Religious Vocation and the meaning of life in Pope John Paul II

“Why be a human person-and how?”
Religious Vocation and the meaning of life in Pope John Paul II.

Paper given at the SSCE Conference, Westcott House, University of Cambridge 2012 ©Mary Stevens

This is a very early paper which certainly needs revision although it is not without value.


My aim in this paper is to show the anthropology of Pope John Paul II, Karol Wojtyła, at work in a document called Redemptionis Donum issued while he was pope and addressed to men and women Religious. In  Redemptionis Donum Pope John Paul II, reflecting on the Consecrated Religious Life, claimed that vocation carries the answer to the questions of “why be a human person and how”.

In this paper I shall examine John Paul’s exposition of this claim made in the context of Religious Life (ie of monks, nuns, religious sisters and brothers, friars etc) and look at the relevance of this claim and of this way of life, specifically in terms of its witness to the meaning of human life, for others. I shall look at the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience professed by Religious as ways to discover and understand what it means to be human. The Religious, through public vows, becomes a witness to a way of being human which finds its fulfilment and purpose through following Christ the Redeemer. Throughout the Exhortation the Religious Life is examined from within the perspective of all human life, and the consecration of Religious from within the context of the baptismal consecration of all Christians. I will demonstrate John Paul’s exposition of an understanding of the “why and how” of being human as illustrated in Consecrated Religious Life.

This paper has three parts. I shall begin with a brief look at some background, in particular some issues raised Kant and Scheler which were among the catalysts for the development of Wojtyła’s own insights, which will be the subject of the second section. Finally I shall move on to the document Redemptionis Donum suggesting the presence of his anthropology reflected in one theme within it.

JPII, Kant and Scheler

Pastoral work was the preference of Fr. Wojtyła but the young man was marked for an academic career and in obedience to his bishop three years after completing his theology doctorate in Rome, he embarked on his Habilitation Thesis on Max Scheler. Wojtyła’s initial seminary training in philosophy had been according to Thomistic Aristotelianism. He remained committed to this all his life recognising that it provides:

a metaphysical terrain … in which personal human subjectivity is realised, creating, in a sense, a condition for “building upon” this terrain on the basis of experience.[1]

He was aware, however, that Aristotelian metaphysics alone was not adequate to respond to the questionings of the contemporary mind. While it provides a necessary aspect in the account of the human person it is no longer sufficient. Wojtyła realised, as he wrote, that the “human being’s proper essence cannot be totally reduced to and explained by the proximate genus and specific difference”.[2] Within that definition man is viewed as an object, viewed from outside, as it were, and appears to be reducible to the world. While the primordial uniqueness of the human being and respect for his experience is asserted, his experience and his consciousness, above all his uniqueness, are not sufficiently accounted for. Nevertheless, the movement of modern philosophy since Descartes had not achieved a satisfactory outcome, according to Wojtyła. In searching for a way forward he examines Kantian ethics, attempting to point out some of the major shortfall, and he places beside it the attempt of Max Scheler to redress the problem as Scheler saw it.[3]

For Kant, ethical life is contained in the noumenal sphere and, crucially, is concealed beyond human experience. Ethical content can only be experienced through respect for the law, a respect which has an emotional nature. Wojtyła believed that Kant’s understanding, as well as being at odds with human experience, leaves ethics unable to address adequately ethical questions. Phenomenology, in complete contrast with Kant, accepts that experience can give true knowledge of things as they are, a knowledge which is both rational and sensory. Scheler, as a phenomenologist, thus approached ethical experience as capable of revealing its essence.   He had tremendous respect for Kant’s work which he describes in the introduction to Formalism in Ethics as “the most perfect we have … in the form of strict scientific insight”[4]  He believes that “Kant correctly rejects all ethics of goods and purposes as having false bases”.[5]  But he opposed utterly the formal ethics of Kant and his concern is to propose “objective, non-formal ranks of values”. For Scheler, knowledge is knowledge of something, transcendent to the self, given in the intentional acts of the personal subject. Man goes beyond himself, to something experienced as existing not merely within his own subjectivity. He does experience real moral values as intentional acts. These values attract man forcefully, but they attract him through emotion. The values are known objects outside the self but they are known entirely by emotion and emotional attraction.  Reason, Scheler says, knows only factual being and not value. Cognition therefore has no part to play in the ethical experience: the person is simply driven by the attraction experienced.  Man therefore is not engaged in a choice made with all his self and experience, and the efficacy of the human person is thus entirely compromised. The core of ethics traditionally is that the person must transcend himself, chose to carry out recognised values and realise himself: in choosing and doing good the person becomes good. This is not possible without cognition as well as affection, nor without an ontology which recognises potency and act, leaving Scheler’s thought, therefore, necessarily defective. The movement away from Aristotelian ontology had thus once again ended up divorcing consciousness from the whole objective human being. Ultimately Scheler’s proposal, as well as Kant’s, fails to satisfy Wojtyła. The field of ethics is in a way is a privileged area for the study of human life and the significance of these positions of both Kant and Scheler obviously goes far beyond ethics as they both posit an epistemology and an ontology which must be operative in all spheres of human life. According to Wojtyła, the way ahead needed the help of ontology alongside the examination of experience to inform and to guide it.

Wojtyła’s approach

Wojtyła thought that the epistemological method was failing through its development at the expense of ontology. He therefore attempted to put the two together and embarked on his own examination of experience. He turned to phenomenology which he identified as a different method of trying to understand the human being, saying that he “finds it useful because its “method is suitab[le] to exploit adroitly the available experiential data.” He takes the adage operari sequitur esse (action follows being) and he switches the perspective. Instead of the usual sense in which it is taken to mean simply that the activity of a thing depends on its being, he uses in an epistemological way: If action follows being, then action examined can lead to understanding of being.[6] He is able to do this using the traditional metaphysical schema through which the powers, actions and self-awareness of the human being are the accidents of the substance which is the human suppositum. Acts done, or acts being done to the subject, are reflected back to the subject in consciousness, and through this the subject comes to possess himself, be himself as an aware self. In other words, consciousness, the awareness of being a subject, is revealed to the human person through the reflection of intentional acts, a process which Wojtyła calls reflexivity. Crucially, cognition and affectivity are both involved in this process. Reason, knowledge received, all play their part. For the Christian, especially for the pastor, uniting natural reason and analysis such as this with Christian revelation is quite simply preparing for the proclamation of the Good News within the contemporary world.

Redemptionis Donum

(At this point, before moving on to religious life I would like to interject here that there is another major phenomenologist whose work would be most pertinent in this field: Edith Stein. She was herself both a major philosopher and later a Carmelite nun. Clearly she is going to have the most useful “insider” views of both phenomenology and religious life. This is a task waiting for me to attempt!)

Before delving into the final section of this paper in which I approach Religious Life I will give a quick outline of some of the defining characteristics of what is called here “the Religious Life”. There isn’t an easy definition but for my purposes here I will say that: Religious Life is a gift of the Spirit to the Church/ freely undertaken by an individual /who is bound by vows of chastity, poverty and obedience / in a community / within an Order or Congregation recognised by the Church/ out of love for God / service of others / and for his or her own sanctification. Redemptionis Donum is a meditation, a reflection, on this very specific way of human life (the consecrated life of nuns, monks, friars, religious sisters and brothers, and so on) and from a very specific perspective: within the light of the Redemption. Wojtyła, now Pope John Paul II, opens up a vista from these perspectives in which the “how and why” of being a human person is displayed. He writes:

Vocation carries with it the answer to the question: Why be a human person – and how? This answer adds a new dimension to the whole of life and establishes its definitive meaning.[7]

In RD JPII uses Redemption as a lens through which to view this cluster of phenomena. This then forms another lens with which we can then look back in the other direction at the “why and how” of being a human person. I believe that starting from this point, one can begin to discern here, in this reflection on Religious Life, both an ontology and an epistemology that it brings with it which contribute to a new theology of religious life.


John Paul speaks very specifically of “vocation” as demonstrative of anthropology, and for want of time this is the one point from the document which I will look at here. I will be sticking very closely to the text, but in such a way as to highlight some key phrases which can slip through unnoticed. John Paul talks about vocation (being called) and response to vocation (response to being called) as discovery: discovery of the treasure of one’s humanity, discovery of one’s self, discovery of how to be one’s self and of one’s ultimate purpose. Immediately there are indications of the phenomenological approach. He uses the classic gospel pericope of the “calling of the rich young man” as a paradigm for vocation. He gives the references to each of the synoptic accounts, but he leans heavily on Mark, and immediately we find something rather striking: John Paul begins his mediation on this passage almost in the middle of the narrative with Mark 10: 21:

Jesus, looking upon him, loved him[8]

There is an encounter: in this movement of human discovery there is a specific point of reference and that point of reference is the person of Jesus Christ, looking, loving. There is also a specific dynamic which is presented in the rest of the verse:

You lack one thing. Go and sell what you own and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.[9]

The first sentence is crucial: you are lacking something, there is a lack. Immediately we hear from Jesus that this “lack” is going to be addressed in the first instance by selling all you do already have, giving away the proceeds to those in material need. This indicates therefore that we need to be looking for sufficiency in another dimension. The “lack” will not be resolved by “more”, but by moving to a different arena. The way to this new arena passes through giving to those in need, giving, first of all, that which represented a self which was predicated on possession and the capacity to possess. Absolutely crucially this is part of a dynamic which culminates in following Jesus. In the encounter with Jesus, Jesus has acknowledged that the person coming to Him is “lacking”, he has identified the insufficiency of this dimension of “having” and he has indicated that the perfection of the human person will be found in following Him, in “being” His follower, in a way of “being” which takes a path of giving to others and is experienced as fulfilment. The one called, for his part, has experienced both the attraction of Jesus, his own lack, and at the same time knows and chooses a response. In this encounter, with its moment of attraction and its presentation of possibilities, the one meeting Jesus engages in the reflexivity of which Wojtyła has spoken in his examination of the acting person. Not only is that dynamic demonstrated, but the key point of this is that in religious vocation both the ultimate goal and motive for action, indeed for human life, as well as the chosen response of the person, and the way this dynamic occurs, are demonstrated existentially.

In his reflection on Religious Life the philosophical and theological anthropology of Pope John Paul II are indeed at work.

[1] Pope John Paul II, Person and community : selected essays, ed. Andrew N. Woznicki, trans. Theresa Sandok OSM, Catholic thought from Lublin; v 4 (New York: P. Lang, 1993). 212.

[2] Ibid. p 211.

[3] See in particular ibid. Essay 2, 23ff.

[4]  Max Scheler, Formalism in ethics and non-formal ethics of values; a new attempt toward the foundation of an ethical personalism  (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973). xvii

[5] Ibid. P

[6] John Paul II, Person and community : selected essays. 223.

[7] “Apostolic Exhortation of His Holiness Pope John Paul II Redemptionis Donum to Men and Women Religious on Their Consecration in the Light of The Mystery of The Redemption,” § 5.

[8] Mk. 10:21.

[9] Mk. 10:21.


John Paul II, Pope. “Apostolic Exhortation of His Holiness Pope John Paul II Redemptionis Donum to Men and Women Religious on Their Consecration in the Light of the Mystery of the Redemption.”

———. Person and Community : Selected Essays [in English]. Translated by Theresa Sandok OSM. Catholic Thought from Lublin; V 4. edited by Andrew N. Woznicki New York: P. Lang, 1993.

Scheler, Max. Formalism in Ethics and Non-Formal Ethics of Values; a New Attempt toward the Foundation of an Ethical Personalism [in English].  Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973.