the universe and of history. No higher moral duty exists than to follow Him by adhering to the Church which He has founded. Moreover, faith and reason together convince the Christian of the existence of an objectively true moral order, to which one’s actions must conform in order for them to be good. The violation of this order constitutes an objective evil. Moreover, anyone who consents to the accomplishment of evil when he could possibly prevent it, becomes an accomplice. It seems therefore that a Christian should use all instruments at his disposal to prevent the violation of the moral order. If then a Christian has authority and power over other men in any respect, it seems that he is obliged in conscience to use it to prevent them from doing evil.

This view, which is not very far from the one which was for a long time considered the traditional one, does not exactly give a negative answer to the claim of freedom of conscience. Rather, it does not even manage to understand properly the meaning of this question. Indeed, is not conscience obliged to obey the truth? How, therefore, is it possible to maintain that it must be free to follow error? Does the claim of freedom of conscience not imply at least an agnostic position with respect to truth? Did not the large majority of those who, from a secular point of view, sustained tolerance and freedom of conscience, do so because they held that in spiritual matters men could not have any certain knowledge of truth, and for this reason all different opinions deserved equal respect? But can an authentic believer allow his faith to be treated as a simple opinion?

As is evident, arguments from a traditional point of view against the acknowledgment of freedom of conscience as a natural right are neither few nor of little importance. From this starting point, it is possible to go no farther than the acknowledgment that Catholics can renounce the imposition of their faith and their conception of the moral order only for the purpose of avoiding a greater evil, such as the breakdown of civil peace, the outbreak of civil war, and the spilling of innocent blood. In theory, the acknowledgment of freedom of conscience by the state seems to be an evil. In fact, historically, this can sometimes, even often, be the lesser evil. In any case the possibility of considering freedom of conscience as a natural right and as a good to be promoted and encouraged by the Church is, for the traditionalist, out of the question.

The position that we have illustrated above is supported by the couplet truth/error and opposes consequently the right of truth to the illegitimacy of error.

The opposite position has its starting point instead in the conviction, also incontrovertible, that man can be obliged in conscience only by what conscience itself acknowledges as true and just, and every attempt to impose a position by force is destined to fail and to produce only hypocrisy and disaffection for an honest search for truth. Conscience is the most intimate sanctuary of the human person, within which is decided the relationship with the Absolute. It is not possible to violate this sanctuary without damaging in a radical and profound way the very dignity of the person. The fundamental concepts on which the argumentation of this second position is based are those of conscience and person.

At this point there seems an irremediable disagreement between the right of truth to be always and in every way acknowledged and the right of the person to make his choice freely, without being subjected to an external imposition by other men or even a public authority. This is the same disagreement between individualism and objectivistic holism that Wojtyla demonstrated in The Acting Person. One viewpoint recognizes only the right of the person and not of the community (and of truth); the other viewpoint sacrifices the right of conscience to an objective common good.

Current public opinion maintains that the world ought to choose between the renunciation of the idea of truth (accompanied by a pure and simple domination of subjective opinion) and the imposition of a certain objective truth by authoritarian means. From a political point of view, Western political systems are usually associated with the renunciation of the idea of truth, considered altogether (perhaps ungenerously) as democracies without values, while the totalitarian regimes are usually associated with the imposition of the truth by force. These are further differentiated according to the kind of truth that they want to impose.

But for the Christian conscience, as well as for a fully human point of view, it is impossible either to choose for truth against conscience or to choose for conscience against truth. This consideration brings us to an impasse from which we can escape only if we can show that the entire problematic has been grounded in an erroneous way, and that the unacceptable necessity of sacrificing either conscience or truth depends on this error. It is evident at this point that the question of freedom of conscience is not at all a limited or marginal question. What is at stake in it is the entire relationship between Christianity and modernity, and between the philosophy of being and the philosophy of consciousness.

The Acting Person reformulates the problem of the relation between consciousness and truth precisely as Vatican II requires. Wojtyla shows how conscience is subordinated to the will, which is in turn oriented—through self-knowledge—to the truth. This entire process in turn is reflected in consciousness, which entails that the search for and the possession of truth are not simply an intellectual enterprise, but an adventure which man lives with all his being. Consequently, the truth enters the very interiority of the process through which the person determines himself and achieves a human act, that is, an act which engages the person as such. In this way, the duty of the person to seek the truth and to conform himself to the known truth by subordinating to it his own passions, arises from his own interiority. By introducing the structure of self-knowledge into the formation of the person—showing the essentially reflexive function of consciousness—Wojtyla breaks the vicious circle of the philosophies of consciousness which recognize no truth outside of consciousness and, consequently, no duty for consciousness to conform itself to an objective truth outside of it.

On the other hand, in order to direct himself toward truth in the way which is proper to him, the person needs to be free, unbound by any external pressure. Indeed, a true human act is constituted neither by conformity to external violence nor by obedience to individual passions not oriented to the truth and not judged by self-knowledge. One might ask whether in analyzing the matter in this way we do not run the risk of disengaging persons from the truth. In other words, do we not run the risk of giving primacy to subjective authenticity which belongs to the emotional component? Is there not the danger that the person will forego mastering his own immediate impressions and fail to direct himself toward the objective truth?

Wojtyla’s answer to these questions is decisively negative. The freedom of man is for Wojtyla never a pure liberty of indifference, arbitrium indifferentice, as it is in one well-known philosophical tradition. Freedom is always attracted by value, not only in the emotional sphere, but already in some way in the natural, instinctual one. Consequently, it is in the nature of man both to direct himself towards the good and to desire that the good towards which he directs himself be an objectively true good. The person is obliged, in the face of his own conscience, to seek the good and to adhere to the known good. The recognition of the liberty of conscience as a fundamental human right and indeed as the most fundamental right of all, far from denying this obligation, secures the conditions for its satisfaction.

From the traditionalist point of view, however, another objection might still arise. By tolerating error of conscience, we allow an evil, and we tolerate a violation of the natural order and the moral order. A perfection which belongs in some way to the world by right is subtracted from it. Wojtyla’s distinction between the personalist value and the moral value of action helps us here. 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 a fact more important and of greater value than the objective modification itself which his act introduces into the world. By acting freely, man inserts himself into the personalist order, which is his own order. The personalist value of the action precedes the moral value in the sense that only an action of the person can have a moral value. Without this presupposition there are no human actions but only acts of man (like an involuntary movement of the toes), deprived of any ethical value. By imposing with force the observance of the order of nature, one excludes the principle of the personalist order. Thereby one deprives reality of a much higher value than do mistakes in the use of human freedom. The traditionalist doctrine uses an equivocal concept of nature, and by this equivocation runs the risk of losing sight of the difference between the personalist order (grounded on the particular spiritual nature of man and therefore on freedom) and the order characteristic of the rest of nature.

Obviously, the personalist order does not lack its own precise rule. This, among other things, binds man, who is also a physical being belonging to nature, to conform himself in the use of his instinctual and emotional energies to nature’s laws and ends. So for instance in the exercise of sexuality, man must take into account the natural end of sex which is procreation. That can happen only through a response conscious of the freedom of the person enlightened by reason.

The integration of the philosophy of being and the philosophy of consciousness into a complete anthropology of the person seems to be, in the perspective which we have briefly delineated, the only way to understand the novelty of the conciliar teaching and at the same time its solid anchorhold in the tradition (which is different from traditionalism.) Such a re-thinking is necessary to avoid the two opposite risks of (a) minimizing the conciliar novelty and (b) yielding unconditionally to a philosophy of consciousness which destroys the fundamental objectivity and certainty of truth. A great number of post-conciliar slips can probably be explained by the fact that, apart from certain luminous exceptions, this new philosophical reflection was lacking in the West.

As a result, the philosophical originality of the Council was not properly understood, and the post-conciliar period was transformed into a fight between integrists and modernists, regulated by a wavering center stretched out in continuous and always vain attempts at compromise. The fact that the Council could not be comprehended in the categories dominant in preceding phases of the history of the Church induced many to discard Thomism hastily and to think that Christianity could easily be brought into agreement with any philosophy. They concluded that it was permissible to elaborate a Christian theology on the basis of any modern philosophy, chosen not on the ground of its objective truth but rather on the basis of its presumed “capacity for speaking to the modern world,” i.e., on the basis of a more or less ephemeral popularity. Wojtyla chose the directly opposite road. The Council for him necessitated a patient development of hidden possibilities contained in the philosophia perennis, but not sufficiently developed in traditional thought. Such a development is facilitated and fertilized by facing modern thought and, in this case in particular, by dialogue with Scheler and by the adoption of the phenomenological method, used in a particular way, so as to form a new phenomenological philosophy.

Wojtyla’s adoption of elements from the philosophy of consciousness, however, was not uncritical. The fundamental conceptions of his thought remain solidly realistic. A deepened treatment of the theme of consciousness within the philosophy of the act of being does justice to the claims of the philosophy of consciousness. In order to use aspects and concepts of Scheler’s thought in this way, it was necessary first to deconstruct this thought, to verify the congruity between each of its elements and the Christian view of man, to reformulate and perfect the phenomenological philosophy from the rational point of view, in such a way as to render it usable for his purpose. We are not speaking about a “Christian phenomenology,” a sweetened version of phenomenology reconciled with Christianity. Wojtyla has conducted a reform of phenomenology in order to render it closer to its original intention of “going to the things themselves” according to rigorous rules of philosophical thought. He was convinced that the philosophy most capable of rationally explaining the Christian conception of man must also be the philosophy most rigorously founded from the point of view of reason.

In his deconstruction of phenomenology, Wojtyla does not arbitrarily use certain aspects of the thought with which he claims to dialogue as mere code words, disregarding the conceptual connection which constitutes them. Before proceeding with his integration of Scheler with Saint Thomas, Wojtyla had to show that what in Scheler contradicts the Christian view of man also contradicts sound reason and the truth as it is accessible to the phenomenological method. In this way his reformulation of phenomenology presents itself as the only adequate interpretation of the phenomenological method according to its rational principles; it should be discussed, approved, or rejected as such. To interpret the Council is par excellence to do the work of Christian philosophy. But that does not imply only an effort in the aggiornamento of Christian culture but, much more, progress in the general self-understanding of man, a step forward in the philosophical consciousness of all humanity. Only in this way is it possible to understand how the Council overcame the opposition between modernity and Christianity. It is not a question of a political compromise which one or the other of the two factions can reconsider in order to re-establish an equilibrium more favorable to itself. It is a new synthesis in which modern elements and traditional elements are harmoniously fused, and the tradition shows itself capable of developing out of itself those aspects the lack of which was imputed to it as a fault. The philosophy of consciousness ceases to be thought of as another philosophy which is situated beyond the philosophy of being and becomes instead one of the articulations of a more complete and wiser philosophy of being, purified of the deviations which had made it a mere philosophy of entity. At the same time, the contrast between modernity and Christianity disappears.

The Fall of Modernity

The philosophical idea of modernity presupposed that the philosophy of being and of Christianity was incapable of doing justice to consciousness and to freedom. Because of this new and irreducible point of departure in the understanding of man, the new age rose up against the old. If, however, this opposition is superseded and, rigorously speaking, is shown never to have existed in reality, then from the philosophical point of view the very motivations of the idea of modernity fall. The idea of an epochal rupture of history falls, the idea of “modern man” endowed with radically different characteristics with respect to the men of other historical epochs falls, and the idea of a modern philosophy qualitatively different from classical philosophy falls, too. On the contrary, the idea of the unity and universality of philosophy and of the history of man is reconstructed. In every epoch man is confronted, even if in different forms, with the same fundamental questions.

In the years of the Council, especially among the theologians whose works had prepared the way for the Council, the conviction predominated that the philosophy of the future would be a philosophy of man, capable of starting from existence and formulating the human problem in a way open to religious transcendence. Many thought that in the continuing challenge between atheistic existentialism and religious existentialism, the latter would get the better of the former. Beyond the different social and political factors, the cultural aspect of the post-conciliar crisis must be imputed to the collapse of religious existentialism in the face of atheistic existentialism and, afterwards, the flowing of atheistic existentialism into Marxism. Because of this evolution, many of the “progressives” of the 1960s were forced to focus on the dialogue with Marxism in order to enter into dialogue with the contemporary world, and this dialogue often entailed enormous concessions. Those who reacted against this perspective did so because in one way or another they did not accept the end of the philosophy of existence and therefore the possibility of a Christian outcome for the crisis of modernity. The acceptance of the confluence of a philosophy of existence with Marxism, and the renunciation of a possible Pascalian outcome for the philosophy of existence, rendered unintelligible the spiritual climate in which the Council developed and closed the way to the development of Christian philosophy which the Council tried to open.

A Marriage of Thomas and Pascal

Wojtyla, by contrast, remained entirely in the atmosphere of the Council, although conscious of the difficulties and of the post-conciliar crisis. The Acting Person reforms the philosophy of existence by tying it tightly to the philosophy of being. In a certain sense, Wojtyla joined together Saint Thomas and Pascal. In this way he corrected the philosophical weakness of the philosophy of existence which prevented it, both in its atheistic version and in its religious one, from being anything more than a dramatic sign of the crisis, contradiction, and impotence of man in our time.

It was precisely the insufficiency of the philosophy of existence which forced it, in Sartre, to seek shelter in Marxism. But in this way it was forced to disavow all the principal motives which inspired it, and thus to commit suicide. In opposition to Sartre, Wojtyla proposed an encounter between the philosophy of existence and Thomism, on the basis of a reform of Thomism which rendered it able to welcome the perspectives of the philosophy of existence without denying itself.

The Sartrean reform of Marxism failed, because Sartre tried to harmonize ideal perspectives themselves incompatible. What will be the destiny of Wojtyla’s attempt? It is certainly too soon to say. What can be said is that between the philosophy of existence and the philosophy of being there is no incompatibility in principle. All the internal development of Thomism (it is sufficient to name Gilson, Fabro, De Finance, etc.) is oriented toward the theme of existence. In addition, Wojtyla starts from Thomism and tries to develop the implications in it that correspond to the emphases of the philosophy of existence. It is not a question, therefore, of grafting together heterogeneous positions, but of a development which entirely saves the classical ontology and develops on its basis a phenomenological analysis of the being of man in the world. Far from contradicting classical ontology, Wojtyla integrates it and confers on it an existential meaningfulness. All of this is achieved not by looking for fictitious accommodations, but by developing the phenomenological method with intellectual honesty, and correcting it only according to its own principles.

In any case, the development of this philosophy is tied to the historical event from which it draws its origin. The task of the Council, according to Wojtyla, is to make faith an experience of life, to give rise to its subjective appropriation, thereby creating a Christian mentality and a Christianity which is not abstractly apprehended but existentially lived. The philosophy of The Acting Person consciously seeks to assist the development of this task and to justify it theoretically.


  • Rocco Buttiglione

    Rocco Buttiglione (born 1948) is an Italian Union of Christian and Centre Democrats politician and an academic.

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