Hidden Lessons of Centesimus Annus

AMONG U.S. scholars who embrace Catholic social teaching, there are two basic positions regarding the applicability of that teaching in the United States. Some, such as David Schindler, editor of the North American edition of Communio, argue that structural flaws in the U.S. system make it impossible to apply Catholic social teaching. For Schindler, the errors of the Enlightenment are built into the core of the American democratic experiment.

A second school, representated by Michael Novak, believes that Catholic social doctrine is eminently applicable in the United States because truly representative democracy and a free market economy are consonant with the image of man upheld by Church teaching.

The latter school was focused on at a conference held last month at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. Sponsored by the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty in Grand Rapids, Mich., the seminar commemorated the fifth anniversary of Centesimus Annus.

Centesimus Annus was received five years ago as an encyclical on the economy. It did not intend to offer a “third way” between communism and free market capitalism. Yet Dr. Stephen Krason of Franciscan University of Steubenville insisted that John Paul II seems to favor, though less explicitly than Pius XI sixty years before him, economic restructuring based on some sort of third way.

Dr. Jennifer Roback Morse offered points of contact “between economists and the Catholic mind.” Economists stand alone among social scientists because they hold, as a given of their science, a concept of human nature. For them, there is something universal and enduring in man. They also hold that human beings make choices, free choices, even when such choices are constrained. For Dr. Morse, the rational-choice paradigm of modern economics offers singular opportunities for dialogue.

The seminar gradually shifted from viewing Centesimus Annus as the last in a one-hundred-year series of encyclicals on social issues to the first of a group which, together with Veritatis Splendor and Evangelium Vitae, were described as a “triptych” by George Weigel.

The Church's social teaching focused initially on systems, Weigel suggested—on forms of government and economy most in conformity with the Church's vision of the human person. Centesimus Annus, in Weigel's view, seems to say that history has largely settled the question, favoring democracy over authoritarianism, and free market over state economic control. This leaves culture as the key issue to be addressed, which is precisely what the Pope is now doing. The notion of the three-fold division of society into the political, economic and cultural spheres was already present in Vatican II's Gaudium et spes, in which Karol Wojtyla had a hand, Weigel said.

Michael Novak, for his part, underlined the points of originality in Centesimus Annus, not the least of which was this “shift in attention to cultural issues.” Socialism, he pointed out, amounts to a state monopoly on society as a whole, whereas capitalism forms part of a juridical and constitutional order. Novak went so far as to say that the Pope did not need to propose a third way because “the third way is concrete; it is how the United States has operated for years.”

Mr. Michael Joyce, contrasting the encyclical with the U.S. bishops' pastoral Economic Justice for All, argued that a culture which would cultivate virtue in its citizens would also foster true subsidiarity. The needs of the weak would be attended to by those closest to them, without expending often useless energies lobbying the government.

In his keynote address, Jesuit Father Avery Dulles argued that politics and economics have their matrix in culture, and that culture is incomplete without religion. Culture is renewed, he said, through openness to transcendence and disinterested concern for the true, the beautiful and the good. Cultural institutions (such as education and research) that center on truth, need to join forces with the arts, which encourage beauty. Then together, Father Dulles said, these two institutions must collaborate with religious institutions, which promote the good.

The three transcendentals of Christian philosophy, said the theologian, stand or fall together, and are ultimately rooted in God. Revealed religion inspires beauty and excellence because it is rooted in truth and goodness. That's why a culture that is not grounded in revealed religion cannot fully satisfy the queries of man.

The transcendentals are not the only things that stand or fall together. The same goes for culture, politics and the economy, the seminar seemed to say. Thus, as George Weigel said, “by debating abortion, marital law and v-chips, we are at the heart of the matter of democracy's future.” The crisis of American democracy, he added, depends on “whether we are to understand ourselves as a procedural republic or as a substantive, ongoing moral test of our capacity for self-governance.”

Edward Mulholland is based in Washington, D.C.

The Acton Institute

The Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty was founded by Fr. Robert A. Sirico and Kris Alan Mauren in April, 1990. Nonprofit, ecumenical, educational and literary, it promotes among religious and business communities the moral virtues of a society with limited government and a free market economy.

The Institute is named after John Emerich Edwad Dalberg-Acton (1834-1902), an English Catholic leader who was convinced that “freedom should be religious, and religion should be free.”

From their base in Grand Rapids, Michigan, the Institute's staff organizes conferences and seminars to promote research and progress on the relationship between ethics, liberty, and free market economy. It conducts student outreach programs including three-day “Toward a Free and Virtuous Society” seminars and on-campus discussion “Acton Circles.” Monthly “Lord Acton Lectures” are held in Grand Rapids, and a bimonthly publication, “Religion and Liberty,” examines critical social, cultural and economic issues in the framework of religion and liberty.

– Edward Mulholland