by Mark Stricherz

At first blush, the 20th anniversary of the release of “Centesimus Annus” is akin to pulling out a tome that had lain on your bookshelf since you bought it back in the day. The book is dusty, it has gone unread for years, and you were only vaguely aware of its existence. Blessed John Paul II’s papal encyclical on the social order has — let’s face it — a whiff of irrelevance about it.

The document is a response to Rerum Novarum, Pope Leo XIII’s social encyclical published in 1891. Its immediate historical backdrop is the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe and Russia. One of the encyclical’s signature phrases is “preferential option for the poor,” which has been interpreted as advocating an expansion of the welfare state, a cause that could hardly be less au courant in the West. Its author is a Pole who never ran a profit-making business and grew up in a decidedly non-capitalism economic system. As an old Jesuit boss of mine used to say about books that had fallen out of literary fashion, the document seems “passé, passé.”

But read the encyclical or re-read it, and you are struck by its relevance — its critique of the West’s ideologies, its analysis of social movements and administrative systems, and its social observations. Centesimus Annus is by no means an easy read; in fact, its prose is heavy with Latinate-phrases and generalities rather than specifics, qualities that unfortunately characterize the style of many encyclicals. Yet complaining about its content is unworthy of any literate Catholic or social theorist. The encyclical is as applicable to contemporary social and economic theory as Star Wars or the Beatles are to popular culture.

A large chunk of Centesimus Annus consists of John Paul II’s reflections on the enduring validity of Leo XIII’s critiques and prescriptions. His re-reading of Rerum Novarum brims with insight, but it is not as original as some of his extended remarks on contemporary society. In the interest of brevity, I will confine myself to two observations.

For one thing, the encyclical has no truck for consumerism, or libertarianism for that matter. It is as withering in its assessment of laissez-faire economics as it is of Communism. Both libertarianism and Marxism, the encyclical notes, view humans entirely in economic terms — an anthropology that denies or shortchange humans’ cultural, political, and religious natures. As the Pope writes,

Another kind of response, practical in nature, is represented by the affluent society or the consumer society. It seeks to defeat Marxism on the level of pure materialism by showing how a free-market society can achieve a greater satisfaction of material human needs than Communism, while equally excluding spiritual values. In reality, while on the one hand it is true that this social model shows the failure of Marxism to contribute to a humane and better society, on the other hand, insofar as it denies an autonomous existence and value to morality, law, culture and religion, it agrees with Marxism, in the sense that it totally reduces man to the sphere of economics and the satisfaction of material needs.

For another thing, Centesimus Annus recognizes that the post-industrial stage of capitalism poses significant problems and challenges to entire groups of people. It notes that in earlier stages of capitalism land and later, capital were the decisive factor of production. By contrast, the document observers, today “the decisive factor is increasingly man himself, that is, his knowledge, especially his scientific knowledge, his capacity for interrelated and compact organization, as well as his ability to perceive the needs of others and to satisfy them.” Although John Paul II is referring to the poor in third-world countries, his insight also applies to the state of the underclass, both black and white, in the United States. (Anyone who has watched the HBO series “The Wire” or read Michael Lewis’ “The Blindside” or social theorist Charles Murray’s report “The State of White America” will recognize the relevance of the Pope’s words).:

The fact is that many people, perhaps the majority today, do not have the means which would enable them to take their place in an effective and humanly dignified way within a productive system in which work is truly central. They have no possibility of acquiring the basic knowledge which would enable them to express their creativity and develop their potential. They have no way of entering the network of knowledge and intercommunication which would enable them to see their qualities appreciated and utilized. Thus, if not actually exploited, they are to a great extent marginalized; economic development takes place over their heads, so to speak, when it does not actually reduce the already narrow scope of their old subsistence economies. They are unable to compete against the goods which are produced in ways which are new and which properly respond to needs, needs which they had previously been accustomed to meeting through traditional forms of organization. Allured by the dazzle of an opulence which is beyond their reach, and at the same time driven by necessity, these people crowd the cities of the Third World where they are often without cultural roots, and where they are exposed to situations of violent uncertainty, without the possibility of becoming integrated. Their dignity is not acknowledged in any real way, and sometimes there are even attempts to eliminate them from history through coercive forms of demographic control which are contrary to human dignity.

Centesimus Annus suffers from the flaws of the genre of social theory. While heavy on the criticism, it could have benefited from more prescriptive remedies for society’s ills. After all, Rerum Novarum was a major affirmation of worker’s rights. But such is life.

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