From the Publisher: Magnificentesimus

From his major philosophical text The Acting Person to his first social encyclical Laborem Exercens, Karol Wojtyla has been fascinated by the human capacity to originate action, by initiative and by “creative subjectivity.” His embrace of “creation theology” in Laborem Exercens led him to his articulation of “the fundamental right of personal economic initiative” in Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, and this in turn led him next to explore twentieth-century changes in the meaning of “capital.” Whereas “capital” originally referred to capita, heads of cattle, and in general the fruits of the land, and then (in Marxist thought especially) to the inanimate tools and materials of production, the term has increasingly been used to articulate the primary resource and cause of the wealth of nations, “man himself,” the human capacity for invention, initiative, organization, and other forms of knowledge and skill. This line of thought came to its fruition in Centesirnus Annus.

It is notable that John Paul II three times raised the question in Centesimus whether, after the death of socialism, the Church ought to recommend capitalism. The second time, at section 35, he wrote tentatively: “We have seen that it is unacceptable to say that the defeat of ‘Real Socialism’ leaves capitalism as the only model of economic organization.” Then he immediately asks that the poor nations be brought into the international capitalist economy of knowledge, skill, human capital, free trade, and open markets. The alternative is marginalization.

Obviously, section 35 still left him unsatisfied. For one thing, in Sollicitudo Rei Socialis he had already said that Catholic social thought offers “no third way.” If the second way has been defeated, and if there is no third way, then indeed only one way remains: capitalism, plus democracy. But here caution must be exercised. Not just any form of capitalism will do. There follows the famous section 42, beginning with the words: “Returning now to the initial question: Can it perhaps be said that, after the failure of Communism, capitalism is the victorious system . . . the model which ought to be proposed to the countries of the Third World?” First the pope offers a kind of capitalism to which to say “yes,” then another kind to which to say “no.”

The capitalism of which the pope approves is the “business economy,” “market economy,” or simply “free economy,” a system in which freedom in the economic sector is “circumscribed within a strong juridical framework which places it at the service of human freedom in its totality” (a constitutional democracy) “and which sees it as a particular aspect of that freedom whose core is ethical and religious” (a powerful moral-cultural system).

Readers of The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism will recall dozens of passages in harmony with this tripartite structure. Let one from among many suffice:

Democratic capitalism is not a “free enterprise system” alone. It cannot thrive apart from the moral culture that nourishes the virtues and values on which its existence depends. It cannot thrive apart from a democratic polity. . . . At various times in American history, both the political system and the moral-cultural system have seriously intervened, positively and negatively, in the economic system. Each of the three systems has modified the others. [pp. 56-57]

Furthermore, the limits which the pope sees in the market system are precisely the limits that “neoconservatives” also see: (1) many human needs are not met by markets; (2) some goods “cannot and must not be bought and sold”; and (3) the poor and vulnerable need resources not supplied by markets. Just the same, the pope too notes that no other economic mechanism works as well as markets to fulfill basic human needs, support liberty and cooperation, nourish creativity, and serve the common good.

Closer to the heart of the matter, the pope sees that the essential dynamic of capitalism does not lie precisely in “the market system”; it lies in “the creative subjectivity” of the human person. (Poland can declare a market system; but nothing will happen until individual persons begin exercising initiative and invention.) The pope’s articulation of this thesis, following it out through a long chain of logical connections, is sustained, sophisticated, and on target. From creative subjectivity he proceeded to the right to personal economic initiative, to the virtue of enterprise, to the theory of the business firm (“a community of persons”), to the complex of virtues required for successful entrepreneurial activity, and even to the positive role of profit.

Oswald von Nell-Breuning, S.J., observed in his commentary on Gaudium et Spes that Vatican II had unaccountably dropped the entrepreneur out of its treatment of the modern economy—speaking instead only of the employer, manager, and owner—and had thus ignored a crucial creative element. Pope John Paul II has magnificently redressed this weakness.

Furthermore, the pope’s traditional Catholic affirmation of the positive role of the state is tempered with strong language about the abuses of state power, particularly in this century of immensely swollen state power (even in democratic welfare societies). He warns against oppressive bureaucracies; against exorbitant expenses; and especially against the creation of dependent wards of the state rather than “acting persons.”

The pope has also been stressing this theme in recent sermons in southern Italy, where the Mafia controls aspects of the welfare state: “You are not condemned to underdevelopment, to unemployment and to marginalization! Your land, in addition to its natural resources, can count on a great human capital, which is incomparably more important than every other natural potential. . . . The people of Basilicata do not need a ‘distorted, dependent, welfare development, but a ‘self-motivated,’ total development.” Similarly, serious students of “the social market economy” from Germany to Sweden are raising alarums about grave dangers to liberty arising from “the social assistance state,” alarums reminiscent of Tocqueville’s discernment of “the new soft despotism” nourished in the bosom of democracies.

No less an authority than J. Bryan Hehir finds the critique of the welfare state in Centesimus Annus “puzzling.” Why? “Because the range of activities that Catholic teaching, including this encyclical, requires the state to perform, particularly in defense of the poor, is usually identical with the role ‘the welfare state’ has fulfilled in many industrial democracies.”

The lay letter, Towards the Future: Catholic Social Thought and the U.S. Economy, first published in these pages, may help to articulate the pope’s meaning: the state must come to the aid of the poor, but not necessarily by establishing great new bureaucracies, insisting on stifling rules, demanding exorbitant (often wasted) expenditures, and unintentionally encouraging birth out of wedlock and personal dependency. In coming to the aid of the poor, new methods may be found, more closely rooted in the principle of subsidiarity and the “little platoons” of neighborly social networks.

In Germany, similarly, scholars such as Hans Otto Lenel fear that bureaucracy is suffocating the original aims of the “social market economy.” They have called for a severe critique of the “social assistance state,” through a better use of federalism, subsidiarity, and personal independence.

In another matter, this journal does not stand among those who question the compatibility of Centesimus Annus with the U.S. Bishops’ pastoral letter Economic Justice for All (1986). Often I have joshed American bishops that their final draft was, after all, a “democratic capitalist document.” Archbishop Rembert G. Weakland has also welcomed Centesimus as continuous with the U.S. letter’s intentions: “The pope’s approach to capitalism is exactly the one we took.” It is therefore entirely legitimate to re-read Economic Justice for All in the light of the pope’s teaching.

All in all, Centesimus Annus breaks truly new ground. Not only does it make “creative subjectivity” the central focus of its logic and the key to its understanding of humane capitalism, it deploys its own creative spirit in practically every section. It is the most fecund, deepest, and most original of all the encyclicals in the distinguished line of which it is a part. The depth of its analysis, more than that of any other Church document of its kind, has transcended the old categories of “left” and “right.”

Moreover, the very tripartite social system central to the analysis of Centesimus Annus—a democratic polity, a capitalist or business or market or free economy, and a culture of “liberty in obedience to [the search for] truth”—allows for, and even demands, diverse emphases, each activist party becoming a check and balance to the others. It is legitimate for some to argue for new political initiatives, and for others to argue for more creative economic freedoms, and for still others to argue for moral and cultural initiatives. All three are needed, each in due proportion balancing the others in “continuous revolution.” Societas humana semper refonnanda. In the United States, in particular, a huge agenda of reform awaits us.

In this spirit, Rocco Buttiglione, one of the most learned commentators on the thought of Pope John Paul II, a philosopher who is fluent in Polish, points out that with Centesimus Annus Pope John Paul II took considerable pains to open up a dialogue with American ways of thinking about political economy. Centesimus has done so magnificently.

In the traditional Polish greeting, “Stolat . . . Stolat . . . May he—and his teaching—live a hundred years.”


Michael Novak (1933-2017) founded Crisis Magazine with Ralph McInerny in 1982. He held the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute and was a trustee and visiting professor at Ave Maria University. In 1994, he received the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. He was also an emissary to the United Nations Human Rights Commission and to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.

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