Economics of Faith

WASHINGTON — The new Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that Catholic social doctrine “involves the correct way of acting in economic, social and political life, the right and the duty of human labor, justice and solidarity among nations, and love for the poor” (No. 503).

This year marks the anniversary of two important papal contributions to this body of doctrine.

Twenty-five years ago, in his encyclical Laborem Exercens (On Human Work), Pope John Paul II assessed the conflict between capital and labor, considered the rights of workers and pondered the spirituality of work.

Fifteen years ago, in the encyclical Centesimus Annus (The Hundredth Year), the Pope paid tribute to the previous century of social teaching, evaluated the fall of communism and discussed private property, the universal destination of material goods, the state, and culture.

The Register asked bishops, scholars and those on the front lines of serving the needy to reflect on John Paul’s social teaching.

“More so than any other pope since Leo XIII, Pope John Paul II has contributed to the social teaching of the Church in volume if not also in depth,” said Father Larry Snyder, president of Catholic Charities USA.

Bishop Thomas Wenski of Orlando, Fla., chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on International Policy, told the Register that John Paul’s social teaching is based on “his insistence that any efforts to work for justice, peace, [and] human development must be grounded in a correct understanding of the human person.

“All the contemporary issues — from abortion to same-sex ‘marriages,’ from immigration rights to parental rights to educate their children — all revolve around this,” he said.

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin observed that Pope John Paul’s emphasis on the person draws upon the Second Vatican Council’s teaching that “man can fully discover his truth only in a sincere giving of self.”

“This reflection,” said Archbishop Martin, who promoted Catholic social teaching as the Holy See’s representative at the World Trade Organization and at several U.N. conferences, “springs from the fact that the human person was created in the image of a God who is Trinity, a God whose own inner life is marked by self-giving love. This vision of the human person is very different to the one embraced by many in today’s society. It stresses that the dignity of the person is enhanced above all not by having but by giving.”

Pope John Paul invites us “to approach social issues from an anthropology informed by the truth about the human person made in God’s image and likeness,” added Bishop Wenski. “We can say that John Paul II insists that no human being can be ever ‘reduced’ to being just a problem; he or she remains a brother and sister to whom we owe solidarity.”

Pope John Paul “championed the cause of the working man and woman,” said Father Robert Sirico, president of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty. In the Pope’s teaching on human work within the business economy, “the laborer is not a cog in a machine, a tool for society to use, a mere agent of production or a thing to be manipulated for purposes of power. Rather, the laborer is a conscious and free subject. He or she has moral value, dignity and rights, by virtue of his or her humanity, that the civic order is bound to acknowledge and protect.”

Mark and Louise Zwick, publishers of the Houston Catholic Worker and founders of Casa Juan Diego to serve immigrants and refugees, observe that Pope John Paul “insisted that the evaluation of any economic system must be based on how the workers are treated.” The Zwicks believe that “factories in Latin America or China of multinational corporations where people work sometimes 14 hours a day for a pittance while CEOs and stockholders luxuriate in ‘wealth creation’ for themselves would receive an F on a report card” based on this standard.

Calling Centesimus Annus “a remarkable document that shows a clear understanding of the nature of a modern economic system,” Archbishop Martin, who also served as secretary for the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, says that the Pope offers “principles of discernment as to how to judge, positively and negatively, the role of the market and of profit, the role of the economy and the role of the state if they are to serve humankind. Pope John Paul examines these factors in the light of the dignity of the human person, the need to respond to the human needs of the entire human family and not just the few, but also the importance of recognizing human potential and capacities.”

Papal biographer George Weigel told the Register that Centesimus Annus is “arguably the most important papal social encyclical” since 1891.

“Its image of the threefold free and virtuous society (democratic polity, free economy, vibrant public moral culture) remains one of the most important and compelling visions of the human future on offer in the world,” he said.

Praising the encyclical for “its empirical sensitivity,” Weigel said that perhaps its most important contribution “is its teaching that democracy and the market are not machines that can run by themselves — that it takes a certain kind of people, possessed of certain virtues, to make democracy and the market work so that the net result is genuine human flourishing.”

Citing the encyclical’s teaching on the relationship between development and peace as well as the Pope’s writings on nonviolence, forgiveness, international law and international institutions, Father William Headley, counselor to the president of Catholic Relief Services, said that Pope John Paul also “gave a powerful impetus to the evolution of the Church’s teaching on war and peace.”


Accepting Pope John Paul’s teaching on human freedom, said Bishop Wenski, is a challenge for many citizens of Western nations.

“Freedom for John Paul II,” he said, “is always the freedom not to do as one pleases but the freedom to do as one ought.”

Americans, Father Snyder contends, have also had difficulty hearing the Pope’s “criticism of social structures that marginalize the poor and the disabled from full participation.

“He found the rate of poverty in our country unacceptable when we have the resources to do something about it. He challenged our isolationist mentality that could let us neglect the needs of our less fortunate sisters and brothers around the world.”

Archbishop Martin told the Register that “we still have not learned how to create a society in which the human potential of every person is realized and then released in the service of the human family and in which those factors which oppress human persons, such as ideologies and of course human sinfulness, can be overcome.

“The way to achieve such a vision of society,” he says, “is by following the message of Jesus, who came to reveal to us God’s saving love.”

Jeff Ziegler is based in

Ellenboro, North Carolina.