Last Updated:Friday - 09/24/2010
May 22, 2006
John Paul raised a moral voice
This month marks the 15th anniversary of the release of Pope John Paul II's landmark encyclical Centesimus Annus. While the release of an encyclical is not normally the occasion of public jubilation, Centesimus Annus is the most mature example of papal social teaching and was released at a great historical moment.
The encyclical had been in preparation for years to mark the 100th anniversary of the first social encyclical, Rerum Novarum. In the midst of those preparations, Eastern European communism collapsed, in most places with virtually no bloodshed.
Indeed, the pope himself was perhaps the most important actor precipitating this unanticipated fall of a system which had failed so totally in its dream of creating a workers' paradise.
Recall the hopeful spirit of 1989. People danced in the streets, tore down the Berlin Wall and looked forward to an era of peace and freedom. In the West, there was hope for a "peace dividend" - the end of the Cold War was seen as a time when military spending would be cut back sharply and the money put into building more just societies.
Pope John Paul fed those hopes with Centesimus Annus. But the encyclical was far more realistic than euphoric. The pope gave a conditioned endorsement to the free market as "the most efficient instrument for utilizing resources and effectively responding to needs." Some commentators twisted those words into a baptizing of American capitalism as God's chosen system.
But the pope insisted "the human inadequacies of capitalism and the resulting domination of things over people are far from disappearing." Poorer nations are unable to gain fair access to the international market, those nations have staggering debts and the market cannot meet many human needs. Capitalism fosters consumerism which leads to an overuse of the world's resources and destruction of the environment.
A moral framework must guide capitalism, in particular a principle the pope called "the universal destination of all goods." At heart, this principle is theological. It means that God created the earth for the benefit of all and that all must have a share in the fruits of creation.
This principle has not yet caught on. While China and India have begun to become economic powerhouses, numerous other poor nations have no prospect of economic development.
The much-vaunted peace dividend failed to materialize, a testament to the power of the war machine to grab a vast portion of society's resources even in peacetime. Then came 9/11, a true threat to be sure, but one that was manipulated to the interests of those who benefit from an ongoing arms buildup.
Was Centesimus Annus worth it? Well, since 1991, the world's nations have adopted the millennium development goals - a pledge to cut global poverty in half by 2015. Those goals are not exactly being pursued with fervour, but they at least point out a direction.
More deeply, the Church must speak and speak again. It does so not to propose a third way between capitalism and communism, but to defend the dignity of the human person. If the Church's words fall on deaf ears, it must still raise its voice. For while it may appear those words change nothing, it is only words and ideas that alter the world for the better.
Centesimus Annus was not the final word. Since 1991, the environmental crisis has become more intense and the rise of China and India press the question: Is it possible to sustain a global economy in which all peoples enjoy North American levels of affluence?
It is not within the competence of the Church to give a neat answer to such a question, but Centesimus Annus underlines the importance of the Church's raising its moral voice. Pope John Paul showed the Church is not condemned to be a bystander to history. It can make a difference, a difference for the better.
- Glen Argan
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