The Writing of “Sollicitudo Rei Socialis”: A Behind-the-Scenes Account

Pope John Paul II has long remained aloof from the Vatican bureaucracy, but when he set out to redefine the Roman Catholic view of global politics with his recent encyclical, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, he made an unusual effort to give Vatican policy makers a voice in developing the document, according to senior Church officials. “Lots of people wanted to see their particular concerns addressed in the encyclical, and the Pope tried to accommodate a good number of them even at the expense of clarity and logic,” said one official. “So many were given a chance to influence the text that it became a real institutional document, but the presence of so many hands also ensured that one hand, the Pope’s, was clearly dominant in the end.”

John Paul laid out the basic themes of the encyclical at the start of a drafting process that began last June. Lengthy consultations followed within the Vatican and with outside experts as successive drafts were prepared. But, Vatican officials said, many changes were made and a variety of specific arguments only took final shape during several weeks of hurried labor in January after the document was already overdue.

Some major questions were decided at virtually the last minute. Officials said that a debate persisted over whether to include a standard distinction in Catholic social doctrine between capitalist systems which are capable of self-correction and Marxist systems which are not. The self-correction concept was left out in an effort to be evenhanded with both sides.

The complex and sometimes clumsy process used to write the document, including its rushed finale, is blamed by some within the Vatican for a text that is not as good as it might have been and that has left the document open to criticisms that distract from its central message. Even so, the method used to write this encyclical did accomplish one of John Paul’s central goals for the document.

Most of the Pope’s recent predecessors had at one time or another been creatures of the Roman Curia, the Vatican bureaucracy of secretariats, commissions, congregations and councils that is the central administrative body of the Church. John Paul took over this institution as an outsider, and he has largely remained one, primarily defining his pontificate with initiatives that do not greatly involve the curia, especially his trips abroad.

This encyclical more than any of the six that preceded it is a product of collaboration between the Pope and the curia. Sollicitudo Rei Socialis is most definitely John Paul’s document, but when he set out to make radical propositions he made a conscious effort seriously to involve the Vatican’s top leaders and ensure the document was also theirs.

Issued to the public February 19, the encyclical defines a new “international outlook” for Catholic social doctrine that is rooted in the concerns of the Third World. Church officials said the Pope wanted to be sure that the Vatican’s top prelates shared this outlook from the start.

A pope exercises his supreme teaching authority in writing an encyclical, and these documents have always been officially described as the sole work of popes, even though inside the small, gossipy world of the Vatican the hunt for ghost writers usually starts well before an encyclical comes out.

Talking to an outsider, especially one who intends to publish his findings, Vatican officials exercise maximum reserve when the subject is the writing of an encyclical. I found that the game of cat and mouse, of hint and obfuscation, was even more intense than on subjects that might seem more sensitive. Discussing who, other than the Pope, was involved in casting the document is the sort of topic that causes senior officials to stop in mid-sentence when an assistant conies into the room.

Still, three persons who actually handled the text and helped put words on paper at different stages of the process did agree to tell me something about how this encyclical came into being. None of them was totally forthcoming and all of them insisted on remaining rigidly anonymous, as did several other Vatican officials who were more peripherally involved.

Mysteries are bound to persist in a situation like this, and even officials who took part in the drafting wonder whether the Pope had other helpers whose names remain unknown. In future years, Church historians will develop a fuller and perhaps more accurate account of these events. That has happened with other encyclicals before but sometimes not until after the papal author has died. For the moment, then, this is what we know.

The best starting point for the story of Sollicitudo Rei Socialis seems to be April 3, 1987. John Paul was in Chile. On a crisp, sunny afternoon of Southern Hemisphere autumn a solemn mass was held in a Santiago park to crown the Pope’s trip. But the event took a tragic turn even as nearly one million worshipers were gathering. Anti-government protestors clashed with police during a hit-and-run riot which lasted throughout the service and left dozens of persons badly injured. The air in Parque O’Higgins smelled of tear gas, not incense, and guns instead of bells sounded in the distance.

When the long liturgy ended at nightfall, John Paul seemed unwilling to leave. He repeatedly paused to stare at the violence unfolding before him even as aides tried to usher him off the altar towards a heavily guarded motorcade.

What went through his mind at that moment only he can say, but some officials who are close to him believe the riot in Parque O’Higgins, by far the worst violence during any of his public appearances, provided an impetus to the writing of the encyclical.

Joaquin Navarro Valls, the Pope’s spokesman, noted in another context that “this man thinks in terms of ideas, not images, even when very vivid things are happening around him.” One could argue that all the ideas at the core of the encyclical were acted out very dramatically that afternoon.

Using the simplest of geopolitical terms, the encyclical portrays the world as dominated by a dialectical clash between East and West which threatens peace and retards the South’s economic and moral development. This clash was played out by the youths waving the banners of left wing revolutionary groups and the “Carabineros” that keep order for General Augusto Pinochet, Chile’s right-wing dictator.

The encyclical’s response to this division is encapsulated in the brief words John Paul improvised that afternoon: “Love is stronger.”

In chatting with aides afterwards the Pope seemed most impressed by the hundreds of thousands of faithful who kept praying at their own peril, and the Pope often had those people in mind as he wrote the encyclical, according to one official. “He had thought about doing this encyclical before,” said the official, “and one reason he decided to revive the project was because he felt that Catholics like those who kept with him in the Parque O’Higgins deserved clear direction from the Church on how to find a way out of the turmoil and poverty around them.”

General Pinochet’s 14-year dictatorship has accentuated a split among Catholics in Chile that is evident across Latin America. The division is most clearly evident in attitudes towards liberation theology, a school of thought that calls on the Church radically to transform itself so that it can become an aggressive agent of social change.

Liberation theology has also been a very controversial topic within the Vatican. Top officials have debated what is the best response to a movement seen as a grave challenge to the Church on the most Catholic of continents. In 1984 and 1986, the Vatican issued major documents on liberation theology that condemned its frequent reliance on Marxist analysis and its attacks on existing Church structures.

John Paul, perhaps more than any other pope, has spoken out for the poor and the powerless, but proponents of liberation theology have sometimes cast him as a defender of the established order. As a kind of indirect response, the Pope promised on several occasions to present eventually the positive side of this theology, and he finally did with this encyclical.

Last summer when the document was taking shape, John Paul read books on liberation theology and reread others, according to an official who was invited to discuss the subject with the Pope. The encyclical itself rewrites the slogan “a preferential option for the poor” as “a love of preference for the poor.” And, as Peter Hebblethwaite of the National Catholic Reporter has noted, it makes use of several biblical passages that are frequently cited by liberation theology authors.

“This encyclical offers a new liberation theology,” said Rocco Buttiglione, an Italian political philosopher who is close to the Pope. “It is a new Liberation Theology that surpasses the limits of the old one that is so thoroughly grounded in the Latin American experience and it is a theology that knows Communists.”

In the past the Pope has severely criticized liberation theology for focusing on a concept of material liberation instead of the spiritual salvation that is the Church’s real goal. This encyclical does not compromise that stand, but instead seems to offer a new synthesis of salvation and earthly liberation.

This is a form of liberation that applies not just to those trapped by the constraints of the Third World. Thus, the encyclical drew another impetus from the Pope’s trip to Poland last June, according to several officials. There he saw a people in need of a liberation theology as much as the Chileans. In his speech at the Catholic University of Lublin, the Pope added a new chapter to his analysis of man’s subjectivity as an aspect of the human identity defined in Genesis which establishes his freedom of choice. This address and his talks to workers on the Baltic Coast, on solidarity as a concept of Catholic social doctrine, seem to prefigure essential aspects of the encyclical.

It was after his return from Poland on June 14 that the Pope set in motion the machinery that eventually produced Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, and much of the drafting took place after the Pope’s September visit to the United States, another nation that he feels is in need of liberation because it is being corrupted by an abundance he calls “overdevelopment.”

The result is a document that is both theological and political, both abstract and practical, as it tries to present a model for development that applies as much to those who have too much as to those who have too little. “The danger with a document like this that tries so hard to be addressed to all nations,” said one Vatican official, “is that it ends up being addressed to no one.”

Back in the Vatican in early summer, John Paul began working out the major points he wanted to make in the encyclical. Writing early in the morning before receiving officials and visitors or in the evenings after dinner, he produced what in the Vatican was called “la schema.” More than a simple outline but much less than a first draft, it laid out the basic ideas of the document in chunks of prose.

Despite the many changes to follow, the final version develops in detail most of the basic concepts already articulated at this early stage. Other ideas like the Pope’s analysis on the relationship between population growth and development were reduced to brief passages.

The standard process for producing encyclicals usually requires that the text be checked by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican’s guardian of orthodoxy, led by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. Assistance in drafting and the final editing normally comes from the powerful Secretariat of State, the Vatican’s general staff, headed by Agostino Cardinal Casaroli. In addition, John Paul, like other popes, has called in theologians and scholars when expertise was needed in specific fields, such as the historians who helped him with “Slavorum Apostoli,” the 1985 encyclical on Saints Cyril and Methodius, who converted the Slavs.

All of John Paul’s previous encyclicals have primarily conveyed his theological reflections on a given subject, but Sollicitudo Rei Socialis is more like a broad policy document giving the Church directives on a variety of big issues. Right from the start John Paul adopted a procedure for the writing of this encyclical that reflected its scope and his apparent intent that it enjoy the broadest possible support within the Vatican.

Coordination of the project and responsibility for early drafting was entrusted to the Pontifical Commission for Justice and Peace, the Vatican body that concentrates on questions of social doctrine. The Pope’s “schema,” or a text that was developed from it, was distributed by the Secretariat of State to the chiefs of several other important Vatican offices who were asked to offer comments and revisions.

Those queried surely included Cardinals Ratzinger and Casaroli as well as Archbishop Achille Silvestrini, chief of the Council for the Public Affairs of the Church, the Vatican’s foreign ministry, and Cardinal Jozef Tomko, prefect of the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, which oversees missionary activities. Their responses were collated at Justice and Peace where a first draft of the document was put together and then sent to the Pope.

This process of sending out versions of the text for comments and then attempting to work in the suggestions was repeated several times as the document moved towards completion. As a result, the two prelates who run Justice and Peace, both men who have known the Pope for 25 years or more, played key roles in shaping the encyclical in the early stages. The commission’s president is Roger Cardinal Etchegaray, a longtime Archbishop of Marseilles who was a close friend of that city’s late mayor and political boss, Gaston Defferre, a Socialist. Archbishop Jorge Maria Mejia of Argentina is the commission’s secretary.

Both these officials had overseen preparation of the commission’s December 1986 document on international debt, which weighed the responsibilities of developing and creditor nations. According to several officials, that project started focusing the Pope’s attention on the need to update Catholic social doctrine in terms of new global issues. These two officials were also responsible for the formal celebration in March 1987 of the twentieth anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Populorum Progressio which John Paul commemorates in this document. In addition, Justice and Peace conducted a survey of bishops’ conferences on development issues in the light of the two decades that had passed since Populorum Progressio, and the results were passed on to the Pope for use in preparing the encyclical.

While the early text of Sollicitudo Rei Socialis was circulating, John Paul repeatedly sought out the curia’s ideas first-hand to discuss aspects of the documents. On other occasions, the Pope would raise an issue without ever letting his visitors know he was writing an encyclical. Regardless, his intellectual approach was the same. “He does this often,” said the official, “asking questions that provoke you to carry out your train of thought. He listens and then perhaps at the end he offers his own synthesis.”

Not all seminars took place within the curia. John Paul had many meals and informal audiences with prelates who visited Rome for the Synod of Bishops last fall, and he often asked them about issues raised by the writing of the encyclical. The Director General of the International Monetary Fund, Michael Camdessus spent almost an hour with the Pope on December 21, and that encounter is also said to have had an impact on the document.

Through the second half of the summer, and then again in the fall after the trip to the United States, John Paul himself did a considerable amount of drafting. Writing in Polish and using simple plastic pens he filled up sheets of unlined white paper. Officials who saw the original said there were few corrections, the mark of a writer who knows what he wants to say before he starts composing.

A papal aide recalls a hot August afternoon when a conference on “The Christian Roots of Europe” was being held at the papal summer residence in Castel Gandolfo just south of Rome. Usually a busy pope can get away with a quick appearance and a brief speech at such an affair, but John Paul surprised his aide by settling down in a small desk to sit scribbling while a series of long academic papers were delivered. The aide learned soon after that John Paul had used the conference to spend an uninterrupted afternoon working on the encyclical.

By late November, a complete draft was in circulation, but suggestions were still being made and debated with some changes accepted and others not. Soon after, with the text still in substantially fluid state, a second stage of the drafting process began with the Secretariat of State taking over responsibility for the project. Exercising strong influences over the other curial departments, the Secretariat is a powerful bureaucratic organ that had its origins in providing papal scribes, and oversight of papal documents in one of its important prerogatives.

But, when Sollicitudo Rei Socialis arrived at the Secretariat, a key player had left the scene. Archbishop Giovanni Battista Re had served as chief administrator of the secretariat for many years but had just been transferred to the Congregation for Bishops. A veteran, wise in the ways of the curia, Monsignor Re has been variously described as “the Vatican’s computer” and “the best editor in Rome.” His long experience in coordinating big writing projects was missed by some who worked on this encyclical.

“The text is covered with appendages that are stuck on to the main body with some pretty thin glue,” said one of the many Vatican officials who complained that the encyclical seems to be going in too many directions at once.

Passages dealing with the non-aligned movement, terrorism and international debt were added in later stages of drafting. So was a section that calls for reforms in the world trade and monetary systems, the terms of technology transfer and in the structures of international organizations, but deals with these big projects in only the most general terms. Another insert involved a recommendation that the Church sell its precious objects to raise funds for the poor. Vatican officials have laboriously insisted that this is a symbolic suggestion, but the text remains both straightforward and enigmatic.

No foreign travels appear on the Pope’s schedule between his visit to the United States last September and an upcoming Latin American tour in May. Suspicious reporters have noted that it is not like the Pope to sit still for so long. During this period, Dr. Navarro, the spokesman, even came up with a standard response: “The Pope is on a trip to the curia.”

Other projects, such as a long-delayed restructuring of the curia and a consistory to name many new cardinals, help explain this delay. Yet the writing of the encyclical was also one of the major reasons for the Pope’s many visits to an institution that resembles other executive bureaucracies in one key respect: its own personality and biases endure, while its successive elected leaders are transients.

Over the last decade, John Paul has worked hard to internationalize the personnel of the curia by appointing men from many nations to jobs held for centuries by Italians. The writing of encyclicals appears to have been another instrument in John Paul’s long effort to broaden the curia’s outlook. “For this pope, the Catholic point of view must be weighted towards the Third World and especially Latin America because that is where most Catholics live, and the encyclical was written from that perspective,” said a Vatican official.

This is clearest in the encyclical’s acerbic condemnation of the East-West rivalry. Both capitalism and communism come in for equal doses of harsh criticism as imperfect systems. The division of humanity into two hostile camps in which each exercises its own form of imperialism is said to subject the world to “structures of sin.” However, the encyclical urges the Third World to adopt values like democracy and free enterprise which are more cherished in the West than the East.

The harsh concept of the superpower clash as a major cause of injustice in North-South relations was articulated even in the original schema. But it developed and expanded during the writing of the encyclical in a way that illustrates the many influences that helped shape the document.

The charge that the superpowers practice imperialism and neo-colonialism to the detriment of developing nations was not made merely on the basis of abstractions. The Vatican’s foreign affairs experts were asked to examine the issue, and they produced a report focusing on Africa and especially Angola. That nation is rich in natural resources, but its people are worse off than when they gained independence, largely because of a civil war that pits a regime supported by Soviet advisors and Cuban troops against insurgents backed by South Africa and the West. On September 9, 1987, when the encyclical was advancing out of its formative stage, the Pope received in audience Angola’s president, Jose Eduardo dos Santos, who has been trying to negotiate concessions from South Africa so that the Cubans will leave his country and the war will end.

Several officials familiar with the drafting of the encyclical said its view of the superpowers evolved from the idea that neither East nor West provides poor nations with a model for real moral and material development. John Paul has frequently condemned Marxism as a system fundamentally in error in a variety of ways. Thus, even inside the Vatican, many were surprised to see that the encyclical repeatedly treats capitalism on an equal footing.

Here the example of Latin America played an important role. Part of the intellectual process that produced the encyclical was an examination of how the world had changed for better or worse in the two decades since Paul VI wrote Populorum Progressio, which this document celebrates. According to several officials, one of the conclusions was that the United States had failed to promote economic and political development in Latin America. Another, they added, was that on a higher plane the United States could no longer be said to offer a model to be emulated within the Western Hemisphere because of its own economic and moral failings.

That thought was stated rather explicitly by the most influential man in the Pope’s inner circle, Cardinal Ratzinger, who said in a 1985 speech that “despite all the adjustments the market system has undergone, we can no longer view the liberal capitalistic systems as the salvation of the world without reservations, as was still possible in the Kennedy era with its Peace Corps optimism.”

Cardinal Ratzinger also attacked the West, and the United States specifically, for its moral decline, philosophic frivolity and pernicious materialism. He has expressed concern that these evils are being aggressively exported to the Third World and to Latin America especially.

“It is a paradox — albeit not too much of one — that faith seems to be more secure in the East, where it is officially prosecuted,” said Cardinal Ratzinger in 1985.

The encyclical follows an ancient formula by ending with the following sentence above the Pope’s signature: “Given in Rome, at Saint Peter’s, on 30 December of the year 1987, the tenth year of my Pontificate.”

In fact on that date, a deadline set by protocol, there was no final text for the Pope to sign. In the frescoed offices of the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace, men wearing signs of authority like crimson sashes and silver crosses still could not agree on exactly what the encyclical would say. And the man dressed in white was repeatedly reworking the text to ensure it met his intentions.

Vatican protocol required that it be dated within the year of the anniversary it celebrates, but the actual date on which John Paul signed the final text is not a matter of public history at this point. One episode raises the question, though.

The signing of an encyclical does not involve any great ceremony, but it is still an official event to be recorded by the official photographer so that a picture can be published in the official newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, along with the text of the document, in Latin of course.

A strikingly informal photograph was published by the papacy’s journal of record on February 20, the day after Sollicitudo Rei Socialis was publicly presented. Pen in hand, John Paul sits at the desk in his private study. Other work seems to have been just set aside. Only the number two man at the Secretariat of State, Archbishop Eduardo Martinez Somalo is in attendance, during what seems to be just another moment during an ordinary day.

The picture is also striking because it is so similar to the one published eleven months earlier along with John Paul’s previous encyclical, Redemptoris Mater. In fact, it takes only a second glance to recognize that they are two photographs of the same event, the signing of the earlier encyclical.

Much remains to be learned about the writing—and the intellectual arguments—that went into this encyclical.


  • Robert Suro

    Roberto Suro holds a joint appointment as a professor in the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and the School of Policy, Planning and Development at the University of Southern California.

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