St. John Paul II on Christmas Day 2002 at the Vatican.


St. John Paul II on Christmas Day 2002 at the Vatican.

November 3, 2014

St. John Paul II's philosophy of the human person provides a basis for both defending and critiquing the current Canadian economic and social system.

One could draw that conclusion from talks given at an Oct. 24-25 conference on The Legacy of John Paul II at St. Joseph's College at the University of Alberta.

Father John McNerney of University College Dublin outlined the recently canonized pope's understanding of the human person which the pope described as fundamentally mysterious.

Karol Wojtyla, the future pope, in his book The Acting Person, seeks to listen to the interior reality of the human person, McNerney said. "The I who acts in the human person is fundamentally free and self-determining."

Wojtyla sought to focus not on the person's ability to think, as is common in modern philosophy, but on his or her status as an actor, an active agent, he said. It is action that reveals the person.

The pope's 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus (The Hundredth Year), according to McNerney, finds the essential qualities of the human person manifested in "the free economy."

Pope John Paul saw the fundamental error of communism as an error about the nature of the human person, he said. "It pulverizes initiative, self-determination out of the equation."

In a free economy, however, self-determination unfolds through creative human work, initiative and entrepreneurial activity. A free economy is not a machine, but a process involving equal economic actors.

There is no perfect economic system, McNerney said. But a free economy depends on the exercise of human virtues such as industriousness, prudent risk-taking, courageous decision-making and good interpersonal relationships.

Dr. Bob McKeon, social justice coordinator of the Edmonton Archdiocese who teaches at both St. Joseph's College and Newman Theological College, in another talk at the conference, focused on a different papal encyclical, the 1981 Laborem Exercens (On Human Work).

Germain McKenzie-Gonzalez

Germain McKenzie-Gonzalez

McKeon emphasized several themes of the encyclical including the pope's view that the right to private property is not an absolute right, but carries "a social mortgage."

For example, high unemployment structured into the economy is an offence against human dignity, one which all sectors of society should strive to overcome.

The encyclical also maintained that capital is to serve the dignity of human labour, and declared that when that priority is reversed – when labour takes a back seat to capital – it is an "error," McKeon said.

Laborem Exercens had a huge effect on the Church in Canada, both the leaders and the grassroots, he said. It led to the Canadian bishops' 1983 New Year's statement, Ethical Reflections on the Economic Crisis, which sparked a huge national debate.

In Ethical Reflections, the bishops maintained the needs of the poor have priority over the wants of the rich as well as that the rights of workers are more important than the maximization of profits, McKeon said. Further, the participation of marginalized groups in society should take precedence over the preservation of a system that excludes them.

Grassroots Christians deepened their involvement in social issues, a trend which, in Edmonton, reached its peak during the 190-day strike at Gainers' Meats. There, thousands of Christians provided prayer support on the picket line, an action McKeon said may have helped reduce violence during the strike.


In yet another talk, Germain McKenzie-Gonzalez, who teaches at Niagara University, spoke on Pope John Paul's view that the division between faith and culture is "the drama of our times."

Culture, McKenzie-Gonzalez said, is the indispensable means by which people become fully human. It is the field in which the human person is "cultivated."

Conversely, he said, the late pope's term "the culture of death" refers to an anti-culture in which the humanity of persons is not developed.

The Gospel demands, McKenzie-Gonzalez said, that faith and culture be synthesized. The new evangelization includes efforts to unify faith and culture, efforts that involve not only scholars, but also people in a wide array of professions as well as families.

Canadian culture, he said, shows remarkable strength in the prevalence of the rule of law, respect for human rights, a welfare state and the ways in which people interact with each other.

Fr. John McNerney

Fr. John McNerney

However, there are also "shadows," such as threats to the right to life and right to religious freedom, and the place of the poor and marginalized, he said.

Christians, he continued, should try to affect the mainstream culture, which has a high degree of self-congratulation about its successes. Every culture needs a humble realism.

As well, a positive Christian alternative to mainstream culture could be offered, one which would include a sound Christian understanding of the human person, said McKenzie-Gonzalez.


About 60 people attended the conference on John Paul II which was sponsored by the Canadian Fellowship of Catholic Scholars.

Dr. Robert Berard of Halifax, president of the fellowship, said the organization was founded in 1993 by scholars faithful to the magisterial teachings of the Catholic Church as well as clergy who felt Catholic scholarship is increasingly less able to make a contribution to the life of the Church.

The Edmonton conference featured 13 talks on topics such as the late pope's views on the relationship between faith and reason, his Mariology, his theology of the body and the new evangelization.

Paul Flaman of St. Joseph's College, the conference chair, said the fellowship felt St. John Paul's canonization this year made it appropriate to devote its annual conference to his legacy. The pope himself was a dedicated scholar, earning two doctorates and developing a body of his own scholarly work.