I've tried in the past to appeal to traditionalists to begin taking this body of work seriously, outlining its roots in avenues such as Sacred Scripture and the Church Fathers. If nothing else, John Paul II will eventually be declared a saint. Even if he is not, he is an incredibly influential pope who the majority of Catholics look to for guidance. If for nothing else, we need to become familiar with these works for the purpose of presenting an authentic holy traditionalist movement to our brethren. At worst, we can let the likes of others define his teachings to the rest of the Church in a way that is hostile to traditionalists.
When discussing this subject, various authors attempt to outline where John Paul II got his ideas on this matter from. I previously attempted to demonstrate that several key concepts find their roots in such Church Fathers as Sts. Irenaeus and Athanasius the Great. (Whose feast we just recently celebrated!) Today I would to pose something that is probably a bit more speculative, but I feel is informative. One of the roots of John Paul II's Wednesday audiences is...... Pope Leo XIII. Before we can establish that, we need to give a very brief understanding of his lengthy and influential pontificate. (It is not hyperbole to state that Leo XIII is probably the pope who has been most influential on his successors.)
When Leo XIII ascended to the throne of Peter, the Catholic Church found herself in a position she had not been in for centuries. Christian society had more or less crumbled, and the Pope losing his temporal power only made true in reality what had been mostly true in practice for the past century. Anti-Christian ideas such as socialism were the wave of the future in Europe. The purpose of Pope Leo was to make Catholicism relevant again to a society that no longer saw any use for it.
With this in mind, Pope Leo spent more time dealing with social questions in his encyclicals than any pope before him. While he never adopted the beliefs of modern society, he engaged them with a challenge unlike any before him. This was the background from which he began his pontificate. After outlining the evils of society (a rejection of the Christian order), and outlining the benefits of said order, he begins to talk about how that order can be recovered:
Now, the training of youth most conducive to the defense of true faith and religion and to the preservation of morality must find its beginning from an early stage within the circle of home life; and this family Christian training sadly undermined in these our times, cannot possibly be restored to its due dignity, save by those laws under which it was established in the Church by her Divine Founder Himself. Our Lord Jesus Christ, by raising to the dignity of a sacrament the contract of matrimony, in which He would have His own union with the Church typified, not only made the marriage tie more holy, but, in addition, provided efficacious sources of aid for parents and children alike, so that, by the discharge of their duties one to another, they might with greater ease attain to happiness both in time and in eternity... These most unhappy and painful consequences, venerable brothers, cannot fail to arouse your zeal and move you constantly and earnestly to warn the faithful committed to your charge to listen with docility to your teaching regarding the holiness of Christian marriage, and to obey laws by which the Church controls the duties of married people and of their offspring. (Leo XIII, Inscrutabili Dei Consilio)For Leo XIII, the restoration of Christianity comes not through some new doctrine, or from government (the last place salvation would ever come!), but on the individual level, when faithful Catholics start living their vocations properly. This occurs in a very special way within the sacrament of marriage. In addition to sanctifying the couples, certain truths are taught because of marriage. Leo XIII outlined the center of all Catholic Social teaching when he stated the following:
From day to day it becomes more and more evident how needful it is that the principles of Christian wisdom should ever be borne in mind, and that the life, the morals, and the institutions of nations should be wholly conformed to them... To contemplate God, and to tend to Him, is the supreme law of the life of man. For we were created in the divine image and likeness, and are impelled, by our very nature, to the enjoyment of our Creator. (Sapientiae Christianae)For Leo XIII, two truths were central to Catholic Social teaching. The first was that inherent in our nature (or as Christopher West would say, stamped on our bodies in creation) is the call to union with God, or "the enjoyment of our Creator." The second building block of Catholic social teaching was the centrality of marriage as the building block of all proper society, based on the union of Christ and the Church.
Ironically (or, if you've been paying attention, not so ironically!), these themes are central to John Paul II's Wednesday audiences as well. We can see this from the very beginning, when he mentions what drove him to begin his Wednesday audiences:
For some time now preparations have been going on for the next ordinary assembly of the Synod of Bishops, which will take place in Rome in autumn of next year. The theme of the Synod, "The role of the Christian family," concentrates our attention on this community of human and Christian life, which has been fundamental from the beginning. The Lord Jesus used precisely this expression "from the beginning" in the talk about marriage, reported in the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Mark. We wish to raise the question what this word "beginning" means. We also wish to clarify why Christ referred to the "beginning" on that occasion and, therefore, we propose a more precise analysis of the relative text of Holy Scripture. (General Audience 9/5/79)According to Blessed John Paul, the purpose of Man and Woman He Created Them was to recover a proper understanding of the Catholic concept of the family, the same concept that Leo XIII warned was being rejected to the detriment of society. What made this rejection worse during our days was that for the most part, it had occurred within the Church, as couples (and sadly many priests and bishops) engaged in widespread dissent from the Churches teaching on contraception, stated most recently by Paul VI in Humanae Viate. In the very next address, John Paul lays out the basic principles upon which his general audiences will rest. One of them is going to sound very familiar.
Man is created on earth together with the visible world. But at the same time the Creator orders him to subdue and have dominion over the earth (cf. Gn 1:28); therefore he is placed over the world. Even though man is strictly bound to the visible world, the biblical narrative does not speak of his likeness to the rest of creatures, but only to God. "God created man in his own image; in the image of God he created him... At the same time it affirms the absolute impossibility of reducing man to the world. Already in the light of the first phrases of the Bible, man cannot be either understood or explained completely in terms of categories taken from the "world," that is, from the visible complex of bodies. (General Audience, 9/12/1979)While modern language is used, John Paul is making the same point. In creation, we bear a certain relationship to God, and that is what we are truly meant to be united to, not this world. When looked at from this perspective, I think it would be a regrettable error to look at John Paul II's audiences as some "new" teaching, or something wholly unprecedented. At the same time, I'm not saying that anything Pope John Paul II did, Leo XIII already did. (Though, as a safe rule of thumb, "Leo XIII already did it, and did it better" is a safe rule for about 98% of Catholic Social Teaching.) Rather, John Paul II's Wednesday audiences find themselves within that vast tradition of Catholic Social teaching which, while not started by Leo XIII, was significantly developed.
If I were to speculate on anything, I would say the entire point of the Wednesday audiences would be to show how point one (union with God stamped into our creation) interacts with point two (marriage is the essential building block of the Catholic Church, and of society as a whole), using modern philosophical concepts to arrive at this conclusion. As a result of this, we can gain a better understanding of the Wednesday audiences if we read them from the prism of the greater social tradition, but also see how that social tradition is enriched. In the end, I think this is a far more satisfying outcome.