On Feb. 15, in the Union League Club in New York, the Washington-based Ethics and Public Policy Center sponsored an all-day conference on John Paul II's 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus. “The Reception of Centesimus Annus On Its Fifth Anniversary” featured presentations by, among others, Father Richard John Neuhaus, president of the Institute on Religion and Public Life, and Michael Novak, winner of the 1994 Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. In the coming weeks, the Register will excerpt some of the texts. This week, Dr. Russell Hittinger, Warren Professor of Catholic Studies and research professor of law at the University of Tulsa, Okla., offers an historical analysis of papal encyclicals elaborating the Church's social teaching.

Amazingly, at the dawn of the third millennium, the Church, particularly under the vigorous leadership of John Paul II—who calls on all Catholics and the entire institution to make amends for past errors-is emerging as the sole guarantor of the very values that were supposedly won in defiance of an obscurantist Roman Catholic Church: the gains of the Enlightenment-individual liberty and freedom of conscience foremost. Prof. Hittinger reflects on the evolution in the Church's political and social worldview that earned the Church of Rome this unique distinction.


THE FRENCH REVOLUTION destroyed the political solidarity of Christendom. It is true, of course, that the Reformation had already bruised this “solidarity” by dividing Europe, and eventually, its territories in the New World, into opposing religious camps. Even so, the papacy of the Baroque period relied upon a familiar relationship to the temporal authorities (chiefly, the Hapsburgs). The familiar model of political solidarity was one of professedly Catholic princes upholding Catholic order domestically and internationally. Whether the individual was a student in Prague or a mestizo in Mexico, the universal principle of citizenship was given in baptism….

The new political regimes born in the French Revolution changed everything. The fact that the clergy were forced to commit ecclesiastical treason, that kings were murdered, that Popes were kidnapped, bullied, and then forced to cut humiliating deals to protect the few scraps which remained of their temporal estates, traumatized the papacy. But none of these facts really explains the polemical reaction against the new order-a reaction that would persist until the pontificate of Pius XII.

The key point is that the Revolution announced a different universal principle of citizenship-a monistic notion of solidarity that was aggressively secularist. Political citizenship was made the model for everything else. The papacy had no intention of accommodating this new idea of solidarity. When he was still the cardinal archbishop of Imola, Pius VII (1800–1823) had the words “liberty” and “equality” printed on the top of his stationary. But in place of “fraternity” he substituted “And peace in our Lord Jesus Christ.” This vignette summarizes what the 19th century Popes thought was at stake in the contest with the new regimes. Never was this a mere question of politics, but of the ground of human solidarity.

The immediate problems of the French Revolution would eventually dissipate. Popes learned how to deal with the new authorities; by the pontificate of Leo XIII, the annoying problem of the papal temporal estates was resolved. Nevertheless, the central problem posed by the Revolution would not go away. That problem was and is atheism: the rejection of the sacral principles for human fellowship. Whether the atheism is ideological or operational, it is a constant factor in the history of papal prudence. Even after the catastrophic wars of the 20th century, when the papacy and the new temporal authorities had a chance to make a fresh start, leaving behind the mutual suspicions and enmity that marked their relations during the 19th century, the problem of atheism would return.


The second great event of the modern period was industrialization, which began on foreign shores, but eventually engulfed the continent. it was one thing for the papacy to deal with the new political powers. It was quite another thing, however, to address the problem of the obliteration of the social and cultural forms in which Christian solidarity was embedded. Traditionally, Catholicism knew how to implant itself in the educated, urban classes, as well as in the agrarian classes. Industrialization changed the society underneath the new political institutions. Thus, in the course of only a few decades, the papacy was hit with a double blow. First, the political order changed, and then the socio-cultural order changed, also to the great alarm of the papacy.

In the sermons and lectures of Bishop Wilhelm Emmanuel Von Kettler during the 1860s and 1870s, and then in the encyclicals of Leo XIII (1870–1903), the issue of solidarity was reframed as a “social” question. Where the papacy once took the side of the kings against the Jacobins, it now began to take the side of the traditional culture (families, guilds, etc.) against the newly emerging, and seemingly rootless, industrial culture. As Von Kettler asserted: “The associations that modern liberalism sponsors … are mechanical assemblages of people who are thrown together merely for some superficial, utilitarian end. Whatever future it may have, therefore, the cooperative idea belongs to Christendom.” This change in focus, from the political event of the revolutions to the social problems associated with industrialization brought to the foreground the issues, and indeed, the vocabulary, of solidarity and subsidiarity which would become so prominent in subsequent papal teachings….

In a recent essay, the French philosopher, Pierre Manent, writes: “The traditional conception of politics closely linked it to the superior ends of human life; the law of the body politic was an expression or refraction of that ultimate law whose observance defines humanity, the ‘human law'of the ‘divine law.’ Liberalism challenged the sublimity of this law and deliberately lowered its status. Precisely because men disagree on the superior law's content and still must live together, the foundation of political laws must be sought on earth, not in heaven.”

Where can a this-worldly authority be found, once the authority traditionally vested, either by natural right or by divine positive law, in the altar and the crown, has been rejected? The answer to this question required a myth-one that was meant from the outset to be a secular counterpart to Genesis. It is told in different ways by Spinoza, Hobbes, Locke, Kant, Rousseau: We must imagine man in a state of nature; man with no one else commanding: the free agent, under no Pope, no Caesar, no authoritative Scripture….

Rather than kings receiving a plenary authority to govern, the new myth posits a plenary authority, indeed a natural right, on the part of individuals. But whereas in the older myth kings received the authority for the sake of the common good, the new myth envisages such power as independent of, and antecedent to, the common good….


In Centesimus Annus, John Paul II […] criticizes any system that would “suffocate” the individual “between two poles represented by the state and the marketplace.” In any event, from the late 19th century until the onset of World War II, the papal encyclicals seem rather abruptly to zig and zag: here, pointing out that states exercise too much power, there, criticizing the states for not using sufficient authority to remedy social ills.

In sum, the encyclicals of the modern period found the new regimes wanting. The regimes made public things private, and private things public. Each of these problems was a symptom of a theological error: namely, the effort to create political authority from scratch, without reference to the divine ground of the common good. In the post-World War II period, this accusation of atheism against the states becomes somewhat muted; but the problem of atheism endures.

The contemporary period of papal encyclicals begins with Pius XII's Summi Pontificatus (1939), issued two months after the beginning of World War II….

In the fashion of his predecessors, Pius XII lays the blame for social atomism at the door of the modern state. Having rejected natural and supernatural norms of solidarity, the state makes itself the cure for the atomism which it itself fosters. In Summi we find a powerful statement of the principle of subsidiarity:

“If, in fact, the state lays claim to and directs private enterprises, these, ruled as they are by delicate and complicated internal principles which guarantee and assure the realization of their special aims, may be damaged to the detriment of the public good, by being wrenched from their natural surroundings, that is, from responsible private action. Further, there would be danger lest the primary and essential cell of society, the family, with its well-being and its growth, should come to be considered from the narrow standpoint of national power, and lest it be forgotten that man and the family are by nature anterior to the state, and that the Creator has given to both of them powers and rights and has assigned them a mission and a charge that correspond to undeniable natural requirements.”…


In the Christmas Message of 1942, Pius offered a list of five criteria for rebuilding the social order; the 1944 allocution would seem to contain many more than five. For the sake of convenience, I shall conflate the two allocutions and construct a single roster of points:

“First, any legitimate social order must respect the dignity of the human person, and the dignity of his labor.

“Second, both the individual and the family are imago dei. Here, we find an important shift: from a sacral principle from above, vested in kings, to the sacral, from below, as it were, vested in persons and families. This can be called the dignitarian position, alluded to so often in contemporary papal encyclicals, as well as in conciliar documents like Gaudium et Spes and Dignitatis Humanae.

“Third, social unity must be regarded as intrinsic, and not as a merely accidental perfection of human beings. Authentic democracy, therefore, cannot be envisaged as an aggregate or ‘mass'of individuals, activated by the mechanism of majoritarian rule.

“Fourth, the juridical order must purge itself of positivism, and restore the foundation of natural law….

In Centesimus Annus, the human participation in sacral powers is reserved for the individual and the family, invariably in contrast to the powers of the state: “The root of modern totalitarianism is to be found in the denial of the transcendent dignity of the human person who, as the visible image of the invisible God, is therefore by his very nature the subject of rights which no one may violate-no individual, group, class, nation or state. Not even the majority of a social body may violate these rights by going against the minority, by isolating, oppressing or exploiting it, or by attempting to annihilate it.” Note that, here, there is no theological mantle draped over the state. The first and most persistent limit upon the state is the “transcendent dignity” of the human person who is the image of God.


In Centesimus Annus John Paul II treats the modern state as potentially dangerous concentration of coercive power that uproots the “subjectivity of society,” and makes itself coincident with the common good. Significantly, the Pope maintains that the de-centralization of power and responsibility must be sought “even though it may weaken consolidated power structures.” Interestingly, it is precisely in the paragraph where the Pope emphasizes that the power of the state will be weakened that he introduces the notion of the “progressively expanding chain of solidarity.” The state is not the end of human society. The state's main job is to establish a rule of law as a sort of umbrella under which the natural and voluntary societies can achieve their purposes and distinctive forms of communion. Solidarity is not the same thing as the juridical state. Rather, the juridical state is the instrument that serves and protects moral-cultural solidarity. If we take Michael Novak's conception of the three legs of democratic capitalism-political, economic, and moral-cultural-we can interpret the Pope as arguing that the moral-cultural sphere is the end to which the other spheres are subordinate….

I propose that the relocation of the sacral principle (participation in divine, kingly authority) away from the state is the great interpretative matrix for contemporary papal social theory. This relocation presents a host of new difficulties, not the least of which is the problem of persuading secular regimes to recognize sacral principles from below, as it were. The recent historical record would seem to indicate that the temporal authorities are no more prepared today to recognize the sacral principle from below, than their ancestors were prepared to recognize it from above.

At this juncture, we can recall the story told earlier, where Pius VII substituted “And peace in our Lord Jesus Christ” for the Revolution's slogan of “fraternity.” It is fascinating to see how, nearly two centuries later, that problem continues to be a touchstone for papal prudence. What is a civis? The papal answer remains remarkably consistent. A civis is a human person, whose dignity is grounded in imago dei, and whose identity is to be found in modes of solidarity that the political state exemplifies only in an incomplete manner….

The encyclicals and conciliar documents speak of “spiritual unity,” or “interior unity,” or “communion” typically in reference to marriage, eucharistic fellowship, and baptism through which the individual is grafted into the body of Christ. The “civilization of love” includes all of the diverse notions of common good, and not just the theological one. But the theological concept of communion is the main model for what the papacy means by the proposition that man is inherently social. Recall, once again, the vignette about Pius VII substituting “peace in Our Lord Jesus Christ” for the slogan of “fraternity.” I don't believe that the papal Magisterium has ever proposed that the common good can be properly considered or achieved without supernatural charity….

The contemporary period marked real achievements on the part of the papacy. World War II and its aftermath allowed a fresh start. The Popes were able to break the pattern of criticizing modernity simply on the basis of its historical departure from Christendom. The papal Magisterium and the western democracies were able to forge a common (though, of course, not perfectly common) language about political and social problems. The fact that they had a common enemy in the East certainly enhanced their partnership….


It is not easy to characterize the new period, one that begins after 1989. The ink of Centesimus Annus was hardly dry before it was clear that even though the victory over communism in Eastern Europe was substantial, the celebration was premature. John Paul II tells the story as one of betrayal (incidentally, that word is used six times in Evangelium Vitae). The constitutional democracies refused to live up to their end of the bargain. The modern idea of the juridical state never promised that the state can be an agent that sanctifies men or perfects their moral virtue. It did, however, promise (it was their “boast,” John Paul II says) to protect fundamental human rights, especially life. And it promised to protect life according to a metapolitical principle: one that transcends the political bargaining appropriate to any democratic process. So far as the Pope can estimate the situation, that promise has been broken. In Evangelium Vitae we find criticism of the polities stronger than anything in the documents of the 19th-century Popes, including Pius IX. It is stronger, among other reasons, because the present Pope launches an “internal” criticism.

In Evangelium Vitae (1995), John Paul II speaks ominously of a “conspiracy” against human rights; he refers to the “disintegration” of these governments; and characterizes them as “tyrant states”; he accuses them of poisoning the “culture of rights”; of having reversed the “long historical process leading to the discovery of the idea of human rights”; of violating the “principles of their own constitutions”; and what seems new, when measured against even the vicissitudes of the nineteenth century, he asserts that there is an obligation to disobey constitutionally legitimate authorities….

I do not claim, nor insinuate, that Centesimus Annus gives a sunny picture of human affairs after the collapse of communism. Centesimus Annus abounds with forebodings and admonitions about the very problems which come so starkly into view in Evangelium Vitae. Today, no credible reading of Centesimus Annus can fail to highlight the darker side of the encyclical. In Centesimus Annus John Paul II says that: “the root of modern totalitarianism is to be found in the denial of the transcendent dignity of the human person who is the visible image of the invisible God.” “If we then inquire as to the source of this mistaken concept of the nature of the person and the “subjectivity” of society, we must reply that its first cause is atheism…. The denial of God deprives the person of his foundation, and consequently leads to a reorganization of the social order without reference to the person's dignity and responsibility.” Insofar as democracies fall into the anthropological error, they turn into an “open or thinly disguised totalitarianism.”…

So despite deep and sometimes ingenious adaptations to the modern situation, the papacy finds itself confronting the same cycle of problems. At least in human terms, it is difficult to imagine how there will not be endemic conflict between the Catholic conception of social reality and the theories and practices of the gentiles—as the the Church tries to hold the constitutional democracies not only to Catholic standards but to their own standards.

In Evangelium Vitae, John Paul II writes: “Alarge part of contemporary society looks sadly like that humanity which Paul describes in his Letter to the Romans. It is composed ‘of men who by their wickedness suppress the truth’(Rom 1, 18): having denied God and believing that they can build the earthly city without him, ‘they became futile in their thinking’ so that ‘their senseless minds were darkened’ (Rom 1, 21).