Grasping the authentic significance of Centesimus Annus requires two approaches. First, one must read the encyclical on its own merits, independently of previous papal teaching. As objectively as possible, one can exegete its various passages to discern its thrust and priorities. Then one must read the document in the context of previous social pronouncements by the magisterium over the past 100 years and see what new themes, developments, and directions the present encyclical initiates.
When read for its own sake, Centesimus Annus emerges as an uncompromising rejection of collectivism in its Marxist, communist, socialist, and even welfare-statist manifestations. While the encyclical allows for a certain amount of intervention by the state in such areas as wage levels, social security, unemployment insurance, and the like (always according to subsidiarity and only for the sake of the common good), Centesimus Annus also expresses repeated concern for observing the principle of subsidiarity and warns against the effects of intervention on both the economic prosperity of a nation and the dignity and rights of each person.
Centesimus Annus, then, indicates a decided preference for what it calls the business economy, market economy, or free economy, rooted in a legal, ethical, and religious framework. While it rejects the notion that such a free economic system meets all human needs, it distinguishes the economic system from the ethical and cultural context in which it exists. In this way, Centesimus Annus can criticize the excesses of materialism and consumerism and still endorse a free economy as being essentially in accord with Christianity.
A second way of reading this encyclical reveals it as an even more dramatic document. When it is read with an awareness of modern Roman Catholic social thought, beginning with Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum, its historical import surfaces. Centesimus Annus demonstrates the greatest depth of economic understanding and the most deliberate (and least critical) embrace of the system of free exchange on the part of Catholic teaching authority in 100 years, and possibly since the Reformation period. Moreover, it contains a modern appreciation for the dynamic nature of free exchange and the way in which wealth is produced.
When seen in this way, Centesimus Annus represents the beginning of a shift away from the static, zero-sum economic worldview that led the church to be suspicious of the system of free exchange and to argue for wealth distribution as the only moral response to poverty. Clearly, John Paul II has incorporated the developments in economic science since the time of Keynes. Not only does the encyclical synthesize advances in economics with Catholic normative principles, but it also reaffirms the autonomy of economics as a legitimate and positive discipline.
Centesimus Annus indicates a turn toward authentic human liberty as a principle for social organization on the part of the Catholic Church. Thus a new dialogue has begun. Centesimus Annus has opened the church to a vigorous dialogue with the idea of economic liberty. It is an idea that began with Catholic scholarship as seen in the Scholastics; it is fitting that this pope should retrieve it..
This column first appeared in the 2001 May – June issue of Religion & Liberty.
Rev. Robert A. Sirico is president of the Acton Institute for the Study and Liberty, in Grand Rapids, Michigan.