Beyond Populorum Progressio: John Paul II’s “Economic Initiative”

The earliest reports on Pope John Paul II’s new encyclical letter “Concern for Social Reality” damaged the Pope’s reputation significantly. Only those who make the effort to give the whole letter a closer reading will feel their first sense of dismay alleviated.

In geopolitical terms, the deepest dreams of the Pope’s pontificate have been to break down the wall of separation between East and West that presently keeps the Christians, Jews, and other believers within the East under oppression. Europe, he has declared, has become split into two branches from one same trunk, and it is time for the wall between them to come down.

This laudable concern on behalf of Eastern European countries like Poland, Czechoslovakia, Lithuania and, indeed, all the countries of the Third World, too, has led the Pope to assume a transcendental viewpoint, as if above both “blocs.” This is appropriate, except that the distance between the values expressed by the Pope and those incarnated in the East and the West is not symmetrical.

In this approach, the Pope in a way follows the analysis of the great Alexander Solzhenitsyn in his Harvard address, “A World Split Apart.” Sad to say, Solzhenitsyn was more careful than the Pope not to reduce his critique both of East and West — and he, too, criticized both — to moral parallelism.

“Each of the two blocs,” Pope John Paul II writes, “harbors in its own way a tendency toward imperialism, as it is usually called, or toward forms of neo-colonialism.” And again: “The Church’s social doctrine adopts a critical attitude toward both liberal capitalism and Marxist collectivism.”

Yes, to be sure, all intelligent people adopt a “critical attitude” toward everything, including both our own system and Marxist collectivism. But, for most people, this critical attitude is of two different orders of magnitude regarding the East and the West. Classically, Leo XIII and Pius XI condemned the one system, criticized the other. Implicitly, so does John Paul II — but this asymmetry is left for readers to deduce. It is not explicit.

During the last year even the most left-wing commentators in the U.S. have denied vociferously that they harbor a theory of “moral equivalence.” They do not judge East and West to be morally equal.

Those who read the encyclical carefully will say, of course, that neither does the Pope. Any intelligent reader will see that the main criteria the Pope employs — criteria of moral theology, not of politics, the Pope is careful to insist — show that he much prefers the Western system of protection of human rights, “especially religious liberty,” and “the right of private initiative” in economics. A close reading, they will stress, shows clearly that, as between East and West, it is the East that is by far the greatest offender against these and other criteria spelled out in the encyclical.

The problem is that the Pope does not say so. The AP report (which, as it happens, I first read in Spanish in a Venezuelan newspaper, on an airplane back to the U.S.), and the New York Times report by Robert Suro that was reported around the world (in the International Herald Tribune in Europe, for example) make much of the “parallel” and “equal” criticisms the Pope makes of both systems. This was a public relations disaster. It should have been foreseen and prevented.

To be sure, the Pope does add several powerful passages on “the right to economic initiative” that cut with special severity into socialist ideas of “an alleged ‘equality’ of everyone in society” that “in practice absolutely destroys the spirit of initiative, that is to say the creative subjectivity of the citizen.”

He goes on: “As a consequence, there arises, not so much a true equality as a ‘leveling down.’ In place of creative initiative there appear passivity, dependence, and submission to the bureaucratic approaches. . .which puts everyone in a position of absolute dependence.”

That the Pope has Marxist countries in mind is clear from the following passage: “This provokes a sense of frustration or desperation and predisposes people to opt out of the national life, impelling them to emigrate.”

But even here the Pope sets up an uncalled-for parallelism by stating that the current system of totalitarian, bureaucratic oppression “is similar to the traditional dependence of the worker-proletarian in capitalism.” (Did he insert “traditional” in order to refer only to the past, not the present?) And regarding “similar,” the alert mind asks: Where? Where today do emigrants flee from “liberal capitalist” systems to Marxist systems?

At several places, the Pope’s comments about “liberal capitalism” refer to the distant past. Surely, they do not apply to today’s social welfare economies in Western Europe and Japan. Again, in writing that “in the countries of high economic development, the sources of work seem to be shrinking,” the Pope cannot mean the United States, where 35 million new jobs have been created since 1970, and where a higher proportion of adults (62 percent and still growing) is now at work than at any previous time in U.S. history.

In speaking up for the protection of human rights —”as for example the right to religious freedom, the right to share in the building of society, the freedom to organize and to form unions, or to take initiative in economic matters” — the Pope seems to place himself squarely on the side of political, social, and economic freedom.

Sollicitudo Rei Socialis goes far beyond Populorum Progressio in emphasizing realism (against “messianism”); in stressing the present failures and essential responsibilities of poorer countries; in clarifying the point that Catholic social

thought does not offer “a third way” between existing ideas of political economy; in emphasizing the crucial and most important of the economic rights, “the right to private initiative”; and in its consistent, unfolding development of a theology of creation based upon the Book of Genesis.

The Pope sees clearly that “the common good” depends upon the free exercise of the right to private initiative. The inventiveness of the individual is an expression of creative subjectivity, among humans created in the image of the Creator, and endowed with unalienable rights of personal creativity. (The very word capitalism comes from the Latin caput, head, the source of such creativity.)

Finally, the Pope attacks protectionism as an acute form of selfish behavior, since one of the deepest needs of the poor nations is open markets in the more successful nations.

In all these ways, the Pope’s vision of the causes of development encompasses the reflections on creativity, economic development, the new virtues required for democratic and enterprising development, and voluntary, generous, open cooperation enunciated in the Lay Letter of 1984, Toward the Future.

The Pope expects us to be intelligent enough to see that the moral criteria he has set down are the criteria of freedom with justice embodied in Western institutions. He is quite right to say that we are not always sufficiently faithful to our own institutional and transcendent ideals.

The Pope called democracy an “essential condition” of true development, and defined “solidarity” (as the Lay Commission had urged) in terms of “essential conditions” of “autonomy and free self-determination.” He twice laid stress on “that special form of poverty which consists in being deprived of fundamental human rights, in particular the right to religious freedom and also the right to freedom of economic initiative.” These are important advances.

Meanwhile, the Pope’s criticisms of Western performance are welcome. We must always do better, even in the light of our own ideals, which are as his. Pope John Paul II has advanced Catholic social thought significantly, even in a more “American” way than the U.S. bishops did.

  • Michael Novak

    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.

tagged as:

Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on
Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack

Share to...