Saturday, February 11, 2012

Man in the Field of Responsibility

By Karol Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II), 84 pages,

Wojtyla argues for adopting a strong sense of right and wrong. He uncompromisingly sets forth the idea that good and evil, knowable to all and determined by God, cannot be altered. Regardless of the ever-changing values of society, some acts are always wrong or always good. Humans must make the right choice.

Man in the Field of Responsibility gives us a sense of the more academic side to the late pontiff, and his role as university professor of ethics at the Catholic University of Lublin, Poland from 1954-78. This short book, actually a preliminary proposal for a longer, collaborative work in the subject, had to be left undone when the author was elected pope in 1978.

The book contains many of the themes John Paul II emphasized repeatedly while leader of the Church. Through the philosophical streams of phenomenology and personalism, he highlights "lived experience" and the need to respect the individual person. This includes a focus on human dignity. A human can never be the means to something, but only the end.

Following Catholic tradition going back to St. Thomas Aquinas and earlier, Wojtyla argues that ethics forms a part of creation itself because it comes from the Father. This natural law is knowable through reason because, written on the human heart, it is part of human nature. All humans are given the gift of the natural law independently of the gift of revelation. Each person can therefore judge certain acts as intrinsically evil - they are evil by their very nature. Likewise, we know that some acts are intrinsically good.

"The natural law assumes," the author notes, "that being and values are in some way connected to one another and mutually dependent." As well, these norms form a hierarchy of sorts, and some norms depend on other norms.

Because this book is only a rough sketch of a proposed much larger work, these arguments are often left without concrete examples, making this discussion largely theoretical.

The moral good, a duty, calls us to do the right thing. The strength of this teaching, in addition to its consistency, is the lack of sentimentalism. While Wojtyla obviously respects the person, his ethics does not allow any space for emotional justification for committing an evil such as abortion.

The conscience plays an important role because of the interplay between the universal aspect of the unchanging natural law and the particular aspect of the individual person, which Wojtyla's personalist philosophy emphasizes. Unfortunately, in this unfinished manuscript the author gives little space to the conscience.

Man in the Field of Responsibility demonstrates the ability of the late pontiff to bring competing viewpoints together. In much of his thinking, he taught how faith and reason can complement rather than limit each other. Bringing natural law and the personal dignity of the individual together into one vision creates a very human, yet non-sentimental moral view of the person.

It is easy to see that in this book Wojtyla maintains such a demanding view of ethics precisely because of his deep respect for the individual. Each person deserves only the highest of ethical values by which to live his life. This is perhaps the greatest theme of this book.

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