Sollicitudo Rei Socialis – On Social Concerns

Context

Pope John Paul II’s 1987 social encyclical Sollicitudo rei Socialis marks the twentieth anniversary of Populorum Progressio. Sollicitudo rei Socialis is also known by the English title On Social Concerns. It was the first major Catholic Social Teaching document to mark the anniversary of a social encyclical other than Rerum Novarum.

Major Issues

John Paul II analyses the current state of development in terms of conflict between Eastern and Western blocs. He says this conflict is often played out by proxy wars in the global south, and contributes to underdevelopment there. John Paul II critiques both the liberal capitalist ideology of the West and the Marxist collectivist ideology of the East. He proposes instead freedom and solidarity based on respect for the human person and a vision of authentic human development. He identifies sin and structures of sin as barriers to development. John Paul II emphasizes the virtue of solidarity as a moral response to interdependence.

Methodology

In Sollicitudo Rei Socialis John Paul II follows a pattern similar to that of the pre Vatican II encyclicals. He begins by recalling the teachings of Populorum Progressio, then he notes changes in the situation since Populorum Progressio. Next he develops its teaching in relation to the contemporary situation, and then he concludes with guidelines for action.

John Paul II makes a strong claim for the teaching role of the Papacy. He declares that “the Church has something to say today, just as twenty years ago, and also in the future”. By using the term “social doctrine” rather than social teaching, and insisting on the need for “an international outlook” in the teachings, he stresses the importance of the unchanging and global over the local and contingent. By modifying the term ‘option for the poor’ to ‘love of preference for the poor’ he also signaled a more critical stance towards liberation theology.

Contribution to Catholic Social Teaching

Sollicitudo rei Socialis gives more emphasis than previous teachings to the experience of the global South. Although his stance towards liberation theology is somewhat critical, John Paul II incorporates and affirms the concepts of structural sin and an option for the poor. Solicitude res Socialis signalled a movement away from an approach that hesitated to issue a unified message with universal validity for the whole world.

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