John Paul II is widely recognized as being the most politically consequential pope in centuries. He played a pivotal role in the Revolution of 1989 and the collapse of European communism. He helped bend the curve of history in Latin America away from military authoritarianism and toward democracy and the rule of law. He was instrumental in gathering a worldwide coalition of conscience that prevented the Clinton administration from achieving its goal of having abortion on demand declared a fundamental human right.
And he did all of this (and more), not by wielding power as the world typically understands power, but by deploying public moral arguments that changed minds, hearts and, eventually, public policy. In doing this, he gave real effect to the Second Vatican Council’s teaching in Dignitatis Humanae that religious freedom is the first of civil rights.
What is perhaps less well-recognized is that John Paul II, who never lived in a developed democracy, was a keen analyst of the free society of the future, which he always insisted had to be a free and virtuous society, were liberty to be lived in a truly human way. That analysis was unfolded in John Paul II’s social magisterium, which added bold new insights to the patrimony of modern Catholic social thought.
Most fundamentally, John Paul II cemented a fourth core principle into the foundation of the Church’s social doctrine. Leo XIII, in the 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum, had identified personalism and the common good as two of the social doctrine’s foundational principles: All right thinking about public life begins with the dignity of the human person, who ought to live that dignity in ways that contribute to the good of all.
Pius XI added a third principle to that foundation, the principle of subsidiarity, in his 1931 encyclical, Quadragesimo Anno: The voluntary associations of civil society are essential building blocks of the just society, in which decision-making takes place at the lowest possible level of the social and political hierarchy (i.e., as close as possible to those affected by the decision), commensurate with the common good.
John Paul II’s social magisterium fixed the principle of solidarity into the foundations of the social doctrine of the Church: The free and virtuous society requires forms of human fellow feeling and mutual responsibility that go beyond the merely contractual.
In addition, John Paul II developed an original analysis of economic and political modernity in his three major social encyclicals.
In Laborem Exercens (1981), he taught that work is not to be understood as a punishment for original sin, but as our human participation in God’s ongoing creation of the world.
In Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (1987), John Paul lifted up the importance of entrepreneurship for economic development in the Third World, writing of a "right of economic initiative" that ought not be smothered by state interventions in economic life or by oligarchies that kept all economic power in their own hands.
Then, in the 1991 encyclical, Centesimus Annus, John Paul II both summed up the social teaching of his papal predecessors over the previous century and pointed the social doctrine in new and innovative directions, making six crucial assertions:
- The free and virtuous society of the future will be composed of three interlocking and mutually dependent parts: a democratic political community, a free economy and a robust public moral culture. The culture is the key, for it is there that the tremendous human energies let loose by free politics and free economics are tempered, disciplined and ordered to genuine human flourishing.
- Democracy and the free economy are not machines that can run by themselves. It requires a certain critical mass of people, possessed of certain virtues, to make freedom work, politically and economically. It is the culture’s task to form that critical mass of virtuous citizens and economic actors, and it is the Church’s task to help form that culture.
- Freedom must be tethered to moral truth if freedom is not to be self-cannibalizing.
- The voluntary associations of civil society — the family, business and labor associations, religious communities, social, political and cultural groups — are essential schools of freedom. Thus, modern public life cannot be thought of in terms of the individual and the state alone; civil society is a crucial third part of the matrix of freedom.
- Wealth in the postmodern world is not simply resources or land — stuff. Rather, the wealth of nations in the post-industrial world is found in ideas, skills, entrepreneurial instincts and other expressions of human creativity. In sum: Wealth is created in the mind, not dug out of the ground.
- Poverty in the 21st century and the third millennium should be thought of as a matter of exclusion from those circles of productivity and exchange where wealth is created and distributed. Thus, the poor are not problems to be solved — but people with potential to be unleashed. Social-welfare programs should aim at making it possible for the poor to become active agents of their own economic lives by developing the skills and habits essential to participation in those networks where wealth is created and distributed. Empowerment for participation is the key to a developed Catholic understanding of service to the poor.
Evangelium Vitae, John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical on the life issues, was not a "social encyclical," in the strict sense of the term, but it was yet another contribution to the world’s thinking about its future, teaching that the reduction of human beings to useful (or useless) objects deeply damages the cause of freedom, as does the terrible practice of legally defining moral wrongs as "rights."
And then, at the end of his life, John Paul II’s 2003 apostolic letter, Ecclesia in Europa, drew the world’s attention to an impending demographic winter that was unprecedented in human history: a radical depopulation not caused by plague, natural disaster or war, but by selfishness and willfulness married to contraceptive technology.
The Church and the world will be decades learning the full lessons of John Paul II’s social magisterium. Yet that learning is crucial to a future in which liberty has not deteriorated into license and freedom is lived nobly.
George Weigel is distinguished senior fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. His two-volume biography of John Paul II includes Witness to Hope and The End and the Beginning.