Professor Gregory Baum, who teaches theology and religion at St. Michael’s College in Toronto, has written about Pope John Paul II’s 1981 encyclical on human work: “… Catholics who have followed the recent shift to the left in Church teaching and have therefore acguired socialist sympathies are delighted with the encyclical and understand it as a confirmation of the direction in which they have moved” (The Ecumenist, Vol. 20, No. 1, 1981).
In his book, The Priority of Labor: A Commentary on LABOREM EXERCENS, the Encyclical Letter of Pope John Paul II (New York: Paulist Press, 1982), Baum provides an astonishing exegesis of the Pope’s encyclical. He believes that the Pope has adopted and expanded certain Marxist “paradigms,” including the concept of man as labourer. He believes that the intellectual tradition of the encyclical is closer to Hegel and Marx than to Aristotle and St. Thomas. In addition, Baum claims that the Pope regards truth as “operational.” This means that truth does not confirm the existing order as object, but that “… truth is the manner in which the mind lays hold of the existing order and initiates its transformation” (p. 4-1). Thus armed with the notion of work as human self-creation and truth as rational man-in-action, Baum proceeds to completely misinterpret the real meaning of the encyclical. Its true intent cannot be understood without a profound respect for the long tradition of Catholic social thought. It is also an error to read the Pope’s plea for social justice and his criticism of capitalism through Marxist glasses.
As Philip L. Lawler, Executive Director of the American Catholic Conference in Washington, D.C., has observed, it is wrong to assume that anyone who decries poverty and inequality and calls for peace and social justice is necessarily motivated by socialist ideology. “Christians have been enjoined to serve the poor since (at least) the Sermon on the Mount. But the mass media, trained only to see the struggles of political partisans, hear the Pope using the same words employed by the political Left, and assume that he is following their lead. Actually, the situation is precisely the reverse. One of the greatest triumphs of socialist rhetoric has been the expropriation of Christian language. If the Pope sometimes sounds like a socialist, it is not because he is using their language, but because they are using his” (Catholicism in Crisis, August 1983).
A similar note is sounded by Professor Thomas Langan, a colleague of Professor Baum at St. Michael’s College, who argues that it is a waste of time to try to force the present Pope into a neat category. Langan argues that the Pope’s concerns are social and that they are shared by any Christian worthy of the name. He concludes: “No, the Pope is not a ‘socialist,’ he is not a ‘capitalist,’ he is a pastor recalling all of us to a confrontation with the great problems of our time” (Catholicism in Crisis, August 1983).
As these brief quotations indicate, Catholicism in Crisis: A Journal of Lay Catholic Opinion (published monthly by the Jacques Maritain Center, University of Notre Dame, P.O. Box 4-95, Notre Dame, IN 46556; subscription price – U.S. $20.00, Canada $25.00) is an excellent source of information and reflection that will challenge both Catholics and Protestants and help them to distinguish between trendy opinions and careful Christian analysis.