By George P. Carlin, S.O.L.T.
With his first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis (Redeemer of Man), Pope John Paul II signaled what perhaps would be the central thrust of his pontificate: To answer, not only for his Catholic flock but for the world community, the questions: Who is man? What is it to be a human being, a human person?
Pope John Paul widened the parameters of his fascination with every aspect of man -- spiritual, intellectual, emotional, etc. -- between 1979 and 1984 in 129 theologically rich and adventurous general audience addresses on God's nuptial love for the human family he created. He later published them under the title, Man and Woman He Created Them, but is more widely known as ''A Theology of the Body.''
The pope's story of mankind has a beginning, a middle, and an end: Original Man, Historical Man, and Eschatological Man. Taking the three in order:
1. Original Man is, of course, God's first creation, Adam and Eve, our primordial ancestors, in perfect union with their Creator, innocent, all parts of their being in harmony, until their fall in the Garden of Eden.
Secularists scoff at the Genesis account as mythic, fiction. And yet, though they don't admit the fall from grace -- Adam and Eve choosing themselves over God -- secular philosophers sense that inexplicably somehow sometime something went cosmically wrong and man is not what he was meant to be. In a burst of existential angst, a French writer called the negative of the human condition ''the great wound of the world.''
2. Historical Man: With the Fall, sin enters the world and man's life on earth becomes a struggle, from birth till death.
Christ's salvific, redemptive role is to restore man, insofar as possible, to his lost innocence, his union with God. At Baptism, one is to become ''a new creation.''
With our present age in mind, Pope John Paul particularly zeros in on the widespread sin of concupiscence, including ''adultery of the eyes,'' which blinds man to all other values. The paradigmatic example of this is certainly the often noble David unraveling in his lust for Bathsheba and so blinded that he arranges the murder of his most devoted lieutenant, Uriah, Bathsheba's husband.
John Paul has a beautiful exposition on the oft-neglected virtue of purity of heart, so pivotal to our own personal metanoia. He reminds us that we are called to see as God sees, to love as God loves.
Certainly Catholics' attraction and devotion to Our Blessed Mother is that she, sharing in God's own divine life from the moment of her conception, is an embodiment of that purity which the rest of us struggle all our lives to acquire. She recalls us to our lost innocence.
3. Eschatological Man: At the end of the ages, with general resurrection, man will be restored to his original unity and innocence -- and then some! With a glorified body, he will share forever in the Trinitarian love of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Eye has not seen nor ear heard what God has prepared for those who love Him. John Paul says we can't even imagine it.
In man's journey toward the eschaton, where are we today? John Paul argues that we live in a false world created by three 19th century philosophers: René Descartes, Immanuel Kant and Friedrich Nietzsche. Most persons probably think that philosophers spin abstract systems of thought in their ivory towers, but are irrelevant to daily life. Actually, ideas have consequences. Philosophers influence the world of academe. And, universities educate those who become media leaders, who, in turn, influence our entire population.
Descartes' dictum, ''I think, therefore I am'' means that nothing has objective existence; reality is only what I think it to be. Hence, the birth of relativism; truth is relative to what I choose it to be.
How could man, whose life, as the psalmist sighed, in the morning ''springs up and flowers, by evening it withers and fades,'' make of himself the measure of things?
Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI after him, and all recent papal predecessors, have warned Catholics and the wider human family that we live in an unreal world. But, most go with the flow. Christopher West (Theology of the Body Explained) has a homey analogy: If we have a flat tire and then notice that all the cars on the road have four flats, we begin to think that's normal, the way it should be.
So, John Paul calls us to know who we are in God's eyes, to live in the real world: created in the image and likeness of God, with an eternal destiny, we are ''partners of the Absolute,'' set into a ''unique, exclusive and unrepeatable relationship with God himself'' (TOB, general audience, Oct. 24, 1979, No. 2). If we know who we are and understand the false world around us, there we can begin to build ''a civilization of love.'' TP
FATHER CARLIN, a member of the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity, served for 12 years in the Philippines. He is parish priest -- St. Anthony Parish in Harper, Texas.