In his first papal encyclical, Pope John Paul II offers a profound theological reflection on the situation of the modern world in light of the reality of the redemption of the world in Christ. Articulating themes that will define his papacy, Redemptor Hominis provides a great starting point for those attempting to understand the theology of John Paull II. The key themes that emerge in this encyclical are first, an overwhelmingly Christocentric focus. Throughout the encyclical, John Paul II emphasizes repeatedly the centrality of the redemption of humanity solely in and through Christ. “Jesus Christ is the center of the universe and of history” and as such is the center of all of the Pope’s reflections of the ailments of modern life (par. 1).
Secondly, a key theme of the encyclical is the Pope’s commitment to a personalist philosophy. The uniqueness and inherent dignity of each individual is a central commitment that defines and shapes all of the theological thought of the late Pontiff. The third key theme that emerges from this encyclical is the way in which it culminates in a vision of the Marian and Eucharistic church. The practice of the Eucharist is the “center and summit of the whole sacramental life” (par. 20) from which flows the fullness of our experience of the church’s reality in union with Christ. Likewise, the church must understand itself in light of the Mother of the Lord who embodies the form of the church whose receptive, maternal love lives in response to the active love of the Father who redeems the world through the Son (par. 22).
The first section of the encyclical is in large part a homage to the inheritance of John Paul II. Herein he takes great pains to express his indebtedness to his predecessors Pope John XXIII and Pope Paul VI, both of whom he draws his name from, seeking to extend their legacy through his own papacy. It should not escape notice that it was Pope John XXIII who was in many ways the unexpected architect of Vatican II, calling for the renewal of the church in a profound and (to many) surprising way. Pope John Paul II, in taking his name from these two predecessors, illustrates clearly the nature of his pontificate as a whole: a rejection of self-focus and the desire to make a name for himself or create a legacy for himself, but rather a posture of humble service to the church, its tradition, and history.
The second section of the encyclical is focused on “the mystery of redemption.” Here Pope John Paul II expounds an utterly Christocentric theology of salvation with a view toward showing how the Christian gospel speaks to the particular problems of the modern age. The Christological starting point here is quite important. It marks the basic orientation of the Pope’s theology throughout his life, and is quite consonant with the ethos of the Catholic tradition as a whole. For John Paul II, the first word must always be Christ, “Our spirit is set in one direction, the only direction for our intellect, will and heart is towards Christ, the Redeemer of man. We wish to look towards him because there is salvation in no one else but him, the Son of God” (par. 7).
The Pope goes on to expound the nature of the redemption that was achieved in Christ. Here, striking a distinctive note (indeed, one that sounds much like the theology of Thomas Torrance, and the Scottish Reformed tradition as a whole), John Paul II articulated that “by his Incarnation, he, the Son of God, in a certain way united himself with each man” (par. 9). In Christ’s act of incarnation, God unites each and every person with himself in their concrete uniqueness as persons. This is the basis of John Paul II’s soteriology, that humankind cannot live without being united to the God who is love. “Man cannot live without love. He remains a being that is incomprehensible for himself, his life is senseless, if love is not revealed to him, if he does not encounter love, if he does not experience it and make it his own, if he does not participate intimately in it” (par. 10).
It is this insistence on God’s act of uniting himself with each unique person that theological grounds the Pope’s commitment to the philosophy of personalism. Because God, in Christ has united himself to every person, every person has indissoluble dignity and significance. It is this conviction of the dignity of each person that grounds the Pope’s commitment to the church’s missionary task. “the missionary attitude always begins with a feeling of deep esteem for ‘what is in man’, for what man has himself worked out in the depths of his spirit concerning the most profound and important problems” (par. 12). It is this Christocentric orientation focused on the dignity of the individual and the church’s missional imperative that ground the Pope’s discussion of the church’s relationship to the modern world.
In moving into his third section, discussing the specific problems of modern life in depth, the Pope again underscores his Christological theme of Christ uniting himself with each person. As he sounds that note, Pope John Paul II moves into his discussion of what precisely is the fear of modern humanity. He notes the fundamental feature of alienation in modern life, particularly alienation between the worker who produces and the things produced which seem to continually become an object of threat. It is the things that we, the human community created and produce that seem to be the biggest threat to human flourishing in the world. The Pope notes that this state of fear breeds a culture of “immediate use and consumption” which, coupled with “the ascendancy of technology” yields a way of life that is distinctly predatory on human dignity and relationships.
The Pope goes on to indict the modern world on the basis of how it separates and alienates humankind. He insists that “the consumer civilization, which consists in a certain surplus of goods necessary for man and for entire societies” is fundamentally wrong in that it is based on the suffering of great sectors of humanity who “are suffering from hunger, with many people dying each day of starvation and malnutrition” (par. 16). His call to the church, then is to a “principle of solidarity” by which the Pope means a thoroughgoing commitment to the “transformation of the structures of economic life” (par. 16).
The Pope insists that “it is possible to undertake this duty”, that it is not a hopeless task for the church to attempt the transformation of the world in and through Christ. He also insists that any such social transformation will be impossible “without the intervention of a true conversion of mind, will, and heart.” The Pope also notes that the weapons that the church has at its disposal are the purely nonviolence weapons of love. Making one of the most moving appeals in the encyclical, John Paul II argues that the church “has no weapons at her disposal apart from those of the spirit, of the word and of love” and thus “for this reason she does not cease to implore each side of the two [likely referring to the capitalist West and Communist Russia] and beg everybody in the name of God and the name of man. Do not kill! do not prepare for the destruction and extermination of men! Think of your brothers and sisters who are suffering hunger and misery! Respect each other’s dignity and freedom!” (par. 16).
The fourth and final section of the encyclical brings the discussion to a close by focusing on the mystery of the church and her sacramental life as the summit of human life. The God who unites himself with every persons calls every person into the unity of faith in one Eucharistic body. Indeed, it is in the Eucharist that the height of the divine mystery of God in union with humanity is realized. “The Eucharist is the centre and summit of the whole sacramental life, through which each Christian receives the saving power of the Redemption” (par. 20). The Pope is also careful to underscore the close connection between the Eucharist and Penance. “The Christ who calls to the Eucharistic banquet is always the same Christ who exhorts us to penance and repeats his “Repent” (par. 20). Striking a note that will be particularly appealing to Protestants, John Paul II insists that “We cannot, however forget that conversion is a particularly profound inward act in which the individual cannot be replaced by others and cannot make the community a substitute for him” (par. 20). The mystery redemption reaches its summit in the Eucharist, but rightful participation in Christ’s redemption involves every person in their own concrete, irreplaceable uniqueness.
The final paragraph of the encyclical focuses on the Mother of the Lord as the exemplar and archetype of the church, and indeed, the embodiment of the maternal love that the modern world stands so desperately in need of. “the Church always, and particularly at our time, has need of a Mother” (par. 22) as the Pope says. The Marian “fiat” embodies the way in which Christians are called to respond to the work of God in the world, simply saying “yes” to his redemption in Christ. It is this mindset of active anticipation in receptive passivity which Pope John Paul II calls the church to take up in his prayer for “humanity’s new Advent.” The encyclical ends, rightly with the invocation of the Holy Spirit whose vivifying presence mediates the redemption of Christ to the world in the formation of the Mystical Body of Christ (par. 22).