By DONALD DeMARCO
The media’s infatuation with Pope Francis, and his deep concern for the poor, exemplified by his identification with il poverello of Assisi, has obscured the equally deep concern for the poor expressed by so many of his papal Predecessors. Although the “Good News” of the Gospel, which is reflected in every papal encyclical, is news that stays news, the news carried by the daily press is quickly forgotten.
The historic event on April 27, 2014 brought four Popes together: Pope Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, saying Mass, together with Pope John Paul II and Pope John XXIII being canonized. It was a momentous event, one not likely ever to be repeated. It is also an opportunity to reveal the concern that these two new saints had for the poor.
I have a calendar of memorable statements from the pen of John Paul II called Words to Live By. April 27, I felt, must have an appropriate piece of wisdom, perhaps even about St. John Paul’s concern for the poor. Here is what I found, taken from Centesimus Annus, issued on May 1, 1991 on the Hundredth Anniversary of Pope Leo XIII’s great social justice encyclical, Rerum Novarum:
“The poor ask for the right to share in enjoying material goods and to make good use of their capacity for work, thus creating a world that is more just and prosperous for all. The advancement of the poor constitutes a great opportunity for the moral, cultural, and even economic growth of all humanity.”
These two sentences are rich in philosophical implication. First, they honor the fundamental equality of all human beings. Given this equality, the distinction between the poor and the rich becomes somewhat of an aberration. Thus, the poor have a right to their just share of material goods. In addition, allowing the poor their proper share is beneficial to them morally and personally, as well as to culture as a whole. Social justice, therefore, is a strategy that benefits everyone and disadvantages no one. It even facilitates economic growth.
I then turned to Mater et Magistra, St. John XXIII’s social justice encyclical of May 15, 1961 and read the following:
“. . . The economic prosperity of any people is to be possessed not so much from the sum total of goods and wealth possessed as from the distribution of goods according to norms of justice, so that everyone in the community can develop and perfect himself. For this, after all, is the end toward which all economic activity of a community is by nature ordered.”
Again, there is the affirmation of human equality, the importance of justice, and how economic activity, rightly understood, contributes to the perfection of the worker as well as to the community in general. Also underscored is an economic strategy that is consonant with the natural law. Social justice, therefore, has both a personal as well as an objective foundation.
We find in the words of the Church’s two new saints echoes from great social encyclicals of the past. His Holiness Pope Pius XI honored Rerum Novarum 40 years after it was issued by producing Quadragesimo Anno (On the Reconstruction of the Social Order). In this encyclical he writes:
“. . . The immense number of property-less wage-earners on the one hand, and the superabundant riches of the fortunate few on the other, is an unanswerable argument that the earthly goods so abundantly produced in this age of industrialism are far from rightly and equitable shared among the various classes of men.”
In Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum (The Condition of Labor), we find a comparable message:
“It would be irrational to neglect one portion of the citizens and to favor another: and therefore the public administration must duly and solicitously provide for the welfare and the comfort of the working people, or else that law of justice will be violated which ordains that each shall have his due.”
The Church, following Christ, has always been a champion of the poor, opposing conflict between classes, honoring the equality of all, and insisting on distributive justice. The great event of April 27 should, among other things, bring this important point back into view.