Catholic Social Teaching Corner: Centesimus Annus

August 21, 2012

The Free Market, World Peace and the Pratfalls of Democracy

The fall of Communist governments in Eastern Europe gave Blessed John Paul II the subject matter for much of the anniversary encyclical Centesimus Annus, “On the Hundredth Anniversary of Rerum Novarum.” (1991) With the decades-long binary conflict between East and West over, the world faced questions of how best in to proceed together toward a just and peaceful world order. The encyclical contains trenchant reflections on the free market, on peace and justice and on democracy. It offers a broad vision of justice that challenges clichéd political agendas. Centesimus Annus has sometimes been taken as the Church’s ratification of free market economics – even as a departure from earlier encyclicals. For example, in confronting the issue of third world development, the Pope writes, “It would appear that, on the level of individual nations and of international relations, the free market is the most efficient instrument for utilizing resources and effectively responding to needs.” (34) And indeed sounding a little like a conservative political commentator, the Pope talks about defects in the “welfare state” as harming the authentic vitality of business on the local level. (48) But, while it’s true that the Pope offers some fairly common sense praise of a free economy, the encyclical is hardly a libertarian manifesto. Government intervention is necessary, especially in poor countries, so that people can participate in the market. (34) Further, the Pope rejects a “capitalistic ideology” which ignores the problems of poverty in the world and “which blindly entrusts their solution to the free development of market forces.” (42) And Catholics in political life must always keep in mind a “preferential option for the poor.” (57) Lost in the attention given to the letter’s economic ideas is its emphasis on world peace. Blessed John Paul II saw the collapse of the Berlin Wall as the end of a long era, dating back to World War I, of militarism and destructive ideologies. He reflects back on the failures of the twentieth century and, in a bracing fashion, uses World War II as an example of the failure of war to solve problems. Considering its legacy of totalitarianism, “The war, which should have re-established freedom and restored the right of nations, ended without having attained these goals.” (19) He offers a contrasting vision in a moving passage in which he pays tribute to his compatriots in the Polish Solidarity movement, among others:

Bl. Pope John Paul II and Lech Walesa
“[Communism] has been overcome by the non-violent commitment of people who, while always refusing to yield to the force of power, succeeded time after time in finding effective ways of bearing witness to the truth… Once again I thank God for having sustained people’s hearts amid difficult trials, and I pray that this example will prevail in other places and other circumstances. May people learn to fight for justice without violence, renouncing class struggle in their internal disputes, and war in international ones.” (23) [Emphasis added] Philosophical themes that are woven through Centesimus Annus are freedom, truth and democracy.  Freedom needs to be properly understood. Divorced from the truth of the human person, “The essence of freedom then becomes self-love carried to the point of contempt for God and neighbor, a self-love … which refuses to be limited by any demand of justice.” (17) This is true in totalitarian regimes but it also points out a potential failure within democracies. The danger is relativism – when the moral foundations crumble and the truth is considered to be subject to a vote. Stating, in essence, why the U.S. Bishops today are so concerned about certain current political realities, the Pope asserts, “As history demonstrates, a democracy without values easily turns into open or thinly disguised totalitarianism.” (46)
Alexander Solzhenitsyn
Catholic Social Teaching does not fit neatly into any political agenda. As Blessed John Paul puts it, “Since it is not an ideology, the Christian faith does not presume to imprison changing socio-political realities in a rigid schema…” (46) Some on the right celebrated Centesimus Annus as justifying their views, but a brief review shows it to be broader than a party platform. The lesson of this encyclical is the lesson of all of them. In the words of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, a political prisoner of the Soviets who might be called a spiritual brother of John Paul II: “Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts.” (From The Gulag Archipelago, 1973)        

More News & Events