Father Karol Wojtyła, the future Saint Pope John Paul II, was born on May 18, 1920, and rose from the ashes of Nazi and Communist Poland to become a champion of human rights and dignity. His works are filled with themes of human liberty, dignity, and the character of the human person, all of which are connected to his own experience and that of his fellow Poles living in Nazi-occupied Poland. Fr. Wojtyła blended his pastoral responsibilities with his profession as a philosophy professor at the Catholic University of Lublin. He created Love and Responsibility based on a series of lectures about sexual and marital ethics from 1957 to 1959.
Fr. Wojtyła opens Love and Responsibility with a criticism of Utilitarianism and an examination of the word “to use.” Utilitarians see the principle of maximum of pleasure complemented by the minimization of pain as the basic norm of human morality and see pleasure as a goal in and of itself. While this may appear appealing, by making pleasure the single or ultimate good, other values, such as the value of the individual, are pushed aside. People are unavoidably reduced to things to be used for the enjoyment of others.
Let’s briefly reflect on what modern-day hookup culture tells us about love. In the last half-century, sex has been downgraded to a commodity or a form of entertainment. We see love being conflated with one-night stands and casual sex. In that regression, the dignity of people is trampled upon and ultimately causes people to feel worthless. It’s no coincidence that men who take part in a series of short-term sexual relationships are referred to as “users,” and that women regularly complain about being “used.” True love is impossible—even if the partners use the word “love” and attempt to convince themselves that they are “in love,” as long as “using” is at the center of the relationship.
Remember that with true love there must come responsibility. According to Fr. Wojtyła, “… we must never treat a person as the means to an end. This principle has universal validity. Nobody can use a person as a means toward an end, no human being, nor yet God the Creator.” Notice that this thinking also touches upon the principles of human rights. Fr. Wojtyła goes on: “Anyone who treats a person as a means to an end does violence to the very essence of the other, to what constitutes its natural right.” If we only think in terms of what can give us the best outcome with no regard to the other’s wellbeing or condition, we end up with slavery. We must be responsible for the people we have in our care. On the other hand, Utilitarianism’s end goal focuses on attaining our individual “calculus of happiness” even when our actions are degrading towards others.
Utilitarianism is also an egotistical concept in the sense that if the other person is no longer giving me pleasure, it would suggest the value of that person is lower. Fr. Wojtyła states that the value of a person is always greater than pleasure. Pain and suffering are also a part of our human existence, and we cannot simply pretend everything revolves around pleasure. We also have the ability not to be controlled by the sexual urge. Instead, we should use it to reaffirm a loving marital relationship and for procreation. God gave man a rational nature and the ability to consciously decide our actions. This means our actions do not have to be blinded by instinct.
In our secular world, we tend to emphasize the biological and physical aspects of our relationships instead of the existential significance. Fr. Wojtyła states: “The unification of the two persons must first be achieved by way of love, and sexual relations between them can only be the expression of a unification already complete.” It is impossible to put your trust in another human being while knowing or feeling that his or her sole aim is pleasure. Several prerequisites must be met, most importantly a strong friendship in which both persons care about one another’s wellbeing. In addition, betrothed love (the surrendering of one’s own person to another) requires a unification of persons on the basis of attraction, desire, goodwill, and compassion. Only when we achieve all these things can we obtain the right to become one flesh in holy matrimony. Then we are obligated to care for one another not only when it is pleasurable, but in sickness and in health, until the end of our lives.