Observations: Beyond East and West

Sollicitudo Rei Socialis is a profound, potentially fructifying addition to the Church’s teaching on “the social question.” The encyclical extends that teaching to encompass the full development of peoples and the political, economic, and cultural conditions that help or impede their development. In large and expansive terms it touches on the relation of North to South, East to West, and the consequences of these relations on the condition of all persons, but particularly the poor.

Like many of his other statements and actions, however, this encyclical of John Paul II will not please everybody. The corollary of that judgment is that almost all who read it will be tempted to read it selectively, praising those parts that are in tune with their own visions and ignoring or rejecting those parts they disagree with. (The responses of some early commentators who succumbed to this temptation with fervor are destined to self-vaporize under the pressure of their overheated rhetoric.)

The text of Sollicitudo Rei Socialis does present real problems that no honest response can ignore. These problems, like the more appealing aspects of the encyclical, must be viewed within (1) the context of the Church’s developing teaching on the social question; (2) the papal view of contemporary world conditions; (3) the way in which the encyclical will be read and the pope heard in different corners of the globe.

John Paul introduces his encyclical by saying that its purpose is to renew the social teaching of the Church and, more specifically, to extend that teaching as it was expressed in Populorum Progressio, the noted encyclical of Paul VI, to the twentieth anniversary of which his own pays tribute. Populorum Progressio, he recalls, introduced something new into the Church’s teaching by claiming the competence and authority to address the development of people as a moral issue. It cited the interdependence of nations as essential to proper development and it related development (understood as justice) to peace.

After this introduction the Pope surveys the contemporary world and observes that its sad reality demands an analysis that goes beyond economic issues. He asserts that two opposing blocs, based on liberal capitalism and Marxist collectivism, are obstacles to true development. We must ask if they can be reformed so that development may advance. There are hopeful signs in the world, however, and we must build on these if we are to have development that is fully and integrally human, that is more than economic development. Since the underlying obstacles to development are moral, so too must the solution be. We must develop the virtue of solidarity so that the dignity of every person is respected.

The Church plays its role as an expert in humanity, John Paul continues, by developing a social doctrine disengaged from the ideological debate between East and West. John Paul then identifies a number of broad but urgent international issues that must be addressed if true development is to be possible. In spite of the sad experience of recent decades, the Church affirms the possibility of overcoming the obstacles and achieving a true liberation. The encyclical concludes by calling upon all men and women to undertake, in the ways that are available to them, actions inspired by solidarity with each other and with special consideration for the poor.

Even in this overview of the encyclical it should be clear that John Paul has significantly extended and expanded the social teaching of the Church. This is a bold and sweeping document and it would be unfortunate if what is most original and suggestive in it would be obscured by what is most problematic and questionable.

To grasp the nettling problems first, what many readers will find worrisome is how John Paul describes what he sees as a prime obstacle to the development of people: “the existence of two opposing blocs, commonly known as the East and the West.” The opposition is first of all political, he says, but that opposition has its origins in a deeper, ideological opposition, that between liberal capitalism and Marxist collectivism. The tension between these two systems has dominated the years since the end of World War II and has led to blocs of armed forces, “wars by proxy,” and the threat of open and devastating war. This opposition, he asserts, is transferred to the developing countries and “helps to widen the gap already existing on the economic level between North and South. . . .” From this viewpoint, the division of the world is an obstacle to the needed transformation of conditions of underdevelopment. Therefore, the Church’s doctrine is critical of both liberal capitalism and Marxist collectivism and asks if the two systems are capable of changing in ways that promote true development.

This description has been harshly criticized for treating Western liberal capitalism and Eastern Marxist collectivism as if they were moral equivalents. It does, in fact, lend itself to that reading. Before considering that issue, however, let us ask if the broad outlines of the description hold true. Are the East and West two opposing blocs based on different economic systems? Have they been engaged in a cold war for the last forty years? Has that opposition led to vast military expenditures, using resources that might have been otherwise and more usefully directed? Has that opposition spilled over into other less developed countries? Could liberal capitalism and Marxist collectivism, as they operate in the world today, change in ways that would favor the development of peoples in modern society? The answer to all these questions — with the arguable exception of the last — is a resounding “yes.” Is there more to be said about the East-West opposition? There is a great deal more, and the encyclical says some of it. (Who would not, were it morally responsible, be relieved of the huge military burden that the world bears? Who in this country would not like to see our military expenditures reduced if we could guarantee our security and that of other countries without them? Why does the West feel the need to have strong military forces? Which bloc has extended its empire by military force during the last forty years? On these and related questions, the encyclical is silent.)

In different parts of Sollicitudo Rei Socialis there are evaluations that, if stitched together, belie the charge of “moral equivalence.” John Paul refers to the superdevelopment that allows certain social groups to have an “excessive availability” of all kinds of material goods, leading people to become slaves of possessions and of immediate gratification. He here joins a host of critics, many in this country, who have pointed to the wasteful aspects of capitalism and some of its unpalatable cultural consequences. But, he continues, the greater availability of goods not only meets needs but opens horizons, and we should therefore have high regard for such goods.

He also stresses that the right of economic initiative “is important not only for the individual, but also for the common good. Experience shows us that the denial of this right, or its limitation in the name of an alleged ‘equality’ of everyone in society, diminishes, or in practice absolutely destroys the spirit of initiative, that is to say the creative subjectivity of the citizen. As a consequence, there arises not so much a true equality as a ‘leveling down.’ In the place of creative initiative there appear passivity, dependence and submission to the bureaucratic apparatus….”

Between capitalism and collectivism, there can be no doubt where economic initiative is most suppressed. Immediately after the paragraph in which the above quotation appears, John Paul restates “that no social group, for example a political party, has the right to usurp the role of sole leader, since this brings about the destruction of the true subjectivity of society and of the individual citizens, as happens in every form of totalitarianism.”

Later, in noting some changes that are possible harbingers of improvements in the international scene, the Pope says that “the very needs of the economy stifled by military expenditure and by bureaucracy and intrinsic inefficiency now seem to favor processes which might mitigate the existing opposition and make it easier to begin a fruitful dialogue and genuine collaboration.” Whatever the validity of that judgment, it is just such stifling inefficiency that, in the view of many analysts, has &liven Mikhail Gorbachev to mount his campaigns of glasnost and perestroika. If the Soviet Union is not to stagnate economically, it is this centrally controlled bureaucratic inefficiency that must be overcome.

In terms simply of economic systems, the judgment of the encyclical favors, as indeed it should, that of the West.

There is one other related and troubling issue that must be directly approached. The Pope refers to “the persistence and often the widening of the gap between the areas of the so-called developed North and the developing South.” The encyclical notes that the geographical terminology is only indicative, since there are poor people in developed countries and wealthy people in poor countries. Nevertheless, it returns to the concept of the “widening gap,” implying that the countries of the South, the developing countries, the poor, are, in terms of their economic development, falling further behind. Without some necessary qualifications, this description would seem to be the product of a lack both of historical imagination and of contemporary empirical evidence. Any discussion of poverty in the world should start with the acknowledgement that for most of human history poverty was the constant for most people. For a complex of reasons, that pattern was broken in the last few centuries. The wealth that we now see was created by means that are open to investigation — and possible replication. While it is undeniably clear that many people today suffer grievously under the burden of poverty, one could plausibly argue that the last forty years brought more economic relief to poor people than any comparable previous period in history. Many countries of the Third World, to use that impoverished term, are now approaching the rate of economic growth that the countries of Europe experienced when they were entering their initial period of rapid growth.

Further, to speak of a gap without noting that the term can easily disguise real economic growth in poor countries is to be inadvertently misleading. It is now a commonplace to note the following characteristic of the economic gap: If my income goes from 1 dollar to 2 dollars and yours at the same time goes from 2 dollars to 4 dollars, the gap between our incomes has doubled — but so has my actual income. That may still leave me unsatisfied, even envious, but my standard of living will have vastly improved. So it is with countries. The encyclical’s discussion of the alleged increase in poverty in the world is insufficiently complete to be adequate.

It is when we turn from the specifically economic dimensions of development to the political and cultural dimensions that the admirable strengths of the encyclical emerge. For there are, the Pope asserts, other forms of poverty than material poverty. He asks rhetorically if there are not other forms of deprivation that deserve that label. “The denial or the limitation 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 initiatives in economic matters — do these not impoverish the human person as much as, if not more than, the deprivation of material goods?”

With these considerations in mind, even the developing countries do not escape critical attention. They should, of course, collaborate with other countries to improve their conditions, the Pope says, but the primary obligation falls upon themselves. They should, therefore,

reform certain unjust structures and in particular their political institutions, in order to replace corrupt, dictatorial, and authoritarian forms of government by democratic and participatory ones. This is a process which we hope will spread and grow stronger. For the “health” of a political community — as expressed in the free and responsible participation of all citizens in public affairs, in the rule of law and in respect for and promotion of human rights — is the “necessary condition and sure guarantee” of the development of “the whole individual and of all people.”

Taken together, these gathered quotations form clear, sharp, strong, ringing affirmations of democracy, the rule of law, and human rights. There should be no doubt in the minds of any reader, West or East, North or South, where these rights, these rules, these structures, are most observed in practice — and where in the breach. On this basis alone, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis merits continuing study. It is a rich document that opens further vistas for exploration. For instance, where the encyclical, for its own purposes, generally separates its consideration of the economic dimensions of development from the political dimensions and both from the cultural, the reader can draw them together. The results cannot fail to be instructive. A Freedom House survey, for example, compared the extent of political and civil liberties in countries around the world with the economic systems in those countries. The result showed a high correlation of political freedoms with economic freedoms, that is, of democracy with capitalism.

We can pursue the question of whether the strong affirmation of democracy found in this encyclical, if acted upon by countries where it is now weak or nonexistent, would tend to favor a particular form of economic system. And whether the combination would tend to lead to the various kinds of development that Pope John Paul mentions. The encyclical invites such questions, and the study that is necessary to answer them.


  • James Finn

    James Finn is author of Protest: Pacifism and Politics, a study of the Vietnam peace movement, and, when Crisis was originally published in 1982, he was editor of Freedom at Issue, the bimonthly journal of Freedom House.

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...