Are 50 Years after a Pope’s Encyclical Letter too many?

Ando Isamu, SJ (Jesuit Social Center, Tokyo)

  John XXIII, elected Pope in 1958 at the age of 77, was considered a transient Pope without little potential influence. Nevertheless, he inaugurated a far-reaching religious revolution within the Catholic Church and is especially remembered for his courageous initiative in convoking the influential Second Vatican Council.

  I still recall that during my early years in Japan the major mass media of Japan took note of Pope John’s last encyclical letter, “Pacem in Terris” (Peace on Earth, 1963), which received universal acclaim the world over. As Head of the Catholic Church, John XXIII publicly accepted the human rights values expressed in the United Nations Declaration. His call for peace was mainly based on the dignity of the human person. In fact, these values are still valid today.

“Mater et Magistra” a Loving Teacher of the World
  Pope John XXIII published his first encyclical letter, back in 1961, on the position that Christians should take with regard to the prominent socio-economic problems of the world. He reminded us all of the main line of social thinking of former Popes from the time of Leo XIII’s “Rerum Novarum.” He was the first Pope to address his official letter to “all people of good will.”
  My intention here is not to give a detailed account of the encyclical “Mater et Magistra,” but only to suggest some valuable contributions it can still make today to the present global situation and the needs of Japan.
  John XXIII points to the urban and agricultural sectors and explores ways to solve the inequalities in both these sectors. The following are some excerpts from “Mater et Magistra.”

  ”Among citizens of the same political community there is often a marked degree of economic and social inequality. Where this situation prevails, justice and equity demand that public authority try to eliminate or reduce such imbalances. It should ensure that the less developed areas receive such essential public services as their circumstances require.
  Furthermore, a suitable economic and social policy must be devised which will take into account the supply of labor, the drift of population, wages, taxes, credit, and the investing of money, especially in expanding industries. In short, it should be a policy designed to promote useful employment, enterprising initiative, and the exploitation of local resources. The justification of all government action is the common good. Public authority, must promote all three areas of production?agriculture, industry and services?simultaneously and evenly. Private enterprise too must contribute to an economic and social balance in the different areas of the same political community. It is therefore obvious that the solidarity of the human race and Christian brotherhood demand the elimination as far as possible of these discrepancies.” [nos.150-156]
Again, John XXIII was the first Pope to address the enormous gaps between rich and poor nations, the so-called North-South inequalities.
  ”The solidarity which binds all men together as members of a common family makes it impossible for wealthy nations to look with indifference upon the hunger, misery and poverty of other nations whose citizens are unable to enjoy even elementary human rights. The nations of the world are becoming more and more dependent on one another and it will not be possible to preserve a lasting peace so long as glaring economic and social imbalances persist. [Hence,] it is necessary to educate one’s conscience to the sense of responsibility which weighs upon each and every one, especially upon those who are more blessed with this world’s goods. However, emergency aid will not go far in relieving want and famine when these are caused, as they so often are, by the primitive state of a nation’s economy.The only permanent remedy for this is to make use of every possible means of providing these citizens with the scientific, technical and professional training they need, and to put at their disposal the necessary capital for speeding up their economic development with the help of modern methods. Increase in production and productive efficiency is, of course, sound policy, and indeed a vital necessity. However, it is no less necessary, and justice itself demands, that the riches produced be distributed fairly among all members of the political community. There is also a further temptation which the economically developed nations must resist: that of giving technical and financial aid with a view to gaining control over the political situation in the poorer countries, and furthering their own plans for world domination. It is painful, therefore, to observe the complete indifference to the true hierarchy of values shown by so many people in the economically developed countries. Spiritual values are ignored, forgotten or denied, while the progress of science, technology and economics is pursued for its own sake, as though material well-being were the be-all and end-all of life.” [nn.157-184]
  Thus, international cooperation, a field where the Catholic Church enjoys a long history of involvement, has a prominent place in this encyclical.
  ”Individual political communities may indeed enjoy a high degree of culture and civilization. They may have a large and industrious population, an advanced economic structure, great natural resources and extensive territories. Yet, even so, in isolation from the rest of the world they are quite incapable of finding an adequate solution to their major problems. The nations, therefore, must work with each other for their mutual development and perfection.
  Yet although individuals and nations are becoming more and more convinced of this twofold necessity, it would seem that men in general, and particularly those with high responsibility in public life, are showing themselves quite incapable of achieving it. The root of such inability is not to be sought in scientific, technical or economic reasons, but in the absence of mutual trust. Men, and consequently States, are in mortal fear of each other. The root cause of so much mistrust is the presence of ideological differences between nations, and more especially between their rulers. There are some indeed who go so far as to deny the existence of a moral order which is transcendent, absolute, universal and equally binding upon all. The truth is that these very advances in science and technology frequently involve the whole human race in such difficulties as can only be solved in the light of a sincere faith in God, the Creator and Ruler of man and his world. Furthermore, the increasing sense of dissatisfaction with worldly goods which is making itself felt among citizens of the wealthier nations, is rapidly destroying the treasured illusion of an earthly paradise.” [nos.203-211]
  In reality the main interest of the Church is the human person. From its clear stand on human dignity the Church moves on to a moral order grounded in God and built on moral principles. Without God it is impossible truly to understand humanity and the dignity of human persons. Christians are invited to collaborate with others of different belief. Nevertheless, one big obstacle to collaboration is the lack of trust among people.

Japan 50 Years Later
  The final days of Pope John XXIII coincided with the Tokyo Olympic Games. At the time, Japan was enjoying an economic miracle of prosperity that developed further into the bubble period of the 70s and 80s. There was a great need for manpower. Farmers abandoned their fields to live and work in urban and industrial areas. Japan had become an Asian industrial giant and enjoyed political stability for a long period under the Liberal Democrats. The social result was a buoyant consumer-centered society where the majority considered themselves middle-class people. Hundreds of thousands of foreign laborers entered Japan not only from Asia but also from as far away as Peru and Brazil. Japanese companies expanded internationally and Japanese tourists became omnipresent all over the world. The Internet as well as IT technology spread, and Japan pushed ahead towards world globalization. Ideologies and philosophical thinking gave way to “technology.”
  Then, in the 1990s the bubble economy began to crack, demolishing the bright dreams of most citizens. The financial crisis caused a serious increase in the national debt. Labor contracts, following western capitalist customs, were curtailed and the unemployment rate rose. At the same time, the increasingly aging population and concomitant social costs have become a pressing and still unsolved social issue.

  On the other hand, the moral values contained in Catholic social teaching give the lie to the last 50 years of Japan’s industrial development. Optimism has given way to a pessimistic view of the future. The lack of confidence many people feel, “hikikomori” to use the Japanese expression, is widespread. For the last 12 years the number of suicides per year has surpassed 33,000. Added to that, major natural disasters, mainly the result of earthquakes, tsunami and nuclear radiation, still adversely affect many strategic levels of Japanese society. No one any longer considers Japan to be a middle-class social system, and the existence of a poverty gap is publicly recognized. Of course, there are also positive challenges, but the picture is not at all rosy.
  At present, a detailed look at Catholic social doctrine could offer valuable contributions regarding the future directions needed for the Japanese system.

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