What's left in his legacy: John Paul II and social teaching

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As a voice for peace and justice, Pope John Paul II was a man for all political reasons.

John paul II will be remembered as the pope who stared down global communism and put the doctrinal slapdown on liberation theology. Conservatives will laud his authoritarian reorientation toward Rome, his defense of traditional values, and his handling of the church’s “woman problem.” But no comprehensive assessment of his social and spiritual legacy would be complete without an acknowledgment of his teaching on issues that conservatives typically brush past during their turn at the cafeteria Catholic’s buffet.

To some Catholics the pope was only right when he was “right,” but “regrettably mistaken” when he was “left.” Of course, Catholic truth cannot be constrained by political labels and secular dogma, neither can John Paul’s wisdom. What shouldn’t get left out, as it were, in remembrances of this most gracious and thoughtful man are his courageous positions on peace, nonviolence, and economic justice.

Much of John Paul’s moral teaching took direct aim at positions Americans hold ideologically dear. He often sought to restrain the United States’ unipolar swaggering across the world stage. A consistent critic of any use of force toward political ends, he reminded U.S. war planners that war was an “adventure without return,” imploring them in 1991’s Centesimus Annus to say: “No, never again war, which destroys the lives of innocent people, teaches how to kill, throws into upheaval even the lives of those who do the killing, and leaves behind a trail of resentment and hatred, thus making it all the more difficult to find a just solution of the very problems which provoked the war.”

Even before America’s gulf wars, John Paul II had broadened his critique of state-sanctioned violence, calling for the end of U.S.-backed economic sanctions against Iraq and Cuba when it became clear that the suffering engendered by those policies was falling primarily on the innocent and defenseless.

In his consistent promotion of a culture of life, John Paul naturally called American presidents to account for abortion, but he also cast an increasingly skeptical eye on the peculiar institution of the U.S. death penalty, eventually directing a revision of the Catholic catechism that essentially condemns the use of the death penalty in societies that have other means of self-protection. Surely the U.S. bishops’ new campaign to abolish the death penalty and the dramatic downturn in support for capital punishment among U.S. Catholics are partly the fruits of John Paul’s many years arguing against this most unforgiving of human judgments.

John Paul was keenly attuned to the dangers inherent in systems that elevate economic structures above the “merely” human. In statements, encyclicals, and letters such as the 1999 apostolic exhortation Ecclesia in America, he evaluated globalization as a force that could achieve great good, but only, as the church has insisted for decades, when economic systems serve humankind and not the other way around.

“If globalization is ruled merely by the laws of the market applied to suit the powerful, the consequences cannot but be negative,”he wrote, “the absolutizing of the economy, unemployment…the destruction of the environment …the growing distance between rich and poor, unfair competition which puts the poor nations in a situation of ever increasing inferiority.”

John paul spoke up in favor of third world debt forgiveness and relief from often brutal structural adjustment policies that anguished people in the developing world. But beyond seeking mere modifications of the existing economic order, he called for a wholesale conversion in the West from the life-draining materialism that sadly still consumes it. He sought a complete reappraisal and recommitment of economic forces so that it is not capitalism that is unrestrained, but the good that the capitalist system can do in subordination and commitment to the common good.

John Paul was an absolutely unique expression of a mature understanding of Catholic teaching. As such he frequently infuriated people on all sides of the political spectrum. My guess is he must have been doing something right …and left.

This article appeared in the June 2005 issue of U.S. Catholic magazine (Vol. 70, No. 6, page 29).


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