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John Paul II as the Last Hippie

June 19, 1988|THOMAS CAHILL | Cahill has served for 12 years as publisher/editor of the Cahill Reader's Catalogue and is author of the new "Looking for Books" (Ampersand Associates). and

In the spring of 1967, only months before the fabled confrontations dealt with in "1968," Pope Paul VI issued an encyclical (or universal) letter under the title "Populorum Progressio" ("The Development of Nations"). The "universe" to which such letters are addressed is normally the world's Catholic bishops, but Paul--in a move that had been tried only once before (by John XXIII in his peace encyclical)--decided to address "all human beings of good will." This was, obviously, because he thought he had something unusual to say, not something of narrowly Catholic interest. What he said--in the leanest, most oracular Latin--was that the Church, as "an expert in humanity," looked with pain upon the outrageously unequal distribution of the world's wealth, intended by the Creator for everyone's use. The rich, he said, had a "duty of solidarity" with the poor, one that could not be discharged by endless babble about fault and the inevitability of free markets but only by sharing. "Development," he concluded, "is the new name for peace." Pretty straightforward, really.

Recently, Paul's successor, John Paul II, issued an encyclical--"Sollicitudo Rei Socialis" ("(The Church's) Social Concern")--to commemorate the 20th anniversary of "Populorum Progressio." It too is addressed to humanity and says much the same thing, pointing out, as did its predecessor, that the arms race stops development cold.

Twenty years later, however, the picture is a darker one, and the hopes of 1967-68 for a greener world have largely faded. John Paul notes that "underdevelopment" has begun to infect even the wealthy countries in the guise of chronic housing shortages and unemployment and that the poorest part of the Third World has become the unthinkable Fourth World.

What are the Pope's solutions? He has none--at least none of a technical nature. He says the problem is not technical, not theoretical, but moral: The world is the way it is because of the sins of individual human beings, which create "structures of sin"--the vast apparatus of injustice that functions in all societies. I'm not sure how anyone could disagree with this. The Pope's approach is, after all, so phenomenological--so dependent on describing things as everyone with eyes must see them. Some have felt themselves judged--and howled their displeasure. Most will simply ignore this document, and others like it, as insufficiently exciting to warrant attention. What is happening unnoticed, however, is that the papacy--starting with "Rerum Novarum" ("Of New Things"), Leo XIII's labor encyclical of 1891--has been cultivating a rich soil of social analysis and moral judgment that has begun to bear fruit--in the relatively bloodless revolutions of the Philippines and South Korea, in the halting but perceptible democratization of the Soviet bloc, perhaps even in the arduously slow land reforms of intractable Latin America.

The Pope has what the students of 1968 did not have, for he directs the Catholic Church, a dusty edifice but just as surely--in the right hands--a potent instrument for change. One could look on him as the Last Hippie, a Don Quixote who still believes absurdly in the possibility of a better world. But John Paul is not about to graduate and join a brokerage. Because he is there for the long haul, a reliable constant willing to put his soul and body on the line, he could--just possibly--succeed in internationalizing the moral crusade of men like Gandhi and Martin Luther King and making "peaceful revolution" and "option for the poor" and "civilization of love" permanent terms in the world's vocabulary.


A Student Generation in Revolt by Ronald Fraser et al (Pantheon: $24.95, cloth;$14.95, paper; 408 pp.) SOLLICITUDO REI SOCIALIS Social Concern by Pope John Paul II (United States Catholic (Conference; (800) 235-USCC; $5.45, paper; 102 pp.)

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