In honor of this weekend’s canonization, here are some my past posts and articles on these two greats.
On Pope St. John XXIII:
Martin de Porres: patron of social justice (canonized by J23)
On Pope St. John Paul II:
In honor of this weekend’s canonization, here are some my past posts and articles on these two greats.
On Pope St. John XXIII:
Martin de Porres: patron of social justice (canonized by J23)
On Pope St. John Paul II:
Now here’s an interesting passage I came across today while checking for something else in Yves Congar’s Vatican II journals.
In his entry for October 2, 1964, Fr. Congar refers to the suggestion made by several bishops at the Council, including the great Belgian Cardinal Suenens, soon after the death of Pope John XXIII, that he be canonized a saint by popular acclamation — such as was done in the early days of the Church — rather than waiting for the formal process to happen. (A proposal advocating the move was circulated among the bishops at the Council, but Pope Paul VI preferred for the normal process to be followed and paired Pope John’s cause with that of his predecessor Pope Pius XII.)
Congar reports in his journal a car ride he shared with Suenens, in which the topic of the hoped-for canonization of Pope John by popular acclamation came up. He wrote, “He [Suenens] thinks that such a canonisation would find a very great echo in the world. But in fifty years’ time it will be too late.”
Here we are — almost precisely fifty years after Congar wrote those words on Suenens’ thinking — preparing for the canonization of John XXIII this Sunday. Obviously, Congar does not specify what Suenens meant by it being “too late.” But it’s worth surmising what he meant, and asking: was Suenens right?
Our Sunday Visitor has published a special supplement of their April 27, 2014, issue, marking the canonization of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II. Four of the articles in the supplement are written by yours truly, and each is available online. They are (with a snippet from each):
With the April 27 dual canonizations of Popes St. John XXIII and St. John Paul II, much has been made of the differences between the two pontiffs. But the two have plenty in common — even beyond the obvious and most important connections of the Catholic Faith they both embraced and the important role they both played at the helm of the universal Church. Here are a few interesting things they share.
His work was marked by an openness to the positive aspects of modern society and an optimism about people and circumstances. He was convinced that condemning errors was less effective in the proclamation of the Gospel than dispensing what he called “the medicine of mercy.”
Pope St. John Paul II reminded the Church of its central mission: the proclamation of Jesus Christ to the world. From his very first encyclical letter in which he proclaimed Jesus as “the center of the universe and of history,” John Paul produced a massive amount of documents, speeches and books marked by the centrality of Jesus and the redemption he won for humanity.
With the canonizations of Pope Sts. John XXIII and John Paul II, legions of Catholic priests will delight in the moment. Certainly, many lay and religious men and women also hold these two spiritual leaders in high esteem. But so many priests who prepared for ministry and were ordained during their remarkable pontificates look in a special way to one or the other as a lasting inspiration and model, giving us the “John XXIII generation” and “John Paul II generation” of priests.
There are plenty of other good canonization-related articles by other writers in this issue of OSV, too. I was especially taken by the insightful observations of the issue’s editorial, “The Mercy Popes.”
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.
I’ve been a little surprised by how many times I have read comments about Pope Francis’s Evangelii Gaudium in recent weeks that start out something like this: “I have to admit, I’ve never read a papal encyclical the whole way through. I usually skim them and rely on what’s reported about their contents in the Catholic Press. But boy, once I got started on Evangelii Gaudium, I could not stop. It was the first one I really read all the way through.”
This has come not just from regular lay folks, who would not be expected to pore over church documents, but “professional Catholics” who know a lot about what’s in these documents. (Not that I much blame them, I suppose; these things are typically not exactly beach reading.)
So let me start out — in honesty and, if possible, humility — like this: I have read, over the last 20 years or so, a lot of papal documents: old ones and new ones; encyclicals, apostolic letters, apostolic exhortations; front to back, opening greeting to concluding blessing. Dozens and dozens of them. I have studied them, written about them, prayed with them, taught from them. I have done this mainly out of a fascination and a deep appreciation of the role of the magisterium in articulating, proclaiming, and defending the Gospel of Jesus.
Don’t get me wrong: I fully realize that these documents are not Spirit-breathed like we would say the Bible is, that encyclicals are a fairly new genre on the landscape of church history, and that there is plenty in them that reflects the times in which they were written or the limitations of the popes who signed them as much as the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Still, they are an important way that the church of God has proclaimed the Good News — sometimes in compelling or beautiful or influential ways — to the people of a given time, and in some ways, to the ages.
I have sometimes been deeply moved and inspired by reading these documents. I have distinct memories, for example, of reading through Paul VI’s Evangelii Nuntiandi, John Paul II’s Evangelium Vitae, and also his Tertio Millennio Adveniente with a palpable excitement, inspiration, and — it would not be exaggerating to say — awe. I have read others with great disappointment and frustration; Pope Benedict XVI’s Caritas in Veritate, for example, offers important and challenging teaching in prose that is unsatisfying and at times impenetrable, and John Paul II’s Ordinatio Sacerdotalis is disappointing for its uncharacteristic (of JP2) failure to offer a thorough and compelling explanation for the reasons behind its teaching. Mostly, though, they are sometimes interesting, sometimes boring, often dry.
All this to say: I have read a lot of papal documents, and there is no papal document quite like Pope Francis’s Evangelii Gaudium.
There are, admittedly, a few moments where EG is overly verbose and dense. What the heck was Francis thinking when he came up with that line about “self-absorbed promethean neopalagianism” (n. 94)? He makes in that paragraph a powerful and important point that is probably obscured by the prose.
But far more often, EG is personal, simple, and even downright lyrical. There’s this, for example:
This is why I want a Church which is poor and for the poor. They have much to teach us. Not only do they share in the sensus fidei, but in their difficulties they know the suffering Christ. We need to let ourselves be evangelized by them. The new evangelization is an invitation to acknowledge the saving power at work in their lives and to put them at the centre of the Church’s pilgrim way. We are called to find Christ in them, to lend our voice to their causes, but also to be their friends, to listen to them, to speak for them and to embrace the mysterious wisdom which God wishes to share with us through them. (n. 198)
Thanks to our bodies, God has joined us so closely to the world around us that we can feel the desertification of the soil almost as a physical ailment, and the extinction of a species as a painful disfigurement. (n. 215)
And good heavens, this:
We love this magnificent planet on which God has put us, and we love the human family which dwells here, with all its tragedies and struggles, its hopes and aspirations, its strengths and weaknesses. The earth is our common home and all of us are brothers and sisters. (n. 183)
And one more:
We have a treasure of life and love which cannot deceive, and a message which cannot mislead or disappoint. It penetrates to the depths of our hearts, sustaining and ennobling us. It is a truth which is never out of date because it reaches that part of us which nothing else can reach. Our infinite sadness can only be cured by an infinite love. (n. 265)
For those who might be uncomfortable with the church’s social teaching and wonder why the church can’t just stay out of politics and economics and stick to helping me save my own soul — and we have seen many such comments in the media, both secular and Catholic, since this document’s appearance — EG offers an answer that is crisp and clear: “The kerygma has a clear social content: at the very heart of the Gospel is life in community and engagement with others” (n. 177). Not a peripheral matter, not distinct from the real concerns of the foundational Christian doctrines, and not the unfortunate hobby of misguided liberals: life in community is at the very heart of the Gospel. “Our redemption has a social dimension” (n. 178). The Catholic faith is “the Gospel of fraternity and justice!” (n. 179). “God wants his children to be happy in this world too” and forthat reason “Christian conversion demands reviewing especially those areas and aspects of life related to the social order” (n. 182).
It is true that there’s very little in this encyclical that has not been said before by Pope Benedict, Pope John Paul II, Pope Paul VI, Pope John XXIII, Pope Leo XIII, Blaise Pascal, St. John Chrysostom, St. Augustine, Jesus, St. Paul, Jeremiah, or Amos (to name just a few that I thought of repeatedly while reading). But he says it in a fresh, vibrant, and down-to-earth way that is made even more compelling and effective by his own personal actions and ministerial “style.”
There will be more to say about EG later, no doubt. For now a word of deep appreciation and thanksgiving. Also a prayer that its words sink more deeply into my own heart and marrow. I would be a changed person if they did.
So, our Pope Francis has clearly chosen to put poverty and the Church’s teaching about a preferential option for the poor at the center of his papal ministry. But how much of this is new, and how much is a restatement of formal Catholic teaching?
First, we should be clear that there is a lot in Francis’s approach to poverty and the poor that is not new. Of course, care for people who are poor has been a constant throughout Christian tradition. Notably, that includes approaching poverty not just through works of charity but through works of justice, that is, by attending to the social structures that support it.
To be sure, charity has been the dominant aspect throughout that history, but we find there too the Church’s insistence that in many ways, the help we offer to people in poverty is owed to them by right rather than simply offered out of kindness. It’s in the preaching of the great third- and fourth-century “fathers of the Church” and the thirteenth-century theology of St. Thomas Aquinas. It took a more prominent place in the nineteenth-century teaching of Leo XIII and has been embraced and developed by many of his successors. This includes, in modern times, frequently questioning the morality of liberal capitalism.
Pope Leo (pope from 1878-1903) authoritatively rejected the idea that labor is a commodity to be purchased for whatever the market will allow, that a wage contract is fair as long as the laborer is willing to agree to its terms. At a time when many in the West treated the laws of economics like the laws of nature, Leo said that’s not how it is. He also insisted that the state has a necessary place in the protection of workers and the poor.
Pope Pius XI (1922-1939), who introduced the term “social justice” into the Catholic vocabulary, was a radical critic of the capitalist system. In his encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, he called it an “unjust economic regime whose ruinous influence has been felt through many generations” and called for structures designed to limit competition in the marketplace that leads to exploitation of the poor. The theologian Donal Dorr has argued effectively that Pius XI rejected capitalism “not just in its present form, but in its essential nature.”
Pope Pius XII (1939-1958), though less radical in his criticisms of capitalism, called for a more just distribution of wealth and insisted on the universal destination of goods (relativizing the right to private property) in ways that would have made even most liberals in America today uncomfortable.
Pope John XXIII (1958-1963), also no radical on social or economic issues, did insist that “economic prosperity of any people is measured less by the total amount of goods and riches they own than by the extent to which these are distributed according to the norms of justice.” That passage comes from Pope John’s encyclical Mater et Magistra (n. 74), which offered a strong advocacy of increased social welfare programs designed to protect and assist the poor — so strong, in fact, that it led conservative leader William Buckley (founder of the National Review) to respond with his now famous “Mater si, Magistra no.” John also wrote strongly on the social nature of private property, arguing that property owners not only should give up some of what they own for the sake of a more just distribution of goods, but that they could be compelled by law to do so.
The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) proclaimed that “excessive economic and social differences between the members of the one human family or population groups cause scandal, and militate against social justice, equity, the dignity of the human person, as well as social and international peace” (in the constitution Gaudium et Spes n. 29). It called for “many reforms” of social and economic structures, including, for example, the creation of institutions to regulate international trade in order to protect the poor and the common good against exploitation that can result from following the “law of supply and demand” and the expropriation of massive Latin American estates owned by wealthy private individuals and families in the name of the social nature of private property.
Pope Paul VI (1963-1978) expanded the Church’s understanding of social justice to the international level. Particularly in his encyclical Populorum Progressio, he criticized the economic and social imbalances between rich and poor nations, including those left by past colonialism, caused by a present neo-colonialism, and reinforced by trade imbalances. He criticized dominant international trade relations as unjust and called for “bold transformations in which the present order of things will be entirely renewed or rebuilt” (PP 32). In echoes of Pope Pius XI’s radical criticism of capitalism, Paul wrote that
certain concepts have somehow arisen out of these new conditions and insinuated themselves into the fabric of human society. These concepts present profit as the chief spur to economic progress, free competition as the guiding norm of economics, and private ownership of the means of production as an absolute right, having no limits nor concomitant social obligations. This unbridled liberalism paves the way for a particular type of tyranny, rightly condemned by Our predecessor Pius XI, for it results in the “international imperialism of money.” Such improper manipulations of economic forces can never be condemned enough; let it be said once again that economics is supposed to be in the service of man.
In a landmark encyclical on evangelization, Pope Paul insisted that evangelization must include proclamation that the Gospel means “liberation from everything that oppresses man,” and while he notes that this means “above all liberation from sin and the Evil One,” it would also clearly include economic and social forces of oppression, for the Church seeks the conversion of “both the personal and collective consciences of people, the activities in which they engage, and the lives and concrete milieu which are theirs” (18). This includes liberation from “famine, chronic disease, illiteracy, poverty, injustices in international relations and especially in commercial exchanges, situations of economic and cultural neo-colonialism sometimes as cruel as the old political colonialism… This is not foreign to evangelization” (30).
Pope John Paul II (1978-2005) too called for a “transformation of the structures of economic life” (Redemptor Hominis, 16). Among his very many pastoral visits around the world, he expressed the Church’s option for the poor concretely by several significant personal visits to areas marked by poverty. Dorr points to one of these, his pastoral visit to Brazil in 1980, as especially important. In addition to expressing solidarity with the poor, Dorr suggests it also expressed solidarity with the bishops of that nation “in their commitment to putting the Church on the side of the poor and oppressed.” On that trip, he called upon government and economic leaders to “do all you can to ensure the disappearance, at least gradually, of that yawning gap which divides the few ‘excessively rich’ from the great masses of the poor, the people who live in grinding poverty.” And to the poor, he insisted that “God’s will” must never be an excuse to accept difficult conditions passively.
In his encyclical on work, Laborem Exercens, John Paul developed further the Church’s critique of capitalism, pointing out the structural injustices it encourages. And in another encyclical, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, he called upon Christians to live a more vibrant solidarity with the poor and criticized both the “structures of sin” that help to keep them poor and also the “super-development” of the West
which consists in an excessive availability of every kind of material goods for the benefit of certain social groups, easily makes people slaves of “possession” and of immediate gratification, with no other horizon than the multiplication or continual replacement of the things already owned with others still better. This is the so-called civilization of “consumption” or ” consumerism ,” which involves so much “throwing-away” and “waste.”
Pope Benedict XVI (2005-2013) offered a strong theological foundation for the Church’s approach to social justice, particularly in two major encyclicals Deus Caritas Est and Caritas in Vertitate. In the latter, he called for a greater openness to the element of “gratuitousness” in economic activity and commercial relationships, and he invited business people to consider “a profoundly new way of understanding business enterprise,” dual-purpose businesses that stand “between profit-based companies and non-profit organizations” by seeking to make a profit while also more intentionally serving the common good.
Clearly, the Church’s social justice tradition is long, rich, and startlingly challenging to modern capitalist economic structures.
What Is New in Francis?
One interesting thing that becomes clear by this review of the tradition of modern Catholic social teaching, specifically the ways it has expressed a preferential option for the poor and offered a critique of global capitalism, is that Pope Francis’s teaching and ministry is not particularly original or groundbreaking in its content. His concern for the poor and his insistence that poverty is an issue of justice as much as charity is consistent with those of his predecessors of modern times. His critique of capitalism is probably a bit more radical than some of his predecessors (Pius XII and John XXIII), but it is probably no moreso than the critiques offered by Popes Pius XI and Paul VI.
So it is fair to ask, is there anything new here? It seems that we ought to be able to say that there is, if only because, as Archbishop Chaput succinctly put it, ““The right wing of the church … generally have not been really happy about his election.” Indeed, the “conservatives” have clearly been troubled and flustered by Francis in a way that they seem not to have been by previous popes and their teaching.
Part of this is the directness with which he speaks and acts. Like Pope John Paul II, he has a knack for the dramatic gesture that catches people’s attention and conveys a powerful message before even a word is spoken. Powerful examples of this are the Pope’s journey to Lampedusa and his letter to the G-8 leaders, both mentioned in previous parts of this series.
Another part of it is his unwillingness to leave much “wiggle room” in his teaching and public comments, in which some conservatives have often found space to fit capitalist ideologies, though ultimately only by ignoring or even distorting many other elements of papal teaching.
But there is still more to it than all of this, and this final point is probably the most important. A review of previous, authoritative papal teaching, from which it is hard not to conclude that there is little that is new in what Francis is saying, makes the most important point somewhat obvious: Pope Francis’s preferential option for the poor and his presentation of Catholic social teaching has been, to many, far more effective, and he has posed more of a challenge to conservatives — and to each of us who live and breathe the modern capitalist, consumerist, superdeveloped culture — because of the integrity of his personal witness to the ideas he proclaims.
To be sure, previous popes were good teachers and good people. John XXIII and John Paul II will both — deservedly, in my opinion — soon be canonized. Perhaps Paul VI and Benedict XVI will be also someday. But Francis’s personal religious and ethical imagination has allowed him to put aside long-accepted expectations about how a pope should live and act in a way that has captured the attention of millions of people, and it has made his teaching all the more effective. And this remarkable and distinctive way of living and acting has itself become an important part of his option for the poor.
Pope Paul VI wrote memorably, nearly two generations ago now, that
for the Church, the first means of evangelization is the witness of an authentically Christian life, given over to God in a communion that nothing should destroy and at the same time given to one’s neighbor with limitless zeal. As we said recently to a group of lay people, “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.” St. Peter expressed this well when he held up the example of a reverent and chaste life that wins over even without a word those who refuse to obey the word. It is therefore primarily by her conduct and by her life that the Church will evangelize the world, in other words, by her living witness of fidelity to the Lord Jesus — the witness of poverty and detachment, of freedom in the face of the powers of this world, in short, the witness of sanctity. (Evangelii Nuntiandi, 41)
In his asking for the blessing of the people in St. Peter’s Square before offering them his own blessing on the day of his election, in his willingness to share a bus seat with his brother cardinals just after his election rather than travel in a separate transportation, in his choice of a rather simple Ford Focus rather than a custom-made BMW or Mercedes as the car he travels in, in his decision to forgo the papal residence in the apostolic palace in favor of a seemingly permanent guest room at Saint Martha House, in his Holy Thursday washing of the feet of troubled teens in a detention facility rather than clergy in St. Peter’s Basilica, and in a personal demeanor that radiates simplicity, humility, and joy, Pope Francis has shown how correct his predecessor Paul really was.
Francis’s lifestyle and ways of relating to those around him have made his witness much harder to ignore or distort or reject.
In Part 6, we’ll bring this series of posts to a conclusion. Previous parts can be found at these links: Part 1, 2, 3, 4. I want to acknowledge Donal Dorr’s Option for the Poor and for the Earth: Catholic Social Teaching as a helpful resource in my preparation of this post.
We’ve just passed the 50th anniversary of Pope John XXIII’s landmark encyclical, Pacem in Terris. Though the title (“Peace on Earth”) suggests that it’s on the topic of peace-making (and it is), the primary subject of that encyclical is human rights. John’s document set the stage for the Roman Catholic Church to become, in the generation that followed him and primarily in the person of Pope John Paul II, the premiere defender of human rights on the planet. Human rights are, without question, a Catholic concern.
And so every Catholic should be troubled by this week’s release of a report (noted here by the New York Times) of a major new investigation that confirms that the United States government has in recent years engaged in torture of detainees in custody. The techniques in question, the report notes, are similar to acts that have also been “prosecuted in the United States or denounced as torture by American officials when used by other countries.”
A few snippets:
A nonpartisan, independent review of interrogation and detention programs in the years after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks concludes that “it is indisputable that the United States engaged in the practice of torture” and that the nation’s highest officials bore ultimate responsibility for it.
The sweeping, 577-page report says that while brutality has occurred in every American war, there never before had been “the kind of considered and detailed discussions that occurred after 9/11 directly involving a president and his top advisers on the wisdom, propriety and legality of inflicting pain and torment on some detainees in our custody.”
The use of torture, the report concludes, has “no justification” and “damaged the standing of our nation, reduced our capacity to convey moral censure when necessary and potentially increased the danger to U.S. military personnel taken captive.” The task force found “no firm or persuasive evidence” that these interrogation methods produced valuable information that could not have been obtained by other means. While “a person subjected to torture might well divulge useful information,” much of the information obtained by force was not reliable, the report says.
The core of the report, however, may be an appendix: a detailed 22-page legal and historical analysis that explains why the task force concluded that what the United States did was torture. It offers dozens of legal cases in which similar treatment was prosecuted in the United States or denounced as torture by American officials when used by other countries.
This is not just history we’re talking about here. It seems remarkable that there are still prisoners at Guantánamo, some there for more than a decade without ever having been charged with a crime or receiving a trial! Many of them are currently engaged in a long and dangerous hunger strike for the sole purpose of reminding us that they’re there.
Kudos to the organizations and individuals who participated in last week’s National Day of Action against the detention and to call for Guantanamo to be closed. The Tikkun blog offers some helpful advice on ways we can continue to speak up about it. My emails to President Obama, our two Minnesota Senators, and the House Representative for the district in which I live all went out this morning.
I mention each of these issues in chapter 6 of Faith Meets World, as human rights problems that demand attention here in the United States. How can we presume to preach to the world about human rights and human dignity when we’re guilty ourselves of these actions?