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A Preferential Option for Liberty

This special issue of Religion and Liberty offers our readers a sampling of initial reactions to the encyclical letter of Pope John Paul II which commemorates the hundredth anniversary of the inauguration of modern Catholic social teaching.

Our prediction is that Centesimus Annus (The Hundredth Year) will have a monumentally positive impact on the discussion of the relationship between religion and freedom. This discussion will revolve around the proper ordering of civil society, the role and limits of governmental intervention into economic activity, and the ultimate source of wealth creation: the human mind.

These are, of course, matters that the Acton Institute is attempting to raise. We are overjoyed with the document.

Yet a vigorous debate looms ahead. Already the theological spin doctors are attempting to mute this robust embrace of the free economy on the part of Christendom’s largest denomination. Look for these commentators to attempt to interpret the document as retaining a large role for state interference into economic matters.

Our work is cut out for us. And the task is an ecumenical one. Centesimus Annus is addressed to all “men and women of good will,” and the issues of poverty, the abuse of governmental power and authentic human liberty are surely issues which impact people in all societies, regardless of their faith commitment. The Acton Institute’s programs, symposia and monographs are designed to address the issues the pope raises as we seek to educate tomorrow’s religious leaders in the tenets of classical liberalism.

John Paul, himself no stranger to the inability of a command economy to provide for the needs of people, shows that the problem of interventionism is both a technical and a moral one. It is technical in the sense that socialism, and its variants, is inefficient. It is moral when it is understood that the rights to “private initiative, to ownership of property, and to freedom in the economic sector,” to use the pope’s words, are human rights.

As we see it , the empirical debate is over, having ended with the collapse of socialism. The moral debate, however, continues.

In the months and years ahead numerous articles, scholarly papers and books will be written about this dramatic development in Catholic social doctrine. No doubt studies will be forthcoming as to the sources the pope and his aids relied on in drafting Centesimus Annus.

One thing stands out very clearly to us. This document speaks with an American accent. We believe that in the same way that the American experiment influenced the drafting of the document of the Second Vatican Council, “On Religious Liberty,” through the writings of the American Jesuit John Courtney Murray, so Centesimus Annus depends, to some extent, on American insights.

For anyone who has read Centesimus Annus and is familiar with the writings of Michael Novak, particularly The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism and Free Persons and the Common Good, this contention will not appear farfetched.

In 1984 Spirit was translated and illegally published in the then Communist Poland. When the publishers asked Mr. Novak, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and member of the Board of Advisors of the Acton Institute, what kind of remuneration he required, his request was simple: a copy of the edition for himself, and that a second copy be placed in the hands of the Polish pope.

The Polish Consul General in New York, Jerzy Surdykowsky recently confirmed the impact of Mr. Novak’s writings saying that he “has had a tremendous intellectual influence on two generations of Poles.”

Centesimus Annus will grow in significance and importance as we approach the millennium. The immediate controversies such as those surrounding the consistency between the papal document and the American bishops’ 1986 letter on the U. S. economy will largely fade as the broader shift this document represents begins to emerge. This clear and authoritative development now places the Catholic Church firmly on the side of economic liberty. Indeed, throughout the document, there appears to be what might be called a “preferential option for liberty,” because economic liberty is the only way to benefit the poor.

Religion–Catholic, Protestant and Jewish–has played a critical role in the downfall of collectivism in its communist, socialist and fascist manifestations, which, arguably, has constituted the bloodiest and darkest period of human history.

This pope, who has emerged from under the rubble of the colossal wreck of authoritarian rule, will be judged as prescient in teaching that ordered liberty is the greatest protector of human dignity.