Engaged so deeply in earthly human affairs and believing in each persons’ goodness, John Paul seems to be calling us from heaven with a special request for solidarity of those who live on earth, and those living, though yet unborn.
Being a significant thinker and a moral conscience to the world, Karol Wojtyla—who from 1978 to 2005 was known as Pope John Paul II—provided a clear diagnosis of the moral sickness of man in modern society. At the same time, he drafted a long-term outline for the spiritual and moral renewal that he consequently implemented into the practice of the Church’s life, through all 27 years of his papacy, despite the criticism he faced.
Based on his philosophy that the human being is the pillar of society on its most fundamental level, John Paul II began to strongly promote the concept of “personhood” in the modern world. He reminded us that each human life is sacred, and that men are characterized by a free will and a conscience, both granted by God.
In his first pastoral visit to America, during his homily at Mass on the Washington Mall on October 7, 1979, John Paul said the following words: “I do not hesitate to proclaim before you and before the world that all human life—from the moment of conception and through all subsequent stages— is sacred, because human life is created in the image and likeness of God.” He then strongly underlined his point: “We will stand up and proclaim that no one ever has the authority to destroy unborn life …” (Homily, No. 3 & 6).
The two most important factors by which the human being is characterized are conscience and freedom. Some people recognize conscience as an “inner voice” in the human heart based on natural moral law, by which a person is able to distinguish good from evil, and truth from fallacy. This is a proper understanding, but John Paul II expands upon this definition of the conscience by adding that it is the “most secret core” and our innermost “sanctuary” in which we are “alone with God” to listen to his voice (Tyburski 95). Our conscience, the inner voice from God in every human heart, is the foundation of Christian morality. However, John Paul strongly underlines that “conscience is no lawmaker.” Conscience itself does not create norms, but discovers them from God’s laws.
John Paul II was aware that in the modern secular world, many people have disfigured their consciences, and have false philosophies of human freedom, because of the crisis of truth. It is very clear to John Paul II that contemporary ethical relativism leads to a false liberty of moral choices. He states that human conscience must be properly formed on the basis of objective moral norms flowing from God’s law. He points to the fact that the human conscience is constantly threatened by the dangers of error. Therefore, he reminds us of the fundamental words of Jesus: “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (Jn 8:32).
Knowing about current moral relativism, John Paul II expresses serious concern for human beings, especially the unborn. He writes the following in his encyclical, The Gospel of Life: “Abortion and euthanasia are thus crimes which no human law can claim to legitimize. There is no obligation in conscience to obey such laws; instead there is a grave and clear obligation in conscience to oppose them by conscientious objection” (Tyburski 106). At this point, we must ask ourselves a rhetorical question: who allows the people permission to establish human laws that directly oppose the laws of God? As John Paul informs us in the prior quotation, no person or government has the authority to end human lives.
The Marches for Life, which are organized across the globe, show that many people, and not only Catholics, accept the truth that human life is sacred. This year, on January 22, 2014, in Washington, D.C., Giovanna Rivero, representing young ladies of the Latino community, exclaimed: “We are the Pro-Life Generation! We are against the Culture of Death!” It is a great tragedy that since January 22, 1973, when the Supreme Court legalized abortion in America, “1,500,000 to 2,000,000 babies are aborted annually” (Wilson 1).
Having been a laborer in both a chemical factory and a quarry during Nazi occupation, and later, through his working as a priest, bishop, professor, and pope, Karol Wojtyla became familiar with a wide variety of forms of human labor. In his first social encyclical, On Human Work, he wrote that human work is an essential key to the entire social question. John Paul knew that human work can either be the source of men’s ennoblement, or their degradation. He was very concerned about the dignity of workers and just wages. He also believed in the moral virtue of work and in its eternal aspects. He taught that each form of human work must be treated with dignity because the subject of labor is always a human being, who has the right to grow, to improve, and to ultimately be fulfilled through his work. Man has to subdue the earth and dominate it as he was directed by God (Gn 1:28). John Paul teaches that if the worker is treated as a person, he finds a joy in his work that allows him the chance for self-realization. He warns that workers should never be treated as objects, nor their labor as a commodity to be bought and sold. The pope promotes the principal that work is “for man,” rather than man is “for work.”
The other important aspect of John Paul’s concern about workers is the principle of the priority of labor over capital. He underlines that employers cannot abuse the worker, because the person is more important than an impersonal factory or some other form of property. The same idea was developed over 150 years ago by American president, Abraham Lincoln. During his address to the Wisconsin State Assembly in 1859, he said: “Work existed before capital and is independent from it. Capital is only a result of work, and it would never appear if there would not exist the work before it. Work is more important than the capital and it deserves far more favor” (Lincoln 1).
These issues of capital and labor, as well as employers and employees, have strict connections to the ownership of wealth. Aware that tens of thousands of human beings are dying every day because of starvation, and that 2.5 billion of the current global population live on $2.00 or less per day, John Paul criticized a “rigid” capitalism, and was convinced that it must undergo a series of revisions. He was sad to know that the universal destination of goods, and the option for the poor, which have always been promoted by Catholic social teachings, were being ignored. An illustration of that fact is demonstrated by statistics. The World Institute for Development of Economic Research at the United National University reports that the richest one percent of adults alone owned 40 percent of global assets in the year 2000, while the richest 10 percent of adults accounted for 85 percent of total global assets. The bottom half of the world’s adult population owned only one percent of global wealth.
John Paul II was the only pope since the first social encyclical, Rerum Novarum, (issued by Pope Leo XIII in 1891), who accepted and promoted a free market system of capitalism. However, the prior statistics about the uneven possession of earthly wealth lead to a sad reflection, not only for the pope, but also for all human beings who still have a sensitive and compassionate heart towards the poorest countries, and their hungry citizens. Social justice cannot be described by great philosophical theories, and it should seemingly be common sense that those who have enough, or those who have a surplus, of earthly possessions, should share with those who have only a little or nothing. God our Father created Mother Earth to justly nourish all of her children, rather than for a few to hoard material surpluses while many starve.
Social injustice does not exist solely within the levels of the government, nor is it only about the greed of the wealthy. Instead, social injustice lies within every person who locks away inner spirituality, love, truth, and simple honesty towards others. In a poem called “Personalism,” Walt Whitman said: “If America’s fall and its extinction are possible, it could happen by internal factors and not by external enemies” (Huggard 275). Similarly, the individual may be destroyed only from within, rather than by the external pressures of the modern world.
Pope John Paul II, who has inspired millions, unmasks the Culture of Death in his encyclical, The Gospel of Life. He said that those individuals or groups who kill defenseless unborn human beings and justify their crimes as a “natural right” have essentially no link to truth. Engaged so deeply in earthly human affairs and believing in each persons’ goodness, John Paul seems to be calling us from heaven with a special request for solidarity of those who live on earth, and those living, though yet unborn. We cannot say “no” to his request because he is calling to us now as St. John Paul II. In his own words, expressed while he was still on earth:
Do not be afraid! The Gospel is not against you, but for you … The Gospel of hope does not disappoint! Throughout the vicissitudes of your history, yesterday and today, it is the light that illumines and directs your way … it is a sign of a new beginning; it is the invitation to everyone, believers, and nonbelievers alike … to make (the world) a true common home filled with the joy of life. (Weigel 341)
Holy Mass at the Capital Mall. Homily of His Holiness John Paul II. Washington, DC, Sunday, October 7, 1979, No. 3 & 6. 215 Hill Street, Boonton, NJ 07005. Web. March 21, 2014.
Tyburski, Zbigniew. Encyclicals of John Paul II: Foundations of Catholic Faith and Morality. Sapientia Press of Ave Maria University, 2011, p. 95.
Wilson, Greg. “Abortion America’s # 1 Killer.” 215 Hill Street, Boonton. Web. January 22, 2014.
Lincoln, Abraham. “Excerpt of Lincoln’s Speech on Free Labor vs. Slave Labor.” St. Joseph Seminary, Yonkers, NY 10704. Web. April 3, 2013.
Huggard, William A. “Whitman’s Poem of Personalism.” Personslist 28: July 1947, p. 275. St. Joseph Seminary, Yonkers. Web. April 3, 2013.
Weigel, George. The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—the Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy. Image Books, New York, 2010, p. 341.