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Centesimus Annus ()

National Review's List of the Top 100 Nonfiction Books of the 20th Century (18)


Over the course of the last half millennia, an understandable, but disastrous, thing happened to the Catholic Church.  It ended up defending centralized State power long after the State ceased to be an ally of the institutional Church.  Up until the Reformation, Catholicism was the officially recognized, sanctioned, and supported, state religion of most European nations.  As a result, the Church had a vested interest in the continuance of those states and their rulers in unaltered form.  But, as first the Reformation tore the Church loose from the State, then the democratic Revolutions tore political power away from the State, and, finally, the rise of capitalism transferred economic power from the aristocracy to individuals, the Church, mostly reacting to these revolutionary forces, resisted the forces of protestantism, democracy, and capitalism.  Catholicism became in some fundamental sense the enemy of human freedom and therefore found itself on the wrong side of history.

Then comes the really sad part of the story.  As Darwinism, Marxism, Socialism, Relativism, Freudianism, and the whole panoply of other -isms gnawed away at the religious faith of the educated upper and middle classes, religion became increasingly a lower class phenomenon and the Catholic Church, and its clergy, began to identify more with the very poor than with the powerful, as it had when it was itself a powerful institution.  Exacerbating this phenomena was the fact that those countries (mostly in Southern and Eastern Europe and in Latin America) which were most Catholic--and thus most resistant to democratic capitalism--tended to be significantly poorer than the predominantly Protestant nations of Northern Europe and the wholly Protestant former colonies of Great Britain (America, Australia, etc.).  Having set itself in opposition to the free market, and taken on the role of defender of the poor, the Church was easy prey when the Statist alternatives to democratic capitalism came along.

This gave us the ugly phenomenon of Catholic clergy who supported Marxism (the so-called liberation theology of many Latin American clerics) and a general willingness on the part of the Church generally to accept the Left's critique of capitalism as unresponsive to human needs.  All of this came to a head in the 1980s with clergy getting caught in the crossfire of revolutions in Nicaragua and El Salvador and with bishops writing letters opposing both the free market reforms of Thatcher and Reagan and calling for unilateral disarmament in the face of the Soviet Union's continuing threat.  Thus did age old antagonisms between Church and capitalism reinforce themselves in a devastating loop.  In a bitter irony, the Church itself had become a de facto ally of World Communism, which, it goes without saying, despised religion in all its forms, but most particularly the traditional hierarchical religions like Catholicism and Orthodox Christianity, which were the predominant religions of most of the nation's that fell under communist tyranny.

The story is often told, and well understood, of how an Eastern European Pope, John Paul II, took power at this vital stage and played a significant role in the defeat of communism, particularly in his native Poland.   What is underappreciated is the degree to which he has also sought to reconcile the Church with democratic capitalism.  His primary instrument in this mission was the 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus, a document which was apparently strongly influenced by the American philosopher of religion and economics Michael Novak.  Here is just some of what the encyclical says :

    It would appear that, on the level of individual nations and of international relations, the free
    market is the most efficient instrument for utilizing resources and effectively responding to needs.


    The Church acknowledges the legitimate role of profit as an indication that a business is
    functioning well.


    It is the task of the State to provide for the defence and preservation of common goods such as the
    natural and human environments, which cannot be safeguarded simply by market forces. Just as in
    the time of primitive capitalism the State had the duty of defending the basic rights of workers, so
    now, with the new capitalism, the State and all of society have the duty of defending those
    collective goods which, among others, constitute the essential framework for the legitimate pursuit
    of personal goals on the part of each individual.

    Here we find a new limit on the market: there are collective and qualitative needs which cannot be
    satisfied by market mechanisms. There are important human needs which escape its logic. There
    are goods which by their very nature cannot and must not be bought or sold. Certainly the
    mechanisms of the market offer secure advantages: they help to utilize resources better; they
    promote the exchange of products; above all they give central place to the person's desires and
    preferences, which, in a contract, meet the desires and preferences of another person. Nevertheless,
    these mechanisms carry the risk of an "idolatry" of the market, an idolatry which ignores the
    existence of goods which by their nature are not and cannot be mere commodities.


    In the light of today's "new things", we have re-read the relationship between individual or private
    property and the universal destination of material wealth.  Man fulfils 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 to private initiative and ownership is to be
    found in this activity. By means of his work man commits himself, not only for his own sake but
    also for others and with others. Each person collaborates in the work of others and for their good.
    Man works in order to provide for the needs of his family, his community, his nation, and
    ultimately all humanity.  Moreover, he collaborates in the work of his fellow employees, as well as
    in the work of suppliers and in the customers' use of goods, in a progressively expanding chain of


    Authentic democracy is possible only in a State ruled by law, and on the basis of a correct
    conception of the human person. It requires that the necessary conditions be present for the
    advancement both of the individual through education and formation in true ideals, and of the
    "subjectivity" of society through the creation of structures of participation and shared


    All human activity takes place within a culture and interacts with culture. For an adequate
    formation of a culture, the involvement of the whole man is required, whereby he exercises his
    creativity, intelligence, and knowledge of the world and of people. Furthermore, he displays his
    capacity for self-control, personal sacrifice, solidarity and readiness to promote the common good.
    Thus the first and most important task is accomplished within man's heart. The way in which he is
    involved in building his own future depends on the understanding he has of himself and of his own
    destiny. It is on this level that the Church's specific and decisive contribution to true culture is to be
    found. The Church promotes those aspects of human behaviour which favour a true culture of
    peace, as opposed to models in which the individual is lost in the crowd, in which the role of his
    initiative and freedom is neglected, and in which his greatness is posited in the arts of conflict and
    war. The Church renders this service to human society by preaching the truth about the creation of
    the world, which God has placed in human hands so that people may make it fruitful and more
    perfect through their work; and by preaching the truth about the Redemption, whereby the Son of
    God has saved mankind and at the same time has united all people, making them responsible for
    one another. Sacred Scripture continually speaks to us of an active commitment to our neighbour
    and demands of us a shared responsibility for all of humanity.

In essence, Pope John Paul II has accepted, on behalf of the Church, that economic and political life must be spheres in which the maximum of human freedom prevails.  This is important both because it removes one more obstacle to such freedom, but also because, even as he cedes a great deal of influence in the politico-economic sphere, he retains the Church's, and Christianity's, claim to a predominant role in the cultural/moral sphere.  Of course the spheres overlap, and it is precisely because the free market is an amoral system that it is so important for the Church to reinvigorate the moral/religious sphere.  Democracy and capitalism were they not tempered by Judeo-Christian values would, in the long run, be so destructive of the human spirit as to become intolerable to people, which would be an unmitigated disaster.  That the majority in a democracy can do as it will with the minority does not justify it in doing so, as long as their are moral reasons not to.  But remove these moral constraints, remove religious beliefs, and the brute will of the majority will be unchecked.  Similarly, capitalism depends for its effectiveness on the rewarding of good ideas and capable people, but if foolish ideas and less capable people are not only punished by the market but also left by the wayside by the society as a whole, then the system will, and should, be judged a failure.

Pope John Paul II is easily caricatured as a retrograde conservative figure, and on issues of church doctrine, religious faith, and morality, this is largely the case.  But the change in the position of the Church as regards economics and politics, as reflected in Centesimus Annus, is so revolutionary and (small case) liberal, that the caricature is obviously inadequate.  Only time will tell, but it seems possible that, as the man who placed the Church back on the side of freedom in the civil arena, but recalled the Church to absolutism in the moral arena, he may one day be considered one of the most important figures in human history.  For this hope to come true it will be necessary for us all to value and defend freedom, on the one hand, but to take responsibility for our own actions and for the welfare of our fellow citizens on the other.

GRADE : C'mon, the guy's infallible; I can't grade him


Grade: ()


Pope John Paul II Pope Links:

    -ARCHIVES: POPE JOHN PAUL II (Brothers Judd Blog)
    -Interactive Feature: The Life of Pope John Paul II Frank Bruni looks back on the extraordinary papacy of John Paul II. (NY Times)
-TRIBUTE: The Pope in Private: A serious philosopher, John Paul II also had a serious sweet tooth. A very personal portrait. (George Weigel, 4/11/05, Newsweek)
    -INTERVIEW: Pope John Paul II and Evangelicals: Protestants admired his lifelong admonition to "Be not afraid! Open the doors to Christ!" An interview with George Weigel. (Interview by Michael Cromartie, 04/04/2005, Christianity Today)
    -TRIBUTE: This shepherd of titanic stature: Though a catalyst for reconciliation and freedom, he endured a loss of flock as well as moral opposition (Martin E. Marty, April 4, 2005, Newsday)
    -OBIT: Pope Succumbs to Illness Suffered at Length and in Public (IAN FISHER, April 3, 2005, NY Times)
    -OBITUARY: All-Embracing Man of Action for a New Era of Papacy: John Paul II captivated much of humanity and reshaped the church with a heroic vision of a combative, disciplined Catholicism. (ROBERT D. McFADDEN, 4/03/05, NY Times)
    -TRIBUTE: John Paul the Great: he turned the world away from communism and made the papacy a public institution (Father Richard John Neuhaus, April 3, 2005, San Diego Union Tribune)
    -TRIBUTE: Pope John Paul II (Charles Krauthammer,April 3, 2005, Townhall)
    -TRIBUTE: A counterbalance to Communists (Judy Dempsey, April 2, 2005, International Herald Tribune)
    -TRIBUTE: The Tikkun Olam Pope (Lisa Palmieri-Billig, Apr. 3, 2005, THE JERUSALEM POST)
    -TRIBUTE: POPE JOHN PAUL II: DAYS OF GRACE (Joseph Farrell, 4/03/05, Sunday Herald)
    -TRIBUTE: Tireless thinker who offered world's masses love and hope (STEPHEN MCGINTY, 4/02/05, The Scotsman)
    -TRIBUTE: A giant of faith and freedom on the world stage (The Australian, 2nd April 2005)
    -ESSAY: Catholics in America: A Restive People (LAURIE GOODSTEIN, 4/03/05, NY Times)
    AUDIO: The Religious Legacy of Pope John Paul II (Speaking of Faith, April 2, 2005, NPR)
John Paul II's papacy was dramatic and historic on many fronts. Speaking of Faith explores some of the critical religious issues of his 26 years as pontiff and discusses the great and contradictory impact he made on the Catholic Church in America and abroad. Host Krista Tippett speaks with NPR's senior European correspondent Sylvia Poggioli, priest and author Donald Cozzens, and Yale theologian Margaret Farley.

    -John Paul II: The Miillennial Pope (Frontline, Sept. 1999, PBS)
    -The Papacy: presents a look at Pope John Paul II -The Pontificate of Pope John Paul II (
    -The Vatican
    -How Are Popes Elected? Two Complimentary Lectures (The Teaching Company)
    -Pope John Pal II's Theology of the Body

Book-related and General Links:
    -The Holy See - The Vatican Website
    -His Holiness John Paul II (Catholic Information Center on Internet)
    -The Writings of Pope John Paul II - FTP archives of Catholic Information Network
    -His Holiness  Pope John Paul II (Writings and Speeches of John Paul II)
    -ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA : Your search: "centesimus annus"
    -ESSAY : An Evangelical Looks at Centesimus Annus, the Nature of Man, and Human  Economy (E. Calvin Beisner, Acton Institute)
    -ESSAY : Profits and Morals: A Non-Catholic Assessment of Centesimus Annus (Larry Reed, Religion & Liberty)
    -ESSAY : A Preferential Option for Liberty (Robert A. Sirico, Religion & Liberty)
    -ESSAY :    The Liberalism of John Paul II (Richard John Neuhaus, First Things)
    -ESSAY : The very liberal John Paul II. (Richard John Neuhaus, National Review)
    -ESSAY : Values, Virtues, and John Paul II (Thomas D. Williams, First Things)
    -ESSAY: What Would the World Be Like Without Him? (Robin Wright, July 1994 Atlantic Monthly)
    -REVIEW: of John Paul II √ĚCrossing the Threshold of Hope (1994) (Philip Zaleski, First Things)
    -REVIEW: of WITNESS TO HOPE The Biography of Pope John Paul II. By George Weigel (Jon Meacham, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: Witness to Hope by George Weigel (Paul Johnson, Commentary)
    -REVIEW : of Witness to Hope by George Weigel A Pope Who Knows How to Pope (Elias Crim, Intellectual Capital)
    -REVIEW: The Man of the Century  A review by Lee Edwards of Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II  by George Weigel (World & I)
    -REVIEW : of  Witness To Hope by George Weigel The Legacy of John Paul II :  Why the bishop of Rome may be the most important figure in this secularist age.   (Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Christianity Today)

    -See Review and Links at Brothers Judd

    -Woodstock Theological Center
    -Bernard Lonergan, S.J., and John Courtney Murray, S.J. (Woodstock Theological Center)
    -REVIEW : of John Courtney Murray and the American Civil Conversation edited by  Robert P. Hunt and Kenneth L. Grasso (Neal Fuller , Religion & Liberty)
    -REVIEW : of John Courtney Murray and the American Civil Conversation edited by  Robert P. Hunt and Kenneth L. Grasso (James Finn, First Things)

    -Culture Wars (an Independent Catholic magazine about faith, culture and morals in our time)
    -First Things: A Journal of Religion and Public Life
    -New Advent Catholic Website (Catholic Encyclopedia, Summa Theologica, etc.)
    -Religion and the Founding of the American Republic (Library of Congress)
    -LINKS : Index to Christianity  on the Web (Jeremiah Project)
    -LINKS : Wabash Center Guide to Internet Resources for Teaching and Learning in Theology and Religion