It’s been 20 years since Blessed John Paul II published his encyclical Centesimus Annus. He released it on the Feast of Saint Joseph the Worker, a date which symbolizes in the liturgical year a particular focus on the vocation of labor. Three of the late pope’s encyclicals dealt with this theme (including also Laborem Exercens in 1981 and Sollicitudo Rei Socialis in 1987). The experience of growing up amidst the twin totalitarianisms of Nazism and Communism gave him a particular sensitivity to the question of social and economic justice, and in particular he had a particular awareness of the perversions of justice that emerge from twisted understandings of the human person in community.
Centesimus Annus (“Hundredth year,” celebrating the anniversary of Pope Leo XIII’s first encyclical on Catholic social teaching, Rerum Novarum) is a masterful razor’s edge between the extremes of socialism and unbridled capitalism, and will stand for many generations as a prophetic call to an anthropology rooted in a vision of the transcendent. He writes,
If there is no transcendent truth, in obedience to which man achieves his full identity, then there is no sure principle for guaranteeing just relations between people. Their self-interest as a class, group or nation would inevitably set them in opposition to one another. (44)
The twentieth century can be described as a history of failed attempts to set classes, groups, or nations in opposition to one another. These failed attempts have been insidious precisely because they have all been rooted in some partial truths. He writes,
the fundamental error of socialism is anthropological in nature. Socialism considers the individual person simply as an element, a molecule within the social organism, so that the good of the individual is completely subordinated to the functioning of the socioeconomic mechanism. (13)
Is capitalism the answer?
If by “capitalism” is meant an economic system which recognizes the fundamental and positive role of business, the market, private property and the resulting responsibility for the means of production, as well as free human creativity in the economic sector, then the answer is certainly in the affirmative. (42)
Yet it is no panacea:
But if by “capitalism” is meant a system in which freedom in the economic sector is not circumscribed within a strong juridical framework which places it at the service of human freedom in its totality and sees it as a particular aspect of that freedom, the core of which is ethical and religious, then the reply is certainly negative. (42)
The only true progress of peoples is through the recognition of the truth of the human person and in particular the human orientation toward God.
A human being is understood in a more complete way when situated within the sphere of culture through language, history, and the position one takes towards the fundamental events of life, such as birth, love, work and death. At the heart of every culture lies the attitude a person takes to the greatest mystery: the mystery of God. Different cultures are basically different ways of facing the question of the meaning of personal existence. (24)
The economic sphere is but one among many, meaning that every economic analysis, he writes, is subservient to a larger anthropology, a larger vision of what it means to be human. A Christian anthropology, moreover, is one that begins with the absolute conviction that every human being bears the image of God and therefore is endowed with dignity. It is a beautiful and hopeful foundation for a cultural, social, political philosophy–and the rest of John Paul’s pontificate was dedicated to exploring its implications.
Tim Muldoon is a theologian and author of five books, and teaches in the Honors Program at Boston College.