Chinese workers walk down a dirt access road from one of Beijing’s major air polluters, the Capital Iron and Steel factory, 16 February 2001.
(STEPHEN SHAVER/AFP via Getty Images)
Thirty years ago this month, on 1 May 1991, Pope St. John Paul II promulgated his landmark encyclical, Centesimus Annus, commemorating the 100th anniversary of Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum, which introduced the peculiar theologico-doctrinal endeavor now known as Catholic Social Teaching.
The moral doctrines and principles that Leo articulated in Rerum Novarum were not new. They had developed through centuries of theological refinement. Applying this aged wisdom to his analysis of the “new things” the industrial revolution of the late 19th Century had wrought, Leo nevertheless gave shape to a new body of theological reflection and doctrinal distillation that his successors have engaged and advanced in an unbroken tradition.
While affirming the right to personal property, Leo warned the world that the rise of modern capitalism threatened to alienate the worker from his work through the “new thing” of the commodification of labor. Rather than to combine his labor with some materials to produce a product or service, the worker now sold his labor to the owner of the means of production. Combined with the “new thing” of capital as a form of property, this commodification of labor also tended toward the concentration of wealth in the hands of the few.
In a strong buyer’s market, the capitalist had little incentive to protect the health, safety, or dignity of the laborer.
Notably, however, Leo warned that the alleged cure for these capitalist maladies—state-centered collectivism—would be far worse than the disease. A significant number of Europeans and Americans had embraced the reductionist politico-economic philosophy of a certain Mid-19th century theorist, giving rise to scientific Socialist or Communist parties and policies. Pope Leo introduced the Church’s chastised endorsement of private property, and its wholesale condemnation of secular Socialism.
One hundred years later, St. John Paul II inherited the prescient legacy of Rerum Novarum, affirming its condemnation of Socialism, while endorsing a carefully qualified regime of private property.
Writing in the midst of the ruins of the Soviet Union and its satellite states, St. John Paul II reaffirmed Leo’s condemnation of Socialism, but also cautioned against the excesses of democratic capitalism, with its inherent potential to reduce the worker to nothing more than a cog in the capitalist machine, and political life to nothing more than secular relativism. “[I]t is unacceptable to say that the defeat of so-called ‘Real Socialism’ leaves capitalism as the only model of economic organization,” asserted St. John Paul II. He articulated these things in two key passages of Centesimus Annus.
First, in sections 42 and 43 he asked whether, “after the failure of Communism, . . . capitalism should be the goal of countries now making efforts to rebuild” their political economies.” His response, in short: Well, maybe.
If “capitalism” is a “system which recognizes the fundamental and positive role of business, the market, private property and the resulting responsibility for the means of production,” the answer is a qualified “Yes” (although the Pope preferred the term “market” or “free” economy). If, however, the free economy “is not circumscribed within a strong juridical framework which places it at the service of human freedom,” the answer is an unequivocal “No.”
Like the Sabbath, the economy is at the service of the human person, not vice versa. Thus, the measure of a moral economy is the development of the full human person. “The integral development of the human person through work does not impede but rather promotes the greater productivity and efficiency of work itself,” St. John Paul II explains. A business must be considered a “society of persons,” rather than merely a “society of capital goods.”
Second, section 46 of Centesimus Annus offered a similarly qualified endorsement of some form of democratic political structures.
The Church endorses a politics that “ensures the participation of citizens in making political choices, guarantees to the governed the possibility both of electing and holding accountable those who govern them, and of replacing them through peaceful means when appropriate.” But this is only possible “on the basis of a correct conception of the human person.”
The tendency in modern democratic states “to claim that agnosticism and skeptical relativism are the philosophy and the basic attitude which correspond to democratic forms of political life” must be rejected as incompatible with a humane politics. Without a proper vision of the true end of the human person, “ideas and convictions can easily be manipulated for reasons of power.”
In a passage that could have been written 30 minutes ago, St. John Paul II warns that democracy without a proper telos “to guide and direct” political life “easily turns into openly or thinly disguised totalitarianism.”
Just as Rerum Novarum was still relevant after 100 years in 1991, so Centesimus Annus is as fresh in 2021 as it was 30 years ago. The problems are persistent, and the Church’s teaching always timely.
Kenneth Craycraft is a licensed attorney and the James J. Gardner Family Chair of Moral Theology at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary and School of Theology, the seminary for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. He holds the Ph.D. in theology from Boston College, and the J.D. from Duke University School of Law.