John Paul II and the Social Doctrine of the Church

By Fernando de la Iglesia Viguiristi SJ, 15 September 2021
A statue of Pope John Paul II. Image: Pixabay.


When the cardinals gathered in conclave and elected Cardinal Karol Wojtyła as the successor of St Peter on October 16, 1978, the choice was somewhat surprising. He was the first non-Italian pope since Hadrian VI (elected in 1522) and, above all, he came from Eastern Europe, from beyond the Iron Curtain, from Krakow in Poland. Few would have imagined that the new pontiff was about to bring a renewal to the Social Doctrine of the Church (SDC).

A look at his earlier life, however, would have given a clear indication of this direction. He had personal experience of real life in both the capitalist and communist worlds; as a professor of Ethics at the University of Lublin, Wojtyła had taken an academic interest in socio-economic matters, and at the Second Vatican Council he had contributed to the composition of Gaudium et Spes (GS). What is more, his clear opposition to communism was well known.

The end of the 1970s marked an era of turbulence in the Church and in wider society. In the Church, confidence in its social doctrine had reached its lowest point. The growing prestige of Marxism was combined with criticism of the social doctrine of the Church by various theological and political currents, which accused it of being abstract, moralistic and ideological. This accusation was formulated, for example, by Marie-Dominique Chenu in La doctrine sociale de l’Église comme idéologie.[1] Everything seemed to conspire to attack it.

An interview given by Wojtyła a few months before his election shows that he had clear and very developed ideas on central themes of the social doctrine of the Church.[2] The questions explored his opinion on the validity of the criticism of that doctrine: specifically, whether he considered it ideological and in what sense; whether he considered it an evangelical proclamation or a teaching of natural ethics; whether it was a kind of appropriate middle ground between Marxism and liberalism, or whether it opposed both of those ideologies; whether it was outdated; whether it was capable of generating practical outcomes; and what challenges it would face.

In his answers, Wojtyła showed how convinced he was of the value and validity of the social doctrine of the Church as well as the need to develop it. He expressed an ardent desire for its renewal. Once elected, Pope Wojtyła had the opportunity to  implement this project . He did so successfully and his contribution to the Church’s social doctrine was completely decisive. Here we propose to synthesize the teachings of his three great social encyclicals, highlighting their contributions, their ongoing validity and the internal unity they possess.

Laborem Exercens – on human work

What could John Paul II’s contribution be? It was clear that he was facing a great challenge, given the ecclesial context of the time and the socio-economic crisis of the 1970s. While the decade of the 1960s had been characterized by strong and constant growth, starting in 1973 the world faced its first oil crisis, in which the price of crude oil quadrupled. Not only was the production apparatus fundamentally challenged, but activities stagnated and unemployment and inflation followed.

There was talk of a structural blockade. In addition, modern technologies became part of the work process, producing transformations comparable to those that occurred with the Industrial Revolution. It is worth noting that in August 1980, in the Gdansk shipyards, Lech Wałesa and other workers founded the first independent trade union in a Soviet bloc country.

The firm decision to face all these difficulties speaks volumes for the temperament and ability of the new pontiff. If it is always true that one’s origin and education play an important role in determining the formation of social ideas, in Wojtyła’s case this component was undoubtedly decisive. He had personally experienced working under Nazi domination and had spent a good part of his life under a communist regime.

Laborem Exercens (LE), dated September 14, 1981, expresses the thought of a Polish intellectual marked by this dual experience. His style – dense, concentric, emphatic  – was considered by many to be the natural expression of a Slavic mindset. Direct quotations in Laborem Exercens come from the Bible (especially the book of Genesis and the letters of St. Paul), the Second Vatican Council (in particular, Gaudium et Spes), and Thomas Aquinas. The argument takes the form of a philosophical reflection with a personalist accent. It starts with the words of Genesis “to subdue the earth” (LE 5) and sees in human work a participation in that of the divine creator (cf. LE 26). Placing labor in a Christological perspective (incarnation and redemption), he invites us to meditate on “human work in the light of the Cross and Resurrection of Christ” (LE 27).

Wojtyła did not intend to repeat what his predecessors had already affirmed, but rather to highlight how human work is the essential key to the whole social question, focusing on the good of the human person: a person open to God and to others, the lord of creation and servant of other human beings. One could rightly speak, with regard to Wojtyła, of a “humanism with a human face.” Indeed, labor, one of the elements that distinguishes humans from all other creatures, in some way constitutes our very nature. “As persons, humans are therefore the subject of work” (LE 6), and it is as an activity of human beings that work receives its own dignity.

Hence follows the denunciation of everything that disturbs the authentic hierarchy of values, as happens, for example, in the case of materialist economic thought, when it considers work as a mere instrument of production, evaluating it from the perspective of the market. In reality, the opposite is true: work is a good of the human person, through which he or she not only transforms nature, but also discovers his or her own identity and builds family and civil society. John Paul II spoke of the “Gospel of work,” which begins in the first chapters of Genesis and finds its fulfillment in Christ.

The “social question,” which had affected above all the world of workers and which until then had been dealt with on a national level, took on an international and global dimension in the 1980s (cf. LE 2). For this reason, in the search for solutions – especially to unemployment – the encyclical appealed for international collaboration through the provision of treaties and agreements between countries, and to the action of international organizations (cf. LE 18).

If human work is a means of personalization and cooperation with other people, a primordial mission and a way of associating with the creative work of God and the redemptive work of Christ, then its absence is not only an economic problem, but also pertains to the human and theological spheres. To resolve it requires the combined action of states and what the pope calls the “indirect employer,” that is, all the components that influence the contractual and the employment relationship.

Sensitive to proposals to change one system of ownership (i.e., the participation of workers in the management and benefits of the company), John Paul II defended in no uncertain terms the legitimacy of the wage system. He did not doubt the fact that nowadays there is no better way to achieve justice in capital-labor relations. “At this point of the encyclical, the pope sums up his whole vision of the worker. The decent wage serves as the central element for verifying the justice or injustice of any socio-economic system, since it translates into concrete terms the principle of the ‘common use of goods.’”[3]

Two other new aspects were class struggle and sociopolitical systems. No one ignores the fact that class struggle is a fundamental concept in Marxist theory and practice, understood as a means of eliminating the unjust division of society into two classes: the dominant and the dominated. John Paul II devoted the second part of the encyclical to an analysis of the concept and reality of the class struggle. In summary, his thought can be divided into three passages (cf. LE 1-15):

1) The class struggle exists. Marx and Engels elevated it to an ideological category, transforming it into a political category because of the tools it employs and the ends it aspires to achieve.

2) However, it should not exist, because capital and labor are causes – instrumental and efficient – that collaborate to the same end; earthly goods become capital thanks to labor, and behind capital and labor there are individuals who must be put in the foreground. This is the principle of the priority of “work” over “capital”: an evident truth deduced from the entire historical experience of humanity.

3) Consequently, only a system that overcomes the capital-labor antinomy is just. The principle of the priority of labor over capital is a postulate that belongs to the order of social morality.

In addition to the depth of this argument, it is necessary to highlight its novelty, especially on the second point. It is clear that the pope understood the affirmation “capital is the fruit of labor ” in a different sense from that which it had in Marx’s thought and, before him, in that of the utopian socialists. While for them and for Marx the entrepreneur is seen as having abusively appropriated the surplus value due to labor and in this sense his capital is the fruit of unjustly remunerated labor, Laborem Exercens focused on the process of production and clarified that earthly goods become capital, that is, goods of production, by means of multiple labor, which includes many jobs. This was an original consideration, which had the merit of arguing with Marx on his own ground – the analysis of history and the process of production – to reach a conclusion different from his.[4]

It should also be noted that on this point the pope’s language was innovative; he spoke of the reality of the class struggle without evading either the term or its implications: “It must be frankly recognized that the reaction against the system of injustice and harm that cried to heaven for vengeance and that weighed heavily upon workers in that period of rapid industrialization was justified from the point of view of social morality” (LE 8).

Finally, speaking of the trade unions – at the time, Walesa’s Solidarność (Solidarity), which Wojtyła strongly supported, had not yet been recognized – the pope replied to those who, hypothetically, expressed wonder at his opposition to the class struggle and simultaneous defense of trade unions as indispensable elements of social life, affirming that the trade unions were, in promoting social justice, exponents of the struggle for justice, and not concerned with eliminating the adversary (cf. LE 20).

When the encyclical Laborem Exercens was published, its attitude toward capitalism and socialism was met with surprise. Was that initial reaction well-founded? In the encyclical there is no shortage of criticism of capitalism and Marxism, even in their mildest forms. It accused the former – even when it allows for the participation of workers and trade unions in economic life – of defending private property as an untouchable principle with respect to the common good. It criticized the latter on the grounds that the transfer of ownership of goods to the state is not authentic socialism if it does not ensure the involvement of society. It reproached both of them for having fallen into the materialistic and economic error of sustaining the unnatural opposition between capital and labor and of considering the latter as a commodity or as an aspect of production, obscuring its human character. Both have allowed glaring injustices to persist, or have given rise to new ones, because they do not fully respect the dignity of the human person.

With this encyclical, John Paul II placed himself in the vanguard of the promotion of workers’ rights. The theme of the social question remains topical. The Secretary-General of the United Nations, António Guterres, said on June 24, 2020, that the time has come to coordinate global, regional and national action to create decent working conditions for all. He pointed out that in the world, before Covid-19, increased inequality prevailed, with systematic gender discrimination, lack of opportunities for young people and frozen wages. Now, the uncontrolled increase in unemployment, especially in the most vulnerable sectors of the world’s population, and the loss of profits resulting from the pandemic will further erode social cohesion, just as they have already destabilized countries socially, politically and economically.

These considerations show us the appropriateness, reason and relevance of Pope Wojtyła’s subsequent encyclical.

Sollicitudo Rei Socialis – on the social order

On December 30, 1987, John Paul II signed his second social encyclical, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (SRS), on the 20th anniversary of the publication of Populorum Progressio. The purpose was twofold: to commemorate it and to relaunch the social doctrine of the Church.

In that period the world was divided into four regions: North, South, East and West. In Poland, the Solidarity trade union had been defying the Soviet giant since 1980 and causing a series of cracks in the seemingly monolithic bloc of socialism as envisaged by the Soviet Union. The latter, before entering an irreversible process of decline reacted strongly and proclaimed martial law in the homeland of John Paul II. In November 1982 Leonid Brezhnev died, and in 1985 Mikhail Gorbachev came to power. The economic, social and political crisis forced him to seek a détente, which coexisted with the arms race. Those were the years of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, when there was talk of space shields and galactic war. It was a world in tension, desolate, in which there was an abyss between the developed parts and the Third World.

John Paul II’s praise of Populorum Progressio suggested that he considered it a document full of relevance, perhaps the most eloquent document relating to the social doctrine of the Church. He recalled it (cf. SRS 5-10) and developed it. He presented a panorama of the contemporary world (cf. SRS 11-16) starting from a painful observation: today, hope for development is less alive than in 1967. In addition to justifying this statement by providing clear data, John Paul II addressed the problem of the causes, which were not only economic, but also political, social and human.

Underdevelopment is a complex phenomenon, as well as a regrettable one. Who is responsible for continuing underdevelopment, and is there anyone to whom the blame can be attributed? In any case, the encyclical goes so far as to make a courageous and prophetic denunciation. After pointing out the grave omissions of the developing nations themselves, as well as those of the First World, the encyclical firmly and rigorously affirms that it is necessary to denounce the existence of economic, financial and social mechanisms that act in an almost automatic way, perpetuating the wealth of some and the indigence of others (cf. SRS 16).

The two great obstacles to the integral development of peoples are the “perverse mechanisms” of an economic nature and the “structures of sin” created by these mechanisms. The sum of negative factors, which act in the opposite direction to a true awareness of the universal common good and the need to foster it, can create in individuals and institutions an obstacle that is difficult to overcome (cf. SRS 36). Of all of them, the most characteristic negative factors seem to be two: the obsession with profit, and the thirst for power, with the intention of imposing one’s will on others at any cost (cf. SRS 37). It remains clear that the structures of sin foster moral disorder, prevent the exercise of virtue in social life, and are based on personal sinfulness.

After a description, in the wake of Populorum Progressio, of authentic development (cf. SRS 27-34), in which the conditions for it to be human are outlined, the encyclical presents a theological reading of modern times, starting from the concepts of conversion and solidarity (cf. SRS 35-40), in order to show the moral dimension of the problem. For John Paul II, it was regrettable that in socioeconomic analyses of the contemporary world the moral evaluation involving the category of sin or virtue is neglected.

The great affirmation of the Church’s social doctrine is that we are increasingly interdependent citizens of the Earth, and that this fact must make us increasingly supportive of one another. This conclusion can be reached starting simply from the consideration of one’s own interests. This is why it is so necessary to push for the reforms needed to shape a more just world order, and to this end promote a culture of solidarity in the developed world; to accept in fact and not only in words that every person and every people deserve to be recognized and respected; to see the “other” as our equal, whose participation in the banquet of life we must facilitate. Acting in this way implies that we accept the consequences of our standard of living.

Here the question of international debt arises John Paul II believed that one cannot overlook the profound link between this problem and the question of the development of peoples. The instrument intended for this purpose has become a brake and, in certain cases, has accentuated underdevelopment (cf. SRS 19). Perhaps it is good to reconsider, from a moral perspective, the way in which we in the First World focus on our needs. Perhaps we need to return to considering the virtue of austerity as a means of giving the “other” the opportunity to have in turn, thus succeeding in uniting the giver and the receiver as fellow humans, brothers and sisters.

But, in addition to this, it should be remembered that solidarity is a Christian virtue closely related to the most characteristic aspect of the actions of those who consider Christ as their Lord: charity. It includes the solidarity of the specifically Christian dimension, total generosity, forgiveness and reconciliation. The theological foundation of solidarity, the common fatherhood of God and the fact that every person is a living image of him give believers a new criterion for understanding the world. In it primacy is given to a preferential option for the poor. They are the Lord’s poor, because he himself wanted to identify with them and take care of them (cf. Matt 25:31-46; Psalm 12; Luke 1:52). The concluding part of the encyclical did not fail to cite the parables of the Good Samaritan and the rich man. When we close our eyes to the most obvious aspects of this world’s reality, we resemble the selfish rich man described in the Gospel.

The second objective was to give new life to the Church’s social doctrine: a task begun with Laborem Exercens, which had been followed by the two Instructions on Liberation Theology – especially the second one – that had expressed the same concepts. This ecclesial patrimony is now given a new dynamism. The pope moves decisively to call “doctrine” or “doctrinal body” the whole of the social teachings of the Magisterium of the Church, thus overcoming all reservations. He defines the social doctrine of the Church as an “instrument” of evangelization and of the Church’s contribution to the solution of development problems. Given its “vital connection” with the Gospel, it is part of the Church’s evangelizing mission.

The social doctrine of the Church is an integral part of its pastoral and teaching mission that Christ has entrusted to it. What is more, it is closely linked to the teaching of Christ. Indeed, the Church proclaims not only the teaching of Christ, but Christ himself. In this sense, her doctrine never loses its relevance. It has the objective of interpreting social realities, examining their adequacy or distance with respect to what the Gospel teaches, thus orienting Christian conduct. The pope based the validity and necessity of the Church’s social doctrine on the character of the Church as “an expert in humanity,” given that Christian anthropology, considering the totality of the person, illuminates human problems more than other partial visions that reduce the person to a negligible factor.

The document recalls that the social doctrine of the Church is an integral part of revelation, of the magisterium and of moral theology. Because of this evangelical and moral basis, it is not an ideology, nor is it a “third way” between capitalism and collectivism. These two predominant systems are reminded that the Church invites them to review their convictions and their actions, showing that she shows no preference for one or the other, as long as they respect human dignity and religious freedom. The knowledge and practice of this doctrine is recommended to all believers.

What Wojtyła had hoped for in the above-mentioned interview was thus formulated in the most authoritative way.

Centesimus Annus

There has never been a more eagerly awaited encyclical than Centesimus Annus (CA), published on May 1, 1991. There was a sense of duty to keep up the pace of commemorations of Rerum Novarum (1891), given the significant anniversary, the passage of a century. In addition, new events related to the resounding collapse of the Soviet empire seemed to require a public pronouncement from someone who had played no small part in that event.

Remember that Gorbachev, who was head of the USSR from 1985, had pursued a gradual transformation of the communist system, but this was not enough. The liberation and protest movements, which began in Poland, became widespread. The year 1989 saw the disintegration of the Soviet empire. The Berlin Wall fell and non-communist governments were formed in all of Moscow’s satellite states. On December 1, 1989, Gorbachev himself visited John Paul II in the Vatican. It was the Canossa of atheistic communism.

It was John Paul II himself, aware more than anyone else of these events, who presented the encyclical: an absolutely exceptional gesture. On May 1, the official date of the document, he provided the keys to interpreting the encyclical at a general audience: the Marxist system has fallen, and precisely for the reasons Rerum Novarum had specified almost prophetically. An entire political system had collapsed, and yet the problems and situations of injustice and human suffering by which it was nourished had not been overcome. Centesimus Annus was a commemoration aimed at the future, in the perspective of the Third Millennium. It did not limit itself to reviving memories, but, as the pope himself affirmed at the beginning and at the end of the encyclical, it proposed to look ahead, calling for a new international order in the economic and political fields.

What can we say about its content? The year 1989 is the theme of the third chapter. It could not have been otherwise. Wojtyła had to express his version of the fall of Marxism in Europe. This was due to Marxism’s violation of human rights, a fact that lay at the root of its economic failure. The movement that ended the Soviet system had begun in the Baltic shipyards, in the name of solidarity. There is a reference here to the Wałesa trade union and a Christian attitude. Faced with the practical violation of all human rights, the response came from a peaceful struggle that was committed to respecting the human dignity of the adversary, never responding to violence with more violence. In this way the communist regime had been disarmed. John Paul II read into these events the recovery of freedom and the victory of the spirit of the Gospel.

This encyclical emphasized above all the anthropological and theological distance between Marxism and Christianity. Centesimus Annus analyzed in incontrovertible terms the Marxist concepts of alienation and class struggle. The pope reacted to the motivations and results of unbridled capitalism with a frontal opposition, in line with all the teachings of previous popes. In Centesimus Annus he recognized that the free market, property and the benefit of entrepreneurs are positive realities (cf. CA 34) and that there are collective and qualitative needs that cannot be satisfied through market mechanisms and that must be provided for by the State (cf. CA 40).

To the key question, “After the collapse of communism, is capitalism the only alternative left?” Wojtyła replied, “If by ‘capitalism’ is meant a system in which freedom in the economic sector is not circumscribed within a strong juridical framework which places it at the service of human freedom in its totality, and which sees it as a particular aspect of that freedom, the core of which is ethical and religious, then the reply is certainly negative” (CA 42). The critique focuses on attitudes that concern the economic sector, but which are not inextricably linked to it. They may also be of interest to many citizens, regardless of the system in which they live or in which they believe.

Centesimus Annus looks towards a society based on free work, enterprise and participation, where the state is truly democratic. The central thesis is that a socio-economic model inspired by the social doctrine of the Church should be pursued.

Finally, the encyclical’s perspective on the debt of developing countries deserves to be taken up again. Starting from the principle that debts must be paid, the encyclical considered that they cannot be settled by imposing unbearable sacrifices. In such cases it is necessary to find “ways to lighten, defer or even cancel the debt, compatible with the fundamental right of peoples to subsistence and progress” (CA 35).


Already in his first papal homily, John Paul II urged us not to be afraid of Christ and to open to him the doors, not only of hearts, but also of “the borders of states, of economic systems as well as political ones, the vast fields of culture, civilization, development.”[5] Wojtyła understood that, in order not to conform to the logic of the world, to which Marxism belonged, and to avoid being an ideology, Christianity had to express what was proper to it.

Among the many merits of John Paul II’s pontificate is his strong commitment to the social doctrine of the Church, giving it a clear and definitive place in the Church’s evangelizing mission. On the social question he signed three encyclicals, three solemn interventions; none of his predecessors was as prolific. It is important to remember this fact, because those three encyclicals are complementary. Laborem Exercens is devoted to what we might call microeconomic issues. Sollicitudo Rei Socialis focuses on the core of macroeconomics, on the development of peoples. Centesimus Annus  analyzes the world in which we would soon find ourselves. The three encyclicals we have examined, which constitute the nucleus of John Paul II’s vast contribution in this field, are very rich in content. Their prophetic dimension is more than evident.

We cannot conclude these reflections without expressing admiration and gratitude for St. John Paul II: for his profound doctrine on the social question, for his breadth of vision and for his courage in addressing fundamental issues with the theological depth of always recognizing the dignity of the human person created in the image of God.

Reproduced with permission from La Civiltà Cattolica and Fernando de la Iglesia Viguiristi SJ.


DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 5, no.9 art. 8, 0921: 10.32009/22072446.0921.8

[1].    Cf. M.-D. Chenu, La doctrine sociale de l’Église comme idéologie, Paris, Cerf, 1979.

[2].    Cf. V. Possenti, Oltre l’illuminismo. Il messaggio sociale cristiano, Cinisello Balsamo (Mi), San Paolo, 1992, 239-262.

[3].    J. M. Bergoglio – Pope Francis, “Duc in altum, il pensiero sociale di Giovanni Paolo II”, in Id., Nei tuoi occhi è la mia parola. Omelie e discorsi di Buenos Aires 1999-2013, Milan, Rizzoli, 2016, 232.

[4].    With poorly disguised euphoria, the daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung pointed out that, after Laborem Exercens, it was no longer possible to argue the necessity of the class struggle from an intellectual standpoint.

[5].    John Paul II, Mass for the beginning of the pontificate, October 22, 1978.


Read Daily
* indicates required