In the first encyclical of his pontificate, Pope John Paul II has called for a global redistribution of economic resources to alleviate the poverty and starvation evident in the developing world at a time when other societies enjoy great wealth.
He cited the contrast between surpluses in some countries and the "starvation and malnutrition" in others as one of the "symptomas of the moral disorder that is being noticed" in the world today.
"So widespread is the phenomenon that it brings into question the financial, monetary, production and commercial mechanisms that, resting on various political pressures, support the world economy," the pontiff wrote.
"By submitting man to tensions created by himself dilapidating at an accelerated pace material and energy resources and compromising the geophysical environment, these structures unceasingly make the areas of misery spread, accompained by anguish, frustration and bitterness," he continued.
He acknowledged that the "indispensable transformation of the structures of economic life" will be a difficult process and made no specific suggestion as to how it is to be accomplished, other than observing that it will require "a true conversion of mind, will and heart."
The 100-page encyclical, released simultaneously yesterday in Rome and by national headquarters of the Catholic Church around the world, focuses primarily on the spiritual and theological views of the Polish-born pontiff.
Encyclicals are formal pastoral letters issued from time to time by the pope and addressed to the entire church. In more recent years, encyclicals have been drafted with the understanding that they are read by the non-Catholic world as well.
Pope John Paul's comments on worldwide economic inequities, as well as a condemnation of excessive consumption, war, and buildup of armaments, evolve from his religious concern for the sacredness of all human life.
He complained that "instead of bread and cultural aid, the new states and nations awakening to independent life are being offered, sometimes in abundance, modern weapons and means of destructin placed at the service of armed conflicts and wars that are not so much a requirement for defending their just rights and their sovereignty but rather a form of chauvinism, imperialism and neocolonialism."
He pointed out that "areas of misery and hunger on our globe could have been made fertile in a short time if the gigantic investments for armaments at the service of war and destruction had been changed into investments for food at the service of life."
The encyclical, titled "Redemptor Hominis" (The Redeemer of Man) is viewed as a policy statement as well as a basic statement of faith -- and his interpretation of that faith -- of the new pope.
In it, he repeatedly pays tribute to his predecessors, particularly Pope Paul VI, and to the actions of the Second Vatican Council which sought to adapt the church to modern life and which proved a watershed for the church in this century.
As expected, Pope John Paul II takes no radically new positions, either socially or theologically. But the emphasis he makes on some issues, such as ecumenism and the sharing of decision-making in the Roman Catholic Church, can be expected to move the church forward in these areas.
On ecumenism, for example, he asserted that "the only possibility we see of fulfilling the church's universal mission with regard to ecumenical questions is that of seeking sincerely, perseveringly humbly and also courageously the ways of drawing closer and of union."
At another point he declared: "All of us who are Christ's followers must therefore meet and unite around Him." At the same time he warned that interchurch unity "cannot be brought about without effective work aimed at getting to know each other and removing the obstacles blocking the way to perfect unity."
The encyclical also calls for "activity for coming closer together with the representatives of the non-Christian religions... through dialogue, contacts, prayer in common, investigation of the treasures of human spirituality, in which, as we know well, the members of these religions also are not lacking."
He singled out for praise the various institutions of the church, developed under Pope Paul's pontificate, designed to further shared responsibility and decision-making: from the Synod of Bishops at the international level to local councils of priests and parish councils. In more than a few areas of the church, local priests or parish councils have locked horns with more conservative bishops. This enocuragement from the highest source in the church can be expected to strengthen such grass-roots bodies.
No mention is made in this encyclical of some of the problems of personal morality, such as birth control, divorce or abortion, that have so vexed Catholics in recent years.