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The Encyclical Legacy of John Paul II

Remarkable changes have taken place within the Roman Catholic Church under the papacy of John Paul II. As the twentieth century draws to a close, we see in retrospect that this century has witnessed in sheer numbers alone more deaths and wholesale destruction of human life and institutions that any previous. Yet even in the midst of such depressing circumstances, worldwide, Catholics find themselves in a dynamic, effective, and revitalized institution that, according to some, now ranks among the world’s foremost defenders of basic human rights. That our time has witnessed the amazing transformation of the Catholic Church from a staunch defender of the old-world political order to a democratic sympathizer is due in no small measure to the visionary leadership of John Paul II.

Furthermore, Catholic theology has undergone a quiet revolution in the past eighteen years of this papacy, a revolution best described in one word: personalism. Personalism is a school of philosophic thought that emphasizes a renewed recognition of the dignity of the human person and a willingness to make this fact a central tenet of all intellectual and academic endeavors. Hence, Catholic theology has become personalist under the guidance of a pope whose indelible mark of personalism can be clearly seen in his encyclicals.

Catholics and other Christians have grown in their appreciation of the pastoral and intellectual leadership provided by Pope John Paul II. We have lived through eighteen years of an inspired and active pontificate the likes of which has not been seen since the days of Leo XIII. In addition to his warmth, faith, and eagerness for the gospel, this pope will leave to the church universal the gift of his encyclicals.

An encyclical–simply an open letter to the church and to all people of goodwill–addresses important matters of theology and pastoral significance. These letters, though not usually long, are meant to carry the weight of authoritative teaching.

To date, John Paul has promulgated twelve encyclicals, each now compiled into a finely-bound, one-volume reference work, The Encyclicals of John Paul II, edited by J. Michael Miller, csb, with helpful introductory matter accompanying each encyclical.

Four Significant Encyclicals for Catholic Social Teaching

In the volume’s Introduction, Miller provides a sound technical exposition of the history and theology of encyclicals. The different types of encyclicals, their uses, to whom they are addressed, and the like, are all nicely explained. The Introduction whets the reader’s appetite and makes it clear that the pontificate of Pope John Paul II is extraordinary in many ways, not the least of which is the way this present Pope has utilized the encyclical form more than any other pope of recent memory. The use of this format preserves John Paul’s legacy for future generations of students of Catholic social thought as they have the opportunity to study his collected letters and documents. Of the twelve letters, perhaps the four most significant for these purposes are Redemptor Hominis, Veritatis Splendor, Evangelium Vitae, and Centesimus Annus.

In Redemptor Hominis (“redeemer of mankind”), the pope’s first encyclical, we find one of the central keys to the intellectual agenda of his pontificate: the dignity of the human person redeemed in Christ. Jesus Christ, the redeemer of mankind, reveals two essential facts to humanity: first, the nature of God the Father, His love, mercy, and compassion; and second, the true nature of man, fully redeemed and living life abundantly. The pope notes that this second aspect of the revelation of Jesus Christ is often overlooked, and it is from this revelation that John Paul grounds his understanding of the dignity of the human person and seeks to refocus theology along personalist lines.

In Veritatis Splendor (“the splendor of truth”), the longest encyclical of John Paul’s pontificate, the pope addresses the issue of moral relativism, so pervasive in modern society and even present within the church. In his view, the greatest threat to the freedom of the West is moral relativism, for it has usurped the traditional understanding of truth. Where once we sought to make our judgments correspond to an objective reality, we now strive to subject the world according to whim and with little or no relation to reality. As a result, the modern mind is unable to accept any sort of truth claim. Our culture’s embrace of relativism has led to a congenital distortion of freedom: Indeed, the course of the twentieth century could well be described as the history of the distortion of freedom. In contradistinction to this contemporary view of freedom, John Paul offers a vision of freedom rooted in the truth about human nature. According to him, genuine freedom is measured by our ability to choose the good in all areas of human life, that is, man must exercise his freedom and live in accord with his own objective nature. This vision of man is deeply rooted in the natural-law tradition of morality, which resists relativistic interpretations and applications and believes that moral norms are fixed in both the nature of God and the nature of man. This encyclical, more than any other, rightly has received widespread attention.

Evangelium Vitae (“the gospel of life”) builds upon the work outlined in Veritatis Splendor. In this letter the pope makes his dramatic distinction between the culture of life and the culture of death. John Paul sadly notes that the culture of death is a strong force in the later half of the twentieth century, a culture that hates life and actively promotes abortion, euthanasia, and a general disrespect for human dignity. In opposition to the culture of death stands the culture of life, that force inspired by the source of life itself, which affirms the sanctity of life and the dignity of all persons.

Finally, the ground-breaking encyclical Centesimus Annus (“one hundred years”) is the pinnacle of John Paul’s contributions to Catholic social teaching. The pope movingly addresses the colossal wreck of collectivism and socialism in former communist countries of Eastern Europe and attributes the failure of socialism to a fallacious anthropology that denies the liberty of man. In this way, the restraint of economic liberty leads to social disarray of all kinds. Most significantly, the pope, for the first time in the history of the modern Church, gives a limited endorsement of free markets. Furthermore, in the interest of avoiding the pitfalls of “radical capitalist ideology,” he rightly calls on all to exercise economic freedom in relation to norms of justice and love. In this way, this document is an excellent summary of the past hundred years of Catholic social teaching and provides a coherent outline for the ordering of a society both free and virtuous.

In Centesimus Annus, John Paul also seeks to deepen–and, in some respects, to discipline–the debate over rights by linking rights to obligations and truth. He argues forcefully that conscience is not some kind of moral free agent in which an autonomous self declares something to be right because it is right “for me.” Rather, rights exist so that we can fulfill our obligations. Thus, to take an example from one sphere of life, a man should be free economically so he can enter into more cooperative relationships with others and meet his obligations to work in order to “provide for the needs of his family, his community, his nation, and ultimately all humanity.” In this way, John Paul is echoing the Catholic Whig tradition of Lord Acton who wrote that “Liberty is not the power of doing what we like, but the right of being able to do what we ought.”

An Effective Encounter with Modernity

In all his encyclicals, John Paul’s defense of human rights arises out of a deep commitment to a Christological humanism, a love for Jesus Christ, and a deep respect for human dignity. It is this passion for the depth of the human experience that has allowed him to enter into an effective encounter with modernity. John Paul’s personalism, infused throughout each encyclical, is the intellectual blueprint for a free and virtuous society in the next millennium.

As we now head into the twilight of John Paul II’s papacy, the Catholic Church is beginning to fully appreciate the blessing bestowed by the Holy Spirit in this pontificate. Since his election in 1979, the pope has guided the church with an eye toward the year 2000 and has in many ways reformed the church through his teachings and actions. We now have a magnificent opportunity to enter more deeply into John Paul’s mind through this collection of encyclicals. Sadly, when the unthinkable, but inevitable, happens and the pontificate of John Paul II ends, we will continue to be enriched by his interpretations of theology and philosophy.