John XXIII: A Saint for Social Justice

John's commitment to social justice might become a main interpretive key for understanding Pope Francis' pontificate. With the selection of Francis as his papal name, this Pope has dedicated himself in a special way to the cause of social justice.
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Annunciation basilica sculpture depicting Pope John XXIII (Photo by: Godong/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
Annunciation basilica sculpture depicting Pope John XXIII (Photo by: Godong/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

So good Pope John is being declared a saint. He is the first Pope that I remember. I was nine years old when he did and I still recall the day. It was a warm June afternoon on Milwaukee's South Side. I had gone with a neighbor kid to the large church parking lot that doubled as our playground. Carrying our bats and gloves and a ratty excuse of a baseball, we were deep into shagging flies and playing catch when a nun interrupted us. (The nuns at our Catholic parish were devoted and kindly women, not the stuff of urban legend at all). Maybe we'd like to say a prayer for the Holy Father who had just passed away. We did so, as reverently as possible for two nine-year-old boys, and went back to our ballgame.

John XXIII meant many things to me over the years. In my boyhood, he was the joyous public face of Catholicism, a rotund holy man, optimistic and welcoming. In my adolescence and young adulthood, as I first immersed myself in the study of the Catholic Church, he became the sturdy voice of reform, wisely shepherding the Church into the modern world through his convocation of the Second Vatican Council. As I trained later as a canon lawyer, I appreciated the impact the ideas and principles associated with the Council had on the reform of Church law.

John XXIII was a much more complicated man than he is commonly portrayed. He was one of fourteen children, born to peasant farmers in Lombardy in 1881. Their home, the "Palazzo," was spacious by village standards, but its ground floor served as a barn for the family's six cows. (Peter Hebblethwaite, John XXIII: Pope of the Century, p. 1). By the time he was a teenager, young Angelo Roncalli -- his given name -- realized he had a calling to the priesthood and pursued his vocation seriously, being ordained at the age of twenty-three.

The young Roncalli, however, did not live isolated from the world. He did two tours of duty in the Italian Army. Drafted at the age of nineteen, Roncalli performed well enough to reach the rank of sergeant. In 1915, in his middle thirties, he was drafted again, this time as a chaplain and a stretcher-bearer in World War I.

His gifts and talents must have been immediately obvious to his religious superiors. He leapfrogged over men of more distinguished birth to become the secretary to his bishop a year after ordination. At the close of World War I, he moved first into the Vatican's bureaucracy and then into the diplomatic corps, serving in what seemed like backwater assignments -- Bulgaria, Greece, and Turkey. But when World War II broke out, he was positioned to do real humanitarian service, saving thousands of Jews from the Nazis. These efforts were rewarded with another difficult assignment -- nuncio to France in 1944, as Eisenhower's armies rolled East from their Normandy beachhead.

Despite his gentle, genial demeanor, this was a man who knew the world, had seen the carnage of war, and appreciated the grand stakes of international politics. When he spoke, when he wrote, he did so with the authenticity of one who had experienced the extremes of evil but still harbored hope for the world.

His hope shone through in all he did. He showed respect to believers and non-believers alike. He thought the Church might make peace with modernity. All of this has been much commented on. I'd like, however, to focus on his unwavering commitment to social justice.

His 1961 encyclical Mater et Magistra ("the Church as Mother and Teacher") was issued to commemorate the seventieth anniversary of Pope Leo XIII's famous encyclical Rerum Novarum ("On Revolution"). Leo had recognized the tinderbox character of the 1890s. He knew well that the market had failed, that workers were being oppressed and were turning to revolutionary ideologies like Marxism. And Leo meant to forestall class revolt by giving voice to transcendent principles of social justice.

John XXIII wanted to reflect on the lessons the Church and the world had learned in the seventy years between 1891 and 1961. Laissez-faire economics had been proven a failure. In Leo's time, "the main operative principle was that of free and unrestricted competition" (para. 11). Leo's world was one in which "the might of the strongest" enjoyed "the force of law" (para. 12). Child labor, starvation wages, the economic crushing of the family unit, the reduction of human beings to the single commodity of their labor, the yawning disparities of wealth and poverty -- these were the great evils Leo meant to address (para. 13).

John endorsed Leo's condemnation of this social darwinist world as intolerably wrong. And John intended to build on Leo's foundation. Given that "unrestricted competition in the [laissez-faire] sense, and the Marxist creed of class warfare," were both proven defective, John proposed that the principles of solidarity and brotherhood should take their place (para. 23).

John was a believer in subsidiarity (para. 53), but he also appreciated that there was a necessary and affirmative role for the State to play in "promoting the common good" (para. 37). This was especially true where workers were concerned: The State, John insisted, has an "obligation" to "work actively for the betterment of the condition of the workingman" (para. 20). Workers had a right to organize and the State must foster and develop "that new branch of jurisprudence called labor law" (para. 21). The State must never "becom[e] the tool of plutocracy" (para. 36).

The lesson to be learnt from the Great Depression, John taught, was "that unregulated competition had succumbed to its own inherent tendencies to the point of practically destroying itself" (para. 35). But he was pleased with the ways in which Western governments had met these challenges in the years after World War II. States had built systems of "social security" for the vulnerable, and now offered greater opportunities for education and economic advancement to the poor (para. 48). Much, however, remained to be done, especially in the many nations emerging from the grip of the western colonial powers (paras. 157, 161-162).

It would be easy, far too easy, to hold these solemn teachings up as a corrective to contemporary right-wing Catholic economic thought. Suffice it to say, Ayn Rand Catholics should examine their consciences. (Charles J. Reid, Jr., "Paul Ryan's Libertarianism and Catholic Social Thought," Huffington Post, August 15, 2012).

I'd like to suggest, however, in closing, that John's commitment to social justice might become a main interpretive key for understanding Pope Francis' pontificate. With the selection of Francis as his papal name, this Pope has dedicated himself in a special way to the cause of social justice.

And the world is certainly in need of prophetic witness. There is a simmering unrest circling the globe this summer, as protesters demand economic fairness and honesty in government. From Brazil, the Egypt, and -- mirabile dictu -- Sweden! -- demonstrators have taken to the streets to demand a better life. Economic refugees cross oceans and deserts in search of something more than subsistence. And the rich lead their lives in splendid isolation. Perhaps this is the reason Pope Francis fast-tracked John XXIII's canonization.

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