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The Encyclicals of Pope John Paul II

30 November, 1999

A brief summary of the fourteen encyclicals of Pope John Paul II, by Dermot Roantree.

Redemptor Hominis (4 March 1979)
Five months after his election, Pope John Paul II wrote his first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis. In it he outlines the mission of his pontificate. He stresses that Christ is the centre of creation and of history, and that he redeemed all humankind. From this follows the need of the Church to draw all men to Christ, a task which can be furthered by ecumenism, by ensuring the moral dimension of human life doesn’t get forgotten on the road to progress, and by defending human rights.

Dives in Misericordia (30 November 1980)
Dives in Misericordia constitutes an emphatic affirmation of God’s love, and above all of His mercy. Christ, the Pope says, “in a certain sense, is mercy”. The actions of the father in the parable of the Prodigal Son demonstrate the fundamental relationship between God and people. The father shows readiness, joy and affection as he welcomes his son back, and by returning to the father, the son recovers his dignity. The pope stresses the roles of the sacraments of Eucharist and Reconciliation as proofs of God’s mercy. Lastly he affirms that mercy is a necessary constituent of justice among men, and that those who give mercifully are themselves beneficiaries.

Laborem Exercens (14 September 1981)
This important social encyclical was written to mark the ninetieth anniversary of Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum, on the question of labour. Above all it is concerned with emphasising human dignity. The Church, Pope John Paul says, must always defend that dignity and oppose situations in which human rights in the field of work are not protected. Labour always has priority over capital. The Pope asserts the need to take action against unemployment and unjust remuneration. Also, he affirms the rights of women in the workplace and the need for social benefits, unions, and appropriate leisure time. And he couches all this in a spirituality of work which sees human labour as a share in God’s creative and redemptive work.

Slavorum Apostoli (2 June 1985)
In 1980 the pope declared the ancient saints Cyril and Methodius co-patrons of Europe. Five years later, in Slavorum Apostoli, he commemorated the eleventh centenary of these saints’ evangelising work in the Slavic nations. This encyclical is most notable, perhaps, for its outline of the Pope’s understanding of ‘inculturation’. The spreading of the Gospel does not mean the impoverishment or extinction of the real human values of any culture. These values, the pope says, are like the tiles that make up a great mosaic, the work of art of the Pantocrator, the creator of all things. It is for the Church, then, to “accept, unite, and exalt” them, with motherly care.

Dominum et Vivificantem (18 May 1986)
This encyclical is all about the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life. Its purpose is to develop the Church’s awareness that it is compelled by the Holy Spirit to assist the full realisation of God’s will on earth. The pope recalls Christ’s promise at the paschal supper to send the Paraclete, or Consoler. The Holy Spirit comes to continue Christ’s work of spreading the Good News of salvation, to offer the world freedom from sin, and to be the guardian of hope in human hearts.

Redemptoris Mater (25 March 1987)
Prompted by the advent of a new millennium, the Pope wrote this encyclical on Mary, Mother of God. Leaning heavily on the Second Vatican Council’s document Lumen Gentium, Pope John Paul stresses Mary’s role as virgin and mother and the need to present her in the light of the mystery of Christ. It is her faith which marks the beginning of the new covenant between God and humankind in Christ; she is blessed because of the fruit of her womb, but also because of her faith. She is the mother of the Church, she accompanies it on its pilgrim way, and it is from Mary that the Church learns her own motherhood. Mary stands at the centre of the mystery of God so loving the world that he gave his only Son for it.

Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (30 December 1987)
This is the pope’s second encyclical on social matters, and it takes its cue mainly from Pope Paul VI’s Populorum Progressio. The pope reaffirms the teachings of his predecessor, but is less sanguine perhaps as he considers the widening gap between the developed and the developing worlds. The goods of the earth are meant for all, he says, and the Church draws from this principle by reflecting on the truth about Christ. The pope commends the love of preference for the poor and he laments unjust trade systems, the lack of an ordered international economic system for the good of all, and the failure of some countries to provide democratic, participatory government.

Redemptoris Missio (7 December 1990)
In this encyclical on missionary work, Pope John Paul II affirms that “mission is an accurate indicator of our faith in Christ and his love for us”. It is, he adds, a form of giving witness and a “way of life which shines out to others”. The Church is at the service of the Kingdom of God, and the Church’s missions have, consequently, to announce the Good News and promote evangelical values for the growth of the Kingdom. The Pope calls for dialogue with other cultures and faiths, for mission to incarnate the Gospel wherever it is in operation, and missionaries to be committed to holiness.

Centesimus Annus (1 May 1991)
In his third social encyclical, the pope commemorates the hundredth anniversary of Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum. The Church’s social teaching, he says, is built on faith; and from this follows the Church’s commitment to fundamental principles concerning the dignity and rights of everyone, the preferential option for the poor, and the solidarity of all peoples and nationalities. The Pope endorses the principles of the free economy, but only if such an economy is circumscribed by a tight juridical framework which ensures that it is placed at the service of human freedom in its totality.

Veritatis Splendor (6 August 1993)
In Veritatis Splendor the Pope responds to what he calls “an overall and systematic calling into question of traditional moral doctrine”. What lies behind this trend, he asserts, is the influence of currents of thought which detach faith from life and human freedom from its proper relationship to truth. He rejects theological trends which disregard the absolute character of the Church’s moral norms prohibiting intrinsically evil acts, and he repudiates ethical theories that make morality subjective, citing specifically the theories of consequentialism and proportionalism. These, he avers, run counter to revelation and to the definitive teaching of the Church. He urges pastors in the Church to be vigilant in ensuring that the voice of Jesus Christ, “the voice of the truth about good and evil,” is heard by the People of God.

Evangelium Vitae (25 March 1995)

The purpose of this encyclical is to proclaim the good news of the value and dignity of every person. But this leads the Pope to denounce the growing threat to life and the fostering of a “culture of death” in the current world. He is gravely concerned at the proliferation of abortion, euthanasia, and experimentation with human embryos. This anti-life ethos emerges, he argues, from an individualism and materialism which hold a perverse view of freedom, one which disregards the claim of truth and the objective good. Life is a gift and it has been entrusted to our responsibility. The commandment not to kill is absolute and permanent, and it lies at the heart of the covenant between God and humankind. The Pope calls for the promotion of a “culture of life” and the purification of all hearts.

Ut Unum Sint (25 May 1995)
The Church’s commitment to ecumenism, especially as outlined in Vatican II, is reaffirmed in this encyclical. The premise of this commitment is Christ’s prayer that all may be one. The Pope acknowledges that ecumenism may be made difficult by doctrinal differences, misunderstandings, prejudices, and a lack of mutual knowledge; yet he believes that unity can be achieved through a truthful vision of things, enlightened by divine mercy. He writes to encourage the efforts of all who strive for unity. Also, he encourages common prayer among Christians, dialogue among Christian Churches, and practical co-operation at all levels between Christians. And he stresses that the role of the Pope is to be the “first servant of unity”.

Fides et Ratio (14 September 1998)
Fides et Ratio is intended as a kind of continuation of the considerations begun in Veritatis Splendor. The Pope addresses an issue of the first importance: the loss of confidence in the power of human reason to reach after and achieve (in a certain measure) its proper goal, i.e., the discernment of truth. In the light of this critical feature of current culture, he seeks to elucidate the relationship between faith and reason and to confirm the power and credibility of revealed truth. Without an acknowledgement of the proper power of reason and an understanding of faith and reason as mutually supportive, one ends up with a vision which grants pride of place to subjectivism, opinion, and scepticism, one which is driven by will-power and pragmatism.

 Ecclesia de Eucharistia (17 April 2003)
This latest encyclical is concerned with the Eucharist and its relationship to the Church. To mark the twenty-fifth year of his pontificate, the Pope invites all the faithful to join him in giving thanks for the Eucharist and the priesthood. He celebrates the fact that the liturgical reforms of the Council have led to much greater active participation by the faithful in the Mass. But there are shadows alongside these lights, he says. Eucharistic adoration has all but died out in some places, and one meets too often a highly reductive interpretation of the Eucharist, one which strips it of its meaning as sacrifice and as sacrament. The Pope expresses the need for a greater level of awareness and appreciation of liturgical norms relating to the Eucharist, so as to preserve its sacredness and universality.

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