Awaiting the Delivery of a Social Encyclical from the New Pope
Abe Keita (Franciscan priest)

Last April 19, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was inaugurated Pope under the name of Benedict XVI. Immediately afterwards, mass media from all over the world gave a detailed account on his profile and personality. Media reports were ambivalent: "We expect the new Pope to continue the work of former Pope John Paul II for world peace" and "Disappointment for the election of a conservative Pope."

But, let us value his real attitude towards politics and society by his social encyclicals. Official documents regarding social issues enjoy only a short history of a little over 100 years, but show openly the attitude of the Catholic Church confronting modern social and political issues.

Leo XIII's "Rerum Novarum," published in 1891, was the first social encyclical. This document dealt with issues of economics, social and political problems, human rights and obligations. The Church spoke publicly its mind on the obligations of the rich to be of service to society, to respect the rights of the workers and about how to build just industrial relationships between workers and managers. The encyclical provoked shocking reactions. In 1931, Pope Pius XI in the new encyclical "Quadragessimo Anno" dealt with just labor contracts and the damage done by both, capitalist and socialist systems. Later on, Pope John XXIII, quite advanced in age, published the Encyclical letter "Mater et Magistra" (1961) where he analyzes complicated modern issues, especially the existing gap between north and south regions. Two years later (1963) in his new encyclical, "Pacem in Terris," during the Cuban missile crisis of the cold war and the Vietnam War, Pope John expressed his concern about world peace. He affirms there that peace does not only consist in the absence of war that, nations hold the obligation of defending the rights of their populations and he shows a serious concern about armament and reconciliation.

In 1967, the following Pope, Paul VI, published "Populorum Progressio" where he insists on the obligations of industrial countries to assist the development of developing economies and to cooperate in promoting world social justice and solidarity, as well as to diminish the existing international poverty gap. The encyclical shows the influence of his journey to India, the first visit a Pope did to Asia. A new official document "Octogesima Advenience" (1971) tells Christians about the need to work for justice and to be involved in political action in order to overcome social injustices. The establishment of the Vatican's Justice and Peace Commission occurred at this time. Years later, in 1975, a new Apostolic Exhortation on "Evangelization" was published. This document affirms that the Church must participate in the fight for Justice, that Christians have the obligation of condemning violence and promoting human liberation, motivated by faith and charity. The influence of Latin American "liberation theology" can be sensed there.
In 1979, John Paul II that had been elected from a communist country published a new official document "Redemptor Hominis" where he affirms that human rights and the development of the human race have their basis in the bonds existing between God and the human person. Unless people search with all their inner energy for the respect of others, the expression "human rights" not only becomes empty but also oppressive. The new encyclical "Dives in Misericordia" (1980) indicates that justice is not enough to solve the evils in society and, maybe due to the public radical views of "liberation theology" at the time, a conservative tone is prevalent. On the other hand, the new document "Laborem Exercens" (1981) asserts that work is a manifestation of human dignity and should be promoted, and has a clear priority over capital. The rights of workers and trade unions are ascertained again. The encyclical expresses concern on world injustice and lack of human equality. John Paul II published a new social official document "Sollititudo Rei Socialis" (1987) that deals with the spiritual character of development and the responsibilities of the Church to defend human rights and to promote human development; the Pope touches on ecological issues and asks for solidarity as the true Christian answer to the suffering of the modern world. And again, at the 100th anniversary of "Rerum Novarum," the first social encyclical, John Paul II published "Centesimus Annus" (1991) where he reviews Catholic social doctrine and verifies the mistakes of communism in the occasion of the fall of European communism in 1989. Human and social ecology is also mentioned and one can feel there the modern concern on environmental issues.

This way the public statements of the Popes show the peculiarities of their times. Nevertheless there is no doubt that they lead the Church in the midst of so different international social situations. Right after his inauguration on 20 April 2005, the new Pope Benedict XVI declared: "I will make every conscientious effort to continue the promising dialogue initiated by my Venerable Predecessors with the different civilizations, so that mutual understanding may create the conditions for a better future for all." (First Message of His Holiness Benedict XVI in the Sistine Chapel) Let's pay attention to a future social encyclical that could characterize the new Pope's social orientations.

=====     Copyright ®1997-2007 Jesuit Social Center All Rights Reserved     =====