Pope John XXIII

Gerald Darring

Pope John XXIII was Bishop of Rome from 1958 to 1963. He convened the Second Vatican Council and shepherded it through its first session in the Fall of 1962. One of his great accomplishments was the full entry of the Catholic Church in the ecumenical movement for the unity of Christendom. He will also be remembered for his two major contributions to Catholic social teaching, his 1961 encyclical Mater et Magistra, and his 1963 encyclical Pacem in Terris. All the popes of the twentieth century have been loved by Catholics; Pope John was perhaps the pope most loved and respected by non-Catholics, and this universal appeal contributed to the positive reception of his social teachings.


Life (26 April 1963) 4. "The most amazing new force in world affairs is that simple, friendly, unpretentious man, the Pope of Rome, age 81. In 1958 John XXIII set in train a series of events which have since moved that huge old galleon, the Roman Catholic Church, back into the mainstream of world history and have profoundly altered the silhouette it presents to mankind."

Michael Novak. "Break with the Past." Commonweal 78 (28 June 1963) 375. "Pope John has introduced the victories won by Emmanuel Mounier, Maritain, Gabriel Marcel, Teilhard de Chardin, Lonergan and others, into the most authoritative ordinary teaching of the Church. But these victories were won while many in high posts and low remained in the eternal, absolute, unchanging fortresses of Latin Scholasticism. To make himself understood, Pope John seemed to use the familiar forms, the familiar works, though his vision was not Scholastic."

Peter Riga. "The Basis of Pacem in Terris." Continuum 1 (1963) 191-97; at 194. "John XXIII has put an end, at least in theory, to the Catholic ghetto mentality which has been prevalent since the Reformation. The concept of the Church as an armed fortress fighting off the onslaughts of the enemy is a thing of the past. The Pope tells Catholics that they must become involved in the modern world, with all of its particular problems."

E.E.Y. Hales. Pope John and His Revolution (1965) 28. "John was as anxious as any previous pope to reaffirm some continuity in papal teaching; but in fact, in his brief reign, he changed both its spirit and its content. Still more surprising, he introduced a quite new note of hesitancy. He even hinted that he could be wrong, that he was only expressing his own view. Though he speaks as Supreme Pontiff he does not always pontificate, and the dew of doubt, refreshing readers grown accustomed to expect from popes only uncompromising certainty--even on political matters--makes their minds receptive and the readier to respond to what the Holy Father wants to suggest to them. It was something new, indeed, when a pope, in an encyclical letter, was prepared to say that this or that was only his personal opinion."

Tissa Belasuriya. "World Apartheid." Commonweal 83 (24 December 1965) 365. "It is showing no disrespect for the late Pope John XXIII to suggest that certain aspects of Mater et Magistra and Pacem in Terris require further development. For example, though a good deal is made of the need for greater powers for the U.N., there does not seem to be a clear recognition that solutions to the problems of poverty in the midst of plenty should be based on social justice, rather than a mere extension of charity or voluntary international cooperation.... Nor does Catholic reaction to the documents give the impression that they have been understood as appeals on the basis of social justice rather than that of benevolent paternalism. Though wonderful in other respects, in this sense they fail to measure up to the extent and urgency of the problems of world social justice."

Richard L. Camp. The Papal Ideology of Social Reform (1969) 109. "He seemed to understand, as no other pope did, that part of the solution to the agricultural problem was to rid the rural areas of their excess population, just as he comprehended better than his predecessors did that the problem of worker insecurity could be solved by ways other than the acquisition of property. His thinking in all of these areas was even more the result of thoughtful consideration of economic realities than was that of Pius XII, and his views even less influenced by irrelevant corporatist dogmas. He was the culmination of an evolution by the papacy towards a truly workable solution to the problems of worker and employer in modern society."

Christine E. Gudorf. Catholic Social Teaching on Liberation Themes (1981) 16. "John was conservative; historians and biographers agree that his position on the worker-priests, on the use of Latin in liturgy, on the preparations for the Council, and his theological understanding in general, all proclaimed him a conservative, if not a reactionary. But John embraced the modern world in some ways, viewing it optimistically. He saw a world becoming more and more just, and thus more receptive to the message of the Church."

Donal Dorr. Option for the Poor (1983) 92. "There are indications that Pope John took a rather optimistic view of what might be expected from capitalist society in the future. Not that he ignored its deficiencies and abuses, or repudiated the condemnations of capitalism by Leo XIII and Pius XI. But he seemed to believe that before too long and without too much trouble the system could be effectively humanized."

Oliver Maloney. Studies (Autumn 1987) 287. "A watershed in the Church's social teaching is to be found in the pontificate of Pope John XXIII. It was not so much that he brought about substantial changes in teaching but that he altered the whole approach of the Church in this area. Pope John appreciated that the faithful need more than philosophical nuance to guide them, and that the historical moment in which each of us lives must be lived in the light of the Gospels. He did not argue, as did his predecessors, from a set of philosophical principles but acknowledged and took account of the influence and relevance of the sciences (sociology, economics, etc.), in shaping the Church's view. In theological language, John XXIII moved from the deductive to the inductive method, an approach which has been retained by all of his successors."

Ernest Bartell, C.S.C. "Private Goods, Public Goods and the Common Good." Williams and Houck, eds. The Common Good and U.S. Capitalism (1987) 187. "Despite the use by John XXIII of natural law to ground his teaching on economic rights and private property, there is in his writings greater emphasis on diversity and pluralism and less emphasis on the notion of a rigid and self-contained body of social doctrine deduced from natural law reasoning than in the writings of his predecessors."

John Pawlikowski, OSM, and Donald Senior, CP. Economic Justice (1988) 51. "Pope John provided new tools to help the church in its social task. Chief among these was his analysis of the 'signs of the times' as testimonies of God's activity in the world: advances of the working class, women in public life, greater consciousness of human dignity, developing countries achieving independence, arms negotiations. Pope John saw these events in the world as witnesses of God's providential care."

Gregory Baum. "Theological Methodology: The Magisterium." Ecumenist 27 (July-August 1989) 71-74; at p. 71. "Traditional Catholic social teaching made use of rational arguments drawn from the natural law tradition in the hope of developing a public discourse of universal validity. In the older papal social teaching the name of Jesus was not mentioned. It was John XXIII who broke with this tradition. He proposed and defended his social teaching with arguments drawn from the scriptures. Because of Jesus Christ and his gospel, the pope insisted, Christians were to be committed to justice and freedom in society. It was thus impossible for Christians to speak of social justice without reference to divine revelation contained in scripture."

Liam Ryan. Furrow (1991) 96. "Part of his charm was his refusal to pontificate; he seems to be merely giving advice, and he was ready to give advice on so many things, from furnishings appropriate for a farm residence to political harmony in the world. He is never doctrinaire, not even about communism. With Pope John, the Church is accepting, welcoming and confidently sharing in the social, political and economic advances of the age. As a result, he was the first modern Pope whose social teaching attracted an audience well beyond the boundaries of the Church. His predecessors, for all their lofty wisdom and measured eloquence, spoke only to Catholics."

Mary E. Hobgood. Catholic Social Teaching and Economic Theory (1991) 140-41. John XXIII contributed to a movement away from mainstream economic analysis in four ways: 1) "he shifted (Catholic social) teaching's emphasis away from concern about private property to concern about poverty;" 2) he assumed that "labor had a right to participate in the ownership, management, and control of enterprise;" 3) he said that "the Marxist agenda might have some worth for Christians seeking social justice;" 4) he said that "violence was present within the socioeconomic structures of any state that did not acknowledge or that violated a holistic sense of basic human rights, including economic rights."

David J. O'Brien. John Coleman,, ed., One Hundred Years of Catholic Social Thought (1991) 23. "In contrast to earlier (and some later) social teaching, John s was a message of hope and confidence. Leo and Pius, like the social movements which gave rise to their writings, played a critical, but not a constructive role; they could name with great force the evils of the day, but they stumbled when trying to present a credible alternative. John XXIII abandoned the very idea of a Christian social order as a specifically Catholic prescription for societal ills; the alternative was one which the human community would have to construct for itself in truth, justice, charity, and freedom. The church wished to be a companion in that project.


Coleman, John A., S.J. One Hundred Years of Catholic Social Thought: Celebration and Challenge. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1991, pp. 21-23.

Dorr, Donal. Option for the Poor: A Hundred Years of Vatican Social Teaching. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1983, pp. 87-116.

Haipt, Mother Maria Carl, O.S.U. Social Aspects of the Christian Faith Contained in Mater et Magistra and Pacem in Terris. New York: Paulist Press, 1965.

Hales, E.E.Y. Pope John and His Revolution. London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1965, and Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1965.

Hobgood, Mary E. Catholic Social Teaching and Economic Theory: Paradigms in Conflict. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991, pp. 131-42.

Kirwin, J.R. The Social Thought of John XXIII. Oxford: Catholic Social Guild, 1964.

LangendÜrfer, Hans, S.J. "John XXIII." Judith A. Dwyer, ed., The New Dictionary of Catholic Social Thought, Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1994, pp. 490-91.

The Encyclicals and Other Messages of John XXIII. With commentaries by John F. Cronin, Francis X. Murphy, and Ferrer Smith. Arranged and edited by the staff of The Pope Speaks magazine. Washington: TPS Press, 1964.