New book by St. John Paul shows early political, social philosophy

WARSAW, Poland (CNS) — A new two-volume manuscript on political and social philosophy, authored by St. John Paul II in the 1950s, will dispel views of him as “an intellectual cut off from social concerns” and clarify his lifelong stance on political and ideological issues, said the book’s editor.

The 120,000-word collection by then-Father Karol Wojtyla, released for the first time, is expected to require the updating of biographies and reinterpretation of aspects of St. John Paul’s teaching.

“Katolicka Etyka Spoleczna” (“The Catholic Social Ethic”) shows Father Wojtyla “had a deep knowledge of social problems in the 1940s and 1950s and was looking for a key to solve them; while he was convinced a world shaped by capitalism was a bad world, he also saw how communism had made simplistic promises of social change,” said Father Alfred Wierzbicki, one of the book’s editors.

This two-volume collection on political and social philosophy by Father Karol Wojtyla, now St. John Paul II, was published for the first time by his former Catholic university in Poland. (CNS photo/Jonathan Luxmoore)

“This may well affect wider interpretations of his teaching. At the very least, it reveals there are really very few differences between St John Paul II and Pope Francis on social questions,” he said.

Agnieszka Lekka-Kowalik, director of the John Paul II Institute at Poland’s Catholic University of Lublin, said the book would be “a new source for those researching his ideas, showing how they developed from Wojtyla the philosopher to Wojtyla the pope.”

“Though it won’t necessarily affect our understanding of papal teaching as a whole, it will undoubtedly deepen our understanding of this pope. Certain things will be clearer when we see how he presented his arguments.”

Lekka-Kowalik spoke amid preparations for the Jan. 28 launch of the book at the Polish bishops’ conference headquarters in Warsaw, after 15 years’ preparation by Lublin-based experts. She told Catholic News Service Jan. 17 the work’s publication had been timed for the Catholic University of Lublin’s current centenary, as well as for the run-up to St John Paul’s 100th birthday May 18, 1920.

“The Catholic Social Ethic” originated in a course taught from June 1953 by Father Wojtyla at Krakow’s Jagiellonian University. He continued the course at seminaries when the university’s theology faculty was forcibly closed by Poland’s communist rulers in 1954.

It shows the future pontiff was deeply versed as a young priest in the works of Karl Marx and able to debate complex points in the German thinker’s monumental classic, “Das Kapital.” However, it also reveals a deep knowledge of wider political, economic and social ideas, especially those with a bearing on church doctrine from the time of Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical “Rerum Novarum.”

An introduction by the editors said the text should be seen in the “specific historical context” of communist rule and was intended by the future pope as a “teaching aid” for theology students, rather than for general publication.

However, it added that the work addressed “virtually all the issues pertaining to Catholic social teaching,” and showed a consistency in the pope’s life-long pursuit of a Christian “vision of human liberation and construction of a human rights culture.”

“‘Katolicka Etyka Spoleczna’ is a kind of hermeneutic key that enables a better understanding of John Paul II’s social teaching, and especially his encyclicals,” the editors said.

“He understood the social and moral motives, as well as the critical diagnosis of the capitalist system, which inspired the Marxists’ commitment to the cause of working people. However, he was also deeply aware of the philosophical roots of the fallacy of Marxism.

“Like the communist ones, the solutions to social issues offered by liberalism proved, in Wojtyla’s view, a cure worse than the disease, since they had not taken into account the status and condition of the human person.”

The two-volume text includes extensive material on Marxism, socialism and communism and includes concepts such as “solidarity” and “moral victory,” which later were used by the Catholic Church in the struggle against communist injustices.

It includes sections on class struggle, revolution and “the objective superiority of the communist ideal” and discusses Catholic justifications for revolutionary violence and aspects of economic and historical determinism.

Wierzbicki said the text had required extensive preparation from four typed scripts containing handwritten notes and corrections by the author.

He added that questions had been raised about how much Father Wojtyla had taken from an earlier textbook by Krakow’s seminary rector, Father Jan Piwowarczyk, but said textual analyses had confirmed “very important differences” between the two works.

The future pope had engaged in a “very intelligent dialogue” with Marxism at a time when such interactions were largely prevented, Father Wierzbicki told CNS Jan. 18.

He had also “accepted Marxist concepts” such as alienation but had rooted this in “the inability of the person to achieve self-realization” rather than solely in the structures emphasized by Marxism.

“Wojtyla rejected violence to achieve improvements and differed in his evaluation of private property, which Marxists believed should be expropriated as a source of social evil and class division,” the Lublin professor said. “But he also accepted that there were seeds of truth in this and even built his thought around it, while drawing a dichotomy between the ethical systems offered by Catholic personalism and Marxist utilitarianism.”

Wierzbicki said the text’s stress on the “primacy of labor over capital” would disappoint those seeking “a total approval of capitalism” in St John Paul’s thought. He added that while the text did not “present a strategy” for undermining communism, it showed the future pope had already “thought things out” by his early 30s.

“Father Wojtyla saw how social life had to be shaped by culture — although this reflected a kind of plan, he realized political action couldn’t follow immediately, but would have to mature over a longer period,” the editor said. “Although he was concerned for the ethical order, rather than theorizing about any political system, he was also deeply disappointed later, as pope, that post-communist Poland had failed to offer the world a synthesis between free-market and solidarity principles.”

Catholic News Service is the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' news and information service.

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