Last Updated:Friday - 09/24/2010
March 2, 2009
JPII's first encyclical was a manifesto for human dignity
Thirty years ago this week, Pope John Paul II signed his first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis. The encyclical was a vigorous defence of human dignity and religious freedom.
With Redemptor Hominis (The Redeemer of Man), it became obvious that the Church had a new pope who, far from being a prisoner of the Vatican, was going to be engaged in the major issues facing humanity – economic injustice, human rights, environmental devastation and the arms race.
Pope John Paul's engagement was not the result of a personal interest in politics. Rather, it is because the human person finds the deepest source of his or her own dignity in redemption by Jesus Christ. Any assault on that dignity is also an assault on Jesus.
A person who wants to know himself thoroughly "must with his unrest, uncertainty and even his weakness and sinfulness, with his life and death, draw near to Christ," the pope wrote in Redemptor Hominis.
The Church strives to direct the gaze of humanity toward the mystery of God. But from its beginning, the Church has had "a deep esteem for man, for his intellect, his will, his conscience and his freedom." Thus, defending human dignity is integral to proclaiming the Gospel.
God gave humanity dominion over the created world. This dominion is not domination. It "consists in the priority of ethics over technology, in the primacy of the person over things and in the superiority of spirit over matter."
Man is abused by consumerism – "a consumer attitude uncontrolled by ethics." He is enriched by solidarity.
Pope John Paul saw clearly that because human dignity is rooted in redemption by Christ, religious liberty is essential to protecting that dignity. Religious liberty is not limited to Christians, but is "independent of the religion professed or the concept of the world which these individuals and communities have."
A violation of religious freedom is "a radical injustice with regard to what is particularly deep within man, what is authentically human."
The pope noted that atheism would not exist unless there were first people who believed in God. "It is therefore difficult, even from a ‘purely human' point of view, to accept a position that gives only atheism the right of citizenship in public and social life, while believers are, as though by principle, barely tolerated or are treated as second-class citizens or are even – and this has already happened – entirely deprived of the rights of citizenship."
Of course, Pope John Paul knew what happens when believers are deprived of their rights. He had lived through that himself.
The words of Redemptor Hominis are not a relic from the past. They speak to us today in the Western world even more clearly than when the pope wrote them in 1979.
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