As the canonizations of Pope John XXIII and John Paul II approach — Pope Francis will canonize them both on April 27 — some commentators have chosen to emphasize significant differences between the two men (and there are those, to be sure). One compelling aspect that both pontificates have in common is that each made historic contributions to the social teaching of the Church. This is part of the legacy of both popes that has and will continue to impact both the doctrine and the social ministry of the Church for decades, and probably centuries, to come.
I’d like to offer just a brief overview of the contributions that each made to this teaching. Since today is the fifty-first anniversary of Pacem in Terris (promulgated on April 11, 1963), which is a remarkable contribution of John XXIII to Catholic social teaching, it’s a good day to look at his work. We’ll consider the work of John Paul II on the topic in another post over the next few days.
Pope John XXIII offered two historic social encyclicals during his five-year pontificate.
Mater et Magistra, On Christianity and Social Progress (1961), published on the 70th anniversary of Rerum Novarum, is a good example of Pope John’s conviction that Christians must be engaged with the world, not separated from it.
MeM was the first papal encyclical to direct attention to issues related to the economic development of poorer nations. It took the church even farther along its path away from the socially “conservative” institutions and ideas with which it had generally aligned itself previously and placed it more clearly on the side of policies and reforms that favored the poor.
Pope John voiced strong support for government involvement in issues like unemployment, rejected economics based on self-interest and unregulated competition, and called for respect for the right of workers to just wages and to a share in the wealth generated by the corporations that employed them. Elements like these in John’s encyclical spurred the popular conservative political journal, National Review, under the leadership of its Catholic editor William F. Buckley, Jr., famously noted: “Going the rounds in Catholic conservative circles: ‘Mater si, Magistra no.'” (And voilà, Cafeteria Catholicism was born!)
Pope John himself, on the other hand, considered the encyclical an important accomplishment. Rereading the text a few months after its publication, John wrote with satisfaction in his personal diary that it was “a great gesture of my humble pontificate.”
Pacem in Terris, Peace on Earth (1963) has been called (by the historian/theologian Alberto Melloni) the “peak and summit” of the teaching of Pope John XXIII. Its fundamental message is that international peace comes through respect for the human rights of all. Among these rights, Pope John included the right to life, food, shelter, medical care, freedom of speech, work, and a proper wage. He insisted that such rights are universal, inviolable, and inalienable, but also emphasized the importance of recognizing the duties than come alongside rights.
The encyclical came in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis, in which Pope John had played an important role in resolving. When the Pope found out just a few weeks after the crisis that he was dying of cancer, he resolved to offer the world a strong and final statement about peacemaking, despite the fact that this meant, unusually, publishing an encyclical even as the Second Vatican Council was in process. The fact that he was named Time magazine’s Man of the Year just months before the encyclical’s publication surely lent further credibility to his voice.
This encyclical remains today the most exhaustive and authoritative statement of the Catholic Church’s teaching on human rights. It has fueled Catholic activism in human rights ever since, by believers all over the globe (not least of all, the efforts of John Paul II that made the Vatican a world leader in the promotion of human rights). This is all the more remarkable since the encyclical marked a notable departure from previous Catholic ambivalence toward individual rights and democracy that was often justified by a philosophy of “error has no rights.”
Last year, Our Sunday Visitor published an article I wrote marking the fiftieth anniversary of Pacem in Terris. You can find that here.
Finally, if we’re talking about Pope John’s contributions to Catholic social teaching, we’d be missing an important point not to mention Vatican II. He called this historic council and provided it with its spirit and vision. That spirit and vision led to further important steps in the Church’s social teaching, most clearly seen in the Council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World and its Declaration on Religious Freedom.