As we celebrate Pope John Paul II’s being raised to the honors of the altar – soon to be Blessed John Paul – countless thoughts of appreciation come to mind for his spectacular contributions to our confused, erring, and often absurd global scene.
One critically needed gift he gave the Church and the world was the salvation (literally!) of moral theology, which was under devastating assault from within as well as from outside the Church.
The turnaround especially took form at Poland’s University of Lublin (KUL), where Professor Karol Wojtyla occupied the Chair of Ethics for almost two decades before ascending to Peter’s Chair in Rome.
For me, the reclamation of moral theology – ethics – under Karol Wojtyla became an intensely personal concern; the final outcome, no less than a miracle. In other words, all that I had worked and prayed for as a preacher, writer and seminary professor, I saw suddenly come to fruition primarily because of the brilliance, scholarship, courage and perseverance of Pope John Paul the Great (a phrase I have been using in print, lectures and sermons since the ’80s, following the Pope’s first visit to Poland, where, in Krakow, he offered Mass for almost three million persons).
During the late ’70s, I found myself commuting twice or more weekly to central New Jersey for graduate studies in theology at a university whose origins were steeped in the Methodist tradition.
One of the reasons I entered there was to hear the lectures of Will Herberg, whose famed book, Protestant, Catholic, Jew, remains a veritable classic in the sociology of religion. Professor Herberg also was probably the most authoritative American expert on existentialist Martin Buber, whose epoch-making Ich und du (I and Thou) is still mandatory reading in universities around the world. Unfortunately for me, however, Herberg’s declining health prevented his returning to the classroom; he died in 1983.
But there were other courses taught by scholars of excellence: courses in liturgy, the dynamics of dying and bereavement, Christology, spirituality, homiletics, Biblical studies and more.
One of the most interesting series of lectures (usually 15 weeks in duration) was an introduction to Latin American (and allied) Liberation Theology. "Latin American Liberation Theology" began to emerge after Vatican Council II, when some thinkers in South America began to dismiss the Council as nonrelevant to their special needs, where systematized poverty, political harassment, hunger, persecution, torture and summary execution were rampant. Rejecting the traditional (and only true) mode of doing theology, which, of course, rests on solid doctrine (the Creed), these thinkers based their theories rather on the real-life situation in which they were then living (i.e., praxis rather than doxis).
Furthermore, many of these Latin American theorists reached out to Marxist theories in their argumentation, not excluding many false premisses (e.g., so-called "atheistic humanism," the need for violence). They even went as far as revising the Sacred Scriptures or reinterpreting them according to Marxist thinking.
As I listened to the lectures and read the literature required in the doctoral program, I became aware of how profoundly "Latin American Liberation Theology" had penetrated the world, and, tragically, some aspects of theology as well. The prospect of "Liberation" theologians gaining ascendency became quite troubling. It occurred to me that it would require a leader of surpassing intellect and holiness to blunt the tide, which had already seeped into Asia and Africa and even – in the mid-’70s – had begun to impact two theological currents here in America.
It was then, seemingly out of nowhere, that a moral theologian and philosopher came to Peter’s Chair, and almost singlehandedly turned the tide back. The Ethician of Lublin, as Pope John Paul is now known, made a decision, shortly after his election, in 1978, to attend CELAM III at Mexico’s Puebla de los Angeles. There, in a closed session, the new Pope, who had lived under Marxist rule and had also wrestled with it as a theory, effectively put an end to the rise of "Latin American Liberation Theology" or "Theologies." His talk was to remain among the most important of his long and dynamic pontificate. Much more was to come, of course, including two magnificent encyclicals on moral theology. But from Puebla on, "Atheistic Humanism" no longer had a future. Eventually, in 1989, the Soviet leader of this myth arrived in Rome, on a pilgrimage (!) and acknowledged Karol Wojtyla as the greatest moral leader of the century.
Msgr. David Q. Liptak is Executive Editor ofThe Catholic Transcript and censor librorum for the Archdiocese of Hartford.