Pope John Paulís Centesimus Annus

By Fr. Michael Ryan
February 1992

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Thirty years ago the philosopher Ernst Bloch defined human beings as animals that hope. What is astonishing to a great many people today is how much recent events have surpassed their wildest hopes. Who would have thought, even 15 years ago, that we would have a pope from behind the "iron curtain"? Who would have dreamed, even five years ago, that the communist regimes of Eastern Europe would collapse, and that this "iron curtain" would be dismantled almost overnight? We can scarcely blame our Polish pope for celebrating this event. He does just that in Centesimus Annus ("The One Hundredth Year"), the encyclical letter issued on May 1, 1991, to mark the centenary of Pope Leo XIII's the first of the great social encyclicals.

Centesimus Annus looks back to Rerum Novarum, and reviews the main points of that response which Pope Leo XIII made, 100 years ago, to the "social problem" of his day: the oppression of working people. It looks at the present to examine, in the light of the Gospel, the questions raised by our post "cold war" world. It looks to the future, to see what guidance Catholic Social Teaching can give us as we enter a highly interdependent world that raises new problems for working people. This is a rich document, and calls for close reading. I confine myself to just five aspects of it that I think deserve special attention. What unites these different aspects of the document is their vision of the human person.

1. Its Response to the Collapse of "Socialism"

"Socialism" is a vague word that can stand for many different social programs. During the latter part of the 19th century, some Christians called their plans for social reform "socialism." However the socialism that Pope Leo XIII had in mind when he wrote Rerum Novarum was one that involved the abolition of private property.

He opposed this as a solution to the problem because he felt it betrayed working people. Instead of supplying them with a means by which they could stand on their own feet and provide for their own future, it urged them to put themselves entirely into the hands of the State. For Pope Leo this was simply another form of the paternalism he was combating by his support for the principle of trade unionism.

Events have proven Pope Leo right, as the present pope points out. The actual forms of state socialism that were established tended to reduce persons to being simply part of the State. This situation reflected a diminished understanding of the person, flowing from the atheism associated with the state socialism of Eastern Europe. In addition, as Pope John Paul points out, it led to violations of workers' rights (witness the struggle of Solidarity in the pope's native Poland). In the long run it also proved to be seriously inefficient.

2. Its Attitude to Capitalism

For those who, after the collapse of state socialism in Eastern Europe, look to this encyclical to vindicate capitalism, or to legitimate the economic philosophy that has prevailed more recently in such countries as Britain, the United States and Canada, Centesimus Annus offers only slight comfort.

On the one hand, Pope John Paul acknowledges what is plain fact: the command economies of Eastern Europe have collapsed. "It would appear that...the free market is the most efficient instrument for utilizing resources and effectively responding to needs." (no. 34).

The pope also has generous words of praise for the "entrepreneur," whose role in the creation of wealth is rightly acknowledged (no. 32). This is a welcome addition to the body of Catholic social thought.

However a section of the encyclical that has generated a great deal of debate is number 48, which appears to frown on "welfare state" capitalism. Such capitalism, it says, has sometimes violated the principle of subsidiarity by assigning to public agencies what could be handled privately. Some people will undoubtedly appeal to this section of the encyclical as support for their goal of "getting government out of the economy." Yet many forms of government involvement are in fact called for in Centesimus Annus itself (for example in numbers 10, 15, 34 and 40.)

Moreover, in talks which he gave on April 27 and on May 15, the pope made it clear that he is not condemning social welfare capitalism as such, but rather a "systematic welfarism" which offends human dignity with "coercive structures" that stand in the way of people acting as "subjects" and taking responsibility wherever possible. This is in line with the pope's comment in number 32 that today, economic development depends not so much on land or capital as it does on persons possessing technical skills and know-how. If they possess such skills, they will be more able to act on their own initiative, without being overly dependent on the State.

On the question of economic "models," the pope says plainly that "the church has no models to pre sent ...the church offers her social teaching." (no. 43). To the direct question: Is capitalism the system that ought to be proposed to countries now, Pope John Paul answers with a distinction: Should we favour a system that recognizes the market, private property, economic freedom? Yes. Should we accept a system in which economic freedom is not "circumscribed within a strong juridical framework which places it at the service of human freedom in its totality"? No. (no. 42). Moreover, "it is unacceptable to say that the defeat of so-called 'real socialism' leaves capitalism as the only model of economic organization." (no. 35).

There is nothing radically new here. The pope is insisting, as the church has long done, that her concern is with a just economy. It is. up to human ingenuity to find ways of providing that. And we are reminded that a just economy is, among other things, one in which a business is to be considered as "a society of persons" (no. 43; 35). We might muse on what that implies for an economy!

In addition, the pope has harsh words for the "consumerism" that pervades Western societies. "The human inadequacies of capitalism and the resulting domination of things over people are far from disappearing." (no. 33).

Catholics and Unions Share Goal

Canada's Roman Catholic Church must forge closer bonds with labour unions, a meeting of Catholic bishops has been told.

Rev. Michael Ryan said in an address to the bishops that the church should, also continue to lobby for full employment policies and make its own institutions models of just labour practices.

"Whatever their imperfections, unions have as their aim to get capital to serve labour. That's our aim, too, and we need to be serious allies."

... He said the church and labour can co-operate in working for or against certain kinds of legislation in addressing social issues, in working for worker protection laws and for a healthier work environment...

"If we view work properly, then we see that work is for the person, not the person for work, and we see that capital must serve labour," Ryan said.

"Work is never simply merchandise to be bought and sold. Here is the basis for the just social policy demanded by all of the social encyclicals (papal statements)."

...People do have a right to employment, he said, and "we must not let the public become used to the scandal of 10.5 percent official unemployment" in Canada.

(Michael McAteer, The Toronto Star, August 25 '91.)

3. Its Suggestions for Development

It has been encouraging for us to see the superpowers sitting down together, and to observe even smaller countries making overtures toward lasting peace. This activity, we know, is partly motivated by economic reasons. Countries need investment. Eastern Europe, in particular, needs development assistance. The richer countries should provide that assistance, says the pope.

However he also issues a timely warning. Don't divert aid money from Third World countries for this purpose, for their need is critical. This is clearly a preoccupation of the pope's, for he comes back to it twice, in number 28 and in number 56. He makes a practical suggestion: surely the money that has formerly gone into arms can be dedicated now to the building up of nations rather than to their tearing down. We think at once of the Gulf War that was taking place even as the pope was writing this document.

In the Third World much of the terrible exploitation of working people condemned by Rerum Novarum 100 years ago is still to be found. So there above all, the market must be "appropriately controlled" (no. 34). The "globalization" of the economy needs to be accompanied by "effective international agencies which will oversee and direct the economy to the common good" (no. 58). Yet do those who keep arguing in favour of greater trade liberalization measures ever make reference to the crucial need for such "agencies"?

Above all, says the pope, "abandon a mentality in which the poor ... are considered a burden." (no. 28). And in words reminiscent of Pope Paul VI's "The Development of Peoples", he says that helping the poor will make all of us better people, morally, culturally and even economically. How much, for example ought we to bring these words to our consideration of the world debt issue.

The Catholic Worker Movement

With the economic collapse of the 1930s, 13 million Americans lost their jobs. Whole families joined the hordes of homeless people, wandering the streets, sleeping in alleyways and abandoned buildings. These were times of tremendous suffering," anger and frustration for these unemployed masses and their families.

In response to this crisis, Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, who shared a concern for the injustices of the existing social order and condemned the nationís leaders for their indifference to the widespread suffering of the people, entered the labour struggles of the 1930s and founded the Catholic Worker Movement to shelter and feed the homeless. The movement experienced phenomenal growth because it answered a need of many young lay Catholics who were searching for a way to apply the Gospel to the times in which they lived.

Dorothy Day died in 1980, however this movement continues today, along with its publication, The Catholic Worker, first published in 1933. Write to them at The Catholic Worker, 36 East First Street, New York, NY 10003. In Canada: Zacchaeus House, 186 Mutual St., Toronto, ONT, M5B 2B3.

4. Its Comments on Unionism

The recent vindication of "social unionism" by the Supreme Court of Canada finds an important echo in this encyclical. Supreme Court Justice Gerard La Forest said last June that the law recognizes union activity as going beyond strict collective bargaining and including a role in shaping the wider political, economic and social milieu. The pope similarly speaks of "the role of trade unions, not only in negotiating contracts, but also as 'places' where workers can express themselves. They serve the development of an authentic culture of work." (no. 15). . Even more, in his review of recent history, Pope John Paul refers to "the encounter in some countries between the church and the workers' movement." He goes on to say that "the worker movement is part of a more general movement among workers and other people of good will for the liberation of the human person and for the affirmation of human rights." (no. 26). This movement, he says, "far from opposing the Catholic Church, looks to her with interest." These remarks- echo an observation made at a meeting of church and labour representatives in the United States a few years ago. A prominent union spokesperson suggested there was surely important significance in the fact that, in, totalitarian regimes, whether of the right or of the left, the two groups of persons who are especially persecuted are union leaders and religious leaders. The church and the labour movement often find themselves pursuing the same goal: that working people be treated as "subjects" who can stand on their owl feet and have genuine input into the processes that affect their daily lives.

5. Its Remarks on Catholic Social Teaching

In the great vision at the close of the Book of Revelation, the One sitting on the throne says, "I am making the whole of creation new" (21:5). What the past 100 years of Catholic Social Teaching have demonstrated is the fact that such newness must also characterize our economic and social institutions. Yet how few Catholics understand this! How resistant people become when one tries to apply Catholic social principles to contemporary economic issues.

In Centesimus Annus the pope is forceful in asserting the legitimacy and the importance of CatholicSocial Teaching. "The 'new evangelization' which the modern world urgently needs ... must include among its essential elements a proclamation of the church's social doctrine." (no. 5). The entire sixth chapter of this encyclical is devoted to an expression of the need to know and apply the church's social teaching in today's world. We are reminded that this teaching is a development of the church's teaching on the human person (a "sign and safeguard of the transcendence of the human person" (no. 55)), that it is "fully a part of the church's evangelizing mission" (no. 54), and that it belongs to the field of "moral theology" (no. 55). It "must not be considered a theory, but above all else a basis and a motivation for action." (no. 57).

A Sign of The Times

Women's rising consciousness of their own dignity is a "sign of our times". As such it demands the attention of the Church. The Church cannot simply reach back into its tradition to address this reality because it "lacks a strong tradition regarding the equality and basic' dignity and worth of women." Furthermore, the current reflection and articulation of women's' experience is raising new issues both in society and in the Church....

If womenís rising consciousness is a manifestation of God's design for` the world, as John XXIII in Pacem in Terris declared, ' can Catholic teaching continue to be authentic if the voices of - women are kept silent and/or circumscribed by men's interpretation? I am reminded of Gamaliel's intervention to the Sanhedrin in the early days of the founding of the Church: "If this enterprise, this movement of theirs, is of human origin it will break up of its own accord, but if it does in fact come from God you will not only be unable to destroy them; but you might find yourselves fighting against God" (Acts 5:38-40).

(Excerpted from "Catholic Social Thought Encounters Feminism", by Sr. Maria Riley, OP, Theological Reprints, May '91.


Before the collapse of the Eastern European regimes, it was the custom to contrast our world to theirs by referring to ourselves as "the free world." Running all through Centesimus Annus is a phrase that the pope obviously considers very important (and that Cardinal Etchegaray considers to be the key to this entire document): freedom, it says, is not true freedom unless it is "obedient to the truth" about human beings. As number 15 makes clear, a "free market economy" is not necessarily a "free economy" unless it provides employment for all those who want it, in conditions that allow workers and their families to act as "subjects."

This is not the time for the West to claim that it has "won." Rather it is the appropriate occasion for it to make the needed changes in its own system, changes that will reflect the truth about the human person. We will really become "the free world" only when we promote justice in its fullness, especially for the marginalized of the world.

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