The Paper Trail
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The Paper Trail

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The Hundred Year Paper Trail

 

While Christians and Jews see justice firmly planted within the texts of Scripture, the modern era has seen much more exploration of those teachings.  Over the course of one hundred years, from 1891 to 1991, much of those teachings have been specifically explicated to address the needs of the modern age.  Most would agreee that Pope Leo XIII started the modern cascade of documents about social justice in the Church and in the world when he penned his seminal encyclical, Rerum et Novarum in 1891, addressing the rights and duties of the workers, owning private property and the relations between employers and employees.  Faced with the plight of the industrial revolution with its practices of child labor and unsafe working conditions, long hours and unfair wages, Leo called for unions and a living wage. He affirmed private property and belief in God, contrary to another 19th century voice that was getting a lot of attention: Karl Marx. Marx called for a violent overthrow of the government, an end to private property, an end of religion, that opiate of the people, and the transfer of power from those who owned the means of production to the State. He thought the state could more evenly redistribute the goods.  He might have wanted to balance the playing field a bit, but Marx overlooked a basic flaw in human nature: greed. Once the state had the power, it was not going to let it go. History has already shown us what unchecked and ruthless use of power brings in Communist countries.  Leo XIII was blazing a new trail. 

 

Forty years later, on the anniversary of Rerum Novarum, when corporations were beginning to emerge and control people as the state had done in other places, Pope Pius XI wrote another encyclical, Quadregisimo anno (Forty Years…later) and called for the reorganization of the social structures, including a call for subsidiarity, that fancy cocktail word that simply means that people ought to be able to make decisions that impact their lives at the lowest possible level.  Large governments and large corporations should not be controlling people’s lives.  Pius reaffirmed what Leo had said about private property and Communism, but also called for just distribution of created goods and the sharing of superfluous wealth. He wasn’t talking about re-distribution by force though; he was talking about the Christian way to live was to share with those in need, of one’s own volition.  Mater et Magistra (Church as Mother and Teacher) followed twenty years later by Pope John XXIII, examining the plight of the farmers in a modern society, and cautioning societies about the large amounts of money that was going into armaments. Still seeing unjust wages, he affirmed profit sharing by employees, and asked developed countries to help the underdeveloped countries without domination.  Two years later, Pacem in Terris, or Peace on Earth was also penned by John XXIII, when the nuclear build-up was reaching its height. He called not only for a halt to the armament build-up, but also began to address other problems in society, like racism and the mounting refugee problems across the globe; he called for a review of the allocation of resources.

 

The Second Vatican Council ran from 1962-65 and released numerous documents on the life of the Church, including two documents on the Church itself: Lumen Gentium, or Light of the World, which examined the internal character of the Church as the bride of Christ, and Gaudium et Spes, or the Church IN the Modern World, which focused on how the Church was to operate IN the world (operative word being IN, not later in the next world, not over the world or below the world, but IN the world, IN the present). The Church was not just about the next world. Emerging was the insight that the kingdom of God had already begun with the Christ, the world about which Isaiah writes so beautifully in chapter 11:6-8, when:

 

the wolf shall live with the lamb,

the leopard shall lie down with the kid,

the calf and the lion and the fatling together.

And a little child shall lead them.

The cow and the bear shall graze,

their young shall lay down together,

and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.

The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,

and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.

 

The Redeemer had ushered the world into the Kingdom of God, not one completely finished, but begun. One was beginning to hear phrases like, “the kingdom was here and not yet”.  Church members were now beginning to see themselves as actors in bringing about the kingdom.  Jesus had given people the tools they needed; he had started the kingdom unfolding; it was up to us to continue being “Christ for others” and help the kingdom come to fruition.


With the world so engrossed in the armament build-up it was also beginning to fixate on peace. Gaudium et Spes addressed some of those needs but Pope Paul VI added to those when he wrote Progresso Populorum, or the Progress of the Peoples in 1967, telling the world at large that if it wanted peace, it was going to have to work for justice, including economic justice. Again, in 1971, another anniversary year of Rerum et Novarum, Octogesimo Adveiens, or the “Coming of Eighty Years” was released by Paul VI.  Here, too he focuced on the flagrant inequalities that existed in the economic, cultural and political development of nations.  Modern economies were becoming international and creating new problems: unfairness in the exchange of goods, increased consumption needs, and unshared responsibilities.  He called for a revision of relationships among nations, and urged developed countries to allow each country to promote its own development and share responsibility for decisions. That same year, the pope called a Roman Synod, which bishops from all over the world attended. They released one document: “Justice in the World”.  That document bemoaned the fact that injustices were now building networks of domination, that the arms race was threatening humanity’s highest good – life itself -- and that marginal peoples were becoming more and more displaced.  It called Christians to support international organizations that would restrain the armament race, to ratify and adhere to the UN declaration of Human rights and to support other countries’ right to development, composed both of economic growth and participation by the people. One of its most famous quotes was the simple line: “Action on behalf of justice, fully appears to us, to be constituative to the Gospels.”  In case anyone doubted, the work of social justice was intimately connected to the Gospels.

 

In 1975, Evangeleii Nuntiandi was released by Pope Paul VI, and focused on the third world struggles and their rights to hear the Gospel messages.  Liberation Theology was in full swing by this time, a theology that focused on the Exodus theme of God as liberator from all forms all oppression and slavery, and on the realization that the church is the body of Christ, that the resurrected Christ is present in and among believers. People were called to be Christ for one another. The God of the Scriptures is a God that liberates. Globally, there were many forms of oppression and slavery and many of them were economic and political. Marxists were already working with the poor, trying to convince them to overthrow the corporations or the government or whatever else was keeping them in chains. Christian liberation theologians, priests, ministers, nuns and laypeople, both Catholic and Protestant, were trying to show them a different path, but often they were working side by side with the Marxists. If one was to be Christ to each other, and if the “other” was being oppressed by “X”, then it often became the task of the missionaries to collaborate with the poor in overthrowing the oppressors, or “X”.  Rome was not too comfortable with its missionaries getting involved in economic and political activity, but Paul VI still said that the Church had a duty of proclaim liberation to millions of people, to assist the birth of liberation, to give witness to it and to ensure that it is completed.

 

In 1978, Paul VI died and John Paul II became Pope.  What was immediately striking about the new pope was that he was not from Italy as most of the popes had been for the previous 500 years, but from Poland, and from a country that was “behind the Iron curtain”.  He had tasted Communism first hand, and even though he certainly believed in liberation of the poor, he didn’t want church so intimately involved in the state, and politics as liberation theology had gotten.  Pope John Paul II, however, was a strong advocate of justice and his documents bear testimony to that.  In 1979 he picked up the threads that were weaving the tapestry of the social teachings with Redemptor Hominis (Redemption of Man) and began to observe that contemporary society was now being endangered by pollution of the natural environment, that there were more and more armed conflicts, that there was an attack of the unborn going on, and that we were looking at possible global destruction if the proliferation of weapons continued.  Technology was rapidly advancing and he called for a corresponding and proportional development of morals and ethics, the primacy of persons over things and the superiority of spirit over matter.  In 1981, he authored Laborem Exercens, or his encyclical on Labor and Work in which he took on the challenges of widespread automation, the increase cost of energy and raw materials and noted that the heritage of raw materials was limited on this planet. Automated work or mundane factory work was not respecting the creativity of workers, and he felt that people ought to be treated as the effective subjects of work and its true makers and creators. Multinationals at the time, were often exploiting the workers, and he wrote that it is a fundamental error to consider human labor solely according to its economic purpose.  Work was tied to one’s vocation; it gave one purpose and integrity.  He saw unemployment benefits as a duty springing from the fundamental principle of the common use of goods and the right to life and subsistence.  He also thought medical assistance should be easily available for workers, either cheaply or free. He reiterated Leo XIII’s positions on the rights of workers to form associations or unions and defend their vital interests. He also addressed the plight of the farm workers and emigration.

 

By 1991, one hundred years after Leo XIII’s document, Pope John Paul II released Centissimus Annos, (or one hundred years) another anniversary document. This time, he not only affirmed Leo’s concerns about private property, fair wages, the right to form associations or unions, but also addressed the “new things” of the twentieth century. He noted the decolonization at the end of World War II, with many new countries emerging and struggling for economic stability, the end of the Cold War, the intersection of men and women with culture, and those men and women being the way for message of Jesus the Church to continue.  He called on the State to be the agent of justice for the poor, but also warned that the fundamental error in socialism was in misunderstanding the human person as simply an instrument. Men and women were on their journey through the Church back to the Father.  He affirmed subsidiarity, and spoke of the importance of solidarity with the poor.

 

Other documents have been written as well. After Gaudium et Spes was released, the American bishops wrote a Peace Pastoral that addressed the proliferation of nuclear weapons and the Armaments race between the United States and the USSR at the time. When the South American bishops and the Mexican Conference of bishops wrote their documents in Medilllin and Puebla, they called upon all Christians to live with a “preferential option for the poor,” meaning that care for the poor was to be paramount in the pursuit of justice and holiness.  Contemplation in action was to be the norm.

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