The Enduring Importance of Centesimus Annus

Amidst the excitement of John Paul II’s beatification on May 1, the 20th anniversary of the late pope’s most important social encyclical, Centesimus Annus, got a bit lost. Blessed John Paul II was not a man given to rubbing it in. Still, it is worth noting that the encyclical, which celebrated the collapse of European communism and probed the social, cultural, economic, and political terrain of the post-communist world, was dated on May Day, the great public holiday of the communist movement. It was a subtle but unmistakable reminder that, in the contest between the Catholic Church and communism, someone had won and someone else had lost.

Twenty years after it was issued, Centesimus Annus remains a hard encyclical to swallow for those whose politics require them to defend the constant growth of the welfare state, and to identify such bureaucratic and budgetary growth with compassion for the poor. The encyclical was also a sign of contradiction to those who had long insisted that Catholic social doctrine proposed some “third way” that was neither communism’s state ownership of the means of production nor the free market of the liberal democracies. By abandoning “Catholic third way” fantasies, Centesimus Annus firmly anchored the Church’s teaching on economic life in the realities of the post-industrial global economy while insisting (as the social doctrine had, all along), that economic decisions, like political decisions, are always subject to careful moral scrutiny.

What else did Centesimus Annus teach that remains urgent and relevant today?

John Paul taught that what the Church proposes is not simply the free society, but the free and virtuous society. It takes a certain kind of people, possessed of certain virtues, to make free politics and free economics work toward genuine human flourishing. Democracy and the market are not machines that can run by themselves, so a vibrant public moral-cultural life is essential to disciplining both the market and democratic politics. In fact, in the Catholic vision of the tripartite free and virtuous society — democratic polity, free economy, vibrant moral-cultural sector — it’s the latter that’s most important over the long haul. The habits of heart and mind of a people are the best defense against their allowing their political and economic liberties to become self-destructive.

John Paul also taught the Church new ways of thinking about the poor and about economic justice. In the emerging global economy, the pope recognized, the source of wealth was less stuff in the ground than ideas and skills. Thus economic justice meant including a greater and greater number of people in the networks of productivity and exchange by which wealth was created and distributed: rather than problems-to-be-solved (as 20th-century welfare states understood them), the poor should be thought of as people-with-potential. Inclusion, not redistribution, became the paradigm of economic justice; empowerment and getting people off the dole became the measure of how well a social welfare system worked; philanthropy and the independent social welfare agencies it made possible, not just taxes and government, were the means by which the poor were to be empowered.

The encyclical’s analysis of the collapse of communism is also relevant to contemporary debates. Denying God, communism had a false view of the human person, and that was ultimately its undoing: It could not build a humane culture, politics, or economics. This truth has implications for a world without communism, too. Culture is the key to making free economies and free politics work well, and at the heart of culture was religious conviction, John Paul insisted. Thus religious freedom had to be defended, not only against the hard totalitarianism of communist systems, but against softer, but nonetheless aggressive, forms of political pressure: pressures summed up in Pope Benedict’s biting (and wholly accurate) phrase, the “dictatorship of relativism.” Governments that impose political correctness through coercive state power — as, say, Canadian human rights tribunals do when they fine pastors for preaching biblical morality — are violating both religious freedom and weakening the moral-cultural foundations of democracy.

Centesimus Annus at 20 is coming into a needed maturity.

George Weigel


George Weigel is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., and the author, most recently, of The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II⎯The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy.

  • Daniel Molinaro II

    I find it astonishing that Mr. Weigel is still promoting the misinformation that Centesimus Annus put to rest the notion of a Catholic third way. Paragraph 35 of the very same document says the exact opposite.

    • John2

      You are going to find it even more astonishing once you see that the ‘misinformation’ is true.

      I find it astonishing that you haven’t yet found it astonishing that you cannot accept this simple, well-founded conclusion direct from the encyclical.

  • Esteban

    There is no third way.

    There are no “solutions.”

    There are only trade-offs.

    Scarcity is a consequence of the Fall.

    Well-done, Mr. Weigel.

  • Rob

    I am somewhat surprised by Mr. Weigel’s take on this important encyclical as Blessed John Paul II clearly defended the rights of organized labor in it and defended in great length the need for limits on the time a man should work and the right to just wages. I am saddened but not surprised. Mr. Wiegel seems to have made a career out of saying that everything the Blessed John Paul said was in line with the Republican Party though this is not as pathetic as his attempts to say the late Holy Father was actually backing the American military action against Iraq. Mr. Weigel always seems to confuse GOD with GOP. He is a Beltway Catholic and not a Roman one. He is God’s good servant–but the neocons’ first.

  • Elodie Hogan

    It always makes me uncomfortable when Catholics start hurling political label insults at each other. Neither political party would stand up to scrutiny, next to the ideals of Rerum Novarum or Centesimus Annus. Before throwing around neo-con labels, one might want to read what CA has to say about totalitarian states – interfering governments don’t get a pass. JPII still had as much to say as Rerum Novarum about the dangers of socialism, communism, welfare state, etc.

    We’re missing the point of this encyclical, if we read only paragraph 35.

    When the Church talks about supporting organized labor, something tells me it is in light of actual human rights as they relate to labor issues. You know, the whole “dignity of the worker” that JPII so often mentioned. Organized labor as it exists today is nothing more than legal extortion of a percentage of one’s wages to collect and distribute amongst various anti-life and anti-family (yes, it must be said: liberal & Democrat) PACs and candidates.

  • mrd

    I think it is accurate to say that it would be a stretch to claim John Paul II supported the Iraq war. In fact Weigel has acknowledged John Paul II was against it in his writings about the Pope. I do not agree that neither political party passes muster with the Church. While individuals in the Republican Party do not necessarily, the Party as a whole is the best vehicle for advancing the common good available to us in the United States.

    This is pretty easy to demonstrate. First on the social issues th Democrats favor gross violations of the natural law. The support Abortion and tax payer funding for the same, something which John Paul the II called “murder” in evangelium Vitate, and Vatican II called an unspeakable crime. Once you are for unspeakable crime as part of your platform it seems to me you are by definition unacceptable to a Catholic.

    But even on the “social justice” issues the Republicans are obviously better. First as a matter of principal the Church has said subsidiarity is a basic principal the violation of which is immoral ( SO when something can be done by a smaller or local institution it is done at that level , This is basically conservative philosophy, and is not what is coming out the democratic party with its leviathian state. Of course we have a “preferential option for the poor” So we must be mindful of any policy affect on the poor. Republicans are better here as well, since conservative policies in general have better effects on the economic status of the poor. For example Low tax rates on marginal income are associated with economic expansion and living standard improvements. In general this is a consequence of robust free market societies in general, something Centinimus Annus makes note of . In the United States we have a very high standard of living such that the “poor” ie the least wealthy 5% have a standard of living better than the standard of living in 60% of the worlds population.
    We have essentially obliterated “poverty” as teh rest of the world understands the term.

    This then leaves the war, Lets assume that Catholics should oppose them. Since Obama favors enlarging them ( we have since stayed in Iraq, sent more troops to Afghanistan and now are in Libya) there does not seem to be a fundamental difference between the 2 parties at this time. Well let me correct this, Under Bush there seemed to be a theory that overthrowing dictatorships and tyrannies and replacing them with democracies might decrease the risk of terrorism, Under Obama the theory seems to be that …… Well it is not entirely clear, but there does not seem to be a major decrease in our military activity even if the goals it is seeking to advance are not obvious,
    So Overall I can no see why any rational Catholic would not feel the Republicans are obviously the better vehicle for advancing the common good than the Democrats, even if they are not perfect. ( What political party could be?

  • V

    Um, when did communism die? It is quite active and still shambling across much of Africa, Asia, and South America. It is a cultural zombie, and it seems rather hard to put down. It is also still quite active here in America and doesn’t seem interested in rest or peace yet.

    This is not to put down John Paul the Great’s conquering of the Soviet menace. I am simply saying that while we won that battle, the war is NOT over yet.