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What happened to John Paul II's social justice message?

By Bruce Duncan - posted Wednesday, 6 April 2005

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 proclaimed 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 Neo-conservative ideology of American unilateralism in world affairs, which sought by military, diplomatic and economic means to impose a new world order modelled 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 US and its allies in extending political freedoms; but also to see that powerful special interests in the US 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 US, not just in Eastern Europe but more particularly in Latin America and many developing countries. From the late 1970s, the US 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 evangelising mission.

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First published in Online Catholics on April 6, 2004.

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About the Author

Bruce Duncan is a Redemptorist priest and lives in Melbourne

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All articles by Bruce Duncan

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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