A Tour of Catholic Social Teaching

Democracy, the Market and the Primacy of Culture

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Catholic social doctrine is often misunderstood and as often, simply ignored. A new book seeks to remedy this by providing an overview of more than a century of papal writings.

“For a long time to come, this book may well be the definitive work on the economic teaching of the modern popes,” declared Michael Novak in his preface to “Papal Economics: The Catholic Church on Democratic Capitalism, From Rerum Novarum to Caritas in Veritate.” (ISI Books)

It is written by Maciej Zieba, OP, a Polish Dominican priest, who was a good friend of John Paul II. He is a founder of the Kraków-based Tertio Millennio Institute, set up in 1996 to serve as a forum for the exchange of ideas and in particular to examine the Church’s social teaching.

Zieba explained that his book seeks to correct the misconceptions about the Church’s teachings on economics. He also argued that the social encyclicals display a continuity that many have missed.

For example, already in 1891 Rerum Novarum contained a strong rejection of socialism. In general the encyclicals endorse the market economy, but they also point out the dangers that exist.

While the 1931 encyclical Quadragesimo Anno was written in the context of a world economic depression Pope Pius XI’s criticism of the failings of liberalism did not mean he was any less critical of socialism, Zieba pointed out. The Pope also rejected a more moderate form of socialism in a combination with Christianity.

Thirty years later John XXIII published Mater et Magistra. It contained a defense of private property and business, but also expressed a desire to humanize work relationships.

Not a third way

Zieba goes on to look at subsequent social encyclicals but always within the context of a point he made at the beginning. The Church, he explained, does not endorse particular social institutions. “It reminds us, more broadly, of the relationships between man, society, and the state and of the pre-eminence of culture over politics and economics.”

John Paul II also explained in his 1987 encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis: “The church’s social doctrine is not a ‘third way’ between liberal capitalism and Marxist collectivism.” Instead it is in a category of its own based on complex human realities, faith and the Church’s tradition.

Following the overview of the encyclicals from 1891 to 1987 the bulk of the book consists in a detailed analysis of John Paul II’s 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus, which, as many have observed, is notable for its qualified approval of the free market.

A concluding chapter takes Zieba’s survey up to Benedict XVI’s encyclical Caritas in Veritate. According to Zieba it evokes more the spirit of Pope Paul VI’s Populorum Progressio than John Paul II’s writings.

One of the main issues highlighted by Benedict XVI is globalization. In particular he mentioned two problems related to culture. The first is a cultural eclecticism, which leads to cultures being seen as substantially equivalent and interchangeable. The second is a cultural leveling that leads to an indiscriminate acceptance of all types of conduct.

According to Zieba Benedict XVI’s encyclical is often in accord with Centesimus Annus, but it has a more negative assessment of the modern economy.

Transcendent truth

In his closing reflections Zieba returns to the contribution Centesimus Annus has made to social teaching. In one part he asked if a liberal culture, economy and politics will seek to eliminate transcendent truth from public life.

John Paul II, he commented, did affirm that it is possible to build a free society that would also respect the absolute.

There are, however, difficulties in reconciling the two, Zieba admitted. The influence of the Enlightenment thinkers and the more recent impact of secularization has widened the gap between Catholic thought and liberalism.

As John Paul II pointed out, the problem with the trend towards individualism and relativism is that it undermines liberalism itself both in terms of politics and the economy.

In Centesimus Annus John Paul II argued that the market economy needed to recognize the importance of transcendent truth and a common vision of the dignity of man.

“Where the Christian culture gave shape to freedom by associating it with responsibility, the Enlightenment culture produced an ideology of liberty according to which freedom is justified by itself,” Zieba observed.

Yet, as John Paul II noted in Centesimus Annus, “in a world without truth, freedom loses its foundation.”

Zieba shows how the social encyclicals of the Church have gone far beyond commentaries on current problems in the economy, as they have drawn attention to the underlying truths about the human person.

In this way, Zieba concluded, the Church can provide vital assistance to liberal culture by insisting on the need to keep freedom and truth united. It remains to be seen, he added, if this offer will be accepted.

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Fr. John Flynn

Australia Bachelor of Arts from the University of New South Wales. Licence in Philosophy from the Pontifical Gregorian University. Bachelor of Arts in Theology from the Queen of the Apostles.

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