With protestors occupying Wall Street and calling for an end to capitalism, this is a good time to read or reread Pope John Paul II’s 1991 encyclical letter, “Centesimus Annus.” The title means “one hundredth year” and the occasion was the 100th anniversary of the publication of another encyclical letter, perhaps the most famous of all such documents, which is “Rerum Novarum by Pope Leo XIII.
There are six chapters in John Paul’s encyclical, and it falls into two parts, a negative part and a positive one. The first is a critique of socialism; the second consists of his recommendation of what some scholars call “new capitalism.”
Christians traditionally viewed capitalism with suspicion, if not outright disapproval. Paul Tillich, a Protestant theologian, labeled capitalism “demonic” and said, “Any serious Christian must be a socialist.” Earlier popes condemned both socialism and capitalism and sought a third way. Even John Paul seems reluctant to use the term “capitalism” preferring “business economy, market economy” or “free economy.”
As I see it, this is the climax of the letter:
“Can it perhaps be said that, after the failure of Communism, capitalism is the victorious social system, and that capitalism should be the goal of the countries now making efforts to rebuild their economy and society? Is this the model which ought to be proposed to the countries of the Third World which are searching for the path to true economic and civil progress? . . . 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, even though it would perhaps be more appropriate to speak of a ‘business economy,’ ‘market economy’ or simply ‘free economy.’ 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 which sees it as a particular aspect of that freedom, the core of which is ethical and religious, then the reply is certainly negative” (81-82).
An astute student of the encyclical has observed that the choice is between two forms of capitalism; one could call them “unbridled capitalism” and “bridled capitalism.” No other options are entertained.
John Paul reminds us that God is the creator, and he has created humans in his image and likeness; thus humans are by nature creators. They are called to participate in the ongoing creative activity of God. This call, even obligation, of all to be co-creators is based on the command given by God in Genesis “to subdue the earth.”
This cooperation in the creative activity of God is what work is; hence the transcendent dignity of work and workers. Hence, too, all are called to work, and even the most humble job can be seen to have dignity and to be contributing to the common good. Capitalism is good because it stimulates creativity and work. It fosters initiative, inventiveness, enterprise, diligence, the prudence needed to assess risks, practical wisdom and other virtues.
John Paul is critical of the “welfare state” because it “leads to a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase of public agencies” (94-95), in other words, it leads to dependency and a sense of entitlement plus bureaucracies. Socialism destroys all the virtues given above. In socialism, “The remedy was worse than the disease.”
John Paul agrees with Leo that the redistribution of wealth would be unjust because it “would rob the lawful possessor, distort the function of the State, and create utter confusion in the community.” The key to the elimination of poverty is not redistribution of wealth, but rather it is involvement of the poor in the production of wealth. As one commentator puts it, the poor should be seen not as people with problems, as the welfare state sees them, but as people with potential.
I conclude, therefore, that, capitalism, properly defined and understood, is the economic system that is most in accord with Christian notions of human nature and human destiny. Capitalism offers the best hope for the alleviation of poverty wherever it is found, for development in Third World countries and for continued prosperity in well-to-do countries. The encyclical “Centesimus Annus,” revealing as it does an appreciation for “the dynamic nature of free exchange and the way in which wealth is produced,” represents one of the most dramatic and exciting shifts in religious thinking since the Middle Ages.
I am, of course, painfully aware of the impossibility of doing justice to such a profound and rich document, given the limitations of space and time. Readers are urged, therefore, to read this remarkable document for themselves.
Jeremiah Reedy is professor emeritus in the classics department at Macalester College in St. Paul.