My main impression of the late Pope John Paul II comes from reading his encyclicals. These documents are among his most important contributions, yet for all the discussion of John Paul's "legacy" in recent days, these pillars of that legacy barely register.
In his encyclicals, John Paul rarely seems content merely to proclaim — he wants to argue, to persuade, which makes these documents much more engaging and interesting than you might expect. He seems always to bear in mind that these documents are addressed not only to the members of his church, over whom he bears authority, but also to "all People of Good Will."
His 1995 encyclical, Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life) has achieved a recent notoriety thanks to President Bush, who has selectively co-opted its motif of a "culture of life."
Evangelium Vitae is subtitled, "on the Value and Inviolability of Human Life." It is, explicitly, a reassertion and reaffirmation of Catholic teaching on a range of "life" issues. This included a clarification and refocusing of Catholic teaching on the death penalty to such an extent that the Catechism had to be revised. John Paul arrives at his conclusions in EV by way of an extended discussion of the principle of solidarity and the story of Cain and Abel.
Such a discussion invites the reader to consider its argument. A simple proclamation extends no such invitation — you can't engage a proclamation, you can only accept or reject it. I would love to have had the chance to talk to the late pope about the implications of solidarity he discusses in EV and how they lead me to very different conclusions from those he reaches about, for instance, stem-cell research. You wouldn't know it from the people who have usurped his phrase "culture of life," but the man who wrote this encyclical seems like he would have welcomed such a conversation.
My favorite of John Paul's encyclicals is Laborem Exercens, or "On Human Work." Here one encounters the voice not just of Pope John Paul II, but of Karol Wojtyla. Like Vaclav Havel, he presents a moral voice arising from Eastern Europe's 20th-century experience under Soviet domination. He has no illusions about the Soviet system, but neither is he willing uncritically to embrace Western-style capitalism:
The church's constant teaching on the right to private property and ownership of the means of production differs radically from the collectivism proclaimed by Marxism, but also from the capitalism practiced by liberalism and the political systems inspired by it. In the latter case the difference consists in the way the right to ownership and property is understood. Christian tradition never upheld this right as absolute and untouchable. It has always understood it as subordinated to the fact that the goods of this world are meant for all.
Laborem Exercens was written on the 90th anniversary of Rerum Novarum — one of the pillars of Catholic Social Teaching — and takes as its theme one of the ideas of that earlier encyclical: "But above all we must remember the priority of labor over capital." John Paul here is taking sides, insisting above all that the worker is a subject, not an object, and must be accorded human dignity and human rights. Throughout LE he grounds this argument in scripture and Catholic teaching and explores its implications in some interesting directions.
One particularly helpful insight he explores is the idea of "indirect employers" and their obligations and responsibilities:
… when thinking of the workers' rights, our first thoughts go out to the relationship between the workers and their employers, directly and indirectly. …
Direct employers are the persons or institutions with whom one enters directly into a working contract. Indirect employers are the many other factors that enter the work contract and that can create just or unjust relationships in the field of human labor.
Indirect employers are the persons and institutions of many kinds, as well as the collective labor contracts and the rules of conduct they lay down that shape the whole economic and social system. The indirect employer conditions the conduct of the direct employer. The concept of indirect employer can be applied to every society, and especially to every state.
John Paul is unambiguous: The state has a special obligation to "condition the conduct" of direct employers in order to ensure "just … relationships in the field of human labor." (So too do consumers, who also fall under the category of "indirect employers.") This insistence is an essential part of John Paul's papal "legacy" — yet somehow it doesn't seem to be getting a lot of attention in the current media frenzy.
One more choice passage from Laborem Exercens that the folks on CNN won't be discussing during their weeklong Popeapalooza:
The workers' rights cannot be doomed to be the mere result of economic systems aimed at maximum profits. The thing that must shape the whole economy is respect for the workers' rights within each country and all through the world's economy.
(All quotes above are from the translations in John Paul II: The Encyclicals in Everyday Language, edited by Joseph G. Donders.)