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Pope John Paul II on Hunger

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Pope John Paul II's Address to the Vatican Diplomatic Corps
January 10, 2005
The pope laid out four great challenges facing the human family as 2005 opens: life, food, peace, and freedom.

Of the four, the most unexpected was food.

"The statistics on world hunger are dramatic," the pope said. "Hundreds of millions of human beings are suffering from grave malnutrition, and each year millions of children die from hunger or its effects."

Some data from the United Nations' World Food Program supports those assertions:

    • 852 million people across the world were hungry in 2004, up from 842 million a year ago. This is more than the combined populations of the United States, Canada, Europe and Japan.
    • Hunger and malnutrition claim 10 million lives every year, which works out to 25,000 lives every day, or one life every 5 seconds.
    • Six million children under 5 die every year from hunger.

"An adequate response to this need," John Paul II said, "which is growing in scale and urgency, calls for a vast mobilization of public opinion."

In this regard, John Paul reminded the diplomats of a core principle of Catholic social teaching: "the universal destination of the earth's goods," meaning that the individual right to private property and profit, though legitimate, is not absolute.

"While this principle cannot be used to justify collectivist forms of economic policy, it should serve to advance a radical commitment to justice and a more attentive and determined display of solidarity," the pope said.

Whether this call remains mere rhetoric, or is translated into meaningful education and advocacy, will depend to some extent on what Catholic leaders do with it. One focus for advocacy efforts could be the United Nations, since the first of the U.N.'s eight "Millennium Goals" is cutting the percentage of the world's population that is hungry in half. Progress has been made in East Asia and the Caribbean, according to U.N. data, but in sub-Saharan Africa, Western Asia and Eastern Europe, hunger and malnutrition is actually worse.

It's interesting to note that the pope was silent on one aspect of food policy where he has been getting some diplomatic pressure in recent months, above all from the Americans -- the question of genetically modified organisms. Some of the opposition to GMOs has come from within the Catholic church, especially in parts of the developing world such as Africa and Asia. The fact that John Paul called for a "vast moral mobilization" on hunger and did not make any mention of biotechnology would suggest that the jury is still out in terms of Vatican reflection.

On the life issues, John Paul singled out abortion, assisted procreation, stem cell research and cloning as of special concern, in addition to the definition of marriage and the family. "The family … must never be undermined by laws based on a narrow and unnatural vision of man," the pope said.

On peace, John Paul pointed to hopeful signs such as the apparent peace deal in Dafur and the elections in Palestine. He also applauded the growth of the European Union as a positive development, suggesting that countries that were once bitter enemies can make common cause. The pope also appealed for religious freedom, pledging that the Catholic Church will not abuse the freedom granted it under civil law to intrude upon the "competencies proper to the State."