A meaningful message

October 08, 1995|By Sara Engram

A PAPAL visit is a curious phenomenon. The anticipation preceding the visit is as electric as the excitement before a World Series or a Final Four, yet the Mass at Camden Yards will follow a script that is centuries old.

The schedule is rigid, the public appearances are limited and tickets are rationed, yet public officials are expecting a handsome economic impact from the pope's 10-hour stay in Baltimore.

If those things seem contradictory, consider the message Pope John Paul II has consistently espoused since taking office 17 years ago this month. Or, rather, consider how his message is heard -- which is, quite often, selectively.

Upon assuming the papacy, Pope John Paul lost no time criticizing the communist system that had smothered freedom in his own homeland and other parts of the world. That brought smiles to the faces of many people in the West, who saw communism as the great enemy of humankind.

But that wasn't the end of his sermon on economic systems. Having demolished communism philosophically and, many historians say, contributing heavily to its literal demise, the pope did not praise capitalism. Far from it. Instead, he turned his withering gaze on the West, reminding the world that, like communism, capitalism is an economic system based on principles that place material things at the center of life.

The pope's preachings on social justice are far more challenging than the controversial and more widely publicized pronouncements on contraception or priestly celibacy or the ordination of women. They profoundly challenge societies around the world, saying to them that economic concerns should never take precedence over the dignity of individual people.

Pope John Paul II calls on Catholics, and on the world, to look beyond economic theories to a way of life that grants dignity and value to each human being apart from their material role in society. That's a radically different way of looking at the world than Americans are accustomed to hearing.

Real issues

Observers within the church note the irony that, a century from now, the sex-related issues that get so much of the attention in this country will probably have solved themselves. Meanwhile, Pope John Paul II's consistent emphasis on the dignity of the poor and powerless and on the obligation of Catholics to value people more than economic concerns will still be reverberating within the church and in the culture.

It is a point of view that has much to offer in current debates in this country.

Social justice assumes that each person has a right to a fair (not necessarily equal) share of material comforts. But this pope goes further, stressing that individual dignity demands that each person also have an opportunity to contribute to society. In that view, welfare that requires no effort in return is as corrosive of individual dignity as is a miserly welfare system that allows people to be hungry and homeless.

Allowing people to contribute to society can mean a range of things: providing job training and opportunities for work, even if government has to sponsor them. It can mean providing ramps for wheelchairs or making other adjustments that allow disabled people to participate in society. And it can mean reforming schools, so that children get the kind of education that will allow them to hold jobs and become productive citizens -- people who can give something back to society.

Ouch. That's getting close to home -- just what this pope's social message is bound to do, once people hear what he is saying.

I= Sara Engram is a deputy editorial-page editor of The Sun.

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