Religion & Liberty Online

John Paul II on work, socialism, and liberalism

(Image credit: Associated Press)

This year marks the 30th anniversary of John Paul II’s important encyclical, Centesimus Annus. While the average lay person might not pay attention to formal pronouncements by the Roman Catholic Church, papal encyclicals are significant in their affirmation of the church’s social doctrine.

Of course, Protestants have no such magisterium to which they might appeal, and it goes without saying that there exists no such thing as “Protestant social teaching.” Given the importance of the Christian church’s unity and its social witness to the world, encyclicals have a significant effect. As was particularly the case with both John Paul and his successor, Benedict XVI, these pronouncements both set forth the Catholic church’s social teaching and offer a potentially trenchant critique of the cultural moment. No pope did this with greater influence and insight — not to mention frequency! — than John Paul in his 28-year pontificate.

Published on May 1, 1991, Centisimus Annus served as a formal occasion to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Rerum Novarum, the important 1891 encyclical by Pope Leo XIII. In John Paul’s words, Rerum Novarumconstituted “what would come to be called the Church’s ‘social doctrine,’ ‘social teaching,’ or even ‘social magisterium.’” Because Rerum Novarum appeared at a time of social ferment, John Paul’s intention was to propose a “re-reading” of Leo’s encyclical with a view to consider the “’new things’ which [presently] surround us” as well as “look to the future” with its myriad uncertainties. This, after all, is what “the scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven” does: he brings out of his treasure “what is old and what is new” (Matt. 13:52).

What set the prior century apart, in John Paul’s view, was the spirit of revolutionary change that attended changes in industry and the marketplace, the relationship between employers and workers, the growth of poverty, the emergence of class distinctions, and indeed the very meaning of work itself. At a distance of 100 years, then, we are permitted to see the application of the Catholic church’s teaching regarding the “social question,” particularly in the light of new and urgent needs. No genuine solution to the “social question,” John Paul insisted, can be found apart from the Gospel.

The key to “re-reading” Centesimus Annus in our own time, John Paul argued, is the dignity of work and the worker. Work “belongs to the vocation of every person; indeed, man expresses and fulfills himself by working.” At the same time, “work has a ‘social’ dimension through its intimate relationship not only to the family, but also to the common good” — themes that John Paul had taken up in his 1981 encyclical, Laborem Exercens. Work is both “with others” and “for others”; it becomes “evermore fruitful and productive” when people (a) become more aware of “the productive potentialities” of our surrounding world and (b) become more attune to the needs of others around them. John Paul acknowledged that “even if Marxist analysis and its foundation of alienation are false, nevertheless alienation — and the loss of the authentic meaning of life — is a reality in Western societies as well.”

Both Rerum Novarum and Centesimus Annus are critical of two social and economic systems: socialism and “liberalism,” with the former in particular being the object of John Paul’s critique. After all, Karol Wojtyla, before he become John Paul, was intimately acquainted with suffering in the Polish context as a result of the socialist state prior to the fall of the “iron curtain” in 1989. The fundamental error of socialism, as John Paul rightly insists, is anthropological in nature. Socialism considers the individual person “simply as an element, a molecule within the social organism, so that the good of the individual is completely subordinated to the functioning of the socio-economic mechanism.” In addition, socialism assumes that the person’s “good” can be realized “without reference to his free choice,” that is, “to the unique and exclusive responsibility which he exercises in the face of good or evil.”

By contrast, Christian vision undergirds a very different view of society. The guiding element of the entirety of the Catholic church’s social doctrine is “a correct view of the human person and his unique value,” insofar as the human person is “the only creature on earth which God willed for itself.” “God has imprinted his own image and likeness on man (cf. Gen. 1:26), conferring upon him an incomparable dignity.”

Hence, the “first cause” of the socialist state is its atheist premise. In consequence, class struggle (in the Marxist sense), the state’s control of economic production, and militarism share the same root — an atheism which breeds contempt for, rather than dignifying, the human person. Each person, subsequently, becomes a “cog” in the statist machine. Thus, the principle of force is (necessarily) placed by the state above reason, law, and economic initiative.

Just reforms, according to John Paul, have at their heart the restoration of human dignity, as well as the restoration of work’s dignity, since work is the free and creative expression of the human being who mirrors the divine image. But the socialist error is not the only source of profound social and economic disruptions. The modern and ultra-modern secularizing tendencies of “liberalism” have far-reaching implications as well. Thereby, human freedom is “detached from obedience to the truth, and consequently from the duty to respect the rights of others.” John Paul denounces self-love “carried to the point of contempt for God and neighbor,” a self-love which “leads to an unbridled affirmation of self-interest and which refuses to be limited by any demand of justice.”

With near-prophetic insight, John Paul criticizes these very tendencies, which operate in present-day “liberal” society: “it is only when hatred and injustice are sanctioned and organized by the ideologies based on them, rather than on the truth about man, that they take possession of entire nations and drive them to act.”

Both Rerum Novarum and Centesimus Annus remind the reader of the lessons of recent history. Violence and resentment, anchored in “ideologies of hatred,” can be overcome by justice. And where they are not justly mitigated and leavened with truth, they metastasize in lethal proportions.

Fittingly, John Paul reminds the reader of the significance of the year 1989. It was at this time that the world was witness to “the Church’s commitment to defend and promote human rights.” The church’s influence was instrumental in the great upheaval which took place in Poland in the name of “solidarity” and the fall of a fundamentally oppressive system that embraced all of eastern Europe. What is noteworthy to the former pontiff is that the fall of this “bloc” or empire was accomplished almost everywhere by means of peaceful protest, “using only the weapons of truth and justice,” despite the Marxists’ proclivity for exacerbating social conflict.

The lessons, as John Paul understands them, are clear and compelling, even when they are easily forgotten. The events of 1989 exemplify the effectiveness of “the Gospel spirit in the face of an adversary determined not to be bound by moral principles.” These events, moreover, serve as “a warning to those who, in the name of political realism, wish to banish law and morality from the political arena.” The church’s role is to help society discern “the often narrow path between the cowardice which gives in to evil and the violence which, under the illusion of fighting evil, only makes it worse.”

The kingdom of God is “not without consequences for the life of temporal societies.” The Church, being “in the world without being of the world,” in her mission “throws light on the order of human society,” for grace “penetrates that order and gives it life.” “In union with all people of good will,” John Paul was convinced, “Christians, especially the laity, are called to this task of imbuing human realities with the Gospel.” The church offers “not only her social doctrine and … her teaching about the human person redeemed in Christ,” but also “her concrete commitment and material assistance in the struggle against marginalization and suffering.” This, John Paul insists, must occur in creative ways that avoid “an impossible compromise between Marxism and Christianity.” This activity, moreover, “must not be understood solely in economic terms, but in a way that is fully human.” At the heart of this work is “the exercise of the right and duty to seek God, to know him and to live in accordance with that knowledge,” based on the rights of conscience.

This project, as John Paul reminds us, is ongoing, as evidenced by several realities: (1) old forms of totalitarianism are still alive around the globe; (2) the values of most developed nations in our day are excessively utilitarian; and (3) newer forms of religious fundamentalism are emerging in some nations. Religious freedom, then, will be the issue with which the Church in the future will need to contend.

In the end, as John Paul views it, the proper ordering of the state, and any society, “reflects a realistic vision of man’s social nature, which calls for legislation capable of protecting the freedom of all.” If there is no transcendent truth to guide the human person and human society, “then there is no sure principle for guaranteeing just relations between people.” Alas, self-interest – whether as a class, as a race, or as a nation – will inevitably set people in opposition to one another. And as history well demonstrates, a “democracy” without transcending values “easily turns into open or thinly disguised totalitarianism.”

Centesimus Annus closes with a reiteration that the church in society witnesses to human dignity, based on creation and redemption through the Gospel. This will take concrete form in neighbor-love, concern for the poor, and working for justice (properly understood). However, John Paul acknowledges that in order for the demands of justice to be truly met, the acceptance of grace, a gift coming only from God, is requisite. For, as such, “[g]race, in cooperation with human freedom, constitutes that mysterious presence of God in history which is Providence.” And for such to occur in society, “dialogue” and “cooperation” are required of “all people of good will” as it concerns political, economic, and social life.

It remains to be seen whether such conditions are possible, as well as whether the Christian church is capable of witnessing to these truths as we move forward into the third decade of the 21st century. John Paul’s encyclical and the historic church’s basic assumptions about human nature and human society are surely a proper place to begin.

J. Daryl Charles

J. Daryl Charles, Ph.D., is the Acton Institute Affiliated Scholar in Theology & Ethics, a contributing editor to the journal Providence: A Journal of Christianity and American Foreign Policy, and an affiliate scholar of the John Jay Institute. He is author, co-author, editor, or co-editor of 18 books, including Natural Law and Religious Freedom (Routledge, 2018), (with David D. Corey) The Just War Tradition: An Introduction (ISI Books 2012), (with David B. Capes) Thriving in Babylon (Pickwick, 2011), Retrieving the Natural Law: A Return to Moral First Things (Eerdmans, 2008), and most recently, (with Mark David Hall) America’s Wars and the Just War Tradition: A History of U.S. Conflicts (University of Notre Dame Press, 2019) and Wisdom’s Work: Essays on Ethics, Vocation, and Cultural Engagement (Acton Institute Press, 2019). Charles is co-editor of the recently translated Common Grace series by Abraham Kuyper, part of a 12-volume Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology series produced by the Acton Institute. Charles has taught at Taylor University and Union University, served as director of the Bryan Institute for Critical Thought & Practice, was a 2013-2014 visiting professor in the honors program at Berry College, served as a 2007-2008 William B. Simon visiting fellow in religion and public life at the James Madison Program, Princeton University, as well as the 2003-2004 visiting fellow of the Institute for Faith & Learning, Baylor University. The focus of Charles’ research and writing is religion and society, Christian social ethics, the just war tradition, and the natural law. His work has been published in a wide array of both scholarly and popular journals, including First Things, Pro Ecclesia, Touchstone, Journal of Church and State, National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly, Journal of Religious Ethics, Books and Culture, Cultural Encounters, Philosophia Christi, The Weekly Standard, Christian Scholar’s Review, and Christianity Today. Prior to entering the university classroom, Charles did public-policy work in criminal justice in Washington, D.C.