The Personalist Awakening in 20th Century Catholic Moral Thought

The personalist awakening in 20th century Catholic moral thought restored the ancient and medieval priority accorded to persons—as well as to the ways of relating between them (especially friendship)—to the modern field of ethics and moral theology. Furthermore, friendship is a strong idiomatic pattern in New Testament reflections, according to which, through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we can once again enjoy friendship with God. Jesus related not only to the Apostles as friends, but to all who gathered around him as friends. Jesus says the following in John 15:

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father (12-15).

Though the notion of friendship with God is present in the Hebrew Scriptures—for example, it is a recurring theme in the Psalms—in the New Testament, we are called “friends” directly by God in the person of Jesus Christ.

Our goals in this essay are: first, to locate and critique the fundamental “weirdness” of modern moral philosophy, which I identify with certain aspects of the critical philosophy of Immanuel Kant and its influence on subsequent thought, though a case could be made that the story actually begins with René Descartes; second, to register the worries of Catholic moral philosophers and theologians with respect to the Kantian paradigm and to introduce the ethical personalism of Pope John Paul II, in both its philosophical and theological versions, as the most promising way in which the virtues of Kant’s ethics might be retained and the structural antagonisms that obtain within it might be eased.

My argument is relatively modest: I am certainly not claiming that Kantian principles are inimical to a genuinely ethical life or incompatible with moral life, but simply that Kant confuses what ethical responsibility consists in and how moral deliberation ought to proceed.

Most importantly, Kant’s ethics exclude recourse to a phenomenology of persons—that is, to persons as they appear within the field of human experience—as a factor in moral calculus. In fact, Kant gives good reasons to think that to do so would be to our ethical detriment. It is this disinterested, formalistic quality of Kantian ethics that is so odd. Of course, “person” is a moral, as well as a metaphysical, category for Kant. His moral philosophy is rightly called a respect-for-persons ethic or ethic of human dignity. Furthermore, Kant is a moral universalist who believed that genuine moral truths apply to all persons. Thus, Catholic moral thought does find substantial common ground with Kant in certain respects. This is especially the case with his moral universalism and his recognition of the conceptual and moral importance of the human person, and the human person’s uniqueness and dignity, however much he articulates those (or analogous) commitments differently.

The main lines of Kant’s moral philosophy developed over the course of just over a decade, beginning with the publication of the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals in 1785 and the Critique of Practical Reason in 1787 and then the Critique of the Power of Judgment in 1790, before finally publishing his most developed and final statement of his ethics with the Metaphysics of Morals in 1797/8. Despite the series of transformations that occur in Kant’s moral philosophy over this 20 year period, there is a marked consistency with respect to its fundamental elements and patterns of reasoning first elaborated in the Groundwork. Even though certain concepts like the categorical imperative seem to drop out as Kant’s ethical thought matures, on the one hand, and, on the other, that Kant never seems happy with how he conceives the relationship between moral and theoretical reflection.

For Kant’s late-20th century Catholic critics, like Wojtyla, the personalist awakening nevertheless rests on the shoulders of the Kantian achievement. Throughout Man in the Field of Responsibility (1972), Wojtyla’s personalist ethical treatise, which brought together his earlier 1960 engagement with sexuality, marriage, and human dignity in Love and Responsibility and his more phenomenological treatment of the experience of human action in The Acting Person (1969), Kantian ethics serves as the representative of modern non-utilitarian ethics. In each text, John Paul is critical of Kant, yet throughout he credits Kant with clarifying moral concepts that would make a personalist ethics possible, particularly insofar as those concepts made a bulwark against utilitarianism, which both Kant and Wojtyla find repugnant. In both Love and Responsibility and The Acting Person, Wojtyla identifies in Kant a sort of formalistic personalism, which insists that human persons must be treated as ends in themselves and not merely means to other ends, though it refuses to take into account the experience of the human act as such. Thus, the personalist critique of Kantian ethics is not an ideological one; it is a rather a personalist one. If Kantian ethics must be surpassed, it is precisely because they are inadequate to the phenomena of human moral activity, persons, and ends.

The arc of the Catholic personalist critique of Kantian ethics centers around two main structural elements, namely, (1) the person and (2) the moral imperative. It is important to note that Kant’s ethics are part and parcel of his so-called “Critical Philosophy,” that is, the period following the publication of his First Critique, the Critique of Pure Reason, in 1781 (recall that Kant’s earliest ethical work, the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, was published in 1785). This point is particularly important for understanding Kant’s notion of the person’s role in his ethics, as well as for understanding why the personalists rejected it. The project of the First Critique in large part—for present purposes, this will have to be an oversimplification—was to recognize the limits of metaphysical knowledge, that is, knowledge of things in themselves, and to demonstrate that most metaphysical notions and problems are accessible only epistemologically, as beholden to our empirical perception of them, if they are not in fact epistemological concepts and problems masquerading as metaphysical ones in the first place. Metaphysical concepts must be, as Kant puts it, submitted to the “fiery test of critique.” Hence, Kant’s famous distinction between noumena (things in themselves, or, Kant puts it, das Ding an sich) and phenomena (things as they appears to us). For Kant, it is only the latter about which we can have knowledge.

It should be no surprise, then, that Kant’s theory of the person will be worked out accordingly. Whatever the person is an sich, we can only have knowledge of persons in terms of how they are presented to our senses. If metaphysics suffers a subordination to epistemology, theology fares worse in terms of its status as a source of knowledge, as, in Kant’s view, the claims of theology do not address, and certainly cannot be verified in, the empirical realm. It should be clear how this view represents a massive departure from the rich tradition of Christian speculation on persons, which is both heavily reliant on the terminology of classical metaphysics, as well as the content of biblical revelation.

In his elaboration of the concept of person, Kant avails himself of neither resource, and to his credit he is ruthlessly consistent. We can derive no genuine knowledge from metaphysical descriptions of persons, which effectively brackets nearly the entire Western philosophical tradition from Plato to Descartes, on the one hand, and the Christian theological concepts developed from the Bible through Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and the Protestant Reformers, on the other. Yet, things are complicated. Kant is not a reductivist or a positivist, at least not in this respect; his project is one of translation rather than elimination. Take, for instance, Kant’s reckoning with the Christian notion of the imago dei, which not only figures definitionally into the classical theological understanding of person, but also governs its formulation of human dignity. For Kant, the conviction that human beings are created in God’s image and likeness is meaningful, even helpful, but in order for it to constitute genuine knowledge of a metaphysical fact it must be conditioned to the demands of reason—and condition it he does. The result is that the imago dei becomes for him an analogy for our sensible experience of the dignity of human beings, which has its own philosophical justification, according to Kant, firmly within reason. Moreover, for Kant, the meaning of the imago dei (and other metaphysical and theological concepts) is completely lost if its connection to sensible perception is lost. This move is characteristic of Kant’s philosophy of religion more broadly; religion must be shown to be founded on morality, which is to say that it must conform to the dictates of reason and sensible perception.

In short, whereas for mainline Christian theology, human dignity is conferred by humanity’s relationship to God, for Kant, such foregrounding our relationship with God is problematic for two reasons. The first reason, which we have already mentioned, is that it is not founded in reason and sensible perception. But the other reason is more philosophically interesting. Kant argues that dignity is an essential property of human nature and is grounded in the human capacity to give oneself freely to the moral law, or what he calls “autonomy,” which, recalling the word’s Greek roots, is the compound of the reflexive prefix auto– which means “self” and nomos, which means “law.” Thus, to be autonomous is to choose freely one’s own law, and the freedom that is active in autonomy can only be known through its effects; it cannot be known in and of itself.

Thus we see that for Kant, as with Christian theology, human dignity is paramount and grounded in the concept of the person, but for entirely contrary reasons. Moreover, far from conceiving the moral law in terms of the Christian natural law tradition, Kant characterizes the moral law as the felt experience of moral obligation to which the human will responds, which follows ex hypothesi from the epistemic requirement that in order to be meaningful the moral law itself must be defined in terms of sensible perception and experience. We should notice something very strange here in the conjunction of autonomy, dignity, and moral law. For Kant, given his presuppositions, human dignity consists in the freedom to choose one’s own law. Thus, Kant cannot, on his own terms, set any requirements as to the composition of the moral law. In other words, the when it comes to the content of one’s own moral law—that is, the set of moral precepts and prohibitions contained in it—Kant, like Wittgenstein, must pass over in silence.

Yet, Kant is not a nihilist; rather, he is confident, and overly so, in the certainty with which the existential experience he describes in the preface to the Critique of Practical Reason is universal. He writes:

Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often and steadily we reflect upon them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me. I do not seek or conjecture either of them as if they were veiled obscurities or extravagances beyond the horizon of my vision; I see them before me and connect them immediately with the consciousness of my existence.

Again, Kant is maddeningly consistent. On the one hand, Kant insists on the self-evident nature not only of the material world and the moral law, but also of his feelings of awe that arise from them. On the other hand, however, his reason for not speculating about either of them seems simply to be that the inclination to do so does not arise, at least for him. In fact, it is not clear what other reason he could give for not doing so.

Interestingly, Kant claims that there is only one moral law that human beings freely choose as their own (again, Kant is a moral universalist), but at the same time it is not a law that consists of moral precepts and prohibitions. The moral law, for Kant, consists in what he calls the categorical imperative, an ethical maxim provided by pure practical reason, that is, reason that is free of any incentive to follow it. The categorical imperative, unlike a hypothetical imperative (as when Christ says to Peter, “If you love me, feed me sheep”), expresses a universal moral norm that is without exception and is to be followed as an end in itself. It applies to all people, at all times, and for all reasons, and it admits no incentive beyond being obedient to it. Though he gives several articulations of it in the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals as well in his later ethical works, we shall examine his first and most well-known version: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.” Thus, for Kant, the rightness or wrongness of an action is not contingent upon its consequences but rather upon whether it fulfills our duty, and it is the categorical imperative that determines what our duties are.

In many ways and for most people, following the categorical imperative is sound advice for moral deliberation. I should not steal, for example, because I would not wish for the permissibility of theft to become universal law, and, conversely, I do not steal because I wish for the impermissibility of theft to be universal. Yet, we notice the categorical imperative’s constitutive weirdness, namely, that it depends upon what we would will. Thus, the categorical imperative gives the form of moral deliberation without giving it any content (for this reason it is called ethical formalism), which leaves open at least the logical possibility that someone could act according to an evil maxim and will that evil maxim to be a universal law. Moreover, when Kant famously treats the notion of radical evil in Religion Within the Bounds of Reason Alone (1795), he seems only to conceive of moral failure either in terms of failing to cooperate with the natural inclination to meet our moral obligations, on the one hand, or the choice of a maxim inferior to the categorical imperative, on the other. Kant cannot seem to imagine the choice of an evil maxim that would be willed universally, that is, an evil that is categorically imperative.

For his Catholic personalist critics, both Kant’s understanding of the person and his dependence on the categorical imperative will be problematic. Before turning to those critiques, it is worth mentioning two historical factors. First, in the period between the First and Second Vatican Councils, Kant came into vogue in certain sectors of Catholic theology. The transcendental Thomism of chiefly Jesuit figures such as Joseph Maréchal, Pierre Rousselot, Karl Rahner, and Bernard Lonergan (though Lonergan disapproved of the term) sought to bring Kant’s philosophy into constructive, though not uncritical, conversation with the magisterial philosophy of Thomas Aquinas. Though the advent of personalism should be understood in this context, insofar as it is the continuation of the 19th and 20th century Catholic engagement with Kant, it is distinct from transcendental Thomism in important ways.

Second, as John Paul II himself notes, Catholicism experienced a revitalization of the concept of person in the 20th century through two crucial developments, one philosophical and the other ecclesiastical. The first was the development of the phenomenological philosophy of Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) and Max Scheler (1874-1928) and its continued enthusiastic reception in Catholic thought to the present. Phenomenology is largely the study of the structures of consciousness as given in first-person intentional experience, that is, as consciousness is directed to objects or experiences, but in a way independent of an individual’s mental states. The person, on a phenomenological account, is defined as the experiencing self, a self that is constitutively structured to be, in Robert Sokolowski’s words, “involved with truth.”

The second development was the gathering of the Second Vatican Council, which began in 1962 and ended in 1965. Though human dignity had first come to the fore in modern Catholic social teaching in Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum in 1891, it receives its most definitive magisterial expression in Vatican II’s pastoral constitutions Gaudium et spes (1965) and Dignitatis humanae (1965), which identify the human person as the “point of contact” between the concerns of the Church and the world. In other words, the formulation of ethics, both sacred and profane, must be adequate to the reality of the human person and not the mere fulfillment of formal moral duties. The Council not only made substantial contributions to the Catholic understanding of persons and their dignity along phenomenological and personalist lines, it also, and perhaps more importantly, appeared to give its imprimatur to the renewed interest in the concept of the person that galvanized Catholic interest in phenomenology and personalism. Thus, 20th century Catholic theology, philosophy, and ecclesiastical politics foreground the necessity of a metaphysically thick, relational ontology of the human person. The human person created in the image and likeness of the Triune God and endowed with both dignity and a relational, yet universal moral obligation to others in light of that. In other words, the Catholic Church submits its kerygma and moral teachings not to the hellish fiery test of Kantian critique, but only to the true light of Jesus Christ.

The personalist awakening in Catholic ethics, in turn, especially in the thought of Wojtyla, provides an ethical framework adequate to both the reality of God’s loving relation to humanity and the phenomenon of the human person as she exists and experiences the world. In , Wojtyla elaborates a decidedly phenomenological view of ethics. In contradistinction to Kant, ethics is not simply discernment of our duties to one another but is rather a philosophical theory of the experience of morality, of how we experience our duty to love one another. Fulfilling our duty to the other, on a personalist account, surpasses what is required by the categorical imperative insofar as our duty is precisely to love and the object of love can never be a formal ethical maxim but must always be the person herself. It is St. Thomas, not Kant, who provides John Paul the normative understanding of the person: “persona significat id quo est perfectissimum in tota natura, scilicet subsistens in rationali natura.” This means that a “person” signifies what is “most perfect in all nature,” that is, “the subsistent individual of a rational nature” (ST, I, 29, 3).

Perhaps the most subtle and profound achievement of the personalist awakening is its affirmation of one of the most important achievements of Kant’s ethical theory, namely, its universalism. If individual persons each constitute the ethical standard in each moment of moral deliberation, then how is personalism not tantamount to a specious form of relativism? The answer is bracingly metaphysical. The contribution of phenomenological analysis, what Husserl calls “reduction,” is a way of analyzing particular experiences in order to arrive at what is essential to an object or person as it appears in the field of experience. In a phenomenology of the person, what we experience as fundamentally and essentially human, is the human act, or put otherwise, that the human person acts. Thus, we have access to the metaphysical notion of person through the individual phenomenological experience of acting persons, of the structural, undifferentiated, and indeed free capacity to act that is logically prior to intentionality, moral or otherwise. We discover and learn that each human person in her particularity and givenness bears the truth and dignity of all human beings.

In Man in the Field of Responsibility, John Paul II names this insight the “personalistic norm” and in his articulation of it we can see the vestiges of Kant’s anti-utilitarianism, a passage which is worth quoting directly:

The personalistic norm indicates a direction for the justification of the norms of human morality. It is a direction . . . somewhat different from the direction of the natural law, although it is rather complementary than opposed to it. Understanding justification thus, we can take into consideration in a particular way those axiological relations which are proper to the person and flow out of his ontic reality. For we take into consideration the truth about the trans-utilitarian significance of the person, about his auto-teleology, which excludes taking him as a “means to an end”—finally, we take into consideration the particular value of love which, as a principle of behavior, best corresponds to that reality which a person is.

Thus, the personalist norm not only replaces the categorical imperative within a system of ethics but also re-centers the human person as the locus of moral deliberation and aesthetic valuation, as well as the intentional object whose inherent dignity can only be expressed by loving and being loved. Perhaps it is because I am a bit of a “company man” that I cannot but see this as wildly superior to a Kantian theory of ethics. But it could also be because I think that in personalism we have the ethical theory we need and not the ethical theory we deserve, an ethical theory that attains to how God sees us rather than how we see ourselves in our sinfulness, brokenness, and despair.

In conclusion, I would like to return very briefly to the notion of friendship. On my view, what I have been calling the Catholic personalist awakening  ransoms friendship from its Kantian slumbers. In the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant writes that friendship is “the union of two persons through equal mutual love and respect . . . an ideal of participating and sharing sympathetically in the other’s well-being through the morally good will that unites them.” Thus, human beings have a duty of friendship. At the same time, however, Kant argues that “friendship is only an idea (though a practically necessary one) and unattainable in practice.” Kant’s paradoxical formulation of friendship only admits a striving for friendship. What appears perhaps as realism or restraint in Kant is revealed in personalism as a fundamental failure to grasp the particularity of the human act. Where Kant sees a chasm between striving and perfection in friendship, the Catholic personalist does not. Striving is itself a moral perfection, a loving expression of our responsibility toward the other. Moreover, striving toward friendship is an end in itself, not a means to the end of a perfect friendship, whatever that would mean. Human friendships do not admit a perfect state, not merely because we are sinful, but rather because our capacity to love and be loved knows no limit and does so precisely because we learn and continue to learn to love and be loved from God, who first loved us and loves us without measure.


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Editorial Statement: An earlier version of this essay, “The Personalist Revolution in 20th Century Catholic Moral Thought,” was delivered on 16 April 2018 at Spring Arbor University.

Featured Image: Stanisław Wyspiański, Śpiące dziecko na poduszce [Sleeping Baby on a Pillow], 1902; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.

Jay Martin

Jay Martin is the Co-Director of the McGrath Institute Science and Religion Initiative. He is also a PhD candidate in systematic theology at the University of Notre Dame. His research concentrates upon theological themes in the work of Jacques Lacan, Slavoj Žižek, and Alain Badiou.