Q: Would you please respond to the question as to whether or not Pope John Paul II was philosophically a phenomenologist? I was taught that he favored phenomenology. Does this mean that he was not in the mainstream of our centuries-old philosophy, the system constructed by St. Thomas Aquinas?
A: Unfortunately there is considerable confusion as to whether or not Karol Wojtyla, who became Saint Pope John Paul II, the Ethician of Lublin, embraced phenomenology as an overriding philosophical system. My own reply, based on John Paul’s own writings and sermons, as well as that of knowledgeable commentators, is negative.
There is no question about John Paul the Great’s comprehension of phenomenology; he knew it inside and out. For one thing, his second doctoral dissertation, required for teaching within Poland’s academic world, and awarded in 1954 by the Jagiellonian University Theological Faculty (the Jagiellonian was one of the very first of the great universities founded by the church, along with Bologna, Paris, Oxford, etc.), studied the relationship between Thomism and phenomenology. This second doctoral thesis, known as a “habilitation thesis,” was entitled An Evaluation of the Possibility of Constructing a Christian Ethics on the Principles of Max Scheler’s System. Scheler was a pupil of the founder of phenomenology, Edmund Husserl. (Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, Edith Stein, was a graduate assistant of Husserl at Freiburg; a philosopher herself, she died in the Nazi crematorium of Auschwitz in 1942.)
Thomism, structured upon the ancient Greek, Aristotle, renewed by St. Thomas Aquinas (whence the name, “Thomism”) and given fresh relevancy largely by the existentialism of the modern French thinker, Jacques Maritain, is a philosophy of realism, an analysis of human beings as they really are.
Phenomenology, on the other hand, is a philosophy of consciousness.
The problem, thus understood, is that human existence entails a substantial being and “an entity endowed with a specific form of consciousness,” as a former student of John Paul the Great, Father Andrew N. Woznicki, has put it. Phenomenology can help us describe human existence – and John Paul granted this often, using phenomenological words – but he maintained, as a Thomist, that “a human person is regarded as a substantial being, because only as such can a person be the causative subject of his act and an efficient cause of all human values.” (Karol Wojtyla’s Existential Personalism; Mariel 1980)
“Existential personalism” is, therefore, an accurate, specific phrase for John Paul’s Thomistic approach.
One can employ phenomenological descriptives – and they are helpful – but one must maintain that John Paul the Great was actually a Thomist.
Again, however, Karol Wojtyla did, in fact, admit to all of the above in his “habilitation thesis.” Although he tried to bridge phenomenology with Thomism, he discovered that such an accomplishment was impossible.
In Father Woznicki’s own words:
“Although Wojtyla makes frequent reference in his works to phenomenology, it would be an ‘incredible misreading’ to call his philosophical anthropology a phenomenology. In the conclusion of his first book, An Evaluation of the Possibility of Constructing a Christian Ethics on the Principles of Max Scheler’s System, he pointedly writes, ‘A Christian thinker, and specifically a theologian, although availing himself in his writings of the phenomenological experience, cannot, however, be a phenomenologist. Consistent phenomenology will reveal to him ethical values as appearing in the experience of a person “on the occasion” of acting. However, it will always be the task of a theologican-ethician to scrutinize the ethical value of human actions themselves, in the light of objective principles.’”