Renewal, Personalism and Law (Onclin Chair Lecture, Louvain 1995)


            The Second Vatican Council was aimed at formulating principles for the renewal of ecclesial life in all its aspects. More than thirty years later, varying evaluations of the results are made. Some persons, perhaps feeling that renewal was a dangerous idea in itself, hold that in any case it went off the tracks from the start. Others think that it ran into too much entrenched opposition from conservative forces, and is now largely dead-ended, an ideal or a dream they no longer really believe in. For others again, it remains a program of hope, which is still being attempted or needs to be attempted. Pope John Paul II is evidently one of these; he is a firm believer in renewal and, as I see his ministry, it is being constantly spent in seeking to bring it about.

            Efforts at renewal have undoubtedly been there: in the theological field, and in those of liturgy, pastoral work, inculturation, etc. Some initiatives have progressed rapidly, producing results that seem to show genuine renewal. Others however give the impression of lacking drive, and perhaps of running out of steam altogether.

            As regards the renewal of canon law according to the spirit of Vatican II, progress has in a certain sense gone slowly, although not necessarily less firmly for this. Slow progress was in fact necessary because the main instrument of renewal in this field had to be prepared and gradually matured. As will be remembered, the revision of the Code of Canon Law was announced at the same time as the Council. Once the Council was over, it was logical that this task be pursued according to the conciliar spirit and directives. We have had the basic instrument of renewal - the new Code of Canon Law - but only for little more than ten years, which is not a long period of time in ecclesial terms. More particularly, it is a short period for the emergence of new jurisprudence, where this may be necessary, in any consolidated fashion.

            A whole new approach characterizes the 1983 Code. On the one hand, its structure and exposition of law departs from the more traditional juridic scheme based on a Roman law model, and are built up on an ecclesiological basis - the mystery of the Church, considered above all in the exercise of the three munera: docendi, sanctificandi", regendi. Yet the exposition is not on that account less juridic. - On the other hand, whole areas of legal norms, especially in the field of matrimonial law, have been rewritten (and at times created) in a personalist spirit.

            As I see it - and this is something I would say only before an audience of jurists - genuine ecclesial renewal depends in a fundamental way on the renewal in the Church of a proper juridic sense, which is inseparable from a sense of love for the law. In other words, it entails a renewal of juridical science, in accordance with the conciliar understanding of the person and of ecclesial society; and a renewal of juridical practice seen as a service not of abstract principles and not only of truth, but very specially of persons, with their inherent human dignity, further enhanced by their christian vocation.

            I would insist that within the ecclesiology of Vatican II, law cannot occupy an accidental or marginal place, The Council chose to develop its ecclesiology around the idea of communio, and to give it more concrete expression in the concept of the People of God. Now the very notion of the Church as a People places emphasis on intersubjective relations, as characteristic of every society or people. Such relations ought to be just and harmonious: something that is not possible without the mediation of adequate laws and their adequate application.

            It is in this context that one of the great innovations of the Code should be appreciated: the affirmation and exposition of the rights of the faithful, which is naturally accompanied (a point that ought not to be overlooked) by an emphasis on the corresponding duties.

            It is not difficult to illustrate the renewing power of the law - of a more personalist law - or to offer suggestions as to how it should be applied in a truly renewing fashion. But it may be important first to recall the relationship - of deep harmony - between some fundamental aspects of the spirit of the Council, which might initially give the impression of standing in mutual contrast.

            Communio is the central and dominant ecclesiological theme of Vatican II, which is further explicated in the idea of the People of God. At the same time as it proposed communio, Vatican II however also laid the bases for developing a vigorous personalist view of human life. Vatican II is centered not only on the community, but also on the person. In fact personalism can be said to be the characteristic philosophy of the Council. Now, a first reaction to this combination of concerns - community-centeredness and person-centeredness - could be to wonder if they can really go together. Is there not a tension between the two, one bearing in on the person and the other out on the community? Is there not even a logical opposition between them? Here we have a matter that calls for some examination.


            Personalism is a view of man which places emphasis on his dignity as one made in the image of God: "the only creature that God has wanted for its own sake" (GS 24); "who stands above all things and whose rights and duties are universal and inviolable" (ib. 26). Personalism stresses man's dynamic character as a being called to fulfillment, particularly by freely committing himself to worthwhile and lasting values. Being strongly conscious of personal freedom - one's own and that of others - , accompanied by a no less strong consciousness of personal responsibility.

            Personalism maintains a keen awareness of basic personal rights; and will defend these from any violation; in one's self or in others. At the same time it proposes that whoever is conscious of rights, must be also conscious of duties. So, whoever possesses a true personalist spirit reacts with a natural respect towards others, in whom he sees brothers and sisters in Christ, children of the same Father. Personalism, in stressing duties towards other persons, sees the fulfillment of these duties as a means also of personal growth and self-fulfillment. Personalism therefore sees no degradation of the person, no loss of personal stature, in the duty to search for the truth, and to accept it steadfastly once found, in conscious response - obedience - to law or to legitimate authority, and less still in fidelity to the demands of a freely undertaken commitment. In such obedience and faithfulness, it rather sees a peculiar expression of the dignity of the person: his or her ability to discern and respond to values. So Karol Wojtyla says, "the person realizes himself most adequately in [the fulfillment of] his obligations" (The Acting Person, Reidel, 1979, p. 169).

            The personalist tends to maintain an attitude of openness and correspondence towards the values to be found in other people. This awareness of values in others is evidently a powerful basis for the building of community. In true personalism there is a natural alliance between the person - the individual human being - and the community. Personalist participation in community implies not a mere adaptation of interests to interests, but of person to person, based on the consciousness of common dignity and rights.


           Christian personalism, under this title, is a recent development which needs to be distinguished from another trend of thought and mode of life that has long characterized the Western world. This is secular individualism which (along with collectivism) has so largely dominated modern outlook and existence. The need to distinguish the two is all the more important in that individualism might easily be regarded as close to personalism, and even be mistaken for it (especially as certain forms of individualism use terminology that seems personalist); and yet it is entirely different, and in fact opposed to true christian personalism.

            In the philosophy of individualism, each one considers himself or herself as the supreme and fundamental good. Each one regards the interests of the community or society as subordinate to one's individual's interests; to my interests. Where individual interests and the interests of others, or common interests, seem to clash, the individualist will put what he considers his own interests first. Individualism is no ally of community.

            In a certain sense we can say that individualism appears as a sort of mutilated or fake personalism. It also stresses rights, but not duties. It wants freedom to act, but not the responsibility of having to answer for one's actions. Demanding freedom, it is suspicious of any permanent commitment and remains reluctant to take binding decisions. Individualism wants to receive, but not to give; wants to be accepted by others (perhaps indeed with a clear sense of being worthy of acceptance), but is not so ready to accept others, or to see their worth.

            Individualism is almost always accompanied by philosophical relativism. The human person as made to bind himself, intellectually and voluntarily, to true values. Skepticism about binding choices is usually the effect (and also the cause) of skepticism about worthwhile values. The paradoxical result is that whoever sees nothing really worth choosing, ends up with a freedom not really worth having. Freedom after all is for choosing; and is a value in itself only in function of the value of what one can choose. There is little to be appreciated in a freedom which sees nothing worth a choice, or no choice or value worth sticking to.

            Individualism, precisely because of its basic self-centeredness, stands in the way of personal development. Non est bonum homini esse solus - "it is not good for man to be alone": words of Genesis to which we will have occasion to return. It is not good for man to be alone, or to think and act as if he were self-sufficient. He - she - can only develop in a relationship of openness, respect and donation towards others, not in one of isolation, indifference, self-interest or exploitation. John Paul II insists: "To be human means to be called to interpersonal communion" (Mulieris Dignitatem, n. 7); "acting and existing together with others", as he stresses throughout The Acting Person.

            The effect of individualism has been the object of considerable study especially in the field of economics. From an anthropological and christian viewpoint it matters more to note its influence in education and in the very principles shaping social and interpersonal life, finding a theoretical basis in certain psychological currents of thought which are prevalent in the secular world. The psychological cult of self is its typical modern expression; essentially centered on the ego, it proposes a type of self-fulfillment of the individual marked by a spirit of self-sufficiency and self-protection. The idea of self-gift is alien to the individualist. He or she would scarcely understand and almost certainly not agree with the Pope's words in Crossing the Threshold of Hope: "these two aspects - the affirmation of the person as a person and the sincere gift of self - not only do not exclude each other, they mutually confirm and complete one another" (p. 202).

Self-fulfillment through self-giving

          There is a deep contrast between the idea of self-sufficiency presented by so much of modern psychology, and the christian ideal of realization through self-giving. Speaking to members of the American Psychiatric Association in 1993, the Pope insisted: "Only by transcending themselves and living a life of self-giving and openness to truth and love can individuals reach fulfillment" (Osservatore Romano, English Edition, 13 January 1993, p. 4). Self-sufficiency is rather in the nature of a temptation for man; one that he needs to overcome if he is to give himself and realize himself. Marriage in particular presents itself in the plan of nature, as a safeguard against the trap of self-sufficiency. As Vatican II says, "this partnership of man and woman constitutes the first form of communion between persons. For by his innermost nature man is a social being; and if he does not enter into relations with others he can neither live nor develop his gifts" (Gaudium et Spes, no. 12). Man is especially made for the mutual gift and mutual dependance of marriage.

            Since in later lecture I will be dwelling on major aspects of married personalism as incorporated into the 1983 Code, I will here simply make a brief mention to some. There could come to mind especially the new expression of the content of marital consent as given in c. 1057, § 2: by means of consent, the spouses "mutually give and accept each other". One could also think of the concept of the bonum coniugum - "the good of the spouses" - which c. 1055 now presents on an equal level with procreation as an institutional end of marriage. As I see it, there is a close connection between the two: consent understood as giving/accepting of one another, and marriage aimed at the good of the spouses. If as christian personalism holds, it is by giving oneself that one fulfills oneself, then it is necessarily an imperfect self (one that has not yet reached fulfillment) that one gives; and also of course an imperfect self that one accepts. Marriage is always the meeting of two imperfect beings who, by mutually giving and accepting themselves - in their virtues and possibilities, but also in their limitations and defects - , help each other to fulfillment or perfection. Without bearing these points in mind, one is not likely to reach an adequate understanding of this new concept of the good of the spouses.

            Therefore, in dealing with our overall subject - the personalist view of matrimony - it is always necessary to make a thorough analysis of approaches or interpretations that often appear in doctrine and jurisprudence. It is not enough to invoke conciliar personalism in order to be a personalist. Whoever conceives personal fulfillment in terms of self-assertion or self-satisfaction, is not attuned to the personalism of Vatican II. It is wise to bear this in mind, not being content with a superficial acceptance of phrases like the renewed dignity of the person, respect for the rights of each one, etc., because speech lends itself here to misunderstanding, and what is presented as christian personalism may, if more attentively examined, turn out to be of a secular and individualistic nature. Christian personalism can renew the conjugal community as well as the broader ecclesial community. Secular individualism tends to destroy both; it cannot be a force of renewal within the Church.

The approach to marital breakdowns

           Where individualism is predominant, it undoubtedly tends to affect the outlook and values of those who marry. It can in fact lead them to change not only their general concept of marriage, but even some essential aspect of the consent which they give or ought to give; with far-reaching anthropological and juridic repercussions.

            Judges, canonists and pastors in general must be attentive to these possibilities where they will often discover the root causes of pathological situations; always bearing in mind of course that while pathology may be a symptom of nullity, it is not necessarily so.

            Are there more failed marriages today? It seems clear that there are. Are there more marriages which are null? I think that there are. Are there as many null marriages as there are declarations of nullity, and above all as many null marriages on the grounds of nullity which are usually invoked? I think that there are not.

            It is a matter of justice, and for the good of individuals and ecclesial society, to declare the nullity of all those unions regarding which one can reach moral certainty that they are null [1]. But, even if a marriage has broken down, a declaration of nullity which is clearly groundless is not an exercise of justice, because it does not correspond to the truth. This lack of correspondence to the truth, despite apparently offering an immediate "solution" to a distressful situation, causes harm on all levels: the judicial, the social, and the very level of the very parties most concerned in the matter. If there is a lack of truth in the new social and personal situation thus produced, then it "solves" existential problems on the surface, but precludes the thinking person from ever appraising the situation at a deeper level of interior truthfulness. This creates a profound personal malaise.

            In this whole situation, however, what is above all demanded by truth, justice and charity is that, through proper pastoral approaches and by the use of proper pastoral means, one avoids - so far as possible - that such valid marriages break down.

            It may not be superfluous to recall that the new personalist view of marriage presented by the Council was not aimed at facilitating nullities, but at renewing matrimonial programmes directed to a renewed education for marriage: renewed pre-marriage courses; and new pastoral support during conjugal life, strengthened by a deeper understanding of the beauty and worthwhileness of the free marital commitment to a faithful and life-long love.

            Avoiding the breakdown of a valid marriage, is a pastoral task rather than one which is properly canonical. But it should be evident that if our Tribunals are not following sound canonical-judicial practice, pastoral work is bound to suffer. Our tribunals too need to bear in mind that this is a moment when the Church wishes to present a new understanding of what favours a sound and solid marriage (which does not mean an easy marriage or one free from demands on the partners). They should also therefore avoid the temptation of thinking that the personalist solution to a difficult marriage situation is a declaration of nullity, whereas, if the objective basis for the nullity is missing, the true solution - if there is any - lies rather in the demands of genuine marital personalism. In such cases, the only real and just way out is to help the persons involved face up to these demands; and to do so in good time. When I say in good time, I am thinking of the first contact (if it cannot be earlier) made by the parties or by one of them with the diocesan tribunal (cf. c. 1676).

            It specially falls to ecclesiastical judges to handle the pathology of marriage [2]; which is not an enviable task. All pastors however, and not judges alone, are constantly dealing with situations that can be classified as pathological. All of us in fact are a bit ill here on earth. If it were not so, we would be in no need of salvation. The best thing one can do with regard to pathology is to avoid it; and if this is not possible, to cure or at least lessen it, so that life can be healthier.

            Only what is alive can be sick. When faced with a union that is breaking apart, the best solution would be to be able to say that there never was any pathology - at least any matrimonial pathology - because there never was any real marital union: to be able to declare that there is no pathology because there is no life, there never was any life: the marriage was stillborn from the very start. That is what is implied in a declaration of nullity which, when it is just, is something positive and a service to individuals and to the community. But if the declaration is not just, then something doubly negative occurs. One declares dead what was - what is - alive: before God and so often before the consciences of those most involved. And one fosters a climate in which the many pathologies of matrimonial life fail to receive - from pastors, counsellors, relatives or friends - the advice by means of which they could in some way be cured, and the health of the marriage - always complex and relative - be recovered.

Law at the service of justice
          Let us briefly consider the positive and essential function of law in the life of the Church, within a personalist understanding. Law, truth, justice, are pillars of every society that proposes to offer its members the incentives, the channels and the guarantees, which are necessary so that interpersonal life and relations develop in harmonious solidarity. Law is at the service of the truth, and even more concretely of justice: of what, according to the most attainable measure of truth, regulates the relations between persons, whether physical or juridic. That is why Saint Thomas says that quandoque iustitia veritas vocatur (II-II, q. 58, art. 4 ad 1) - justice is at times called truth: because it implies acting according to right reason or truth. Pius XII in 1942 told the Rota that "the world has need of the truth which is justice, and of that justice which is truth" (AAS 34, 342). And in a 1961 address also to the Rota, John XXIII referred to the ministry of the ecclesiastical judge as a ministerium veritatis, a ministry or service of the truth (AAS 53, 819).

            Some time ago I came across an article in a canonical review, complaining that an ecclesiastical judgment has no power to "heal" persons. The statement left me perplexed, for it is not so. Justice, properly administered, is a powerful stimulus to people. It appeals to their inner honesty, to their deeper sense of values, calling on them to put the proper rights of others above their own personal convenience or advantage. A just judgment - a declaration of justice - has great power to heal, or at least to point out the path to health.

            It is true that the judgment alone - the simple declaration of justice - may not be sufficient to restore health. It needs to be accepted personally, and put into effect. That is why even though justice always possesses healing power, in the end it is not just the declaration, but the acceptance of justice - even if this demands a sacrifice - that heals. To bring about that acceptance is a truly pastoral concern, to be shared by judges and other pastors.

The healing power of justice

            When we say that good medicine heals, we mean that the healing process demands not only a proper diagnosis but also getting the patient to accept the treatment necessary or the medicine prescribed, even if painful or bitter. The diagnosis or prescription - the judgment - is useless if there is no one capable of getting the sick person to accept and apply the remedy.

            So, both judges and pastors have a capacity to heal. But their healing capacity is not exercised if they let people think that a violation of rights or a failure to fulfill obligations is a healthy and not a pathological situation.

            Yes, one comes across cases where a civil or ecclesiastical judgment seems to leave one of the parties "wounded", and he or she lapses into a bitter and resentful attitude. But if the judgment is just, the person should not be that way, or be left that way. The genuine pastoral concern then must be to help the person out of that attitude, through seeing that the judgment, despite the personal hardships it may cause him or her, defends other people's rights. Only if the person accepts this, will the "wound" gradually disappear and the healing process be brought to completion. The pastor who does not share this aspect of pastoral concern may tell people they are well, but in fact he is leaving them sick.

            Finally,I would like to draw attention to the possible instrumentalization of law; something that would occur if it were placed at the service of particular ideologies, or individual or group interests, and not at the service of truth and justice. If this were to occur (and there is a danger it can happen in the ecclesial world, just as it is most certainly happening in the secular), then one runs the risk - among jurists and judges - of losing the joy of one's own profession, which in the end can derive only from the sense of serving the cause of justice and of truth. It is a danger that could particularly threaten young people who, with their natural idealism, enter for the first time in the service of law, within the Church, and perhaps in the work of its Tribunals.

            We need, as never before, practitioners of the law who are in love with justice and truth; who are deeply conscious of the Splendor Veritatis, and - a subject to which the Pope devoted his 1994 Address to the Rota - of the Splendor Legis or the Splendor Iustitiae: the splendor of law and of justice. Only such jurists can help the great body of the faithful to understand the service given by the law to the life and vigor of the People of God. And if we turn more specifically to the field of our present interest, only such jurists can comprehend and reflect the deep human beauty and attractiveness of the Church's teaching on sexuality and marriage.


[1] Here I pass over the point that justice is not favored with regard to null marriages if a particular case is argued on "standard" grounds (which today almost always means consensual incapacity) which may be unsustainable, when the case would have been more solidly presented on other grounds (such, for instance, as simulation).

[2] If, as it seems, the present overall situation of marriage offers specially pathological aspects, it is important to remember that one cannot deal with pathology unless one knows what good health is.