How did Pope John Paul II contribute to Catholic social thought?

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Pope John Paul II understood that Catholic social thought could only be effectively advanced when it stepped outside of the Vatican and into the modern setting.  He understood that the true test of Catholic social thought was how it could be applied to real world situations that impacted millions of parishioners:  

The Popes have not failed to throw fresh light by means of those messages upon new aspects of the social doctrine of the Church. As a result, this doctrine, beginning with the outstanding contribution of Leo XIII and enriched by the successive contributions of the Magisterium, has now become an updated doctrinal "corpus." It builds up gradually, as the Church, in the fullness of the word revealed by Christ Jesus and with the assistance of the Holy Spirit (cf. Jn 14:16, 26; 16:13-15), reads events as they unfold in the course of history. She thus seeks to lead people to respond, with the support also of rational reflection and of the human sciences, to their vocation as responsible builders of earthly society. 

Pope John Paul II understood that to "throw fresh light" on modern problems through the use of Catholic social thought is critical to advancing the Church's message of universal acceptance. The emphasis on being "responsible builders of earthly society" reflects how Pope John Paul II viewed Catholic social thought. He asserted that "principles of reflection" were critical to the his acknowledgement of the role he felt Catholic social thought played in the modern setting. In wanting individuals to become "an expert in humanity," Pope John Paul articulated positions that emphasized social justice and equality, stressing that modern accumulation of wealth and power are "goods" to be "originally meant for all." 

Pope John Paul II advanced the idea that Catholic social thought could play a role in political action and greater social understanding. Steeped in his own experience in the horror of the Nazis, and the affirmation of Polish identity apart from Communism, the Pope advocated a belief that Catholic social thought had to speak out against injustice in all forms.  One distinct way in which the Pope contributed to Catholic social thought was in his belief that Christian principles and ideas can be applied to the modern setting.  Pope John Paul demonstrated this in his affirmation for all life, specifically in opposing the death penalty:  

A sign of hope is the increasing recognition that the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil. Modern society has the means of protecting itself, without definitively denying criminals the chance to reform. I renew the appeal I made most recently at Christmas for a consensus to end the death penalty, which is both cruel and unnecessary.

For Pope John Paul II, Catholic social thought was linked to eradicating what he called " a culture of death" in the modern setting.  Pope John Paul used his understanding of Catholic social thought to speak out against such a reality. For example, the Pope openly criticized South African Apartheid as going against tenets of Christian identity:  "...no system of apartheid or separate development will ever be acceptable as a model for the relations between peoples or races."  The Pope uses his position to advance Catholic social thought in being one of the first people to use the word "genocide" in describing the slaughter and death in Rwanda:  

What is happening in your countries is a terrible tragedy that must end. During the African Synod, we, the pastors of the church, felt the duty to express our consternation and to launch an appeal for forgiveness and reconciliation. This is the only way to dissipate the threats of ethnocentrism that are hovering over Africa these days and that have so brutally touched Rwanda and Burundi.

Pope John Paul's advancement of Catholic social thought can also be seen in his opposition to the Iraq War, stating that "War is not always inevitable. It is always a defeat for humanity."  These examples demonstrate how Pope John Paul II understood Catholic social thought as possessing political and social implications.  He recognized that the Church and the Papacy had a moral duty to speak out in the name of advancing Catholic social thought. He was clear in affirming  “a serious commitment to foster on the continent conditions of greater social justice and good government."  He believed that Catholic social thought derived from the Latin text which literally states, “conditions of greater social justice and the more just exercise of power”—“in order thereby to prepare the ground for peace”   Pope John Paul understood that spiritual identity was firmly linked to social and political action.  In these positions, he advanced the idea that advancing the idea that Catholic social thought of acceptance, justice, and universal truth was a good "meant for all."

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