The passion for the truth of the human person and for man’s highest calling to communion with God, which takes concrete form in a state of life, animated the pontificate of St. John Paul II. The profound adherence to this true calling, revealed and made possible by Christ, made him desire a place in the Church dedicated to the study of the truth of the person and of marriage and the family. Thus was born the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family, founded in 1982.
The North American session of the Institute, where I have been working for a number of years, together with Fr. Paolo Prosperi, opened its doors in Washington D.C., in 1988. The Institute does not deal with marginal questions interesting only to specialists in the field. Rather, its goal and its usefulness for the life and self-awareness of the Church are profoundly bound up with the central question of our time. In order to define this question, it is first necessary to be freed from two burdens, or better, two prejudices that render rather difficult both our thinking and our living.
Doing Things, and Doing Them Quickly
Bernanos brilliantly described the first prejudice: “Ah! I don’t know if life loves me, but the good Lord has given me the grace to love life, life that the imbeciles go through at high speed, without ever taking the time to look at it; life that is full of wonderful secrets that life puts at everyone’s disposal and for which no one dreams to ask.” This constant movement is the fruit of an idea of oneself and of the value of life that leads us to be always busy: to be constantly “doing” inebriates us and tricks us into thinking that we are free and creative. Unfortunately, it also forces us never to stop, never to be present. Flying through life at high speed makes us discover in the end that we are slaves of a future that never arrives, that prevents us from being authentic, that subjugates us to our emotions and instincts. In contrast, what does it mean not to be always racing around? It cannot be just the effort to pause the fleeting moment, as Faust wished. Nor is it a surrender of ourselves to a grey life, devoid of curiosity and passion. Quite the contrary, liberation from being on the go means having the courage to pause in order to look and contemplate; it means to love and not to fear what — in the eyes of the world — seems useless and unproductive. The discovery and enjoyment of the secret that is already inherent in what we have in front of us is given to him who musters the courage to stop and contemplate.
Fragmented and Groundless
The second prejudice that needs to be tossed out is the fragmentation with which we think and live. It is so radical that it makes us believe that our lives are just a collection of juxtaposed segments. Today, knowledge itself is broken into fields of specialization whose scope is increasingly narrow and disconnected from one another. Knowing everything about medicine, for example, makes it difficult to know something about everything else. Moreover, we may rightly wonder: what does the physicist gain by studying literature, or the philosopher by studying engineering? Our universities have become — as George Grant suggested — “multi-versities.” Instead of learning to wonder at things because they exist and instead of learning to work truly, that is, to give form to things in the light of what they are, universities have become places where students are taught to produce more and more ideas and projects that refute the existence of an ultimate ground of knowledge and that, as Bernanos said, turn us into “imbeciles” (etymologically, “without a cane or walking stick”): people whose path in life lacks the support of the truth. This fragmentation cannot be corrected simply by constricting the fields of knowledge into a unity that does not recognize the profound bond that ties every part to the whole. Yet, whoever surrenders thinking, perhaps discouraged by modern gnosticism, loses the taste for the truth.
Life lived “at high speed” and gnostic fragmentation make it difficult for us to listen and to think. They hamper the question that we already bear and impede life to call upon us and to unveil the secret it has for us. What is at stake is man’s ability to act and to perceive. Rather than superficially introducing a different rhythm of life or seeking to assure that each action is for one’s own or for society’s good, what is crucial is understanding what sort of concept of man guides the way we feel, think, and act. Otherwise, these prejudices will only continue to inform all of our efforts.
Today, we tend to believe that what we are, even our male and female corporeality, is not given to us but determined by our own initiative. Benedict XVI said that “today only abstract human beings exist, who choose for themselves what their nature should be.” The word “abstract” means “separated from:” that is, we think we can understand man’s essence independent of the fact that he is born from a father and a mother, that he has a male or female body, that he is called to form a communion of persons, and that he can be fruitful only within a communion of persons. Abstracted from the relationships that constitute him, man recreates himself following an image of his own making. This is the most radical negation of God. Today’s recreation of the human being can be seen not so much in the practice of homosexuality, but rather in what Cardinal Caffara described as an “ennobling of homosexuality,” which technology has made possible: today “gay couples” can in a certain way, for example, experience fecundity, and transgendered persons can legitimize their own gender self-definition by means of scientific, medical, and technological “progress.”
The Gift of Being
Here, then, is the question that we are called to consider and to which the Institute dedicates its work: “Who is man?” This question is ancient, but it resonates today in a new way. In the light of God’s love revealed in Christ, we are called to discover man’s ontological depth, in his masculine and feminine concreteness, in his call to communion with God through a specific state of life (matrimony or consecrated virginity). The question, today, therefore has two aspects: who is man, male and female? What is the love to which he is called and that constitutes his being?
John Paul II said that “the future of humanity passes by way of the family.” With this he does not refer to trivial sociological facts — even though they are true —such as: without family there can be no children and society will flicker out. He intends that man’s destiny passes by way of the family, through a communion of persons founded in the indissoluble love between a man and a woman, because this Destiny reveals man to himself and permits him to live according to what he is: the only creature who has been willed for its own sake. In the family, man discovers that he is not his own origin and that he can fulfill himself only in a gift of self. Being a gift, man is himself when he exists and lives for the other. Outside of these relationships, man cannot fully experience love and is at pains to discover who God is and what it means to live for Him.
To Guard the Truth of Man
To place ourselves in front of these questions — Who is man? What is the love that constitutes him? — with our ears blocked up by the burdens and prejudices described above drives us to conclude that to reflect on these questions is useless and inconclusive, that whoever dedicates himself to studying these questions is someone who does not know what life is , who does not understand what truth is or does not grasp the proper method to speak about it. But how can Christians today carry out the task of guarding the truth of man, of the world, and of being, if we let the questions pass us by in the noisy silence of our own busyness and our anxious desire to recreate ourselves? Responding to these questions is the fascinating task that has been entrusted to us and that we carry out together. The Institute, in fact, has the gift of being the fruit of the lived communion among the professors and of their dialogue. Through their participation in this dialogue, students in time learn to think and live in a radical and authentic way.
Antonio Lopez is a professor of the John Paul II Institute of Washington D.C. In the large image, the “Good Pastor”, of the mosaic in the mausoleum of Galla Placidia, located in Ravenna.