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What Happened to John Paul's Social Justice Message?

Already there are those who claim John Paul rejected liberation theology as marxist. Wrong. The pope was consistently outspoken on the 'war of the powerful against the weak' - and was thinking of capitalism as well as communism.

by Bruce Duncan

No one can doubt that Pope John Paul II has played an astonishing role on the world stage. The extensive media commentary on his life bears ample testimony to that. But it is also fascinating to see the 'spin' various commentators and world leaders put on John Paul's essential message.

Not surprisingly, many western and European commentators have highlighted his providential role in the collapse of the Soviet Union and the reintegration of Europe. President Bush in particular, along with John Howard in Australia, extolled the Pope's support for political freedoms and democracy.

What is not being said so strongly is his support for world peace and his constant efforts to galvanise action to eradicate hunger and poverty in developing countries. John Paul had personally experienced the horror and tragedy of war, and was deeply moved by the suffering he met in developing countries.

Divisions over Iraq

President Bush was embarrassed by the Pope's intense public opposition to the invasion of Iraq. But this is not just a minor disagreement that should be politely glossed over.

John Paul was greatly distressed by the US assault on the moral authority of the United Nations and the systems of international governance that had been developing around it. The Pope saw these global institutions as our best means to consolidate international relations and to tackle the grievous problems of social injustice and extreme poverty.

He strongly opposed the US neoconservative ideology of American unilateralism in world affairs, which sought by military, diplomatic and economic means to impose a new world order modeled on US values and interests.

It is not surprising that President Bush and his acolytes so constantly chant the mantra of 'freedom, freedom', but are largely silent about even the phrase 'social justice'.

It has also been a difficult balancing act for the Pope himself: to recognise the importance of the United States and its allies in extending political freedoms; but also to see that powerful special interests in the USA wanted to extend their economic influence, and were motivated by a philosophy of competitive individualism that was quite inimical to the Church's teaching on social justice.

The propaganda war

The propaganda war over interpretations of the Pope's teaching became critical to the United States, not just in Eastern Europe but more particularly in Latin America and many developing countries. From the late 1970s, the United States launched concerted campaigns to undermine liberation theology

  • by promoting fundamentalist Protestant and Pentecostal sects that emphasised an individualist piety and largely ignored social justice issues;
  • by training 'death squads' and supporting right-wing regimes that committed many atrocities against Church and human rights' groups, and even assassinated key bishops like Archbishop Romero in El Salvador;
  • by supporting conservative Catholic groups that would oppose the social justice movements in the Church;
  • and by a concerted media campaign that depicted the social justice movements as communist infiltration of the Church.

    However, Pope John Paul remained firmly committed to his social justice agenda, though it is curious that this is not well known. The western media would headline the slightest Vatican statement on sexual issues, but often ignore the incessant efforts by the Pope and his international representatives to highlight the plight of the poorer nations and call on the richer countries to take vigorous initiatives to assist them.

    Pope John Paul II followed closely in the footsteps of his two predecessors, John XXIII and Paul VI, in highlighting the Church's teaching on social and distributive justice, and on social equity. Some US writers have dismissed this emphasis as 'socialism', but John Paul has repeatedly insisted that the Church's 'preferential option for the poor' is central to its evangelizing mission.

    John Paul and liberation theology

    Some in the western media sometimes asserted that John Paul was a fierce opponent of liberation theology. Not exactly. He wanted to avoid Church groups naively adopting elements of Marxist analysis or strategies that were incompatible with Catholic teaching, and intervened to warn Church movements against being manipulated by communist tactics. But once this was clear, he strongly endorsed the central ideas of liberation theology.

    After his visit to Latin America, in February 1979 John Paul affirmed that liberation was `one of the fundamental biblical themes and must be taken up again in the teaching of the Church'. He said the Church needed 'a theology of liberation on a universal scale', and to call by their name 'every social injustice, discrimination, violence'.

    Following the confused debates over the two documents on liberation theology from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1984 and 1986, John Paul wrote to the bishops of Brazil in April 1986 that liberation theology was `not only timely, but useful and necessary' for the Church.

    We can see John Paul's subsequent diplomatic and political activities as an attempt to develop liberation theology on a universal scale, particularly in his social encyclicals and his hundreds of addresses and documents to international audiences. He has incorporated it into the Catholic social tradition, especially in terms of international conventions and human rights.

    The social dimensions of the Gospel were absolutely central to his understanding of the Great Jubilee in 2000. The same concern has been manifest in his vigorous support for the UN Millennium Development Goals to halve hunger and poverty by the year 2015.

    Social message not effective?

    Unfortunately, however, this message has failed to grip the energies of Catholics and others throughout the world. Why is this?

    It would seem that much of the answer stems from the inability of Catholic leaders and bishops throughout the world to carry the social justice message into their own constituencies. The problem was evident during the Great Jubilee. In many parts of the world, there was a great stress on personal piety and devotion, but the social implications hardly got a look in.

    It is of course true that in many countries some bishops have been outstanding leaders on social justice issues, but others seem strangely silent or hesitant to speak. Even when the Pope himself gave a very clear lead over the Iraq war, for instance, many people were surprised that only a few episcopal voices in Australia were raised in his support. The same is true of the wider moral issues of global poverty.

    The expectations on bishops are increasingly difficult to satisfy, especially in larger dioceses where the media may at times appear cynical or even hostile to the Church. A bishop is expected to be competent in many areas of Church life, pastoral care and increasingly, politics. After the recent crisis of sexual abuse, bishops have been appointed on their ability to manage this difficult situation and for their personal piety and loyalty to Vatican directives, particularly concerning sexual ethics.

    This is a skill set, it I may use those words, that sometimes relegates to a secondary consideration expertise in debates about wider issues of peace, social justice and public policy.

    Yet as John Paul said on World Food Day in October 2003, bishops must be champions of social justice and human rights, particularly to challenge the 'war of the powerful against the weak' within an economic system that leaves so many starving while others live in opulence. 'How can we keep silent when confronted by the enduring drama of hunger and extreme poverty, in an age where humanity, more than ever, has the capacity for a just sharing of resources?'

    As various commentators have written, these narrower criteria in the selection of bishops have meant that few appointees are able to offer the kind of public leadership that the late Cardinals Hume in England or Bernardin in the USA did, by engaging their cultures in a wider conversation. It is hard to imagine them becoming caught up in the overheated rhetoric surrounding the tragic but complex Terri Schiavo case, or giving the impression that the Church is excessively preoccupied with sexual or bioethical issues.

    Moreover, many of the new Church organisations so favoured by Pope John Paul are not strong on embracing the call of the Second Vatican Council to undertake the task of social transformation so that all people can have a decent life.

    It is a great paradox in the papacy of John Paul II, that the causes he championed so strongly himself have not been taken up well by many of the people he appointed to key Church positions. I do not want to seem harsh here. One can hardly expect people who have no background in these areas to be experts in social policy. Yet such issues are of critical importance in the mission of the Church, and we need bishops and Catholic leaders who can strongly encourage and support others to pursue these overarching moral issues of our time.

    The social justice issues will not go away, if for no other reason that within a few decades 80 per cent of Catholics will live in developing countries. Global poverty and hunger are undoubtedly the most immediate issues, but followed closely by the new arms race and the threatening collapse of environmental sustainability. Undoubtedly, these will need to be high on the agenda of the new pope.

    Bruce Duncan is a Redemptorist priest and lives in Melbourne.

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