frontline: pope john paul II - the millennial pope

encyclicals, speeches and letters


Encyclicals are the most authoritative papal statements and deal with the most important teachings of the pontiff. Directed at Catholic bishops, Catholic hierarchy and Catholics worldwide, they are expected to be faithfully followed by all Roman Catholics. John Paul II has issued 13 encyclicals since 1979. Here are some of the most important:

Evangelium vitae - The Gospel of Life

The Pope issued this, his most important encyclical, in March 1995. It expresses his vision of the modern age as one in which humanity lives in a culture of death. He strongly reaffirms the Church's opposition to abortion, contraception and euthanasia--all of which he views as being connected, rampant, and embraced by "a civilization of affluence and pleasure [that] lives as though sin did not exist, and as if God did not exist." Also in this encyclical, John Paul II all but declares capital punishment to be morally unacceptable.

"Evangelium Vitae" is not only John Paul II's challenge to the modern world, it lays out for the first time an overarching moral rationale by which Catholics and "all people of goodwill" should judge a wide range of decisions involving human life. Many of these decisions involve scientific/medical breakthroughs--such as human genetics, human embryo experimentation and fertility treatments--which have opened up questions and challenges to traditional moral strictures.

Back in 1991, Roman Catholic cardinals urged the Pope to address troubling moral issues involving human life. The Pope signed this 194-page encyclical after four years of consultation with the world's Roman Catholic bishops.

Fides et ratio -  Faith and Reason

Released in October 1998 to mark John Paul's 20th anniversary as Pope, "Fides et Ratio" took 12 years to complete and is viewed by many as the culmination of his philosophical and theological thinking over a lifetime. Denouncing the "fateful separation" of reason and faith in the modern era, John Paul II argues that religion can turn into superstition if it cuts itself off from reason. He cites Aquinas's Scholastic philosophy which maintains reason and scientific inquiry help rather than hinder faith.

He also challenges modern philosophers who question mankind's ability to know anything for sure, and who say that the great questions about existence, or, good and evil, are out of bounds. John Paul II asks these philosophers to look at these questions and also to consider the possibility that theology might be an insightful part of the inquiry.

Addressing the dangers of many modern philosophies--postmodernism, historicism, Marxism, pragmatism--the Pope argues that the main threat comes from nihilism: "As a philosophy of nothingness, it has a certain attraction for people of our time...Nihilism is at the root of the widespread mentality which claims that a definitive commitment should no longer be made, because everything is fleeting and provisional."

"The temptation to despair," he says, is one of the greatest threats at the end of the 20th century and urges the Church to "lead people to discover both their capacity to know the truth and their yearning for the ultimate and definitive meaning of life."

Veritatis splendor - The Splendor of Truth

Issued in August 1993, "Veritatis Splendor" deals with morality--how it attracts us by its beauty, and what are its basic principles. John Paul II maintains there is no absolute freedom of conscience--that morality is something objective that rests ultimately on basic truths about human nature and the world rather than on individual choice or social consensus. Although the Pope states that these truths--a "natural law morality"--can be known by ordinary human reason, he argues that Scripture, Christian tradition and the Catholic Church's official teachers have a special authority and role to play in helping people reach these truths.

The encyclical, which took six years to complete, condemns moral relativism and loosened traditional moral strictures, especially on sex. It also condemns trends in Catholic moral theology that have tended to give Catholics more flexibility in resolving medical ethical problems such as aborting a fetus to save a mother's life.

Redemptor hominis - Redeemer of Man

In this, his first encyclical in March of 1979, John Paul II lays out the program for his entire pontificate. It offers a searching examination of man's capacity for good and evil and asks the question:"Where do we go now?

For the full list of John Paul II's 13 encyclicals, visit this section of the Vatican's web site on John Paul II


Salvific Doloris--On the Christian Meaning of Human Suffering

This 1984 Apostolic Letter is arguably Pope John Paul II's most personal statement about the meaning and value of human suffering.

Ordinatio Sacerdotalis--On Reserving Priestly Ordination to Men Alone

In this May 1994 Apostolic Letter, John Paul II declares the Church has no authority to ordain women.

His Letter to the Jews (1998)

Years in the making, this is one of the most dramatic documents of John Paul II's papacy. It declares emphatically that the 2000-year relation between Christians and Jews was a tormented one. It frankly acknowledges the failure of individual Christians to stand against the slaughter of Jews during World War II and raises the question of whether anti-Judaic Christian teachings contributed to the Holocaust. Although welcomed by Jews and Christians alike, it was also criticized for not directly condemning the Catholic Church itself and the history of its relationship and attitudes to Jews.

Homilies and Speeches (A Selection)

Combating Abortion and Euthanasia

A Letter to all the World's Bishops, May 1991. Excerpt: "However serious and disturbing the phenomenon of the widespread destruction of so many human lives, either in the womb or in old age, no less serious and disturbing is the blunting of the moral sensitivity of people's consciences."

To Teachers of Natural Family Planning

A December 1996 speech. Excerpt: "[Natural family planning] supports the process of freedom and emancipation of women and peoples from unjust family planning programmes, which bring in their sad wake the various forms of contraception, abortion and sterilization."

Speech to Italy's Central Institute of Cooperative Credit Banks

Excerpt: "While respecting entrepreneurial demands, your activity seeks to promote a real economic democracy with credit offered on a human scale...The very structure of the Cooperative Credit Banks, which is based on a society of persons and not on capital, suggests that the main objective is not profit, but the satisfaction of social needs."

Communication Technologies

Excerpt: "In some parts of the world voices are being raised against what is seen as domination of the media by so-called Western culture. Media products are seen as in some way representing values that the West holds dear and, by implication, they supposedly present Christian values. The truth of the matter may well be that the foremost value they genuinely represent is commercial profit."

The United States

An address given in Columbia, S.C., September 1987, which dealt in part with divorce and abortion. Excerpt: "It would be a great tragedy for the entire human family if the United States, which prides itself on its consecration to freedom, were to lose sight of the true meaning of that noble word. America: You cannot insist on the right to choose, without also insisting on the duty to choose well, the duty to choose the truth. Already there is much breakdown and pain in your own society because fundamental values essential to the well-being of individuals, families and the entire nation are being emptied of their real content."

America and the Culture of Death

From a January 26, 1999 speech in St. Louis. Excerpt: "There are times of trial, tests of national character, in the history of every country...Today, the conflict is between a culture that affirms, cherishes, and celebrates the gift of life, and a culture that seeks to declare entire groups of human beings - the unborn, the terminally ill, the handicapped, and others considered "unuseful" - to be outside the boundaries of legal protection...My fervent prayer is that through the grace of God at work in the lives of Americans of every race, ethnic group, economic condition and creed, America will resist the culture of death and choose to stand steadfastly on the side of life.

Papal Message on Women's Conference

In a May 1995 message to the head of the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women, the Pope addressed the "unique role" which women have in humanizing society. Excerpt: "It is far from the Holy See's intentions to try to limit the influence and activity of women in society. On the contrary, without detracting from their role in relation to the family, the Church recognizes that women's contribution to the welfare and progress of society is incalculable, and the Church looks to women to do even more to save society from the deadly virus of degradation and violence which is today witnessing a dramatic increase."

Science Serves Humanity Only When It Is Joined to Conscience

Speech to the International Conference on Space Research, University of Padua, Italy (January 1997)

A Statement Regarding Evolution

Delivered to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, October 1996

On Justice and the Global Economy

A message by John Paul II in 1998 on the themes of justice and human rights in a world being transformed by globalization. Excerpt: "The challenge, in short, is to ensure a globalization in solidarity, a globalization without marginalization. This is a clear duty in justice, with serious moral implications in the organization of the economic, social, cultural and political life of nations...My thoughts go here to one of the greatest difficulties which the poorer nations have to face today. I refer to the heavy burden of external debt, which compromises the economies of whole peoples and hinders their social and political progress. In this regard, the international financial institutions have recently initiated significant attempts to secure a coordinated reduction of this debt. I earnestly hope that progress will continue to be made in this direction by applying conditions in a flexible way, so that all eligible nations can benefit before the year 2000. The wealthier nations can do much in this respect, by supporting the implementation of such measures."

For More: The Vatican's web site on John Paul II offers a collection of homilies and letters. Also explore the Catholic Information Network site for additional writings and speeches.

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