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A Spotlight on the uses and abuses of Catholic Social Teaching

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Saturday, April 30, 2011

The missing voice

Sunday will see the beatification of Pope John Paul II in Rome. This is just one step away from his being declared a saint. John Paul has been put on the fast track to sainthood, expressing the will not only of the Church hierarchy but of millions of Catholics around the world.


John Paul II’s personal holiness was beyond question. It shone through in his exuberant travels around the world, when he met with and forgave the man who tried to assassinate him, and in how he carried on in his last years of physical decline to fulfill his duties, his spiritual core radiating through his suffering.


And personal holiness is what matters for sainthood, not a pope’s abilities as a leader, administrator or thinker. The failings of John Paul II’s papacy have become increasingly apparent in the six years since his death and have been explored elsewhere. Here, I wish to celebrate a very positive aspect of John Paul’s papacy which has many direct applications to life in the U.S. today: His compelling development of Catholic social teaching. Here are some examples:


• John Paul II prophetically opposed Iraq War II and gave only conditional assent to the war in Afghanistan as an act of self defense after 9/11. Indeed, John Paul moved the Church partially away from the shop-worn "Just War" tradition -- which is so easily manipulated to approve whatever war is at hand -- in the direction of complete opposition to war as a problem-solving tool.


•To attain the good of peace there must be a clear and conscious acknowledgment that violence is an unacceptable evil and that it never solves problems," John Paul II wrote in his 2005 World Day of Peace message. "Violence is a lie, for it goes against the truth of our faith, the truth of our humanity. Violence destroys what it claims to defend: The dignity, the life, the freedom of human beings."


• As with such peacemakers as Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi or Dorothy Day, John Paul II did not view peacemaking as a feel-good sentiment, but as the hardest work in the world. As he wrote in his 2004 World Day of Peace message:

"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God" (Mt. 5:9). How could this saying, which is a summons to work in the immense field of peace, find such a powerful echo in the human heart if it did not correspond to an irrepressible yearning and hope dwelling within us? And why else would peacemakers be called children of God, if not because God is by nature the God of peace?"


• Being a full-Gospel Catholic, John Paul did not see the sharp division between "life" issues and "peace and justice" issues that seems so stark in the U.S. Church today. He saw things whole. So in his 1995 encyclical letter, "The Gospel of Life," which focuses mainly on abortion, euthanasia, and procedures such as genetic engineering, he included a section that moved the Church away from its traditional approval of the death penalty.


Society should only exercise capital punishment when there is no other way to defend society, he wrote: "Today, however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically nonexistent."


• Having seen the power of the Solidarity movement in Poland, John Paul II definitely supported the right of workers to unionize. However, he did not exalt unions over employers -- he urged, as always, peaceful and cooperative relationships.


"The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church," quoting from his encyclical letter "On Human Work," summarizes his position, "Properly speaking, unions are promoters of the struggle for social justice, for the rights of workers in their particular professions: ‘This struggle should be seen as a normal endeavor "for" the just good ... not a struggle "against" others.’"


• The Cold War is now history, but in that epic battle between the West and Communism, John Paul II did not turn a blind eye to the inequities of capitalism. He adhered to the concept of the "universal destination of goods." This is the idea that God created the world for all humanity and so all people have a right to enough resources for a decent life by the fact of their very existence.


"One of the greatest injustices in the contemporary world consists precisely in this: That the ones who possess much are relatively few and those who possess almost nothing are many," he wrote in his 1987 encyclical letter, "On Human Concern." "It is the injustice of the poor distribution of the goods and services originally intended for all."


Karl Marx is not the only utopian atheist with a popular, but toxic, ideology at odds with Catholic social teaching. The vision of radical individualism of Ayn Rand, including its rejection of altruism, is the polar opposite of such elementary concepts of Catholic social teaching as charity, solidarity and the necessity to consider the common good in all public activities. On the principle of solidarity, John Paul wrote in "On Human Concern:"


"The exercise of solidarity within each society is valid when its members recognize one another as persons. Those who are more influential, because they have a greater share of goods and common services, should feel responsible for the weaker and be ready to share with them all they possess," he wrote. "Those who are weaker, for their part, in the same spirit of solidarity, should not adopt a purely passive attitude or one that is destructive of the social fabric, but, while claiming their legitimate rights, should do what they can for the good of all. The intermediate groups, in their turn, should not selfishly insist on their particular interests, but respect the interests of others."


The applications to U.S. public life today are obvious. That Catholic social teaching in such fullness has no vocal national champion in our public life today, especially in the Church hierarchy, is a subject for another article.

8:19 pm edt          Comments

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