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Theories of Justice: A Dialogue with Karol Wojtyla/John Paul II and Karl Barth

Brettmann, Stephanie Mar. Theories of Justice: A Dialogue with Karol Wojtyla/John Paul II and Karl Barth. Princeton Theological Monograph Series. (Eugene: OR: Pickwick Publications, 2014), xviii + 223 pp. $29.00 (paperback).

Reviewed by See Yin C. Yeung (January 24, 2017)



Stephanie Mar Brettmann is not only a theologian and philosopher, but she is also the Executive Director of Businesses Ending Slavery and Trafficking, an organization interested in using business projects that bring social change. However, what about using theology? In this volume she assesses the theories of justice of two towering figures of Protestant and Catholic doctrine, Karol Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II) and Karl Barth, by first attending to their unique historical and social contexts, as well as their intellectual journeys. Where are they coming from? That is the question Brettmann first deals with. She then expounds the theology of each using the framework of three specific questions: how is knowledge of justice acquired, how is justice defined, and how is it actually cultivated in society. The gem of the book is the final part, where Brettmann offers her own assessment to the two male theologians from her own female perspective as well as from the perspective of the marginalized.

Brettmann finds John Paul’s approach to justice (laid out in Part One of the book) fundamentally optimistic, both with respect to the human capacity to access the natural normative order, and to their freedom to act justly, even after sin. This she attributes to his Thomist personalist tradition, and his rejection of Kantian ethics (37). Brettmann notes that his deep optimism took form despite his own experience of personal suffering and political oppression (15). As she argues, these experiences in fact led him to emphasize the human capacity to transcend one’s context to affirm their dignity (17-18). Following his Thomist tradition, John Paul II defines justice as treating one according to one’s nature (29). This allows him to affirm a fundamental dignity of all persons, and a universal knowledge of justice. Yet, Brettmann complains that this led John Paul II to settle with two possibly conflicting sources of norms, i.e. the natural and the revealed. His emphasis of the natural norm also confines his notion of justice into a merely retributive framework. Justice and mercy will always compete (169-73). In addition, John Paul’s natural and rational approach to ethics enforces a primarily individualistic framework, where any human relation is only a potential rather than an ontological reality. As personhood is determined by each in their actions, this might allow a seed of violence to be latent in interpersonal relations (197).

By stark contrast, Barth’s approach (laid out in Part Two) is far from optimistic. His own experience of political turmoil and war in fact led him to an almost opposite approach to justice than John Paul II. In addition to his Protestant tradition which undoubtedly reinforces his understanding of sin (99), Brettmann also interestingly observes an influence by Kantian pessimism concerning accessing the noumenal (85). Barth sees the Catholic analogia entis, which allows the human to access the good without Christ, a potential source for dehumanization and injustice (107-13). Fearing that the analogia precisely fails to take account of human evil, Barth emphasizes the fundamental otherness of God. Justice, for him, therefore is not grounded in human nature. It can only be a correspondence, or witness, to divine justice that has already been established by Christ (134). Barth therefore upholds the analogia relationis: the analogy between God and humanity is established only in Christ, not in human nature. It is grace that bounds the human to God and to their neighbor (106, 120ff). In other words, the gospel and law are one. Brettmann notes that Barth’s theology risks making ethics exclusive to Christianity (174), as well as fails to explain the moral diversity even within Christianity (132). Yet Brettmann thinks that Barth’s understanding is at least more consistent, having only one source of normativity, namely revelation (170). Due to his fundamental understanding of humanity as co-humanity, his justice is relational rather than individualistic (202). Due to its basis of the redemptive work in Christ, justice is also restorative rather than merely retributive. Justice and mercy are therefore one (170).

In conclusion, how is justice actually cultivated in society as a result of each theologian’s theory of justice? Brettmann critiques both theologians from the perspective of the marginalized, and quickly observes that both theologians speak from their gender privilege, and in the case of Barth, class privilege as well. In short, “neither theologian developed a theory of justice that could adequately maintain the full humanity of all persons” (196). Brettmann argues that both men’s construal of humanity in gendered terms make them blind to gender inequality. For John Paul II, the starting point of nature led him to reject the use of contraception, which could greatly endanger women under the risk of contracting HIV/AIDS (172). In Barth’s case, his emphasis of co-humanity as gendered makes men superordinate and women subordinate in a way that mirrors the divine iniative (181-90). Barth, despite his effort in condemning any human effort to identify themselves with the divine representative in the political sphere, fails to do so in gender relations. Barth’s scriptural method also makes him unable to critique the patriarchal assumptions in Scripture.

In a similar vein, Brettmann argues that Barth’s insistence of the limits of human reason and his critique of self-determination only reinforces the lack of agency of the marginalized (178). They are told they are not agents of their own liberation. His notion of ethics as based on God’s redemptive work also makes the fate of the marginalized dependent on Christians. If human justice can only be a correspondence to divine justice, again Brettmann questions how this would not make certain people a divine representative (180). The analogia relationis sets up one group as the divine aid and the rest as recipients. Brettmann protests that Barth is both inconsistent and disappointing. His Christological method fails to critique his own perspective (181). For her, both theologians fail to acknowledge how powerful ones’ contexts, culture and privilege is (188). Nevertheless, she regards Barth’s account as superior to John Paul’s when it comes to actualizing justice in the world (206). Its emphasis on co-humanity makes one’s relation to the neighbor always already a concrete reality, rather than merely a potential for John Paul’s rational individual. This gives an incentive for just actions (200-4).

Much is to be commended in Brettmann’s work. It is very readable, furnished with clear headings and subheadings that signpost the readers along every argument. Although the readers might find rather frequent repetitions of certain points, especially in the descriptive Parts One and Two, it is a very enjoyable read. A female critique of the privileged contexts of two of the preeminent male figures of Christianity is also most valuable and long-awaited, especially one done by a theologian actively involved in fighting injustice. Throughout the book Brettmann does not fail to continuously offer very sharp observations in the theologies of John Paul II and Barth. She also successfully demonstrates how for Barth it is the person, the neighbor, that makes the ethical claim, not the metaphysics of human nature. This gives one of the most distinctive demarcations between the ethics of the two theological giants.

Perhaps the reader might find that within Brettmann’s sharp observations, there is room for more elaboration. For example, she notes that Barth’s emphasis of the limits of human reason and the inaccessibility of the ultimate good for humankind reflects Kantian philosophy. Yet Barth would be reluctant to agree that he borrows from Kant. In another example, Brettmann notes that a similar experience of war and Nazi occupation gives the two theologians opposite theological outlooks, one utterly optimistic with respect to human initiative and the other utterly pessimistic. Why? She did not acknowledge the need to account for this vast difference. Either personal experiences do not expressively shape one’s theological outlook, or her explanation is still wanting.

Much of Brettmann’s final critique involves identifying how Barth’s method eventually sets one group of people (male, and the rich) as the divine representative who either subordinates or grants aid to another group (female, and the poor) (178ff). While it is most valuable in critiquing the theologian’s privileged point of departure, a number of questions may be raised. First, Brettmanns’s worry is that Barth portrays the male as Christ, and the rich as the just God. Yet I find this inaccurate. Rather than aiming to match divine and human roles, the analogia relationis commands human action to correspond to divine justice (Brettmann herself implies this on 124, 133). It is only because of this command that we encounter a portrayal, since the privileged is especially confronted with a requirement. Second, Brettmann, perhaps coming from the Western liberal tradition, seems to have assumed that being the divine representative is necessarily superior to being the recipient of divine love and aid. As a non-Western woman, coming from a place where liberal ideas such as feminism have less impact, and I am an example, may not concur with Brettmann’s worry. Why does being a recipient of love necessarily make one inferior? What is wrong with the marginalized receiving love? Surely, they are equal agents. Yet Brettmann’s critique assumes that receiving love makes one less of an agent. Third, the call for men to be like Christ and the rich to be just was never meant to put them in a privileged position, but to give them responsibilities. If Brettmann was right, that commanding men and the rich to be just, as God is just, would be oppressing the marginalized, then would she not in turn make all just acts oppressive? Certainly, she would not think that it would it be better, if men and the rich were to surrender their “privileged” position and consequently rid themselves of the responsibilities that come with this position.

In sum, Brettmann’s work is most valuable and commendable. A female critique exposes the privilege that male theologians have assumed in their theology. I also welcome the dialogue opportunities it opens for not only male and female theologians but perhaps also Western and non-Western theologians.

See Yin C. Yeung, Ph.D. Student, Princeton Theological Seminary

The views expressed here are strictly those of the author; they do not necessarily represent the views of the Center for Barth Studies or Princeton Theological Seminary.