by Rev. Ronald M. Ketteler
Witness to Hope (2001), George Weigel’s masterful biography of Pope John Paul II, dramatizes the unique role that the late Holy Father played as a prophetic religious figure on the stage of world events.
It is noteworthy that Blessed John Paul II closed his address at the Fiftieth General Assembly of the U. N. Organization on Oct. 5, 1995, with these words: “I come before you as a witness; a witness to human dignity, a witness to hope …”
Mr. Weigel’s The End and the Beginning (2010) appeared after Blessed John Paul II’s death in 2005. Its subtitle, “John Paul II: The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy,” spells out the significance of the late Holy Father’s pontificate.
“The Millennial Pope,” the title of the Prologue, captures another irreducible dimension of Blessed John Paul II’s Petrine ministry as Bishop of Rome (1978-2005). In “On the Coming of the Third Millennium” (Tertio Millennio Adveniente, 1994) Blessed John Paul II (d. 2005) envisioned the year of the Great Jubilee 2000 as a summons to ecclesial renewal, a time for a transforming preparation of the Church’s pilgrimage into the new millennium. In his own words, preparation for the advent of the Great Jubilee represented the “hermeneutical key” to his pontificate. (TMA n. 23)
From this historical perspective, Mr. Weigel makes several trenchant observations concerning the thought and witness of the late Holy Father.
First, Blessed John Paul II, from the time of his election to the office of Bishop of Rome in October 1978,
“ignited a revolution of conscience in his native Poland.” That revolution was “a moral challenge to the Cold War status quo that helped set in motion the international drama that would culminate in the collapse of European Communism in 1989 and the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991.”
Secondly, the empowering influence of the prophetic humanism of the “Millennial Pope” extended far beyond Eastern Europe. Weigel explains:
“Over the first two decades of the pontificate, John Paul also played important roles in democratic transitions in venues ranging from Central and South America to East Asia, even as he established himself as a universal moral witness to the dignity of the human person and the world’s principal exponent of the universality of human life.”
The singular achievements of Blessed John Paul II are characterized by epithets, such as “Witness to Hope,” “Conscience of the World,” “Statesman of Faith.” “Champion of Religious Freedom” can well be added to that list of appellations, especially in the light of contemporary threats to religious liberty and freedom of conscience.
Thus, at the 2011 National Catholic Prayer Breakfast, Archbishop Richard E. Lori delivered an address entitled “John Paul II: Champion of Religious Freedom.” The archbishop, who serves as chair of the U. S. Bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty, noted:
“… in his presence on the world stage, and above all, in his life of mystical prayer — John Paul II achieved a unique and profound synthesis of the dignity of the human person and those freedoms inherent in our humanity.” It is clear that Blessed John Paul II placed religious freedom as “the first of those freedoms.”
In “The Catholic Human Rights Revolution,” a 1995 lecture on the 30th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom (Dignitatis Humanae), George Weigel noted that religious freedom
“has become the centerpiece of the Holy Father’s defense of the universality of basic human rights which the pope regards as essential to the very possibility of a genuine global dialogue about the human future.”
Blessed John Paul II emphatically confirmed the centrality of the right to religious freedom in his address before the U. N.’s 50th General Assembly on Oct. 5, 1995. The late Holy Father declared a duty “to safeguard the fundamental right to freedom of religion and freedom of conscience, as the cornerstones of the structure of human rights and the foundation of every truly free society.” (n. 10)
On the occasion of his prior 1970 address at the U. N.’s 34th General Assembly, Blessed John Paul II called for the formation of political structures as protections against encroaching systematic threats against conscience and religious faith. Justice demands a polity that defends “the objective rights of the spirit, of human conscience and of creativity, including man’s relationship to God.” (n. 19)
“Religious Freedom: Condition for Peace” was the thesis of the 1988 Message for the World Day of Peace. In that message, Blessed John Paul II stated: “The civil and social right to religious freedom, inasmuch as it touches the most intimate sphere of the spirit, is a point of reference of the other fundamental rights and in some way becomes a measure of them.”
The social doctrine of the Church is grounded in the foundational principle of the sacredness and transcendence and essential sociality of the human person. The social magisterium of Blessed John Paul II opened up a new phase of that tradition, now in a globalized world.
On the threshold of the new millennium, Blessed John Paul II advocated the defense of human dignity against specific social structures sin: the evils of Marxist collectivism and the fallout from laissez-faire market economies. Life issues, along with those of the socio-economic orders, have come to the forefront: the right to life of every person from conception to natural death must be protected against grave moral evils of abortion and euthanasia.
The root causes of such dehumanizing sinful structures stem from ethical relativism and a concomitant loss of the sense of sin are.
To counter that separation of freedom from moral truth, Blessed John Paul II preached in season and out of season the essential relationship between freedom and truth. In the architecture of rights and freedom, the right to religious freedom becomes the linchpin for the inviolability of human dignity.
In his overview of the doctrinal teaching of the late Holy Father, Cardinal Avery Dulles, S.J., has distilled the keystone of the pope’s theology of freedom, namely, the relationship between freedom and truth.
At the Second Vatican Council, Blessed John Paul II, then Bishop Karol Wojtyla, had already introduced that key principle in an intervention during the deliberations on the draft of Dignitatis Humanae: “For freedom, on the one hand is for the sake of truth and on the other hand it cannot be perfected except by means of truth.” Bishop Wojtyla then closed with an insight that might well be judged as the central organizing principle of his theological vision of the person in society. Quoting the words of Jesus in John 8:42 — “The truth will make you free” and stated, he declared: “There is no freedom without truth.”
That theme on the relationship of freedom and truth was set forth in the first encyclical of Blessed John Paul II – Redemptor Hominis (Redeemer of Humanity, 1978). There he wrote:
“These words contain both a fundamental requirement and a warning: The requirement of an honest relationship with regard to truth as a condition for authentic freedom, and the warning to avoid every kind of illusory freedom, every superficial unilateral freedom, every freedom that falls to enter into the whole truth about man and the world.” (RH n. 12)
The theme of “The truth will make you free” was a major movement in Blessed John Paul II’s symphony of faith. In a special way, it suffused his signature encyclicals - Centesimus Annus (On the Hundredth Anniversary of Rerum Novarum, 1991), Veritatis Splendor (The Splendor of Truth, 1993) and Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life, 1995).
Blessed John Paul II’s address before the U.N. Assembly in 1995 was a peak moment in his advocacy of human rights, one in which he expounded on the meaning of freedom in relationship to moral truth. As “a witness to truth,” he declared:
“Freedom is not simply the absence of tyranny and oppression. Nor is freedom a license to do whatever we like. Freedom has an ‘inner logic’ which distinguishes it and ennobles it: Freedom is ordered to the truth and is fulfilled in man’s quest for truth and in man’s living in the truth.”
The late Holy Father then argued that a transcendent moral order does not limit or threaten freedom. Rather, its relationship “to the truth about the human person – a truth universally knowable through the moral law written on the hearts of all – is, in fact, the guarantee of freedom’s future.”
The biblical text – “the truth will make you free” – inspires a vision of the very soul of authentic freedom. It reflects the “splendor of truth.” By contrast, ethical relativism and subjectivism can only toll the death knell of freedom in the long run.
The poetry of Ingeborg Bachman resonates with the sense of John 8:42 – “Truth is what rolls back the stone from your graves.”
Rev. Ronald M. Ketteler, a priest of the Diocese of Covington, is Associate Professor and Chairperson of the Department of Theology at St. Thomas More College in Crestview Hills, Ky. He is also a member of the Ecumenical, Health Care, and Prolife Committees of the Catholic Conference of Kentucky. His columns originally appeared in The Messenger.
Photo: Pat Delahanty
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