Every Fourth of July, the United States commemorates its Founders’ dedication to our unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness — rights endowed by our Creator.
One person who greatly respected what those Founders did was a Polish pope, St. John Paul II.
John Paul II expressed that admiration a number of times, including on U.S. soil. Two occasions particularly stand out: his visits to the United States in October 1979 and September 1987.
John Paul II’s speech to the United Nations on his inaugural trip to America was only the second papal appearance before the international body, behind only Paul VI. It came on Oct. 2, a striking oration in length alone, traversing 6,700 words of text and requiring a full hour.
“Every human being living on earth is a member of a civil society,” said the Pope. “Each one of you, distinguished ladies and gentlemen, represents a particular state, system and political structure, but what you represent above all are individual human beings … each of them a subject endowed with dignity as a human person.”
This was an unmistakable affirmation of humanity’s inherent dignity. It was a public enunciation of the message of his first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis.
The Pope drew attention to a “systematic threat to man in his unalienable rights in the modern world.” He called out “forms of injustice in the field of the spirit,” namely man’s “inner relationship with truth, in his conscience, in his most personal belief, in his view of the world, in his religious faith, and in the sphere of what are known as civil liberties.” He was especially concerned with threats to religious freedom, “which I, as pope, am bound to have particularly at heart.”
He quoted from the Second Vatican Council’s Dignitatis Humanae: “In accordance with their dignity, all human beings, because they are persons, that is, beings endowed with reason and free will and therefore bearing personal responsibility, are both impelled by their nature and bound by a moral obligation to seek the truth, especially religious truth.”
In what was a reference to the repression of Soviet communism, but which now stands timeless as we in America face our own threats to freedom of religion and conscience, John Paul II continued the quotation from the Council’s declaration on religious freedom: “The practice of religion of its very nature consists primarily of those voluntary and free internal acts by which a human being directly sets his course towards God. No merely human power can either command or prohibit acts of this kind.” The Holy Father said that these words related directly to the “confrontation between the religious view of the world and the agnostic or even atheistic view, which is one of the ‘signs of the times’ of the present age.”
That insight in 1979 could not be more timely, given that we Christians in America and the West today, in 2019, confront the hostility of agnostics and atheists in our present age, who demand we conform to their worldly redefinitions of everything from marriage and family to sexuality and gender and even unborn human life.
As to the latter, John Paul II, in further emphasizing the “respect for the dignity of the human person,” noted that the United Nations had proclaimed 1979 the “Year of the Child.” The emerging champion of a “culture of life” certainly appreciated this — notably, only six years after Roe v. Wade. He implored the international audience to respect life from its earliest stages: “Concern for the child, even before birth, from the first moment of conception and then throughout the years of infancy and youth, is the primary and fundamental test of the relationship of one human being to another.”
It was another powerful statement that echoes to our current age.
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