The Personalist Project

Accessed on September 27, 2023 - 1:13:20

Disagreeing with Weigel

Katie van Schaijik, May 02, 2019

Several years ago, we went to a talk by George Weigel. I think it had to do with his book the Cube and the Cathedral. My memory of the event is vague, but one thing he said is still vivid. In answer to a question about the future of the Church, Weigel said: "Be afraid; be very afraid." 

It was jarring, because it's the contrary opposite of that major exhortation given by his hero, John Paul II, at his inaugural homily as Pope and repeated often, as a theme, throughout his papacy: "Be not afraid!" 

Witness to Hope is a great book. (It features a chapter titled, "Be Not Afraid!") I read it when it first came out 20 years ago, and I've returned to it many times since. I picked it up again this week, looking for a particular quote from one of Wojtyla's letters to a young woman. I found it on page 101. In the paragraph immediately preceding, I found this. It was underlined.

Love, for Karol Wojtyla, was the truth at the very center of the human condition, and love always meant self-giving, not self-assertion.

I'm sure I marked that sentence when I first read it because it neatly captures the importance of the mystery of love for Wojtyla. Back then, I wasn't yet alive to the master/slave dynamic and its centrality in his thought. I am now, though. So this time, I got that same unpleasant jar—a "Wait. What?" experience. Because the more I read and absorb John Paul II, the more thematic self-assertion has become, exactly because of its indispensability for love.

Here's another passage I re-read yesterday. It's from Love and Responsibility. I had asked Jules to help me find it. (I said in my last post that I'm preparing a talk for the ToB conference in Holland in June.)

Here, too, a trait characteristic of the person becomes his whole relationship with the world, with reality, he strives to assert himself, his "I", and must act thus, since the nature of his being demands it. 

Self-assertion belongs to the nature, dignity and vocation of the human person. In this passage, Wojtyla is speaking most directly about the person as over and against the natural world. We are not just "objects in the cosmos", unfolding our essence according a pre-determined natural pattern. Rather, we are free and self-determining subjects. Hence, self-assertion is a kind of prerequisite for a properly personal existence.

But more than that, it's a prerequisite for love. I won't quite say it's half the dynamic of love, but almost. For one thing, we can't give what we don't have. So before we can make a sincere gift of self, we have to first, as it were, acquire our selves, through a gradual and continual process of conscientiously separating ourselves out from our environment and from others, learning to "own" our individuality, our acts, feelings, values and attitudes, learning to take responsibility for ourselves and fend off the domination or undue influence of others.

For another thing, the opposite of love for Wojtyla/JP II is manipulation, or the master/slave dynamic. It's the subordination of one by the other, the treating of the other not as fellow subject, a self, but as an object of use. 

To overcome this dynamic, the "master", the would-be user, has to learn to see and affirm the other as subject, a free and self-determining "I". And the "slave" has to learn to resist her objectification; she has learn to assert her selfhood. Only then are the two in a position to achieve the reciprocal self-giving and other-receiving that is the essence of love.

There are some noteworthy passages along these lines in a talk Fr. Karol Wojtyla gave to women in the 1960's, published in English under the title The Way to Christ. Take this, for example:

The first thing which strikes us is that when they approached Christ these women acquired a certain interior autonomy, even those who were “fallen women.”

"Acquiring a certain interior autonomy"—as over and against the subordinate social role assigned to them in the ancient Jewish world—is a mode of self-assertion, wouldn't you say? Then there's this:

In every Gospel episode involving meetings with women, they find their independence at Christ’s side.

They are used to being less-than and dependent. In Christ, that changes. Here's how he describes Mary, the Mother of Jesus:

Mary is a very simple person, but has great individuality and is very much herself.

When the future Pope gives a talk to young adult women at a spiritual retreat, his focus is on cultivating their sense of self, autonomy, independence, individuality.

She was not only Christ’s Mother, but also a mature, independent companion throughout his life.

Even in the 1960s, he was implicitly laying out the contrast between the master/slave dynamic and the redemptive love of the gospel.

With Christ there are no slaves, even if the social system at that time treated women as slaves, not only in Rome but also among the Jews.


It may sound paradoxical, but this independence simultaneously makes the woman free of love and open to it. It makes her free of love with a small l—love as necessity, restriction, mere occasion, or eroticism—and opens her to the Love which is the fruit of conscious choice and in which she can find her own life and vocation.

Anyway. It frustrates and distresses me to find promoters of Wojtyla's thought missing—or worse, denying— this key point, without which, the rest loses all its vitality and fruitfulness.

I can't remember now where I read an account of JP II's last illness. One of his illnesses anyway. He was at the hospital, and doctors wanted to keep him there, though he wanted to go back to the Vatican. He said to them (I'm paraphrasing from memory): "All my life I have defended the rights of man. Today I am 'man.'" In other words, he deliberately asserted himself against the pressure of the doctors' judgments, and he explicitly related this act of self-assertion to his whole body of teaching and personal witness of the dignity of the human person. For Wojtyla, the dignity of the human person practically consists in his being a self-made-from-love-and-for-love.

It might be worth adding that it's not only Wojtyla. Think of that dramatic moment in Robert Bolt's play A Man for All Season's, when the Thomas More's self-assertion against peer pressure from the Duke of Norfolk serves as both a revelation of his great integrity and a prelude to his ultimate sacrifice of love.

Think, too, of that Gerard Manley Hopkins poem, As Kingfishers Catch Fire:

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: 
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells; 
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells, 
Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came. 

We can't fulfill our vocation as persons, which is love, without self-assertion. No one understood this better or explicated it more fully, constantly and luminously than John Paul II.