Pope John Paul II effectively ended the debate about whether the social mission of the Church is integral or fringe, fundamental or marginal. According to Pope John Paul, “the ‘new evangelization’ which the modern world urgently needs …must include among its essential elements a proclamation of the Church's social doctrine.” Catholic social teaching has “permanent value” and is “genuine doctrine” which enables the Church to “analyze social realities, to make judgments about them and to indicate directions to be taken for the just resolution of the problems involved” (Centesimus Annus, 3, 5). By his words and witness, by his teaching and example, he demonstrated that the Church’s social teaching is at the core of what it is to be a Catholic community of faith.
In three powerful social encyclicals, Centesimus Annus (1991), Laborem Exercens (1981) and Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (1987) Pope John Paul II demonstrated that social teaching is not “a theory, but above all else a basis and motivation for action” (CA, 57). Over three decades, he affirmed, built upon, and advanced Catholic teaching on work and workers, war and peace, the role and limitations of markets and government and care for creation. The defense of human dignity and the call to solidarity were at the center of his papacy. He reminded us again and again that we are all members of one human family, sisters and brothers with undeniable dignity as children of God.
Throughout his papacy, John Paul worked persistently and consistently to defend life, promote justice and pursue peace and he applied Catholic moral principles to the pressing issues of his time: life and death, war and peace, economic justice and environment, debt and development. He led the Church’s opposition to abortion and euthanasia, cloning and capital punishment. He worked tirelessly for peace in the Middle East and religious freedom around the world.
Pope John Paul II made clear there were limitations and dangers in the application of Catholic social teaching. It cannot be used to justify violence or class struggle. It should not be misused for partisan political purposes or to justify some ideological agenda. However, he was absolutely clear that the Church is called to defend life, promote justice and pursue peace as an integral part of its vocation in the world.
Any believer who listened to the teaching of John Paul II or watched his leadership, saw and heard with new clarity and power that the defense of human life and dignity and the pursuit of justice and peace are at the heart of what it is to be a disciple of Jesus Christ and member of His Church.