Centesimus Annus

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Pope John Paul II's ninth encyclical, issued on May 1, 1991, commemorating the hundredth anniversary of Pope leo xiii's encyclical rerum novarum. John Paul's major social encyclical is divided into six sections. Chapter one, "Characteristics of Rerum Novarum, " pays tribute to Leo, who faced the social problems generated by a new form of property (capital) and a new form of labor (simply for wages). Work is part of the human vocation, but when labor becomes a commodity to sell, new injustices can and did arise. In Rerum Novarum, Pope Leo defended the essential dignity and rights of workers, together with the principle of solidarity (under its classical name "friendship"). Criticizing both socialism and liberalism, he stated that "the defenseless and the poor have a claim to special consideration."

In chapter two, "Toward the New Things of Today," John Paul sketches the history of the last 100 years, including two world wars, the consolidation of Communist dictatorship, the arms race and the Cold War. These movements were complicated outside Europe by decolonization. He also refers to three types of response to the Communist threat: (1) the European social market economies tried to end the situations of injustice that fueled revolutionary movements by building a "democratic society inspired by social justice"; (2) others set up repressive systems of national security, which risked destroying the very freedoms they were intended to protect; and (3) affluent Western societies tried (successfully) to compete with Marxism at its own level, by demonstrating a superior ability to meet human material needs.

With this the pope comes to "The Year 1989" (chapter three), and his analysis of the fall of Communism, which he traces to the recovery and application of the principles of Catholic social teaching by Polish workers in the name of solidarity, faced with the inefficiency of the economic system and the spiritual and cultural void brought about by Communism. The consequences of 1989 apply to the Third World, in that they enable the Church to affirm "an authentic theology of integral human liberation" (no. 26), and to Europe, where a great effort is now needed "to rebuild morally and economically the countries which have abandoned Communism." Disarmament should make possible a greater "mobilization of resources" for "economic growth and common development," both in Europe and in the Third World. But development is threatened by resurgent totalitarianism, materialism, and religious fundamentalism.

The fourth chapter, "Private Property and the Universal Destination [i.e., purpose] of Material Goods," is the heart of the encyclical. An individual right to property exists but is limited by nature: it is created by human work, and since the earth as a whole was given to man in common, all possession should be subordinated to the common good. These days, the possession of "knowhow, technology and skill" are just as important as material resources in the creation of wealth. This leads to new types of exclusion and poverty, especially in the Third World. To an unjust economic system where fundamental human needs remain unsatisfied and development impossible, one must oppose not socialism but a "society of free work, of enterprise and of participation," in which "the market is appropriately controlled by the forces of society and by the State." In such a system, profit is not the only regulator of the life of business, monopolies are broken down, unpayable debts are deferred or canceled, and every effort is made to create conditions under which the poorer nations may share in development (no. 35).

In advanced economies, the need for basic goods is replaced by the "demand for quality," leading to the danger of consumerism: lifestyles directed not towards "truth, beauty, goodness and communion with others for the sake of common growth" but towards acquisition for the sake of "enjoyment as an end in itself," where the definition of human needs has been distorted by a false anthropology. Consumerism alienates man from his true self, which can only be attained by self-transcendence and self-gift. It leads to the disordered consumption of natural resources and irresponsible destruction of the environment and the creation of "structures of sin" that impede human development (to which the pope opposes the structures of "human ecology," starting with the family as sanctuary of life).

Despite its advantages, the market has limits. There are "collective and qualitative needs which cannot be satisfied by market mechanisms" and human goods which must not be bought and sold, but need to be defended by the State and society (no. 40). Marxism has failed, but marginalization, exploitation, and alienation persist. The Church endorses the "free economy," but only if economic freedom is "circumscribed within a strong juridical framework which places it at the service of human freedom in its totality," which is ethical and religious at its core (no. 42). She offers her social teaching, however, not as a model but as an "indispensable and ideal orientation" towards the common good.

In chapter five, "State and Culture," the pope warns that human freedom depends on the recognition of an ultimate truth, without which "the force of power takes over," and democracy slides into totalitarianism (4445). Human rights, starting with the right to life and culminating in religious freedom, must be protected, and the security of stable currency and efficient public services assured by the State. Families and other intermediate communities and "networks of solidarity" on which the culture of a nation depends should be supported. The principle of subsidiarity, however, militates against excessive State interference and control, as occurs in the "Social Assistance State."

The Church contributes to "a true culture of peace" by promoting the truth about human destiny, creation and Redemption, and about our shared responsibility for avoiding war. Peace is promoted by development, which in turn depends on "adequate interventions on the international level" and "important changes in established life-styles," especially in the more developed economies (5152, 58). Chapter six, "Man Is the Way of the Church," emphasizes that the Church's social doctrine is inspired by her care for each human being, and forms a part of her evangelizing and salvific mission, revealing man to himself in the light of Christ. Though primarily theological, it is interdisciplinary, and rather than being merely a theory is a basis for action. With the help of grace, "Love for others, and in the first place love for the poor, in whom the Church sees Christ himself, is made concrete in the promotion of justice" (58).

Bibliography: For the text of Centesimus annus, see: Acta Apostolicae Sedis 83 (1991): 793867 (Latin); Origins 21, no. 1 (May 16, 1991): 123 (English); The Pope Speaks 36 (1991): 273310 (English). For commentaries and summaries of Centesimus annus, see: r. charles, Christian Social Witness and Teaching, vol. 2, The Modern Social Teaching: Contexts: Summaries: Analysis (Leominster, 1998). s. gregg, Challenging the Modern World: Karol Wojty·a/John Paul II and the Development of Catholic Social Teaching (Lanham, 1999). d. l. schindler, Heart of the World, Center of the Church: Communio Ecclesiology, Liberalism and Liberation (Grand Rapids, 1996). g. weigel, ed., A New Worldly Order: John Paul II and Human Freedom-A "Centesimus Annus" Reader (Washington, D.C., 1992). j. p. dougherty, "The Ecology of the Human Spirit," L'Osservatore Romano, English edition (October 16, 1996).

[s. caldecott]