A christological social vision: The uses of Christ in the social encyclicals of John Paul II

Victor Lee Austin, Fordham University


Embedded in the social encyclicals of John Paul II is a constellation of christological emphases that gives coherence to his social teaching. This dissertation shows how a theological, hermeneutical key to John Paul's social teaching can be found in his Christology. It does so, first, by locating John Paul's social teaching within the trajectories of social thought he inherited from his predecessors. Chapter One identifies the relevant tradition, tracing from Pius VI through Paul VI the papal social thought on economics, human rights, and the state. Chapter Two provides a careful reading of John Paul's social encyclicals, and shows how his teaching in some cases perpetuates, and in other cases redirects, the Catholic social tradition. In economics, John Paul has developed a personalist understanding of the priority of labor, while at the same time giving his endorsement to the “free economy.” In rights, the pope has continued the development of celebrating and enumerating subject-based human rights, while silently dropping natural-law language. John Paul's understanding of the state is, in line with a trajectory from Pius XII through Vatican II, instrumentalist; yet again, he has silently dropped more traditional understandings of the state as mediating divine rule. Four consistent christological themes are identified, in Chapter Three, as broadly characteristic of John Paul's thought. Christ reveals God; Christ has no political function; Christ is united with every person; and the Church, following Christ, has the paradoxical task of bringing Christ to people with whom he is already identified. Chapter Three shows how this Christology coheres with John Paul's social teaching. Christ's anthropological solidarity, for instance, takes the Catholic human rights tradition to a new coherence in Christology. In conclusion John Paul's advances are applauded, but two points are critiqued: his abandonment of an organic understanding of the state, and his silence concerning Christ's regal role as the ultimate judge of human political authorities.

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Recommended Citation

Austin, Victor Lee, "A christological social vision: The uses of Christ in the social encyclicals of John Paul II" (2002). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI3045119.