Two Life & Justice Saints: Popes John XXIII and John Paul II

On Sunday, the Catholic Church will canonize Popes John XXIII and John Paul II. It’s worth taking some time to read up on them and the canonization at the USCCB’s special site for the historic day, or dip into any of their great books.

In this space, I’d like to highlight three quotes from each saint-to-be that demonstrate their shared, deep commitment to the promotion of human dignity and social justice. They are truly two Life & Justice Saints.

First, Pope John XXIII.

1) “Individual human beings are the foundation, the cause and the end of every social institution.” Mater et Magistra, no. 219.

In Mater et Magistra, his 1961 encyclical on Christianity and social progress, Pope John XXIII boils all of Catholic social teaching down to this principle. When we evaluate any of our social institutions — governments, businesses, economies, schools, healthcare systems, and so on — we are called to examine how they affect individual persons. Profit or success for those few at the top are not enough.

2) “We must speak of man’s rights. Man has the right to live. He has the right to bodily integrity and to the means necessary for the proper development of life, particularly food, clothing, shelter, medical care, rest, and, finally, the necessary social services…” Pacem in Terris, no. 11

In his seminal 1963 encyclical Pacem in Terris, John XXIII articulates and explores basic human rights from a Catholic Christian perspective. In the most forceful way up to that point in papal history,  John XXIII asserts that all human beings have inviolable rights, including the right to life and the right to live well, because they are created by God.

3) “The common good ‘must take account of all those social conditions which favor the full development of human personality.’…It is generally accepted today that the common good is best safeguarded when personal rights and duties are guaranteed.” Pacem in Terris, nos. 58, 60

If individual human rights are one side of the coin, the common good is the other side. The phrase “common good” appears 73 times between Mater et Magistra and Pacem in Terris. Not only do all humans have individual rights, but we all have responsibilities to make sure the rights of others are upheld. In a special way, civil authorities have an obligation to promote the common good through creating social structures that promote the well-being of all.

Now, on to Pope John Paul II.

1) “Solidarity… is not a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people, both near and far. On the contrary, it is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say, to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all.” Solicitudo Rei Socialis, no. 38.

What a compelling, strong stand against our tendency toward individualism. John Paul II makes it clear that Catholicism and any form of libertarianism are not compatible.

2) “The Gospel of God’s love for man, the Gospel of the dignity of the person and the Gospel of life are a single and indivisible Gospel.” Evangelium Vitae, no. 2. 

If “common good” was Pope John XXIII’s favorite phrase, “human dignity” is Pope John Paul II’s favorite. In this encyclical, he shows how the Church’s care for all human life represents our striving to emulate God’s love for each and every person.

3) “Human life belongs only to God: for this reason whoever attacks human life, in some way attacks God himself.” Evangelium Vitae, no. 9.

In an era that has devalued certain forms of human life, Pope John Paul II reminds us that everything we have is a gift from God — most importantly life itself. As a world, how are we doing at cherishing that gift?

This week especially, we thank God for the gifts of Popes John XXIII and Pope John Paul II, and pray that we might have the courage and zeal to promote life & justice the way they did.

This post is also featured on the website The Ampersand for the Diocese of Camden Life & Justice Ministries.