TCS Daily

The Dominating Prophet of Freedom

By Stephen Bainbridge - April 4, 2005 12:00 AM

John Paul II will be remembered as a great Pope for many reasons, not the least of which will be his standing as the 20th Century's dominating prophet of freedom. In his encyclical Centesimus Annus (CA), for example, the Holy Father insisted that "the good of the individual [cannot] be realized without reference to his free choice, to the unique and exclusive responsibility which he exercises in the face of good or evil." Elsewhere in CA, he further affirmed that "the transcendent dignity of the human person who, as the visible image of the invisible God, is therefore by his very nature the subject of rights which no one may violate...."

In the economic sphere, John Paul's philosophical and theological commitment to human dignity and freedom, no doubt coupled with his personal experience of Nazi and Communist tyranny, led him to decisively break Catholic social teaching's flirtation with command economies and, indeed, Marxism.

Michael Novak, the preeminent Catholic lay scholar of theology and the economy, aptly complained that pre-John Paul theologians tended to be poorly trained in economics and inexperienced with the business world. Hence, as he argued in his minor classic Toward a Theology of the Corporation, church leaders were "likely to inherit either a pre-capitalist or a frankly socialist set of ideals about political economy." Consequently, theologians were "more likely to err in this territory than in most others."

The embrace of socialism by liberation theology, especially in Latin America, represented the most egregious example of that tendency. Yet, the same errors prevailed among the hierarchy even in the United States; most notably in Economic Justice for All, the US Conference of Bishops' 1986 pastoral letter on economic justice.

Nobel laureate Milton Friedman no doubt went a bit over the top when he complained that "the collectivist moral strain that pervades [Economic Justice for All] is repellant." At the very least, however, it is difficult to quibble with Robert Benne's observation that the Bishops produced a document that sounded a lot like "the platforms of European social democratic parties."

In several key encyclicals on Catholic social teaching, John Paul II put paid to these statist and collectivist tendencies. In CA, he made plain that "compromise between Marxism and Christianity" was "impossible." Why? Because, as we have seen, the Pontiff was deeply committed to a theology of human dignity, which he recognized was profoundly offended by socialism's emphasis on the State:

        Socialism considers the individual person simply as an element, a molecule 
        within the social organism, so that the good of the individual is completely 
        subordinated to the functioning of the socio-economic mechanism. 
        Socialism likewise maintains that the good of the individual can be realized 
        without reference to his free choice, to the unique and exclusive responsibility 
        which he exercises in the face of good or evil. Man is thus reduced to 
        a series of social relationships, and the concept of the person as the 
        autonomous subject of moral decision disappears, the very subject 
        whose decisions build the social order. From this mistaken conception 
        of the person there arise both a distortion of law, which defines the sphere 
        of the exercise of freedom, and an opposition to private property. A person who 
        is deprived of something he can call "his own", and of the possibility of 
        earning a living through his own initiative, comes to depend on the social 
        machine and on those who control it. This makes it much more difficult for 
        him to recognize his dignity as a person, and hinders progress towards 
        the building up of an authentic human community.

        In contrast, from the Christian vision of the human person there necessarily 
        follows a correct picture of society. According to ... the whole social 
        doctrine of the Church, the social nature of man is not completely fulfilled in 
        the State, but is realized in various intermediary groups, beginning with the 
        family and including economic, social, political and cultural groups which 
        stem from human nature itself and have their own autonomy, always 
        with a view to the common good.

It was this belief system that the led John Paul to reject the misbegotten Ostpolitik of his immediate predecessors, to embrace the Solidarity movement, and to purge liberation theology from the Church's social teaching. By translating this theology into practice, and thereby helping to end the era of Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, the Pope thus made a vast contribution to the cause of human freedom.

Yet, John Paul II could be just as caustic in his criticism of capitalism, which he condemned for its materialism and consumerism. In CA, he damned corporate profits with faint praise by dismissing them as a mere "indicator that a business is functioning well." Indeed, he recognized that workplaces organized "so as to ensure maximum returns and profits with no concern whether the worker, through his own labor, grows or diminishes as a person," alienate workers and impinge upon their dignity as persons no less than does the power of the State in a command economy.

John Paul thus called the Church to find what some have erroneously called a "third way" between capitalism and socialism.[*] In his social teaching, work is seen as a means by which we collaborate in God's on-going act of creation. The Creator hid untold riches and possibilities within His creation, which it is Man's vocation to discover and develop through work. Man's capacity for creativity thus is one of the ways in which he was made in God's image. This innate capacity, however, requires development. Accordingly, or so John Paul II taught, work is not only a process by which we collaborate in God's creative transformation of the world, but also by which we ourselves are transformed into a more fully human person.

Unfortunately, like many Biblical prophets, John Paul proved far more effective as a social critic than as designer of social and economic systems. It is clear that he anticipates a role for the State; as Gloria Zúñiga observed:

        The state has an indirect role, according to the principle of subsidiarity, 
        "by creating favorable conditions for the free exercise of economic 
        activity, which will lead to abundant opportunities for employment and sources 
        of wealth" (15.5). And the state has a direct role, according to the principle 
        of solidarity, "by defending the weakest, by placing certain limits on the 
        autonomy of parties who determine working conditions, and by ensuring in 
        every case the necessary minimum support for the unemployed worker" (15.5).

Yet, John Paul II's social doctrines never fully defined the precise parameters pursuant to which the State and the market should sort out their respective roles. Indeed, CA expressly stated that the "church has no models to present."

Despite his reputation in the media as a theological authoritarian, we thus find that John Paul II's great legacy in the economic sphere is one of lay involvement. As the Catechism reissued on his watch emphasized, the Church especially encourages lay initiative "when the matter involves discovering or inventing the means for permeating social, political, and economic realities with the demands of Christian doctrine and life."

John Paul thus functioned as a pathfinder, blazing a path that all the faithful -- but especially the laity -- are called both to follow but also to refine. Like all great prophets, he left us moral markers that we now must translate into viable prudential judgments by which we answer CA's call to place "freedom in the economic sector ... at the service of human freedom in its totality."

[*] In his encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, John Paul emphasized that: "The Church's social doctrine is not a 'third way' between liberal capitalism and Marxist collectivism, nor even a possible alternative to other solutions less radically opposed to one another: rather, it constitutes a category of its own."



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