This is the second installment of the three-part essay “Integrating Philosophical Paradigms toward Theological Unity” by Deacon Tracy Jamison, OCDS, PhD. Click here for the introduction. Click here for part 1. Part three will be posted next Friday.

In the first part of this essay, we explored how phenomenology and Thomistic-Aristotelian philosophy are not at odds, but complement each other, as regards our comprehension of both the objective and the subjective dimensions of our common human nature. We now move to the middle of the 20th century, where we find that many philosophers have overcome the false opposition between phenomenological investigations and Aristotelian metaphysics and are actively pursuing their integration.

There was great hope and expectation in the air that such a synthesis was indeed possible. Even though progressives rushed to condemn and suppress Aristotelian philosophy — as its proponents had initially condemned the modern turn to the cognitional subject and the linguistic agent — integralists optimistically proposed that the existential analysis of human authenticity was compatible with robust moral realism and a theory of the good which would above all include natural and supernatural union with God.[1] The prevailing hope was that existential norms of human authenticity could effectively be combined with moral norms grounded in human nature. It was thought that the kinds of acts which we freely choose to do and allow to form our attitudes had to contribute to social justice and the development of other human virtues.[2] A realist phenomenology would defend the irreducible intentionality of the human mind, and a realist existentialism would defend the irreducible freedom of the human heart. True human freedom, however, would be realized only in those who integrated their minds and hearts with the ordered set of perfective goods objectively understood by the human intellect and rationally desired by the human will.

The Roots of Carmelite Phenomenology

As if in fulfillment of this hope for a workable integration of phenomenological existentialism with natural-law ethics, Karol Wojtyła wrote The Acting Person[3] during the Second Vatican Council. He was later elected pope in 1978, taking the name John Paul II, and then proceeded to offer the world a phenomenological moral theology that was nurtured in the anthropological synthesis of Lublin Thomism[4] and the Carmelite doctrine of Saint John of the Cross, which relies heavily on the apophatic theology of Augustinian and Franciscan mystics. This new synthesis systematically described and reflexively analyzed the human awareness of the nuptial meaning of the human body, thereby providing traditional sexual morality with a new phenomenological interpretation.[5] Lublin Thomism in general maintains a reflective equilibrium that adeptly balances phenomenological and Aristotelian perspectives in order to address human subjectivity without falling into subjectivism, and it gives priority to the metaphysical order in understanding the nature of the human person. Thus, it can serve as a model of integration. It effectively brings the Aristotelian-Thomistic synthesis into fruitful dialogue with modern philosophy. It integrates the new with the old and does not merely substitute the new for the old.

With regard to the phenomenological and existential analysis of cognitional subjectivity and linguistic praxis, Lublin Thomists generally insist that intentionality is an identity proper to the act of knowing and to its formal species. Thus, it is only derivatively a property of the content of consciousness and the meaning of language. They also generally insist that the spontaneous operations of the natural powers of the senses and the intellect in direct perception, simple apprehension, and abstractive induction are the primary and immediate source of rational knowledge which all phenomenological intuitions, dialectical clarifications, and conceptual or linguistic analyses must presuppose as true but unclear. These philosophical assumptions are basic to the Aristotelian method of dialectic in both its constructive and deconstructive purposes.

In the description and prescription of human existence and conduct, the metaphysical-moral approach and the phenomenological-existential approach are not mutually exclusive; rather, they are complementary. They support and clarify one another reciprocally. That which is objectively true of the human person by nature may be subjectively false by orientation, and that which is subjectively true of the human person by orientation may be objectively false by nature, but we can affirm such possibilities only if we distinguish the respective objects of study of each scientific paradigm, as well as the precise meanings of the linguistic expressions which each paradigm offers as perspicuous representations of formal aspects of the human person. There is no real contradiction in such an integration so long as the subjective dimension and the objective dimension are properly distinguished and found to be compatible.

The basic inspiration of this anthropological synthesis is Christological, and its specific logic is that of reduplicative predication. The analogy runs as follows: as the assumed human nature of Christ is to his fundamental divine nature, so also is the supplemental subjective and cultivated dimension of every human person to the fundamental objective and natural dimension of every human person. Furthermore, as with the divine Person of Christ, who is a subsistential (hypostatic) union of a human nature with a divine nature, there must be a proper communication of idioms with regard to the human person, who is a subsistential union of a human nature with a human personality. We must avoid the confusion of attributing to nature what is proper to personality, and of attributing to personality what is proper to nature. And the integrity of the human person must not be compromised by denying him the possession of any perfection included in his common nature or unique personality. Aristotelian metaphysics and epistemology, therefore, need to be supplemented with the phenomenological sciences and the literature of Christian humanism, existentialism, and mysticism. The textbook Philosophical Anthropology: An Introduction, written by José Angel Lombo and Francesco Russo from the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross and the University of Trieste, is a good example of a valuable intellectual resource that accurately represents the Christological synthesis of Karol Wojtyła and Lublin Thomism.[6]

Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein) and Saint John Paul II (Karol Wojtyła) were both formed and guided by the mystical theology of Saint Teresa of Avila and Saint John of the Cross. On this relation, Michael Waldstein’s insightful introduction to the current edition of John Paul II’s Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body summarizes the Carmelite foundation of its anthropology and moral theology. Edith Stein and Karol Wojtyła effectively reinterpreted the subjectivity of the human person away from the later Husserl’s modern theory of a transcendentally purified subjectivity and back to a classical theory of personal subjectivity as metaphysically informed by existence, essence, and subsistence.[7]

Professor Richard Dumont (1928–2016) of Xavier University further developed this Carmelite anthropological synthesis with a cruciform integration based on the mystical theology of Saint John of the Cross. Professor Dumont was a secular Carmelite who earned his pontifical Doctor of Philosophy degree at the University of Ottawa and worked within the intellectual tradition of the synthesis of Blessed John Duns Scotus, emphasizing the potentiality of the human person for the actualization of two distinct but unified orders of being: the (vertical) metaphysical-moral order of nature and the (horizontal) phenomenological-existential order of culture.[8]

Nature and culture are both informed by grace and are perfected by their integration. Co-essential principles always have a prior-posterior relation. We distinguish them to unify and integrate them. Integration requires the posterior to be congruent with the prior. Any lack of congruence is a disintegration of the human person. Along similar lines, Lombo and Russo ask their readers to consider the meaning of the following statement from Saint Gregory of Nyssa:

All beings that are subject to the passage of time never remain identical to themselves but pass continually from one state to another in a process of change that is always at work, for good or for bad…. Now, to be subject to change is to be reborn continually…. But, in this case, birth does not come about by external intervention, as is the case in corporeal beings…. It is the result of a free choice, and thus we are, in a certain way, our own parents, creating ourselves as we wish and through our choices giving ourselves the form we wish.[9]

If we interpret this statement from the dogmatic metaphysical-moral (vertical) perspective, we will be forced to reject it as false, and perhaps even to condemn Gregory of Nyssa as a heretic, for nothing is self-caused ontologically. But if we instead charitably take up the statement from the charismatic phenomenological-existential (horizontal) perspective, we will be able to admit the truth of it, for the human person does indeed possess the freedom to determine his own psycho-social identity subjectively, and he must choose to cultivate it either in or out of harmony with his permanent and innate ontological identity, which is fundamental. Thus, we can properly and sympathetically understand the point that Saint Gregory of Nyssa is making in the statement, and we need not regard him as a heretic. Such a hermeneutic of charity can go a long way toward avoiding schism in all human relationships and toward maintaining unity with religious leaders.

Human persons do in fact cause themselves in the limited sense that their free actions determine their personality and character. Cultivated human persons have self-possession and self-control, and they seek self-fulfillment and authenticity. But they are thus self-caused only in the historical order of becoming, not in the order of being. The power to exist is received only by participation in the existence of God, and only God possesses that power essentially. But the power to become is a natural human power. The human person is already a self ontologically and must also become a self existentially. The ontological self is a potency continually informed by God, and the existential self is a potency initially informed by a people, language, and culture and then gradually directed in freedom by its own deliberations and choices. These two potencies are inseparable but distinct dimensions of every human person.[10]

Called to Community

The paradox of being a self that must also become a self is therefore not a contradiction. The ontological self is fundamental, and the existential self is supplemental. The personal authenticity of the existential self presupposes the hylomorphic identity of the ontological self. The two selves are formally distinct but subsistentially identical in the human subject. Human persons must “find themselves” through a situated process of detachment and liberation from their own self-centered subjectivity. Christian catechesis and education facilitate this process and form the minds and hearts of a people in the acceptance of the existence and identity that they have received as a gift from God, in the proper regard for the inherent human dignity and existential needs of their neighbors, with a preferential option for the poor, and in the proper desire for that which is truly noble and perfective of human nature.

Professor Dumont once gave a talk at a secular Carmelite retreat in which he addressed the question, “What is the difference between a community and a corporation?” His answer took the form of an Aristotelian metaphysical explanation of the common good in relation to Saint John Paul II’s phenomenological theology of the body. He said that a true community is a kind of society, but that it is not a field of appropriation, like a corporation, even though it has persons of authority who must be obeyed. It should function less like an army and more like a family.

There are some obvious similarities between a community and a corporation, but there are also some essential differences. The members of a community, like those of a family, are never expendable for the success of its enterprises, no matter how disappointing certain members may be with respect to achieving certain goals. A good community, like a good family, is a loving communion of persons where virtues are cultivated, and members are valued as ends in themselves. A corporation does not exist specifically for the sake of the common good of its members, as a community or a family does. A corporation exists specifically for the sake of achieving the temporal goals which the owners and managers happen to set for it. A corporation appropriates persons for its own ends, while a community serves persons as ends in themselves.

Intuitively we understand the difference. A corporation serves not the common good but the instrumental good of its own enterprises. A corporation values its workers only insofar as their performance serves its own goals. Accordingly, the corporation asks each individual, “What can you do for the success of this enterprise?” This is an expression of corporate self-interest. To work for a corporation always carries certain dangers for the individual, for workers are not necessarily valued and included for their own sake. A corporation defines itself not as a family or a community but as an enterprise or a campaign. Whenever a corporation happens to call itself a community, it does so merely for a utilitarian end.[11]

Pope Francis promotes a liberation theology of the people, but its basic philosophical framework is arguably much closer to that of Saint John Paul II’s mystical theology of the body than to any Marxist or Libertarian program of liberation. It can easily be provided with a metaphysical foundation that is classical and teleological. True liberation is a spiritual detachment from our false selves and from inauthentic communities. Francis uses the term “pueblo” or “people” for both natural and supernatural communities. A pueblo or people is a true community—a communion of persons—as a natural family is. It has a real basis for its unity and identity. It is not a mere abstraction, social construct, or corporate enterprise. Plato and Aristotle similarly understand the state as a natural society, not as a conventional society. Families and states are true communities insofar as they are teleologically based in the perfective goods of human nature, but corporations and conventional societies are not. States are naturally based in the spontaneous cooperation of families and in the metaphysical common good, not merely in collective self-interest. States therefore exist for the common good of families and peoples.

Every society that is not teleologically based in nature or grace is merely an abstraction. Families, peoples, and states have real identities and unifying principles. Corporations, by contrast, have no souls. Corporations are not necessarily evil; they can effectively serve the common good, but metaphysically they exist as mere associations or collectives, not real communities. All societies are informed by cultural narratives, but not all societies are grounded in truth and goodness. The cultural narrative that informs a true community signifies a spiritual reality and a metaphysical identity, while the cultural narrative that informs a corporation is merely a pragmatic fiction. Modern ideologies such as Marxism and Liberalism are notoriously misguided and inherently destructive of true culture insofar as they degenerate into dogmatic fundamentalist epistemologies and thus fail to recognize the metaphysical difference between a community and a corporation.[12]

Parish as Community

In accord with this classical philosophical distinction, we can better understand the nature of the Church and our own parish communities. God forms people by grace as well as by nature. The Church is a people supernaturally formed and united by God. Salvation history is literally true. A parish community is a faith-based participation in the salvific mission and supernatural common good of the Church. It is called to value the presence and the contribution of each individual member, no matter how weak or feeble, as intrinsically good and worthwhile. A parish community attempts to keep everyone together, in spite of disagreements and hurt feelings, and no individual member is insignificant or expendable. Like a family, a parish community exists to meet basic human needs and serve the common good, both the natural common good and the supernatural common good, but primarily the latter. If someone must be temporarily excluded, it is only for the person’s own good, and the hope is that the person will have a change of heart and return to the community. The goods that the parish community possesses in common are virtues—perfections of nature and grace, such as the practice of mercy and the forgiveness of sins. The common good as such is the ordered set of social conditions that sustain intellectual, moral, and theological virtues. A true good, such as science, education, or sanctity, cannot be diminished by distribution. The more that each individual common good is distributed and shared, the more that it is enhanced and possessed in common.

A good parish community is therefore a school of virtue, analogous to a good family. Intellectual, moral, and theological virtues are acquired and developed by combination of nature, grace, and habituation. We all have dispositions toward and away from what is truly good. We all need personal training and formation in virtue through education and direction. These are provided in good families and good parish communities. Virtues constitute a hierarchy of goods. Higher goods ought to be preferred to lower goods. Like athletes and artists, we ought to prefer exercising to eating. Like philosophers and scientists, we ought to prefer studying to sleeping. Like saints and martyrs, we ought to prefer giving to receiving.

Faith is the highest kind of virtue, and it is constitutive of the parish community. Faith is the virtuous mean between the intellectual vices of credulity and skepticism. Faith is an intellectual assent to a credible testimony on the basis of ordinate love. A person of faith is one who accepts and rejects testimonies rightly. Indeed, a person of faith is one who finds pleasure and delight in believing what is credible. A person who lacks faith is either one who finds pain and difficulty in believing what is credible, or one who finds pleasure and delight in believing what is incredible. There is a natural (human) kind of faith, and there is a supernatural (theological) kind of faith. Supernatural faith is possible only by grace. To believe and love God presupposes that God reveals his existence and presence to us and enables us to recognize and assent to his testimony. God illuminates us, inspires us, justifies us, sanctifies us, and empowers us for works of mercy and justice through the parish community: fundamentally through its pastor, and supplementally through its other members. A parish is a supernatural mission society objectively based on the sacraments, and above all on the Eucharist. Even in this life, God offers every people through Christ a participation in his own divine knowledge and divine love. It begins with faith and the sacraments.

A good parish community, like a good family, offers different levels of formation and education, in accord with the different levels of maturity of her children. As Thomas Aquinas emphasizes, “Whatever is received is received according to the mode of the receiver.”[13] Everyone can participate in family and parish life in accord with some level of development. Like new wineskins, people should not be forced to advance before they are ready and by the grace of God are seeking something higher. Ultimately it is God who initiates and directs the spiritual advancement of people and turns them toward contemplative union with himself. Spiritual maturity is acquired gradually in the historical context of a good spiritual community. The more mature must catechize, encourage, assist, and guide the less mature. A community cannot form its members in virtues that it does not already possess.

Calling the Human Heart towards True Happiness

As Saint John Paul II points out, there are various modern philosophies which advance misunderstandings of the human heart and therefore abandon the search for true happiness. Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, and Friedrich Nietzsche, for example, are often called “masters of suspicion” because they offer an understanding of the human heart which regards it with great suspicion and condemns it. Although capturing certain partial truths about human subjectivity, each of their systems falls short of the whole truth about it, because they each in a different way make lust the absolute criterion of philosophical anthropology. Freud reduces everything in the human heart to the lust of the flesh (sex and fame), Marx reduces everything in the human heart to the lust of the eyes (greed and wealth), and Nietzsche reduces everything in the human heart to the pride of life (the will to power). The Gospel ethos, by contrast, reflexively recognizes these three forms of lust in human subjectivity but does not make them the absolute criterion for evaluating the human heart. According to the Gospel, the deepest impulses of the human heart are noble and are not completely dominated by lust.[14] A realist phenomenological existentialism grounded in the classical metaphysical understanding of human nature is able to confirm this Christian doctrine.

The modern atheistic interpretation of the human person, which takes up and perpetuates an attitude of suspicion, does not recognize that there is true knowledge of the good in the human mind, and true love of the good in the human heart. The fundamental error is the denial of the transcendence of the human intellect and will, which objectively inform the subjectivity of the human heart and every true culture.

Plato and Aristotle understand the objective aspects and powers of human nature much better than the philosophers of the Modern Age do. The truth is that we naturally have an intellectual understanding of goodness, and when our hearts are freed from self-seeking desires, they are attracted to what is truly good. Our overwhelming desires for pleasure, comfort, and sex can therefore be transformed into overwhelming desires for family, truth, goodness, and beauty, the basis for culture. If we truly love what is good, then we will learn to take pleasure in what is good, and we will be repulsed and pained by what is evil.

Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche condemn the human heart and regard it only with suspicion, whereas Plato, Aristotle, and Christ appeal to the human heart to fall in love with what is transcendent, and ultimately to fall in love with God.[15] This is indeed the credible and optimistic news that saves people and cultures when it is heeded. We must make apparent the inherent despair of modern skeptical philosophies and the inherent respect that the Gospel has for the human person. We must appeal to modern man to pull out of despair and aspire to community, truth, goodness, and beauty.

We must call our young people to turn away from what is base and to love what is noble. Many human hearts and cultures will respond positively to this call. The human heart will choose happiness over despair, not necessarily as the result of argument, but when it is simply presented as its own reason why—as a first principle—and then joyfully and authentically radiated by those who truly possess it. This joyful and authentic radiation is an indispensable element of Christian evangelization and education.[16]


[1] Wm. Oliver Martin, Realism in Education (New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1969), 1–18, 176–93.

[2] Wild, 250–72.

[3] Karol Wojtyła (John Paul II), The Acting Person, translated by Andrzej Potocki (Boston, MA: D. Reidel Publishing Company, 1979).

[4] Mieczysław Krąpiec, OP, I-Man: An Outline of Philosophical Anthropology, translated by Lescoe, Woznicki, Sandok et al (New Britain, CT: Mariel Publications, 1983).

[5] John Paul II, Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body, translated by Michael Waldstein (Boston, MA: Pauline Books & Media, 2006).

[6] José Angel Lombo and Francesco Russo, Philosophical Anthropology: An Introduction, translated by Piers Amodia, Third Printing (Downers Grove, IL: Midwest Theological Forum, 2017).

[7] Christof Betschart, OCD, “The Constitution of the Human Person as Discovery and Awakening,” in American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly, Volume 95, No. 1 (Winter 2021), 1–20.

[8] Richard Dumont, OCDS, Commentary on the Writings of St John of the Cross: A Cruciform Mysticism and Christocentric Anthropology (CreateSpace Publishing, 2011), 3–41, 330–32, 463–68.

[9] Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses, II, 2–3 (PG 44, 327–28); quoted in Lombo and Russo, 159.

[10] Lombo and Russo, 173–80.

[11] Cf. Dumont, 720–51.

[12] Pope Francis in conversation with Austen Ivereigh, Let Us Dream: The Path to a Better Future (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2020), 54–57, 97–103, 109–13.

[13] Cf. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae I, q. 12, a. 4; q. 14, a. 1, ad 3; q. 16, a. 1; q. 19, a. 6, ad 2; q. 75, a. 5; SCG II, ch. 79, 7; De veritate, q. 2, a. 3.

[14] John Paul II, Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body, 301–14 (10–15–80, 10–22–80, and 10–29–80).

[15] Ibid., 314–21 (11–05–80 and 11–12–80).

[16] Francis, Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (24 November 2013), §1–14.

Image Credit: Photo by Ben Berwers on Unsplash


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The Carmelite Phenomenology and Theology of Saint John Paul II
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