Self-Giving, Self-Mastery

St John Paul II on Men, Women and Conjugal Chastity

by Alan O'Sullivan OP (Author)
Monographs 308 Pages


The dignity of the person has always been a key theme of Pope John Paul II. Perhaps less well known is his emphasis on self-mastery as intrinsic to such dignity. In the love of man and woman, such mastery paves the way to self-giving and provides a richer, deeper experience of the union of persons. It also gives a new sensitivity to the beauty of masculinity and femininity as sexuality is seen in its original holiness: that is, by sharing in the Creator’s vision of the body. In this book, the author traces this daring portrait of human love back to the early writings of Karol Wojtyła.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • List of Abbreviations
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1: Love, Chastity and the Person
  • Chapter 2: Love, Chastity and Self-Giving
  • Chapter 3: Christ Appeals to the “Beginning”
  • Chapter 4: Christ Appeals to the Human Heart
  • Chapter 5: Ethos of the Redemption of the Body
  • Chapter 6: The Body and Humanae vitae
  • Chapter 7: Person, Christ, Communion
  • Chapter 8: Trinitarian Communio: The Image of God
  • Chapter 9: Wisdom, Love and the Person
  • Chapter 10: Love and the Cardinal Virtues
  • Chapter 11: Self-Mastery, Temperance, Chastity
  • Chapter 12: The Economy of Truth and Love
  • Conclusion
  • Select Bibliography
  • Index

← viii | ix →


← x | 1 →


Personal Subjectivity: Self-Mastery and Self-Giving

Self-mastery belongs to the “truth about man”.1 It is simply a matter of human dignity – even in sexual matters, if rightly understood. The French philosopher Jacques Maritain seemed to have lighted upon this in his writings. He saw self-mastery as inextricably linked to human self-giving: one joined to the other in a uniquely existential dynamism. He writes,

Thus it is that when a man has been really awakened to the sense of being or existence, and grasps intuitively the obscure, living depths of the Self and subjectivity, he discovers by the same token the basic generosity of existence and realizes, by virtue of the inner dynamism of this intuition, that love is not a passing pleasure or emotion, but the very meaning of his being alive.

Thus subjectivity reveals itself as “self-mastery for self-giving … by spiritual existing in the manner of gift”.2

The word “self” occurs more than once here: it is the “self” which is mastered, but also the “self” which is given. It could also be rendered by the pronoun “I” or by “personal subjectivity”.3 The one who masters and the one who gives is one – or more precisely has an experience of personal agency, even to the extent of governing himself, being subject, as it were, to his own ← 1 | 2 → causality. The very acts of mastering and giving, in a particular way, reflect upon the subject: they throw light upon the one who is acting. This is where the anthropology of young Polish philosopher, Karol Wojtyła, leads us: the person is revealed, as it were, through his acts. In what follows we will be taking a closer look at his sexual ethics where man as a self-governing, self-possessing being discovers himself in his acts through self-giving.

Sexual Ethics: Liberalising Trends in the Twentieth Century

As a young professor of ethics in Lublin, Poland, Wojtyła was aware of a tidal shift in attitudes towards sexual mores in the mid-twentieth century. New libertine approaches to the body and sexuality were encroaching on the traditional landscape. At the beginning of the century in the United States, the seed of a very different ethos was present in the writings of Margaret Sanger. She espoused a utopian vision of women’s emancipation by way of sexual liberation.4 Around 1914 she founded the National Birth Control League and exerted an influence across the Atlantic through her friendship with English sexologist, Havelock Ellis.5 Sanger’s views on sex were romantic, radical and feminist, all in one cocktail. Her sympathies lay with post-Malthusian economists who feared over-population and shortage of food supplies.6 As a way of controlling births Sanger heralded contraception as a panacea for social ills.7 For women it was particularly ← 2 | 3 → vital as it meant an end to “sex servitude” and provided them a “key of self-mastery and self-direction” as well as the promise of fulfilment. She wrote, “What effect will the practice of birth control have upon [a woman’s] moral development? … It will break her bond. It will free her to understand the cravings and soul needs of herself and other women. It will enable her to develop her love nature separate from and independent of her maternal nature”.8 Maternity and love, in other words, could be kept apart in the psychology of women, something made tangible by access to birth control.9

Sanger’s ideas did not occur in a vacuum.10 In Europe at least a threshold had been passed with the investigations of Sigmund Freud. A new science – or so it was believed – had been applied to man’s sexual nature. Freud’s art of psychoanalysis was a disturber of the status quo but it launched him as a prophet of the age – beyond Viennese medical circles, even the higher echelons of European culture. Words like id, libido, ego and superego quickly became idiom in the popular mainstream as did the idea of sexual repression. On his death in 1939 W. H. Auden wrote, “to us he is no more a person / now but a whole climate of opinion”.11 Freud’s popularity is not merited by the scientific accuracy of his discoveries but more by the mystique he engendered around the idea of the unconscious. He spoke to his age as a theorist who constructed a new image of the human being: non-religious, instinctual, driven by unconscious forces. Age-old norms surrounding sexuality gave way to a new focus on reducing guilt, analysing past experiences, and solving hidden traumas.12 While it is true to say that much of his work has been simplified, his pansexualism has intrigued and ← 3 | 4 → attracted a brace of followers: artists, intellectuals, social scientists, broadcasters and educationalists have all been influenced by him.13 It is also true that very few would defend his literal ideas today, and even his research has been discredited, yet his success in bringing sex out into the public forum was the crossing of a threshold. It was now not framed in a Judeo-Christian context, but in terms of mental health, a secular framework.14 This might be called a resetting of the boundaries which set in motion a slow liberalisation of attitudes. The twentieth-century zenith of this laissez faire attitude towards sexuality came in the 1960s. Freud’s eldest daughter, Anna, who was a firsthand observer of this era, traced some of unfortunate side effects to the sexual pedagogy of Freud himself. She lamented a “deficit in the moral development” of young people too easily swayed by trendy, in vogue ideas about sexuality.15

Technology also played its part. As far back as 1822, Francis Place, one of the post-Malthusians who influenced Sanger’s writings, proposed contraception as a means of population control. Although he was considerably ahead of his time, his views became more acceptable with the onset of the industrial revolution. In 1839 Charles Goodyear vulcanised rubber and so opened up new possibilities for “barrier” methods of contraception.16 Not that the practice of contraception owed its origins to science. It dates back to classical antiquity and beyond; papyri of Egyptian origin between 1,900 and 1,100 BC provide a variety of formulae for avoiding conception. This was people’s medicine, and so differed from the breakthroughs of the modern era.17 In the early twentieth century one sees a gradual shift in the medical profession towards contraception. A survey of ← 4 | 5 → gynecologists in England in 1922 shows a majority in favour, quite a leap from the previous century where leading practitioners looked skeptically on the matter. In the same decade birth control clinics were established in Great Britain, Holland, Germany, and some states in America. An industry was growing around contraceptive practice: in 1935 some two hundred “mechanical devices” were available in western cultures; chemical solutions such as “spermicides” or “occlusive agents” were also developing.18 The major breakthrough coincided with the discovery of the progesterone pill in 1953. As an “oral” contraceptive it carried an aura of naturalness – not impeding the spontaneity of coitos – yet very grave concerns surrounded it in terms of its abortifacient properties, and unknown medical effects. A further wedge, nonetheless, was driven between sex and children, as the pill brought “contra-ception” to a new level of efficiency, avoiding pregnancy in almost all cases.19

Science may aid revolutions, but it doesn’t make them: only cultural currents – attitudes, ideology, politics, music, and “folk” lore – can do this. As the 1960s swung into action it had been a long time in coming. Even as far back as the nineteenth century, revivalist tendencies within Protestantism in America proposed the idea of “total yielding”.20 This was a deeply intimate self-surrender of a person to Christ: it was a personal, fulfilling event, a moment of conversion. It wasn’t difficult to translate such a religious motif to the intimate life of married couples. They could yield to each other in a total way – and were counseled to do so by a new generation of doctors, pastors, and psychologists.21 The new emphasis on the personal, the mystique of sex, and the search for meaning, which had germinated in the pre-sixties era burst onto the stage, as it were, with pop melodies (“Beatle-mania”), hippie culture, anti-war poetry, hallucinogenic ← 5 | 6 → drugs, and a less-than-cautious approach to “free love”. Not a little of the tinder had been lit by the international marketing of two books by Alfred C. Kinsey titled Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953).22 Kinsey was a zoologist who began studying human sexuality in 1947.23 Adept at gathering data or specimens for observation, he transferred this skill to the intimate lives of human beings. His publications seemed to expose post-war American culture which until then had hid its sexual adventures. In fact, Kinsey’s “science” or “pseudo-science” was deeply flawed; in his first survey, for example, of over 5,000 men one finds 1,400 sex offenders, 1,929 convicted criminals, 200 sexual psychopaths, and a large number of college students.24 Jones and Yarhouse note, “This is obviously not the type of methodology a person would implement if he or she were trying to get a representative outlook on the sexual behaviour of the general population”.25 Yet Kinsey appeared on the cover of Time magazine on 24 August 1953, enjoyed a publicity blitz, lectured world-wide to the academics and others who would teach the upcoming generation.

The cultural block of the sixties radicalised sexuality, but also created new expectations. In America it coincided with a post-war boom; prosperity and the new sexual freedoms were portrayed as roads to happiness – a new era of emancipation, peace, fulfilment. New pressures were associated with sexual activity – both within and outside marriage – to fulfil the intimate ← 6 | 7 → needs of human beings when often it spiraled into something else: sexual exploitation, drug dependency, a swelling of divorce rates. It was a short step to the re-packaging of sex as a consumer product. In fact, this had already begun in 1953 with the launching of Hugh Hefner’s Playboy magazine, glamourising male promiscuity and encouraging a climb-down – for both sexes – from previous ideals of chastity, fidelity, “waiting until marriage”. In essence, another Pandora’s Box had been opened: the manipulation of sexual fantasy was to become a multibillion industry, later reaching into the worlds of cinema, television making, and latter day digital technology. Pornography de-personalised sex, targeted women and children, and created its own lurid underworld of trafficking, addiction, and abuse. A growing number of studies associated it with sexual aggression, sexual crime, and the hardening of consciences.26

The sexual revolution had demographic repercussions – sometimes decades after the event. Sex in non-committed relationships, a rise in cohabitation, and contraceptive failures, led to a rise in the number of children born out of wedlock. Social unease around out-of-marriage, quasi stable relationships or de facto unions began to wane.27 Such a level of social acceptability veiled a philosophy of freedom where the individual took precedence over tradition, social norms, and customs. The parameters of sexual choice, in other words, were delegated more and more to subjective preference. Where or when sexual activity commenced or ended was a matter for the individual – simply part of a lifestyle option.28 Ancillary to this was the choice of abortion or adoption or caring for one’s own children in the case of unexpected pregnancies. Science opened new doors ← 7 | 8 → with reproductive technology: in vitro fertilisation not only gave a chance to infertile couples, it also granted them new discriminatory powers as to choice of child they preferred. Sex, colour tone of skin, eyes, and hair were included. It also opened a range of questions as to who should have access to this new technology: could it be open to couples who were not married, or later to gay couples, or even to persons devoid of a partner?

Catholic Responses: Marriage, Love and Humanae vitae

The shifts in cultural norms as regards sex, the body, technology, and the meaning of marriage posed a number of challenges to Catholics. In 1880 Pope Leo XIII, the first modernising pope, issued an encyclical entitled Arcanum Divinae Sapientiae. His principal concerns were not birth control, but divorce and the desacralisation of marriage. He wrote that “marriage has God for its Author, and was from the beginning a kind of foreshadowing of the Incarnation”.29 It could not be viewed simply as a civil union or secular contract, but always entailed a religious component. Within marriage, men and women shared equal rights to affection, and equal demands of constraint. As marriage was a divine institution, indisputably holy, the Church had always “wanted to assure and to maintain intact the holy modesty of the marital bed”.30 The expression of the pope was typical of the era: reticent to speak publically of sexual matters, yet clear in its principles. The bedrock of the pope’s teaching rested on Augustinian doctrine. The goods of marriage were threefold: offspring (“proles”), fidelity (“fides”), and the sacrament (“sacramentum”). It was unthinkable that sexual union could ← 8 | 9 → completely sever itself from its natural function: to preserve the human species and bless the world with children.

The strong currents of the Birth Control Movement, spearheaded by Sanger, had begun to make inroads on Christianity by the 1920s. At its famous Lambeth Conference in 1930 the Anglican Communion permitted the use of contraception within marriage. The document read, “Where there is a clearly felt moral obligation to limit or avoid parenthood, the method must be decided on Christian principles … where there is a morally sound reason for avoiding complete abstinence, the Conference agrees that other methods may be used …”. Such recourse to such methods (i.e. artificial or contraceptive ones), however, were not to be from “motives of selfishness, luxury, or mere convenience”.31 In the same year Pope Pius XI enunciated the long-standing Catholic tradition in Casti connubii. He wrote, “… any use whatsoever of matrimony exercised in such a way that the act is deliberately frustrated in its natural power to generate life is an offense against the law of God and of nature …”.32 He also deplored “temporary”, “experimental”, or “companionate” partnerships of men and women being accorded the status of marriage. Nor was a “friendship” with a third party licit when a marriage had been contracted: marriage was one to one, it did not admit of extramarital acts of a “sensate” or passionate nature (e.g. with a mistress or concubine). The keystone of marriage consisted in the “chaste” bond of union which existed between husband and wife. The reality of marriage united their souls even more intimately than their bodies by a firm and perpetual act of will.33

Casti connubii does not only give a juridical view of marriage; it leaves room for some personalistic interpretations. This is especially true where ← 9 | 10 → the pope speaks of the “mutual inward molding of husband and wife, this determined effort to perfect each other” as “the chief reason and purpose of matrimony”.34 This new accent gave rise to some discomfort in Catholic circles as it seemed to shy away from procreation as the principal end of marriage. Two Catholic theologians, Dietrich Von Hildebrand and Herbert Doms, preferred to speak of love as the “meaning of marriage”, and procreation as its “end” or goal. Their effort was to put a new spotlight on the experience of spouses: the experience of love within marriage, self-surrender, mutual fidelity, the gift of self. The new focus on inter-subjectivity was clearly an attempt to move away from too external a view of human sexuality – conceived only in terms of nature, law, norms, and biological consequences. Doms went too far by denying procreation as the primary end of marriage; von Hildebrand stayed within the bounds of magisterial teaching, yet broke new ground.35 In the same time period, Pope Pius XII reiterated the Church’s rejection of contraception, yet gave a positive evaluation of “periodic continence” within marriage. It was legitimate for couples to have recourse to the infertile period to space births, but then only on serious grounds. Periodic continence, in other words, operated within the framework of a strong family ethic, one in which children were welcomed, cared for and cherished.36

The Catholic worldview on sexuality needed an aggiornamento, an updating, not so much in its content, but in how it was presented. This was on the cards at Vatican II (1962–1965) as the bishops sought new ways to communicate salient truths. The language of Gaudium et spes, the document which deals with marriage and sexuality, is a fresh blend of juridical, institutionalised statements on marriage and the more evocative, less rigorous language of personalism.37 Marriage is an “intimate partnership ← 10 | 11 → of life and … love”, a genuine conjugal and familial community, a “school for human enrichment”, a place for the “affectionate sharing of thought and common deliberation”. It is also a divine institution “established by the Creator and endowed by him with its own proper laws”.38 Seen within the ambit of marriage sex is construed as something positive, integral to married love. The bishops teach, “Married love is uniquely expressed and perfected by the exercise of the acts proper to marriage. Hence the acts by which the intimate and chaste union of the spouses takes place are noble and honourable; the truly human performance of these acts fosters the self-giving they signify and enriches the spouses in joy and gratitude”.39 In the question of the regulation of births the bishops did not make any advance on previous magisterial teaching, but John XXIII asked that the matter be investigated by a special commission before a final judgment could be made.

The cultural taboos on sex outside marriage were being lifted outside the Church. A new horizon seemed possible – even to Catholic theologians – that contraception within marriage would be allowed. It would be part of the Church’s ongoing response to the “signs of the times” interpreted within a stance of openness to modern culture. By the time Pope Paul VI promulgated Humanae vitae in 1968 already much had happened. As it turned out papers only for the pope’s perusal were leaked to the press in 1967 – appendices to the ongoing work of the Papal Commission on birth control. In the public eye this formed an expectation that a change was imminent. This was not the case as Paul VI developed a teaching built on the Natural Law and on the two inseparable meanings of the conjugal act. Neither the life-giving nor the love-bonding purposes of human sexuality could be separated from one another: each conjugal act had to possess both dimensions. Although the pope avoided the terminology of “ends” he spoke within a traditional framework, keeping a mind to nature, but also to the agency of spouses. He also prophesied how contraceptive practices would lead to (1) greater marital infidelity; (2) a loss of respect ← 11 | 12 → of husbands for wives; (3) a gradual weakening of good habits and; (4) a dangerous empowerment of public authorities, that is, with regard to birth control.40 His own personal insights come out in a more poetic fashion in an interview with Jean Guitton:

… in human love there is divine love. And that is why the link between love and fecundity is deep, hidden and substantial! All authentic love between a man and a woman, when it is not egoistic love, tends toward creation of another issuing from that love … Even Plato taught us that love’s spring is in the generation of souls in beauty, for the education of spirits. Love reaches out toward fecundity. It imitates the creative act. It renews. It gives life, it is a sacrifice on behalf of life.41

Although Paul VI was clear on the non-permissibility of contraception, he had to face a wave of rejection by his own faithful. With so much focus on liberty of conscience, civil protest, and student rebellion in the air of 1968, it was hard to imagine a more unfavourable climate in which to promote the Church’s teaching. To many it seemed antiquated, out-of-vogue, unconvincing, and ill-timed, so soon after a Council which had promised new freedoms. A new era of widespread public dissent opened up, fanned by media, dissident theologians, reticent bishops, vociferous clergy, and organised lay people. Needless to say the encyclical had many defenders, including the well-known Protestant theologian, Karl Barth, yet it failed to be communicated regionally. This is especially true of the Dutch, German, and Belgian Episcopal Conferences who issued statements that shifted the focus onto individual conscience and away from magisterial teaching.42 The polemics continued long into the pontificate of Paul with divided camps and confused faithful.

The divisiveness of the post-Humanae vitae era had another effect: an unhealthy silence fell upon Catholics in relation to sexual matters.43 The ← 12 | 13 → rejection of Humanae vitae in many quarters led to a compartmentalisation of sex: it belonged purely to the private realm, and guidance was less and less sought from pastors. On the other hand, bishops and priests, aware of the explosive nature of the controversy, found ways of steering clear of the subject, leaving their listeners ignorant without a real catechesis or formation in sexual morality. The surrounding culture in the meantime provided a secular pedagogy of sex, permissiveness, and irresponsibility. It softened the edges, as it were, of any residual conservatism in sexual matters by a host of images, symbols, and attitudes.44 Catholics who did not agree with Humanae vitae tended to justify contraceptive practices on the grounds of conscience; this was probably more difficult for ones who had grown up with pre-Vatican II moral strictness. The teaching was seen as an imposition of an antiquated law, rather than the restatement of a norm which promoted human flourishing. The greatest impact fell indirectly on the younger generations. Without a clear ethic of sexuality, pastoral stewardship, or a sense of courtship rituals, there was little to prevent “romance” – under-age or otherwise – becoming a ticket to early sexual encounter. A form of pseudo-innocence developed among post-Humanae vitae generations where biblical revelation, a sense of sin, or higher values, had little or no impact on their sexual lives. This privation in their moral growth left them vulnerable to a culture which skewed the meaning of sexuality in deep-seated ways.45

A Christian Anthropology: Virtue, Self-Mastery, and Ascesis

The anthropology of Humanae vitae did provide solutions which were often over-looked. Among these were self-mastery, self-discipline, and a rooting out of selfishness in married love. The pope wrote, “Self-mastery is especially necessary for those who practice periodic abstinence … [it] cannot ← 13 | 14 → be an obstacle to love. Rather, discipline imbues love with a deeper human meaning”.46 By “discipline” the pope was not suggesting that married couples resort to the asceticism of monks, but possess a sure equilibrium in their married lives. Sexual abstinence was not only about denying the flesh, but coming to know oneself fully in Christ: it enabled the whole personality to flourish and overflowed into other areas. He added, “… this [self-control] fosters the fruits of tranquility and peace in the home and helps in the solving of difficulties of other kinds … it assists [spouses] in dispelling that inordinate self-love that is opposed to true charity”.47 Without saying it too explicitly the pope was drawing on a more classical anthropology of virtue’s roundedness: a measure of control in one area fostered it elsewhere. Sexual abstinence or chastity redounded to any number of aspects of married life. It assisted in an overall integration of desires, purposes, and end results, and made for a more harmonious life in common.

Wojtyła shared such a vision – although he came at it with another intellectual apparatus: his philosophy of action and annexed theory of consciousness. He had been a member of the Papal Commission responsible for the study of birth regulation and a close collaborator of Paul VI. His intuition was like the pope’s: artificial forms of birth control completely changed the stakes in human action. Sexual love was most easily undercut if man did not apply arête or moral excellence to this sensitive area. He wrote of this over a decade before the encyclical Humanae vitae was published:

Inherent in the essential character of abstinence as a virtue is the conviction that the love of man and woman loses nothing as a result of temporary abstention from erotic experiences, but on the contrary gains: the personal union takes deeper root, grounded as it is above all in the affirmation of the value of the person and not just in sexual attachment.48

This is a way of thinking which was not mainstream in the 1950s: personal integrity, the respectful exchange of spouses, demanded sexual abstinence. ← 14 | 15 → Love grew in the conscious choice to gain ascendency over one’s action; man and woman fulfilled their great potential by self-mastery.

At the time of Wojtyła’s writing the classic texts from Augustine, Aquinas and others, on the life of virtue were somewhat in decline. In moral theology a pre-conciliar reliance on manuals of theology limited the horizon of vision; the practical focus was on equipping confessors for variegated cases in the sacrament of penance. A course in moral theology prepared someone for a courtroom-like drama with priest as judge and penitent as self-prosecutor.49 A sense of obligation, duty, rule and measure of behaviour cluttered a more splendid vista of moral living: the desire for happiness (beatitudo); the good of creation; the delight of spousal love; the panorama of all the virtues; the delicacy of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Situation ethics had also caused a stir in the field of theology in the 1960s – emanating as it did from the streams of modern existentialism. The focus on the maverick, non-circumscribed, temporal moment of decision shifted the accent away from Aristotelian traits of character, an in-built system of excellences, which governed moral choice. The option was for the isolated individual, the modern “outsider”, as it were, whose quest for meaning trumped any established, institutionalised view of arête or moral excellence.

Wojtyła was an unsettling figure in all of this: a metaphysician, a poet, a playwright, and a modern ethicist who could see the value of exploring subjective experience. From his days as a seminarian he had studied St. Thomas Aquinas and remained a disciple all his life. His habilitation studies brought him in touch with German phenomenologist, Max Scheler, with whom he disagreed on much, yet remained influenced by his method and his ideas.50 To his sexual ethics Wojtyła brought juxtaposing worlds: the ethical trappings of an older metaphysics, mainly shaped by Aquinas; the focus on human dignity, experience, and subjectivity which he had picked up from Scheler and others. He was undoubtedly shaped by the Carmelite ← 15 | 16 → mysticism of St. John of the Cross – and his thinking on love and self-giving seems to have stimuli here.51 His maturing work is a tapestry of sources all contributing to an anthropology which is dense, original and complex. It is copper fastened by metaphysical principles yet applies a modified phenomenology as a way of entering into the experience of the acting subject.

Self-mastery is a recurring motif in Wojtyła’s work – as it is when he is elected John Paul II. This mastery is integral to the person; it is fitting for human dignity, and without it man loses something of who he is. Wojtyła’s personalism is fitted well to the theme of self-mastery: it gives an over-arching principle (i.e. human dignity) to access a topic which has fallen into abeyance in contemporary culture. In the late 1950s Wojtyła carved out a unique way of speaking of sexual restraint which would not jar on the ears of a contemporary audience. He could not have done this, however, had he not been grounded in the metaphysics of St. Thomas Aquinas. Forays into the work of thinkers like Scheler were never in danger of becoming overly subjectivist as the ontological foundations of a probing of human experience had already been established. This is why his ethics has classical markers and draws on the virtue ethics of St. Thomas, but can re-negotiate the territory as it explores the person in actu – as he or she experiences good dispositions and actions and an overall way of looking at the world.

The personalism of Wojtyła, then John Paul II, is helpful in another respect: it wakes up the subject of virtue ethics which had fallen in desuetude. Concentration on how a person experiences his own act opens unexpected windows to retrieve a tradition where a sapiential approach is supplemented by an experiential one. In other words, as Aristotle and Aquinas give an architectonic account of how virtues are structured in a human subject (i.e. hierarchy of virtues, etc.) Wojtyła gives an inscape of the ordered subject’s ongoing, dynamic reflection on making good choices. Each approach views the human person as ordered to beatitude, flourishing, self-realisation through his or her action – if by way of diverse methodological principles. These two ways are not opposing approaches to a common ← 16 | 17 → subject, but enrich, fructify, and draw out our understanding of the good life as a fulfilment of the potentialities of each person, male or female.

In recent decades there has been a renewal of virtue ethics; this has not always been on the same frequency as renewal in sexual ethics: it is as if the two fields of interest speak foreign languages to each other, and yet there is much in common.52 As Wojtyła was elected Pope John Paul II the corpus he produced gave new directions in sexual ethics: ethics of the covenant, biblical perspectives on male and female, the meaning of communion and free self-giving. This was always wed to an ethics of virtue – carefully assimilated into his overall vision of the person. The directions we can take from this are multi-layered: for an ethics of virtue we can explore a communitarian ethic – Trinitarian, Christological, and anthropological; in sexual ethics we can delve into more classical tracts on chastity, temperance, wisdom, charity, connaturality, divine missions, etc. We can push out the boundaries, as it were, of both fields. In doing this, some of the convergences even divergences of John Paul II and St. Thomas can come to light. The axiom which proves helpful in this respect is a common understanding of self-mastery, a dominion in the realm of sexual desires. In the scholastic language of St. Thomas we find structure, system, and a forensic account of man’s voluntary movements; in John Paul II we find a more subjective account of man’s conscious acts, a modern day synthesis, as it were, of how the free mastery of the subject translates into a deeply personal self-surrender. ← 17 | 18 →

1 Pope John Paul II, Man and Woman He Created Them, trans. Michael Waldstein (Boston, MA: Pauline Books & Media, 2006), 3: 1; from here on TOB.

2 Jacques Maritain, Existence and the Existent (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1957), 70; Challenges and Renewals (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1966), 74–75 in W. Norris Clarke, Person and Being (Milwaukee, WI: Marquette University Press, 1993), 77.

3 TOB, 8: 3; 32: 5.

4 See Mary Shivanandan, Crossing the Threshold of Love (Edinburgh: T& T Clark, 1999), 183–190.

5 Shivanandan, Threshold of Love, 187, no. 32. Ellis was radical in his views. He taught a doctrine of complete sexual freedom – not limiting this to the union of spouses.


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2017 (November)
Karol Wojtyła Moral theology Self-mastery Gift of self John Paul II
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2017. X, 308 pp.

Biographical notes

Alan O'Sullivan OP (Author)

Alan O’Sullivan is an Irish Dominican. He has studied at Blackfriars in Oxford, the Angelicum in Rome and Fribourg University in Switzerland, where he received his doctorate in 2012. He teaches moral theology at the Dominican Studium in Dublin. He is also Spiritual Director of the Community of Pure in Heart, Ireland, and Chaplain to Trinity College Dublin.


Title: Self-Giving, Self-Mastery