Pope John Paul II, an intellectual priest who titled his personal book of meditations "Sign of Contradiction," has devoted much of his worldwide ministry to discussing what he sees as a basic contradiction of the modern world: as mankind has grown materially rich, it has become poorer in spirit.
"The course of history," the pope said in his book, "in our own day especially, perhaps, shows an ever-greater contrast between man's enormous material gains and his moral shortcomings, his falling-short in the sphere of what he is. One can quite safely say that in the sphere of what he is, man fails to match what he possesses."
One sign of that failure, the pope has said, is the sharp distinction between the rich and the poor in the modern world -- "the growing wealth of the few running parallel to the growing poverty of the masses," as he put it during his visit to Mexico in 1979.
For John Paul II, there has never been any question that the Roman Catholic Church must side with the poor and strike to improve their lot.
Jesus Christ identified himself with "the disinherited, the sick, the imprisoned, the hungry, and the lonely," the pope said in Mexico, and so must the church. "The worker, who by the sweat of his brow waters his affliction, must hope that his dignity . . . be recognized fully," he told assembled workers in Oaxaca.
The worker "has the right not to be deprived, through manipulations that at times amount to real thefts, of the little that he has; he has the right for his hopes to govern his growth and not be thwarted; the right to that fulfillment which is human dignity and his sonship of God claim."
Accordingly, John Paul II has repeatedly had stern words for wealthy people and nations who fail to concern themselves with the plight of the poor.
"For those of you who are responsible for the welfare of nations, powerful classes which at times keep the land unproductive and hide the bread which so many families lack, human conscience, the conscience of nations, the cry of the deprived and above all the voice of God, the voice of the church repeats with me, 'It is not just, it is not human, it is not Christian.'"
During his visit to the United States in the fall of 1979, the pope reiterated those thoughts in a forceful denunciation of materialism during his address at the United Nations.
"Since . . . material goods by their very nature provoke conditionings and divisions, the struggle to obtain these goods becomes inevitable in the history of humanity. If we cultivate this one-sided subordination of man to material goods alone, we shall be incapable of overcoming this state of need. . . . People must become aware the economic tensions . . . in the relationships between states and even between entire continents contain within themselves substantial elements that restrict or violate human rights."
On the same day he addressed the United Nations, John Paul made a similar plea to a huge gathering of New Yorkers at Manhattan's Battery Park. "I appeal to all who love freedom and justice to give a chance to all in need, to the poor and the powerless," he said.
Another recurrent theme of his papacy has revolved around another apparent contradiction: the pope's strong belief that discipline is the key to freedom.
The pope made that point in his 1979 U.S. tour in an appeal to American priests to hold firmly to the rigors of their clerical vows. Invoking the memory of Thomas Merton, the New York poet who cast aside a bohemian way of life to find "ultimate freedom" in a Cistercian monastery, John Paul told the priests that "our surrender to God's will must be total. . . . God's call has indeed stirred us to the depths of our being. And after centuries of experience, the church knows how deeply fitting it is that priests should give this concrete response in their lives to express the totality of the 'yes' they have spoken to the Lord who calls them by name to his service."
But the pope also said on his American tour that the discipline of freedom applies to everyone, priest or not.
"Values are strengthened," he said, "when freedom is accepted not as an absolute end in itself, but as a gift that enables self-giving and service.
"Every human person" he went on, "endowed with reason, is free when he is the master of his own action, when he is capable of choosing that good which is in conformity with reason, and therefore with his own human dignity. Freedom can never tolerate an offense against the rights of others." d
A human being who exercises his personal freedom in a disciplined way, the pope says, will have the priceless reward of knowing that he has lived a life that respects the dignity of mankind.
"In man's estimation, the silent but positive approval given him by his own quiet conscience far outweighs the most appalling suffering," the pontiff wrote in "Sign of Contradiction." "Even in human society at large there is a tendency to applaud any noble and worthy act; although the tendency here is less than steady . . . even history rejoices when it can manifest the true glory of man."