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Centesimus Annus in Retrospective

The first issue of Religion & Liberty appeared in January 1991–auspiciously, the same year in which Pope John Paul II promulgated his encyclical letter Centesimus Annus, a meditation of the nature of freedom in its many forms and its role in the modern world. That encyclical prompted a wide-scale debate on the moral foundations of the free society. Since its founding, the Acton Institute has been a part of this vigorous debate, often conducted in the pages of Religion & Liberty . For Centesimus Annus's tenth anniversary, we are focusing this issue on that encyclical and its impact, including the following excerpts from some of the conversations we have had over the years with religious and academic leaders.

The Honorable William E. Simon , author of A Time for Truth, was Secretary of the Treasury from 1974 to 1977. He was interviewed for Religion & Liberty's September/October 1991 issue. He passed away on June 3 2000.

R&L: We have frequently heard the phrase “preferential option for the poor.” What does this mean to you? Can it be accomplished in a free-market, non-interventionist society?

Simon: Somebody once said that preferential option for the poor sounds like a bad English translation of a bad Spanish translation of a dumb German idea. And there is no question that the preferential option has been used to promote a socialist agenda and state-centered development schemes in the Third World. But I think the pope has taken a decisive step in the right direction with Centesimus Annus, which stresses that the poor are empowered best through participation in a free economy. That is what I mean by a preferential option for the poor: getting poor people off welfare and into productive work.The best way to do this is by letting the free enterprise system thrive.…

One of the most important teachings of Centesimus Annus is that countries are poor not because they have a particular monetary system or because they have been exploited by the developed world but because they are cut off from the world market. Foreign aid is rarely effective in promoting development.… We know that private enterprise is the only way to create lasting development; socialist “development” means creating an oligarchy of government or military bureaucrats sitting on top of a country of serfs.

Rev. Richard John Neuhaus , president of the Institute on Religion and Public Life and editor-in-chief of First Things , was interviewed for Religion & Liberty's September/October 1993 issue.

R&L: Can you briefly describe what you call the “new capitalism” of Centesimus Annus? Does this encyclical represent a shift in Catholic social teaching?

Neuhaus: The new capitalism that the Holy Father describes in Centesimus Annus is intended, as I understand it, to distinguish what he is proposing from the capitalism at the early period of the industrialization process. This “new capitalism” is marked by a keen appreciation of the need to maintain a vibrant and critical interaction between economics, culture, and politics. It must be emphasized that of those three, culture is the most important, and that at the heart of culture is morality, and at the heart of morality is religion. So this new capitalism is in many ways what writers such as Michael Novak describe as democratic capitalism. It is an idea that is historically embodied in a number of advanced societies, not least of all the United States. This is a very significant development in Catholic social teaching that will, in my judgment, nurture a new phase of Catholic social thought with respect to the relationship between a Christian anthropology and a Christian understanding of history as it relates to economics and political justice.

Michael Novak holds the Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute and was the 1994 recipient of the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. He was interviewed for Religion & Liberty's May/June 1994 issue.

R&L: What is so significant about Pope John Paul II's encyclical Centesimus Annus? Could you put it in the context of past social encyclicals?

Novak: The Hundredth Year, to refer to it by its English title, really succeeds in being a critical reflection on the best of the preceding hundred years of papal social thought. It draws together the most creative and effective tendencies in that history, setting aside the wrong turns and the tentative gropings that were not so successful. It is also distinguished for finding a deeper starting point and conceptual apparatus, which permit the author to produce a new synthesis previously unseen in any other single work of religious reflection on the economy. Finally, it comments quite succinctly on the reasons for the collapse of socialism that became evident in 1989. By section 42, the Holy Father considers the consequences of that collapse and asks, “After the collapse of socialism, should we recommend capitalism to the bishops of the rest of the world?” Here again, the Holy Father says, “That depends on what you mean by capitalism,” and he makes a very astute separation between the political, the economic, and the moral/cultural components of the free society. He offers a unified vision of how the three relate to one another. He then proceeds to make a cultural critique of the existing order, and reveals an ecology of the free society–a moral ecology–which I think opens up the battle ground of the future. So, in short, I think his conceptual apparatus is deeper and his tools are truer for work of great precision, and the commentary on the events that happened in our time is more exactly on target, than previous works.

George Weigel , senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and author of Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II , was interviewed for Religion & Liberty's March/April 1996 issue.

R&L: What will be the implications of the papacy of John Paul II for future Catholic social teaching? And as we approach the five-year anniversary of Pope John Paul II's encyclical Centesimus Annus, what do you see as its greatest achievement?

Weigel: Centesimus Annus is, with Leo XIII's Rerum Novarum (1891) and Pius XI's Quadragesimo Anno (1931), one of the three great texts of modern Catholic social teach ing. But Centesimus Annus did more than recapitulate the teaching of John Paul II's predecessors; it also set the social doctrine of the Church on a new path by its endorsement of the free economy, its empirical sensitivity on questions of economic development, and its insistence that a vibrant, publicly assertive moral-cultural order is essential to the functioning of the free economy and the democratic political community. Catholics, and indeed everyone interested in the relationship between moral truth and the free society, will be wrestling with Centesimus Annus for at least a century.

R&L: How has this encyclical transformed the public conversation about the nature of rights and duties in modern democratic regimes?

Weigel: It has helped transform that conversation by reigniting a discussion of the link between rights and duties or obligations. Over the past several generations, Americans had begun to think of “rights” as merely instrumental: trump cards, if you will, for advancing the claims of what Father Neuhaus has called the “imperial autonomous Self.” This emptied the notion of “rights” of its proper moral content. John Paul II, by emphasizing that freedom finds its fulfillment in goodness, not in mere “process,” has helped us to re-engage the idea that rights are means for the fulfillment of our duties. Or, as your patron, Lord Acton, said, freedom is “having the right to do what we ought.”

Peter Berger is director of the Institute for the Study of Economic Culture and professor of sociology at Boston University. He was interviewed for Religion & Liberty's July/August 1996 issue.

R&L: In Centesimus Annus the Pope calls for a vibrant market economy circumscribed by strong moral and juridical frameworks. How do you interpret “strong moral and juridical frameworks”? Is there ever a reason for direct government intervention in the economy?

Berger: It's not for me to interpret what Centesimus Annus means or what the Pope meant. It is very clear, though, what “juridical frameworks” means, and you can see this in Russia where there is an effort to create a market economy but the juridical framework isn't there. You need the juridical framework for such things like property law, law of contracts, a reliable taxation system, reasonably non-corrupt government offices, so it is very clear and there is overwhelming evidence for that.

In terms of a moral framework, of course the market economy, like every other human institution, is based on certain moral assumptions. Take a very simple assumption: if people sign a contract, they will live up to it. So certainly you need a moral framework for any economy to work, including a market economy. But just what that moral framework has to be, I'm not completely sure. I'm speaking now not as an ethical theorist but as a social scientist. It is possible, even if it makes one a little uncomfortable, that different moral frameworks are functional at different stages of economic history.

Recently elevated to cardinal, Avery Dulles, S.J. , holds the Laurence J. McGinley Chair in Religion and Society at Fordham University. He was interviewed for Religion & Liberty's May/June 1999 issue.

R&L: Pope John Paul II, in his Encyclical Letter Centesimus Annus, noted that, “The individual today is often suffocated between the two poles represented by the state and the market.” You have noted that the way out of this modern dilemma is the strengthening of culture. Could you elaborate?

Dulles: The political and economic orders, important though they obviously are, do not exhaust the reality of human life and human society. They deal only with particular aspects of life in community. More fundamental than either is the order of culture, which deals with the meaning and goal of human existence in its full range. Culture shapes and expresses our ideas and attitudes regarding all the typical human experiences, and in so doing touches on the transcendent mystery that engulfs us and draws us to itself. In our century, the order of culture has often been subjugated either to political or to economic interests. The state sometimes seeks to use sports events, education, the arts, communications, or religion to support its ideology. Alternatively, business and industry strive to turn cultural activities into profit-making enterprises. This latter tendency is particularly manifest in “consumerist” societies such as ours in the United States. Culture should, however, be oriented toward the True, the Beautiful, and the Good. Whenever these transcendentals are instrumentalized by the search for power and wealth, civilization is degraded.…

R&L: How do you perceive Catholic social teaching influencing debate in the public square?

Dulles: … Catholic social teaching is not an exercise in economics, politics, or sociology. It seeks to set forth the principles required by fidelity to the moral law and to the gospel. It emphasizes human solidarity, concern for peace, care for the poor, and personal freedom.