How Pope Francis transformed Catholic Social Teaching and brought it out into the light
No Pope has paid so much attention to happiness before Francis. After all, the recent pandemic years have caused many people to forget what it means to be happy. Confined to their homes, some decided that satisfying only the most basic needs is more important.
Yet, Catholic social teaching is not just a way to „be happy”. It is first and foremost a signpost of the way to salvation and a crucial resource for Europe, and the world. John Paul II realized this, producing some of the most powerful social teaching of the 20th century and raising it to the level of moral theology, making it an integral part of the proclamation of the Christian faith in the world. Francis has carried forward his predecessor’s vision, taking us to the social and environmental peripheries of our world and showing, that Christ will meet us anew there.
This new dynamic is possibly the first, though probably not the most important, evolution of the CST in the Francis papacy: the Church’s social teaching has gone beyond the library bookshelves and started circulating among people. The proposal that the Church brings to the world in its social teaching has entered into dialogue with the world, tying the debate between different, often distant, places and points of view.
The concept of solidarity stands in the center of the social teaching of the last three popes. It could hardly be otherwise, since one of the most important moments in the forging of Catholic social teaching in the previous century was captured with the changes of 1981-1991 and the Polish „Solidarity” movement. Under the Francis papacy, however, the evangelical notion of solidarity is being extended to more areas than just the economy or work.
This stretching of the concept of solidarity can be traced back to John Paul II’s message on World Peace Day in 1990. Peace with God the Creator, peace with all creation. Nevertheless, it must be acknowledged that the current Pope has made a major evolution in CST on this point. Although the 1990 document already emphasized that the environment is of increasing concern to various, often grassroots and spontaneously organized Catholic groups and leaders of the Church at all levels, Francis has devoted the greatest space in his social teaching to covering environmental issues. This change can be summed up by recalling the papal words of March 2021, when the Pope spoke in an empty St Peter’s Square, saying that „we cannot be healthy in a sick world”.
Even if it was Benedict XVI, in his message for the 2008 World Day of Peace, who introduced the concept of the ‘covenant between human beings and the environment’ into the discussion, Francis has made it one of the highlights of his teaching, expressed in his first encyclical, Laudato si’. While in Benedict’s Caritas in veritate, he elaborates on this theme, describing the threefold responsibility that is part of man’s relationship with the environment and pointing to „responsibility for the poor, for future generations and for all humanity”, Francis goes further, saying that this is a part of our „vocation” as human beings, and therefore appropriate human development projects, echoing the previous pontiff, that we „cannot ignore future generations, but must be characterized by solidarity and intergenerational justice”.
The formulation of environmental issues in terms of the covenant — including between generations — has to be acknowledged as a huge step in the transition from a ‘governance model’ to a more updated approach. The new vision of „ecological solidarity”, in a world of multiple crises, when most of the Earth’s seven basic ecosystems are under threat, is one of the most important evolutions, brought about by Francis.
Globalization is yet another issue, that has come to the fore in Church discussions of social teaching in the last decades. Although, it has received some attention in John Paul II’s Centesimus annus, in regional synods of bishops, and elsewhere, and even if the far-reaching impact of this phenomenon was a major concern of Benedict’s in Caritas in Veritate Francis takes this thinking further with in-depth analysis and clear reflection in the Christus Vivit encyclical and during the Synod of Synodality — his flagship project.
The post-pandemic world raises many new questions. One of them is of the power and the abuse of such, as well as the question of the role of corporations, bigger, and more powerful than many states, and the inquiry of understanding freedom in a world of galloping technological progress. Addressing these questions the Pope turned to during his trip to Congo saying „Hands off Africa!”.
The Church has experience in all these matters. For many millennia it has been the most global structure, reaching out to the world with its experience of connection and mercy. Maybe that’s why the pope smiles so often, showing that a different approach is possible.
publicist, deputy editor-in-chief of the Polish monthly „Wszystko Co Najważniejsze”, U.S. State Department and Rome’s Pontifical University of Saint Thomas Aquinas (Angelicum) alumni, author of the book „Pope Francis decade” (2023).