No gathering of Catholic social activists would be complete without rows of cars outside with bumper stickers containing the famous words of Pope Paul VI: "If you want peace, work for justice."
To which Pope John Paul II would add a hearty "Amen."
But that's just once thread in a larger garment. During this recent American tour, the pope again stressed that it's impossible to talk about peace, justice and freedom without raising other issues that make many people, including some Catholics, very nervous. How can a society do what is good, he asked time after time, when few can agree on what is right and what is wrong, what is true and what is false?
"America first proclaimed its independence on the basis of self-evident moral truths," noted the pope, during an evening prayer service in St. Louis. "America will remain a beacon of freedom for the world as long as it stands by those moral truths which are the very heart of its historical experience.
"And so America: If you want peace, work for justice. If you want justice, defend life. If you want life, embrace truth -- truth revealed by God."
This one statement captures the big ideas of John Paul's pontificate. However, this ethic remains hard to fit into bumper stickers, T-shirts and headlines.
Thus, the pope's words will once again cause cheers and moans on both sides of the political aisle and in many Catholic and Protestant sanctuaries, said Mennonite theologian Ron Sider, president of Evangelicals for Social Action. Nevertheless, it's obvious that John Paul's goal is to defend the sanctity of life by attacking what he calls a "culture of death" that kills human dignity and hope. This is the overarching issue.
"People on the left will love what he had to say about the death penalty and racism and caring for the poor," noted Sider, a veteran coalition-builder among evangelicals and Catholics of varying political views. "But many liberals are going to squirm because he ties these issues directly to traditional Christian teachings on abortion and euthanasia and family life. Meanwhile, some people on the right will squirm because the pope made it very clear that he links these pro-life issues to the death penalty and poverty, sickness, hunger and even the environment."
In the statement that drew the most media attention, John Paul said that "the Gospel of God's love for man, the Gospel of the dignity of the person and the Gospel of life are a single and indivisible Gospel." Thus, the church needs more believers who are "unconditionally pro-life," even when this stance seems to be harder to defend, he said.
"A sign of hope is the increasing recognition that the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil," said the pope, during the St. Louis Mass. "Modern society has the means of protecting itself, without definitively denying criminals the chance to reform. ...I renew the appeal I made most recently at Christmas for a consensus to end the death penalty, which is both cruel and unnecessary."
While exchanging greetings with President Clinton -- who backs both the death penalty and abortion rights -- John Paul stressed that he believes America is undergoing a "time of testing" that will profoundly impact the rest of the world in the coming century. This can be seen, he said, in America's bitter conflicts about whether to declare "entire groups of human beings -- the unborn, the terminally ill, the handicapped and others considered 'unuseful' - to be outside the boundaries of legal protection."
And again, the pope added: "Only a higher moral vision can motivate the choice for life."
"The pope is dead on target by returning to the larger issue of today's debates over the reality of truth," said Sider. "We live in an age of incredible relativism in this society and even in the church. We live in a land that seems to have lost its way. ... So the pope isn't backing down on any of this. Those of us who really care about these issues can only hope that people are still listening."