THE PROMISES OF CENTESIMUS ANNUS
This article was originally published in the September 1991 issue of Lay-witness, publication of the Catholics United for the Faith, The Treasures of Centesimus Annus and the Leadership Position of Catholic Social Teachings in the Post-Communist Era.

In this new encyclical, the Holy Father provides us with reasons to hope in a modern society which would obey the Church' s social teachings. The Pope also gives us, at the same time and by the same teaching, new reasons and motivation to further evangelize the world.

Many people will start learning about the social teachings of the Church while reading Pope John Paul II's new encyclical Centesimus Annus. This present encyclical is, indeed, a fine starting point, inasmuch as Pope John Paul II has consciously written it in the manner of a commemorative of Pope Leo XIII's landmark document Rerum Novarum.

In its first pages, Centesimus Annus reviews Rerum Novarum as well as the long stream of social encyclicals which ensued thereby providing a panoramic vision of the Church's teachings on the social order. Of course, the uninitiated could as easily begin with Rerum Novarum itself, because subsequent developments of the social question by the Magisterium trace back to this great encyclical which is their source and summary.

But if all social encyclicals are faithful to each other the question may be asked: why are the popes still producing social encyclicals? If, on the other hand, each subsequent one makes definite contributions to the larger body of the teachings, what does Centesimus Annus offer that the previous documents did not give?

Having followed reactions of specialists to the encyclicals there appear to be two different prominent responses to this question.

In one group the reaction is that for the first time the Church has unequivocally stated that Marxism was not only theoretically wrong but that it was a total failure in practice—doomed to fail from the beginning. People with this type of reaction loudly praise the clear support for "free markets" in the encyclicals as the only economic principle which seems to work to promote economic affluence to nations. Included in this reaction is the view that Centesimus Annus is a new and major step forward in the development of the teachings of the Church and some give it an importance equal to that of Rerum Novarum.

A second response is that Centesimus Annus simply gave a modern perspective on known social teachings. It dusted off, somewhat, older documents and we can be thankful for that. For example, the document defends private property but also insists on social limits to that right. It proclaims the principle of subsidiary, as previous documents had done, but it also defends the principle of the "preferential option for the poor." In the first group many are like children who run back to their parents from their (business) games long enough to be blessed by them but not long enough to listen to their parents' advice. They draw comfort that the Church approves of free markets but would not wait long enough to listen about the evils of consumerism, of the practices in business which make angels cry, and the fact that many of their brothers are in dire economic straits.

In the second group we find (naturally) the very anti-thesis of the "free-marketer", discussed above. Instead we uncover "the bureaucrat", for want of a better term. Such an individual is greatly enamored of centralized agencies and "statist" policies of past years. For such individuals the encyclical must be read in a way that confirms their personal prediction that "big is beautiful". Although many in this second groups have been outspoken members of the party of change in the Church, this present encyclical leaves them non-plussed. They are more like burghers now than bolsheviks.

The danger of the first reaction to Centesimus Annus is that people in business and proponents of capitalism will not be evangelized by this encyclical.

The danger of the second reaction from people of the Church apparatus is that they will miss the chance to properly utilize this encyclical to evangelize the world in this last decade of the twentieth century.

This is all the worse that there are some very precious insights in Centesimus Annus.

New Insights

First insight: Pope John Paul II tells us that the new source of economic affluence is no longer "land" as it was in the time of Pope Leo. It is not even "capital", in the sense of accumulation of money, any longer. It is a combination of new skills and talents. These skills include the knowledge of new technologies, but also entrepreneurship, acumen in marketing and the knack of organizing the work of many people effectively, that is to say: personnel management. Such talents need be honed by the development of the virtues, including diligence, industriousness, reliability, fidelity and courage. (C.A. 32)

In On Human Work, his first social encyclical, Pope John Paul II insisted that work is central to the "social question". Then he told us that work is understood correctly only from a "personalist" point of view, that is to say a viewpoint supported by a proper anthropology (as opposed, he tells us, to the erroneous anthropology of Marxism which was central to the demise of that ideology): man is a person because he has an intellect and a will.

Now, even private property, a central pivot for the economic principle of free-markets, rests on this personalist view: that "man fulfills himself by using his intelligence and freedom. In so doing he utilizes the things of this world as objects and instruments and makes them his own. The foundation of the right of private initiative and ownership is to be found in this activity."(C.A. 43)

Intellect and free will need to be exercised, particularly through work. Man needs work. Man has a right to work. But man needs to work in a fashion which allows him to exercise his intellect and will. Otherwise there is no dignity in his work.

The manager who designs jobs which neglect the intellectual faculty and the worker's ability to choose, affronts the personalist view of work and is acting against the dignity of workers. Proponents of the Welfare State act against the worker's dignity when they see only "employment" when they should see "work", for they look only at the paycheck. They subscribe in their own fashion to the philosophy of "having" rather than to the philosophy of "being", a flawed position which the Pope expressly condemns in Centesimus Annus. By exercising one's intellect and will one necessarily grows in the virtues.

The fresh insight which the Pope offers is that the newest type of work requires new virtues which go beyond the general moral virtues and are now customized to respond to the demands of modern work. Those in and out of the Church who do not even understand the personalist view of work will understand even less this new insight. The consequence of such lack of understanding would be that the social teachings of the Church will be further removed from the life forces which shape the economy.

Ignorance in this domain is no longer acceptable because this understanding is not a technical matter, something esoteric, about a discipline pastors may afford to ignore. This understanding is central to the social teachings of the Church, which as the Pope says is a most valid means of evangelization. This understanding rests on the development of the virtues which is central to the pastoral responsibilities of the Church.

Those in care of souls in the U.S. Church, for example, cannot pretend they want to defend the poor and the marginalized if they do not fulfil their direct pastoral responsibilities towards the whole flock and fulfill their responsibilities of evangelization in the economy. They must be greatly interested in economic development for all, as well as for the poor, because "a rising tide raises all ships" and the first way to take care of the poor is to support a strong general economy.

There cannot be any "economic quietism" in the Church in the modern age on the part of pastors. They have become for the first time tools of Providence albeit indirectly in economic matters. Church leaders in the past could not do much directly about land ownership and the ownership of large pools of money for investment. But they now can do very much to help develop human skills as they attend to the "new philosophy of work" of the Supreme Shepherd.

Thanks to Centesimus Annus, pastors will learn to do their share to help sustain the economy as a whole by morally supporting their flocks, who also happen to be economic agents. These economic agents, in turn, by exercising their virtues on the job will contribute to a healthy development of the economy. The pastor's voice in support of the marginalized will then sound with a realization of the true problems of the day and credible in their plea for more justice.

Two freedoms

A second major insight in Centesimus Annus is the importance of political freedom of individuals for reshaping nations into democracies. The Holy Father thinks naturally of the fall of Communism in 1989 and of the changes in Central Europe, but he speaks for all nations and all individuals.

He places economic freedom parallel to political freedom. There are indeed many relationships between the two. Marxism is based on a refusal of political freedom for the purpose of introducing a false sort of moralism in the economy. Capitalism works only when enough practical freedom is granted entrepreneurs to initiate new businesses and managers to manage their business so that they can follow the changing needs of the market.

In essence, the Holy Father tells us that the economy should rely first on free-markets and second, only when other human needs cannot be met by free-markets should the state provide for them in another fashion. In the political realm, most human needs should also be met by private initiative; and only when private initiative is lacking and only when the common good is at stake, should the State intervene.

A personalist view of the citizen is thus also quite crucial in order to understand the new insight of economic democracies. The laity should therefore also be supported by their pastors in becoming self-starters in the political realm so that they might meet human needs directly, in person of through their communities, before an attempt to go to the State government.

The Pope deplores the corruption of the modern democratic state in which citizens with religious beliefs are viewed with great suspicion. These citizens with faith are to view laws not merely and essentially as the expression of the will of the majority but as the articulation and implementation of the demands of truth in the working of social institutions.

The modern Church will teach its members the virtues of citizenship and will instill in them a sense of initiative as regards the meeting of human needs. At this time, too many citizens view their government as the embodiment of Divine Providence. They expect Truth to be pronounced by this government's agencies and representatives, ignoring this Truth who is the Word of God. They expect all resources to come from government programs as they do not themselves feel the urge to initiate any effort to meet human needs, nor understand that Providence works through such efforts.

The efforts of individuals, which translate into paychecks and business profits or productive volunteer work, as well as services performed and products sold to meet human needs, must be intensified.

Centesimus Annus is a very challenging call to action for the laity and the hierarchy to affirm and develop individual efforts and virtues in the economic and political spheres.

Church Doctrine—File 4/3a
St. Antoninus Institute


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