Skip to main content
Listen to Acton content on the go by downloading the Radio Free Acton podcast! Listen Now

This year marks the tenth anniversary of John Paul II's most important social encyclical, Centesimus Annus. Taking its name from the first two words of the Latin text, the title means “the hundredth anniversary” and is a reference to Rerum Novarum, Pope Leo XIII's 1891 encyclical on the condition of the working classes.

Rerum Novarum was the most important social encyclical of Leo's pontificate, which lasted from 1878 to 1903. Rerum Novarum's moral insight into the social, economic, and moral questions of Leo's time was remarkable both because of the way the encyclial clarified the teaching of the church on the social questions of its day and because it helped once again to make the church an important voice regarding social issues after a period of apparent retreat.

John Paul's teaching in Centesimus Annus is likely to have equal long-term importance. Like its predecessor, Centesimus Annus clarifies in detail the teaching of the church on contemporary social, economic, and political questions, solidly building on the teaching of the Scriptures and the tradition of the church while moving the church's social teaching in a new direction.

Even after ten years, much of what is innovative and profound about Centesimus Annus has not yet been absorbed fully. My guess is that most Roman Catholics, even those who attend mass regularly and are active in their parishes, know little about the encyclical. And I imagine most non-Catholics know even less of this important document.

Nonetheless, Centesimus Annus has received a good deal of attention from a range of writers and intellectuals interested in the intersection between Christian faith and economics. Business leaders who have studied the encyclical very often find it surprisingly engaging. Typing “Centesimus Annus” into various Internet search engines will produce between two thousand and twenty thousand results. Moreover, conferences have been devoted to it, books written about it, and college courses dedicated to exploring its significance. Ten years after its publications, I find four key elements that are most remarkable about Centesimus Annus.

First, the encyclical integrates the social teaching of the church, holding together a scriptural foundation with the teachings of the popes over the last century. Against those who tend to divide Catholic teaching into two parts (pre—Vatican II versus post—Vatican II), Centesimus Annus shows that there is really a single, unifying theme that holds the church's social teaching together: the dignity of the human person as created in God's image. The theme of the dignity of the human person is present in the first chapter of Genesis, and it permeates the Gospel account of Christ's willingness to die for the sins of everyone. The genius of Leo's 1891 encyclical was his ability to apply the notion of human dignity to the social questions of his day. Likewise, John Paul takes the same theme, shows how the church has constantly emphasized it, and applies it to our time.

A New Framework

Second, Centesimus Annus is extraordinary in the way it reconfigures the basic framework for Catholic social teaching. Ever since 1891, almost every social encyclical has been framed in terms of an argument against two dominant social philosophies: individualism and socialism. After examining the deficiencies of each, past encyclicals went on to show how an emphasis on the dignity of the human person could be applied to that period's contemporary situation. Centesimus Annus departs from that pattern, in part because socialism has nearly disappeared since 1989.

Centesimus Annus includes a chapter-long reflection on the death of communistic socialism. Since John Paul played a significant role in bringing about the end of communism in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, this is one of the most intriguing parts of the encyclical. It reads like the account of a humble knight recalling the slaying of a dragon: “It was going to die anyway.” Though communism has not vanished completely from the world scene, it is virtually extinct as a significant moral and cultural vision of how to organize a just society.

Therefore, it no longer makes sense to frame Catholic social teaching against the backdrop of rejected social philosophies. The new framework for Catholic social teaching is a proposal for a free society, a new framework that responds to the question, How shall we best order our lives on earth (as we await Christ's return) in a manner that will bring about a free and just society befitting the dignity of the human person? The answer is that we need a free culture, a free market, and a free polity. This three-part model of the free society, described in detail in Centesimus Annus, is the new framework for Catholic social teaching.

This model of a free and virtuous society is perhaps the most profound contribution of the encyclical. This model is deeply grounded both in the Scriptures and in earlier social encyclicals, yet these basic distinctions, made explicit in Centesimus Annus, are easily forgotten or ignored. For example, consider the following statements, indicative of the kind that American religious leaders regularly make:

• Society must ensure that basic rights are protected.

• Society has an obligation to take positive steps to overcome a legacy of injustice.

• Society must combat discrimination.

• Society has a duty to provide employment for all people able to work.

• Society must address the increase in violence.

In each of these assertions, it is unclear exactly what is meant by the term society. Each statement lends itself to the assumption that society refers to social authorities, which, in turn, is understood as the government. John Paul, then, does a great service in helping clarify what the parts of society are and how they ought to relate to each other.

Perhaps John Paul is so careful to distinguish between the three social spheres because of his experience as a Pole, especially as a priest and bishop who lived under communist rule. Poland has a long history as a nation distinct from the governing power of the state. In the eighteenth century, Poland endured repeated partitions until the state of Poland ceased to exist. However, Polish culture continued to flourish, even under foreign rule. The language of the people, their customs and habits, their family life and religion–all remained cherished, even though the state of Poland did not exist from 1797 until 1918.

With this history and experience, Poles were able to retain their identity when attacked by the Nazis in 1939 and when under the influence of Soviet rule from 1945 to 1989. Poles withstood the takeover of their government and economy by retaining their culture–that is, their language, literature, music, families, and faith.

A Tripartite Framework

For a Pole with the background of John Paul, claims such as those previously mentioned–that society has obligations to protect rights, redress wrongs, and provide jobs–raise questions about which sphere of society has what specific obligations to respond to which needs. To sort out these questions, John Paul devotes one chapter to the market and another to state and culture.

The fourth chapter is a detailed consideration of the market economy. After the fall of communism, the business economy now stands as the reigning economic system. A significant part of John Paul's reflection on the market economy is an effort to show that the free market is based in the freedom of the person. He does not affirm the unlimited market of nineteenth-century laissez-faire capitalism, which places no restraints on the market; instead, he affirms a market economy bounded by a free culture and a free polity.

The fifth chapter is a meditation on the manner in which both state and culture provide such bounds. “Economic activity, especially the activity of a market economy, cannot be conducted in an institutional, juridical, or political vacuum,” he writes. “On the contrary, it presupposes sure guarantees of individual freedom and private property as well as a stable currency and efficient public services” (no. 48). John Paul proceeds to outline the way in which the state can legitimately practice its legislative, executive, and juridical functions; however, he also emphasizes that this role of the state is limited.

One task of the state is overseeing the exercise of human rights. However, as John Paul cautions, “primary responsibility in this area belongs not to the state, but to individuals and to the various groups and associations which make up society.” The reason this is so, he explains, is that “the state could not directly ensure the right to work for all its citizens unless it controlled every aspect of economic life and restricted the free initiative of individuals” (no. 48). In other words, there is a role for the state in the task of promoting social responsibility, but this role should be limited so that it does not hinder economic and civic freedom.

While the marketplace is to be bounded on one side by a free polity (with political leaders subject to the election process and accountable to their constituents), it is to be bordered by a free culture on the other. According to John Paul, culture includes the family and the many associations and groups situated between the individual and the state. These groups, which allow more personal contact than the state, can exert moral influence on those who make social and economic decisions. This emphasis on communities of virtue is central to the novel tripartite framework presented in Centesimus Annus: a moral-cultural sphere that promotes authentic freedom and virtue, and well as a free market and a free polity.

Third, in one of the most creative applications of this new framework, John Paul II makes it clear that the church affirms the free market. Over the past thirty years, American religious thinkers have had a strongly negative view of the marketplace. Some of this is easily explained. The education of seminarians has rarely included the study of economics. Further, there has been a strong tendency in certain circles to borrow liberationist themes that flow from a Marxist analysis of economics and that are aggressively anti-business.

Against this background, Centesimus Annus speaks with a new voice. It is not a pro-business document (though it is pro-market), nor does it claim that the church should be run like a business or demand that church leaders have experience in making business decisions. Instead, it is a reflection on the dignity of the human person, a reflection that proceeds in four steps: from human dignity to authentic freedom to economic freedom to an affirmation of the market economy.

The Free Society and the Culture of Life

The driving concern of the encyclical is the dignity of the human person, a dignity given to all humans since they are created in the image of God. Because all human persons have been given the gift of freedom, they are all capable of making their own choices about how to respond to their vocation to return to God in freedom. This freedom demands a universal respect that each person owes to every other.

Economic activity is one sector in the great variety of human activities. Since every human action flows from the person's power of self-determination, and since economic activity is one kind of personal action, the free market is a system that accords with the freedom of the person. In this manner, John Paul shows how an understanding of the human person as a being created in God's image and endowed with the capacity for self-determining freedom leads to an affirmation of the market economy and an emphasis on the moral responsibilities of the proper use of that freedom.

At a time when many religious leaders tend to deride the economic sector as dismal and dirty, John Paul elevates it and challenges us to morally examine our economic decisions and ask whether they are authentic and responsible expressions of the gift of freedom.

Fourth, Centesimus Annus makes it clear that the key to a free society is not economics or politics but culture. For example, according to John Paul, the main lesson to be drawn from the collapse of communism is not an economic or political one but a cultural one. The problem with communism was not simply long lines for toilet paper and bread, nor was it simply that the political system produced rulers who were totalitarian tyrants. Rather, the main problem was the spiritual void that communism produced in the culture. Marxism promised to uproot the need for God from the human heart, but the results of this experiment proved that this is impossible. Every single human action, even buying bread or toilet paper, includes a spiritual component, since the human person is created as a free being ordered toward truth.

The key to the free society, then, is a culture that promotes the dignity of human life. In contemporary American society, many people have come to think that freedom means being able to have and do whatever one wants. For example, consumerism is a distortion of authentic freedom because it makes us slaves to our desires, even to the point that it promotes a culture of death.

The lesson of the fall of communism is not that we need a new economics or a new politics. Every human person is given freedom as a gift to be used to pursue the truth, especially the ultimate truth, which is God. Centesimus Annus, now a decade old, teaches us that the primary task of working for social justice lies at the level of the human heart and involves promoting the culture of life.

Most Read

Gregory R. Beabout is an adjunct scholar with the Acton Institute's Center for Academic Research and associate professor of philosophy at Saint Louis University.