During his pontificate, Blessed John Paul II did much to promote and sustain the rich social tradition of the Church, which is always “directed towards an authentic development of man and society which would respect and promote all dimensions of the human person…” (Sollicitudo rei socialis, 1).
In 1987, the late Holy Father released Sollicitudo rei socialis (SRS), an encyclical reflecting on Paul VI’s Populorum Progressio. Here Blessed John Paul II contemplates the teaching of the past and renews it in light of contemporary challenges, proposing a vision of authentic human development.
One of the most important things about SRS is that it proposes a vision of development that goes beyond the material needs of those in poorer countries. According to the late Holy Father, there are cultural forms of poverty that are even more disturbing than economic forms:
These are illiteracy, the difficulty or impossibility of obtaining higher education, the inability to share in the building of one's own nation, the various forms of exploitation and of economic, social, political and even religious oppression of the individual and his or her rights, discrimination of every type, especially the exceptionally odious form based on difference of race. If some of these scourges are noted with regret in areas of the more developed North, they are undoubtedly more frequent, more lasting and more difficult to root out in the developing and less advanced countries (15).
Blessed John Paul II echoes Paul VI, noting that there is a difference between “having” and “being.” “To ‘have’ objects and goods does not in itself perfect the human subject, unless it contributes to the maturing and enrichment of that subject’s ‘being,’” or that person’s vocation (28).
Economic development is important, but development cannot be limited to a merely economic dimension. The human person is called to realize him or herself more fully, and material goods alone cannot contribute to this realization. In fact, the material can inhibit the interior growth of a person if abused, as we often see in more developed countries. This is dangerous, Blessed John Paul II warns:
…in trying to achieve true development we must never lose sight of that dimension which is in the specific nature of man, who has been created by God in his image and likeness (cf. Gen 1:26). It is a bodily and a spiritual nature, symbolized in the second creation account by the two elements: the earth, from which God forms man's body, and the breath of life which he breathes into man's nostrils (cf. Gen 2:7) (29).
In seeking true human development, then, we must recognize all humans as persons. This means that we must recognize their material and spiritual poles and embrace their being made in the image and likeness of God, their vocation to be one with Him.
The proper response to the suffering of our brothers and sisters is one of solidarity. Blessed John Paul II clarifies what solidarity is:
This then is not a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people, both near and far. On the contrary, it is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all. This determination is based on the solid conviction that what is hindering full development is that desire for profit and that thirst for power already mentioned. These attitudes and "structures of sin" are only conquered - presupposing the help of divine grace - by a diametrically opposed attitude: a commitment to the good of one's neighbor with the readiness, in the gospel sense, to "lose oneself" for the sake of the other instead of exploiting him, and to "serve him" instead of oppressing him for one's own advantage (cf. Mt 10:40-42; 20:25; Mk 10:42-45; Lk 22:25-27) (38).
In sum, integral human development must include solidarity with the “cultural, transcendent and religious dimensions of man” if it is to respect all humans as persons called to fully realize themselves (46). Even as we live out the preferential option for the poor in our own neighborhoods, let us never forget the other’s identity as a person, both material and spiritual.
Blessed John Paul II, pray for us!