John Paul II: Wojtyla, the Pope of Subsidiarity (interview with Rev. Robert Sirico)

NOTE: Italian journalist Pietro Vernizzi’s interview with Rev. Robert Sirico, president and co-founder of the Acton Institute, appeared on Il Sussidiario’s web site.  Go here for the original article in Italian.

Friday, 29 April 2011

“In a sense one might indeed refer to John Paul as the Pope of Subsidiarity. No previous pope… has outlined [the principle of subsidiarity] in such depth and detail…He showed…society needed to meet human needs where they actually existed [and that] creating expensive and ineffective bureaucracies… fail to see the deepest needs of the human heart.”

These were the words of Fr. Robert Sirico, when speaking candidly for the following interview appearing on  Fr. Sirico is an American priest and founder of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty. He frequently writes editorials for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times and Forbes.  Just two days prior to Karol Wojtyla’s beatification, Sirico tells us why the Polish pope’s social and economic teachings should still be appreciated by the Church and the world today

Why, in the teachings of John Paul II, are Marxist theories not a solution to the problem of poverty?

SIRICO: It is interesting that when Laborem Exercens was promulgated, early in Pope John Paul’s pontificate a commentary was published by a Canadian theologian who had been involved in the “Christian Marxist” dialogue in which he interpreted the encyclical to be promoting some kind of a kinship between Catholicism and Marxism. Of course this is all amusing to view from this perspective on the eve of John Paul’s beatification and in hindsight to see what the ideas of this pope did the Marxist Workers Paradise.

The problems with Marxism to the mind of John Paul are too numerous to delineate here, but these would include the materialism of  Marxism, which cause movements inspired by its ideology to see poverty as the greatest evil.  For John Paul it would be the loss of the soul through coercion and the hindrances that a socialist order put in the way of people to realize their own call from God. This materialism is, of course, rooted in a deeper and more profound error of Marxism which is anthropological in nature, as the Holy Father pointed out in great deal in Centesimus Annus.

What are the main critical comments made by John Paul II toward market economies?

SIRICO: When markets become idols, or when people operating in markets mistake them as ends, rather than means, when the human person is no longer at the center of economic decision making – all these are warnings John Paul leveled against market economies. He put it rather succinctly when he made the observation that economic freedom was only one dimension of human freedom and when building free societies it was always necessary to take into consider this broader picture.

For John Paul there was a bad or savage capitalism when the free economy was not situated in a broader juridical framework that is itself grounded in moral and religious principles.

In the teachings of John Paul II, what is the better system from a social and an economic point of view? Why?

SIRICO:  In his seminal social encyclical Centesimus Annus, John Paul clearly says that it is clearly the free economy as outlined in my previous response.

What are John Paul II’s teachings about the principle of subsidiarity and the Welfare State?

SIRICO: In a sense one might indeed refer to John Paul as the Pope of Subsidiarity. No previous pope, including Pope Pius XXI, has outlined in such depth and detail and applied it so manifestly to the modern Welfare State as John Paul did. He showed the levels of society needed to meet human needs where they actually existed: when “neighbors act as neighbors to those in need” and also identified the way in which a erroneous effort leads only to creating expensive and ineffective bureaucracies that fail to see the deepest needs of the human heart.

What is the meaning of work John Paul II as defined in the encyclical Laborem Exercens, and what are the misconceptions that he criticized?

SIRICO: The encyclical underscores the Christian tradition that there are two dimensions to human work. The first is the objective-transitive dimension:  the effect of an act of work upon the world. The second is the subjective-intransitive dimension: the effect of the same act of work upon the person who initiates it. It can either promote virtue or vice.  From a Catholic standpoint, there is nothing especially new about this idea.  [Paul VI’s encyclical] Gaudium et Spes and many popes have said the same thing. It also tracks closely Thomas Aquinas’ treatment of human action.  But in Laborem Exercens, John Paul II uses it to underscore the Marxist and materialist error of conceptualizing work purely in its objective-transitive sense.

What do you think about John Paul II’s commitment to the abolition of Third World debt? Was there a better way to solve the problems of the Third World? 

SIRICO: I don’t recall John Paul ever saying that the debts of developing nations should simply be forgiven unconditionally. He was very conscious of the Church’s teachings about commutative justice and the way that this demands that we keep our promises.  He was not blind to the fact that there was a strong likelihood that outright debt cancellation would destroy many developing nations’ credit ratings which are essential to obtain foreign capital. John Paul did, however, ask lending nations to be generous in the way that they sought to lighten the debt burdens of many developing nations. As for your second question, debt-forgiveness would not “solve” the problems of poverty and underdevelopment in poor countries. The only long term solution is wealth-creation, rule of law, a strong regime of property rights, and rapid integration into the global economy. Realizing these goals is not simple or easy, especially in cultures that have been traditionally weak in these areas. Nor will they make change happen overnight. But, in the long term, they will work.

Are there significant differences between the ideas of John Paul II and Benedict XVI regarding the ways in which wealthy nations can help the Third World? If so, what sort of differences are there?

SIRICO: I would argue that the differences are very small.  Neither John Paul nor Benedict see protectionism as a solution – in fact, it is condemned in a number of encyclicals. The best things that wealthy nations can do are (1) open up their markets to free trade with developing nations and (2) stop behaving like neocolonialists by trying to impose population control on developing countries. Both John Paul and Benedict knew that the only “population crisis” is one of falling populations – as Europe is currently discovering. Benedict also takes the principle of subsidiarity and applies it to international investment development, which I consider one of the most innovative aspects of his own social encyclical, Caritas in Veritatis.

In terms of John Paul II’s social and economic positions, which ones are still relevant today, and which ones are now outdated?

SIRICO:  How I wish our world has learned the lesions John Paul tried to teach us about subsidiarity, human freedom in the economic realm and the moral potential for a Christian entrepreneurship!  While Real Socialism has collapsed in the form of the Soviet Union and its allies, the same errors are at work today in radical environmentalism and the political form of globalization which is really protectionism under the guise of free trade.