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Has the Vatican cast aside St John Paul II’s economic wisdom?

Bernie Sanders arrives on a hotel terrace near the Vatican (PA)

A fortnight ago I wrote about St John Paul’s social teaching in the light of the dramatic events of May 13, 1981, when he was shot in St Peter’s Square. The topic bears revisiting as May 2016 marks the 25th anniversary of Centesimus Annus, John Paul’s third and final social encyclical, itself marking the centenary of Pope Leo XIII’s landmark Rerum Novarum of May 1891.

That John Paul wrote about social matters – economics, politics, culture – was not itself novel. Even Leo XIII was not entirely novel is writing about economics. It was how Leo wrote about economics that was something new. Since the biblical period the Church has spoken about economic matters. How could she not, as they comprise such a large part of human time and energy?

What primarily concerned Church teaching about economics was the question of distribution. The prevailing assumption was that there was a given amount of wealth and the principal ethical evaluation concerned its distribution. By the 18th century, though, it was evident that significant economic growth could be sustained over the long term, raising new questions about what enabled economic growth and the means of its production. Leo’s work was so innovative because he took account of a new class – the workers – which the new means of production had given rise to. He defended their rights not only to organise labour unions, but also their rights to the fruit of their labour, including private property.

A hundred years later, John Paul took note of a new source of wealth – human capital – and the new drivers of economic growth, the entrepreneurs.

“In our time, in particular, there exists another form of ownership which is becoming no less important than land: the possession of know-how, technology and skill,” John Paul wrote. “The wealth of the industrialised nations is based much more on this kind of ownership than on natural resources. Mention has just been made of the fact that people work with each other, sharing in a ‘community of work’ which embraces ever widening circles. A person who produces something other than for his own use generally does so in order that others may use it after they have paid a just price, mutually agreed upon through free bargaining. It is precisely the ability to foresee both the needs of others and the combinations of productive factors most adapted to satisfying those needs that constitutes another important source of wealth in modern society. Besides, many goods cannot be adequately produced through the work of an isolated individual; they require the cooperation of many people in working towards a common goal.

“Organising such a productive effort, planning its duration in time, making sure that it corresponds in a positive way to the demands which it must satisfy, and taking the necessary risks – all this too is a source of wealth in today’s society.

In this way, the role of disciplined and creative human work and, as an essential part of that work, initiative and entrepreneurial ability becomes increasingly evident and decisive.” The genius of John Paul, building upon Leo, was that he saw man’s creativity and liberty as his principal economic tools. Man is creative and free, and it is this imago Dei that permits man to be a good steward of creation, multiplying and making fruitful its gifts. Freedom can be abused in the economic sphere as in other spheres, but man remains always an agent, a protagonist, a creator, an architect of the economy. It is not just an impersonal force outside of man.

That vision is in danger of being cast aside, as in recent years the Vatican’s focus has narrowed more to questions of distribution rather than creativity and freedom. No doubt in the 25 years since Centesimus Annus new issues have emerged, perhaps principal among them the unequal distribution of wealth that results from an increasingly large financial sector and international labour markets.

Yet addressing such issues primarily as distributional ones inevitably leads to man becoming less a protagonist, a subject of action, and more of an object of state policy.

This shift in vision explained the rather curious sight last month in Rome of Bernie Sanders, the American socialist presidential candidate, Ecuador’s president Rafael Correa and Bolivia’s president Evo Morales, convened by the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences to mark the 25th anniversary of Centesimus Annus. Instead of New World redistributionists, one might have expected eastern European champions of liberty who rebuilt free societies after Communism.

The media attention was given to Senator Sanders as a political candidate, and President Morales’s gift to Pope Francis of books on coca leaf production. Yet the bigger story was that John Paul’s vision had apparently been abandoned by a conference called to celebrate his work. Twenty-five years is not that long in Vatican thinking, but apparently long enough for the pontifical academy to stop thinking as John Paul did about an economy suitable for free people.

Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of Convivium magazine.

This article first appeared in the May 27 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here.