Crossing the Threshold of Love
Mary Shivanandan


(Mary Shivanandan, Crossing the Threshold of Love: A New Vision of Marriage in the Light of John Paul IIís Anthropology  (T & T Clark)  is the monumental textbook that the prolife movement has been waiting for. This is the definitive study of the Popeís innovative theology of the body and its implications for human life and marriage, drawing on Scriptural exegesis, philosophy and the latest findings in the social sciences to present a complete picture of the life-giving vision implicit in the use of Natural Family Planning. Highly recommended.)

Pope John Paul II is regarded by many in the West as an enigma. While he is seen as a champion of human rights and is credited with a major role in bringing down the "iron curtain," he is castigated for being a rigid reactionary in the area of morals, especially sexual morality. It is little understood that his concern for the dignity of the human person and what he calls, after Vatican Council II, the communion of persons of marriage and family flow from the same source. Indeed, they are so intertwined that it is not possible to say which has been more salient in his life and work.

Dominican philosopher, Abelardo Lobato, cites Bergson's statement that great philosophers have only one word to say and spend their whole life saying it. For Karol Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II) that one word is person. In corollary, friend and fellow Pole, Mieczyslaw Malinski, writes that the pope's interest in human personality "gave direction to his academic studies. Above all he was interested in the supreme experience, which is love-both love in general, if one may put it so, and particular forms of it such as married love."

Wojtyla's early plays show how deeply he penetrated the joys and sorrows of married love, depicting with compassionate understanding the alienation leading to divorce. From the beginning of his pastoral ministry he was challenged particularly to understand and apply the Church's teaching on responsible parenthood. This went hand in hand with the experience of man's dehumanization first under the Nazi, then the Communist dictatorships. In the brief autobiography of his priesthood he confirms this link:

The two totalitarian systems . . . I came to know so to speak, from within. And so it is easy to understand my deep concern for the dignity of every human person and the need to respect human rights, beginning with the right to life. This concern was shaped in the first years of my priesthood and has grown stronger with time. It is also easy to understand my concern for the family and young people. These concerns are all interwoven; they developed precisely as a result of those tragic experiences.

Philosopher Karol Wojtyla expresses the common thread linking both dimensions when he states: "The central problem of life for humanity in our times, perhaps in all times, is this: participation or alienation." Both participation and alienation are linked to man's personal subjectivity. Man is alienated when, without ceasing to be a member of the human species, he is not considered a personal subject. In his work, The Acting Person, he sees a greater need for what he calls participation in the communities of being of the family and the nation, because it is there that the greatest deviations have occurred.

To get at the root of modern man's alienation he turned to philosophy, particularly the Thomist tradition. His earlier immersion in the phenomenology of consciousness of Max Scheler enabled him to incorporate the notion of experience in the ethical act. The actus humanus (human act) of Aquinas became the act of the personal subject. But to plumb the depths of who man is, the philosopher turned-or rather returned-to theology. Only in Christ is the mystery of man made clear. The Vatican Council II document, Gaudium et Spes gave him the insights on which his mature anthropology would be based, particularly nos. 22 and 24.

From his earliest plays Wojtyla had viewed man in the light of his eternal destiny. His participation in Vatican Council II brought this out more. But it was precisely the questions raised by the Church's teaching on responsible parenthood from Pope Pius XI's encyclical Casti Connubii to Pope Paul VI's encyclical Humanae Vitae that led him to seek in philosophy (Love and Responsibility, 1959) and in Scripture (the Wednesday Catechesis) the meaning of being a man and a woman and their one-flesh communion. Christ, himself, in responding to the Pharisees on the question of divorce had referred them "back to the beginning." Under the stimulus of the 1980 Synod of the Family John Paul II began a series of catecheses in his regular Wednesday audiences on the Scriptural bases of the Church's teaching on marriage and family beginning with the creation accounts in Genesis.

In the second, Yahwist account of creation John Paul II discerns that man and woman in their subjectivity are each created as a "solitude" before God. Each is a self-determining being in a unique relationship with God. He calls this "original solitude," an essential foundation of personhood. Yet God saw that it was not good for man (Adam) to be alone and so created a "helper" fit for him, Eve. Together they formed the first communion of persons.

When both sinned by eating the fruit of the tree of good and evil, they suffered a three-fold alienation, becoming alienated from God and each other and experiencing opposition between their spiritual and physical powers. The alienation originates precisely at the level of the personal subject and from there extends through all relationships, beginning with the intimate I-you communion of husband-wife, mother-child. The temptation is always to treat the other as an object and not as a freely willed gift. Redemption also takes place at the level of the personal subject through transformation in and through Christ. Only in relationship first with God and then with another human person in complete self-giving is alienation overcome.

Wojtyla was acutely aware of the problem of atheism not so much in the aspect of an intellectual denial of God but in relation to the internal state of the human person. "The atheistic man," he says "is a man persuaded of his final--that is to say--'eschatological' solitude." On the other hand the "religious man in his own intimate relationship to God shows himself as one not alienated, but on the contrary most at home with himself and the world from this relationship with God. And here is the aspect and indeed the end of great moment for the Church in the world of this time."

A New Discourse

This "eschatological solitude" before God permeates every aspect of post-modern culture. It has become clear that a new discourse is necessary both in theology and the human sciences to dialogue with a culture that is fundamentally atheistic. Carl Anderson cites Henri Lubac's comment of nearly 40 years ago that modern atheism, which is characteristic of our contemporary culture has not simply rejected belief in God but is anti-theist citing Nietzsche's statement, "It is our preference that decides against Christianity--not arguments." When the Enlightenment philosophers proclaimed human reason as the sole criterion for truth and morality replacing the unifying power of religion, they only partially altered the discourse with Christianity. But the very skepticism that called into question the validity of transcendent truth through faith came to be applied to modern rationalism itself. Nietzsche claimed that the confidence of reason to ascertain objective truth was an illusion. When man ascribes to an objective order of truth outside himself he is bound to something other than himself and so is not free. The attack on divine Truth had become an attack on all truth because the truly free man cannot depend on anything outside himself. What is now called postmodernism has radically changed intellectual discourse by accepting Nietzsche's rejection of modern rationality.

Anderson calls the encyclical on responsible parenthood, Humanae Vitae "one of the last great magisterial documents addressed to the intellectual and cultural conditions of Modernity." It presupposed a discourse based on the validity of human reason to arrive at a consensus on moral truths. He does not believe that discourse on the encyclical, which might have been possible immediately after its release, is now possible. Any discussion on the issues raised by the encyclical must now address first the very foundations of modern culture. A new discourse can no longer be based on a consensus on words or concepts employed. "It must be a living discourse, a new evangelization carried on as a way of life." Christ himself as the Word is the "living discourse."

As philosopher, Karol Wojtyla, and as pope, John Paul II not only understands the need for a new discourse but he has been developing such a discourse from his earliest years in Poland. The pope did not follow a straight line, as it were, in developing his anthropology. It is remarkable that even in his earliest plays the main concepts can be discerned but their articulation took many years of pastoral experience, philosophical and theological study. Wherever he felt the need he also consulted the fields of psychology and sexology, believing that they have a vital if subordinate role to play in illuminating an adequate anthropology.

He was particularly challenged to find a new discourse for the Church's teaching on responsible parenthood. In seeking a Scriptural foundation as recommended by Paul VI, he has developed a theology of the body centered on its "nuptial meaning." The human person can only "find himself" by making a sincere gift of himself " in a communion of persons. (Gaudium et Spes, no. 24) Masculinity and femininity are the primordial sign of this gift which is expressed in creation by the one-flesh union of marriage from which flows both the indissoluble communion of persons and procreation. When this gift is not total, if, for example, it takes place outside marriage or the spouses withhold their fertility from each other, the body no longer expresses the "nuptial meaning."

This has provided the Church with a framework for understanding more deeply not just the teaching on responsible parenthood itself but also the "lived experience" of couples who follow the Church's teaching. It has underlined the conviction that natural family planning and contraception are irreconcilable approaches to the human person, marriage and sexuality. Part Two of the work focuses on questions specifically related to family planning, showing how two different anthropologies underlie the development of both contraception and natural family planning. While holding out the promise of "liberation" particularly of the woman, the "culture of contraception" alienates man from woman. Each begins to treat the other as an object, leading to a breakdown of the communion of persons of the husband and wife and the rejection of the child. Natural family planning, on the contrary, through the periods of abstinence, has the capacity to aid the spouses in self-mastery leading to self possession so that they may give and receive each other completely as a gift . It fosters dialogue, appreciation of masculinity and femininity and acceptance of the child. In other words it promotes participation not alienation.

This difference between the two approaches extends much further than the technical aspects of the methods themselves. It extends to the whole enterprise of researching and evaluating the methods. Traditional positivist methods which promote objectification and distance from the researcher and have been primarily used in contraceptive research cannot do justice to the subjectivity of the person. The so-called "participatory methods," which are more suited to revealing the person as subject, it has been found, are more fitted to capturing especially the NFP experience. This work is unique in addressing from a theological-perspective both the methodology and most recent findings of the social sciences related to responsible parenthood.

In developing what he calls an "adequate" anthropology, John Paul II has extended our understanding of the human person and contributed profound insights into the nature of man and woman and marriage. He goes so far as to say that man and women, even in the bodily dimension of their masculinity and femininity image the communion of Persons in the Trinity. They reveal in the world the mysterious plan of God by which humanity is destined to participate in divine Trinitarian communion.

It becomes clear that an "adequate" anthropology such as John Paul II has developed, which affirms the subjectivity of the person and an essential orientation towards communion with God and with another human person, must be the foundation of all approaches including the scientific, if they are to reveal and advance the truth about the human person and the communion of persons.

The Work as Textbook

A distinctive feature of this work is to show the unity between theology, philosophy and the human sciences. There are several ways to use it as a text. First of all it can be a straightforward guide to the development of John Paul II's thought on the person and the communion of persons, beginning with the experiential foundation, then moving to the philosophical and finally the theological. Such a course would comprise the whole of Part I: the plays, the dissertation on St. John of the Cross, the critique of Kant and Scheler; Love and Responsibility, the Lublin Lectures and The Acting Person; the Council, the communion of persons and the first part of the Wednesday Catechesis; the theology of the body; and chapter five which shows how he applies his anthropology in his encyclicals and apostolic exhortations.

Secondly it can be a basic text on "the irreconcilable differences" between contraception and the Church's teaching on responsible parenthood. Such a course would begin with Part Two: 20th century developments in birth control, ideology and birth control and the Church's response; move to Part One: chapter four (the theology of the body), and two sections in chapter three (marriage and family as a communion of persons); then return to Part Two: chapters two and three (social science and birth control) and end with the"The Final Word."

A third approach is to focus on the contribution John Paul II has made to contemporary discourse by integration of a philosophical phenomenology of consciousness as such with the metaphysical-theological notion of incommunicability and the biblical-theological concept of original solitude (chapter five); identification of original solitude with personal subjectivity, whole in itself and yet only coming to full self realization through relationship with another "thou" (chapter two); a theology of sex and masculinity and femininity which contributes to the ongoing dialogue on the meaning of being a man and a woman; (chapters three and four ), all of Part One; finally the emphasis on experience which accords with contemporary retrieval of personal reality in psychology and the social sciences (chapters two and three of Part Two and chapter one of Part One).

It can also be used in conjunction with a course on the Wednesday Catechesis. In fact it has already been used in this way. The author hopes that the work will play a small part in making available the great riches of John Paul II's philosophical and theological anthropology.