“The social message of the Gospel must not be considered a theory,
but above all else a basis and a motivation for action.”
—John Paul II, Centesimus Annus, §57i
Pope St. John Paul II spoke and wrote frequently about social justice, because his concern for social issues was a consistent and integral dimension of his worldview and his practice of the Catholic faith. Expressing his holistic commitment to justice, John Paul II wrote of the universal “responsibility of choosing to be unconditionally pro-life” (Evangelium Vitae [EV], §28). Within the American political framework, this phrase may seem to narrowly invoke a single contentious issue, but in the Pope’s imagination it referred to defending and promoting every vulnerable human life no matter the circumstances. The Gospel of Life “reveals the greatness and the inestimable value of human life” (EV, §2), and precisely this inexhaustible human dignity grounded the Holy Father’s insistence on achieving social justice.
John Paul II understood social justice as promoting the flourishing of every human person, and so he confronted the threats posed to social justice and human life by abortion, the death penalty, euthanasia, suicide and murder, racism, economic systems, the arms trade and the arms race. He advocated for the poor, refugees, migrants, and indigenous peoples, encouraged dialogue on “the ecological question,” and urged Christians “to show special favor to those who are poorest, most alone and most in need.” A concern for social justice also informed John Paul II’s promotion—especially through his well-known contribution to a “theology of the body”—of sacramental marriage and family life. The Pope realized that “the family has a special role to play throughout the life of its members, from birth to death” (EV, §92), a privileged opportunity to recognize their dignity, foster their flourishing, and together live in just relationship. Especially because of their practical impact on family life, the Pope’s teachings on human sexuality were intimately related to his social doctrine. All these issues (and more) coalesced in the eyes of John Paul II and contributed to the grand struggle between the culture of death and the culture of life. Wherever society “encourages the ‘culture of death,’ creating and consolidating actual ‘structures of sin’ which go against life” (EV, §24), the Church strives in every situation to defend human life and so promotes social justice.
Not only did John Paul II consistently teach and promote social justice, but he also personally took interest in it and sought to answer its demands upon his own life. Interestingly, the young Karol Wojtyła rejected the idea of priesthood at first because he was “convinced that he should be an active ‘lay Christian,’ involving himself in helping to solve social problems through the Church.” As a young man and priest, the experience of Nazi and then communist oppression in Poland deeply formed Wojtyła’s concern for social justice. Even before his elevation to the chair of St. Peter, during the Second Vatican Council, Wojtyła “tended strongly toward more . . . social justice positions.” Throughout his life, John Paul II felt deeply in his emotional and prayer life the weight of the world’s injustices and sought to relieve them whenever possible. In a particularly remarkable act of generosity, he gave a favela resident in Rio de Janeiro his gold ring. John Paul II would not only inveigh against injustices, but also suffered the burden they caused in a spiritual solidarity with the marginalized and oppressed. He modeled reception and advocacy of the Church’s teachings in their holistic fullness. Now, as an intercessor and friend in the communion of saints, he continues to journey with all those seeking the realization of the Church’s vision of a just society.
St. John Paul II, pray for us!
Featured image Thomas O'Halloran, U.S. News & World Report; public domain via Library of Congress.
 See Centesimus Annus, §§37–38, 57; Address at the Meeting with the Native Peoples of the Americas (September 14, 1987); Evangelium Vitae, §87.
 Tad Szulc, Pope John Paul II: The Biography (New York: Scribner, 1995), 192.
 Ibid., 77.
 Ibid., 218, 232.
 Ibid., 430.
 Diana Jean Schemo, “Slum Dwellers in Rio Await the Pope’s Return Visit to Brazil This Week” in The New York Times (October 2, 1997).