John Paul II and the Social Doctrine of the Church

Fernando de la Iglesia Viguiristi SJ

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When the cardinals gathered in conclave and elected Cardinal Karol Wojtyła as the successor of St Peter on October 16, 1978, the choice was somewhat surprising. He was the first non-Italian pope since Hadrian VI (elected in 1522) and, above all, he came from Eastern Europe, from beyond the Iron Curtain, from Krakow in Poland. Few would have imagined that the new pontiff was about to bring a renewal to the Social Doctrine of the Church (SDC).

A look at his earlier life, however, would have given a clear indication of this direction. He had personal experience of real life in both the capitalist and communist worlds; as a professor of Ethics at the University of Lublin, Wojtyła had taken an academic interest in socio-economic matters, and at the Second Vatican Council he had contributed to the composition of Gaudium et Spes (GS). What is more, his clear opposition to communism was well known.

The end of the 1970s marked an era of turbulence in the Church and in wider society. In the Church, confidence in its social doctrine had reached its lowest point. The growing prestige of Marxism was combined with criticism of the social doctrine of the Church by various theological and political currents, which accused it of being abstract, moralistic and ideological. This accusation was formulated, for example, by Marie-Dominique Chenu in La doctrine sociale de l’Église comme idéologie.[1] Everything seemed to conspire to attack it.

An interview given by Wojtyła a few months before his election shows that he had clear and very developed ideas on central themes of the social doctrine of the Church.[2] The questions explored his opinion on the validity of the criticism of that doctrine: specifically, whether he considered it ideological and in what sense; whether he considered it an evangelical proclamation or a teaching of natural ethics; whether it was a kind of appropriate middle ground between Marxism and liberalism, or whether it opposed both of those ideologies; whether it was outdated; whether it was capable of generating practical outcomes; and what challenges it would face.

In his answers, Wojtyła showed how convinced he was of the value and validity of the social doctrine of the Church as well as the need to develop it. He expressed an ardent desire for its renewal. Once elected, Pope Wojtyła had the opportunity to  implement this project . He did so successfully and his contribution to the Church’s social doctrine was completely decisive. Here we propose to synthesize the teachings of his three great social encyclicals, highlighting their contributions, their ongoing validity and the internal unity they possess.


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