Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

We do not ordinarily publish official church statements. In fact, we never have before. This issue, however, includes a condensed version of John Paul II’s ninth encyclical, Centesimus Annus (“The Hundredth Year”), issued on the centenary of Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum (“New Things”).

Any major statement by the spiritual leader of nearly a billion Christians should be of general interest. Centesimus has generated an extraordinary measure of interest. Certainly, its subject could not be more to the point of a journal devoted to religion and public life. The Pope sets forth a theological and moral argument about the proper relationship between the three spheres of the social order—economics, politics, and culture. He does so in a way that marks a significant development in Catholic social teaching, and he offers his argument as a contribution to the thought also of separated Christians and of “all people of good will.”

John Paul makes the case for a strong endorsement of democratic capitalism, or, as he prefers, “the free economy.” Understandably, his argument has not been welcomed by all. Over the years, many have construed Catholic social doctrine in a socialist mode, while others have contended that Catholic teaching calls for a “third way” between socialism and capitalism. With a few notable exceptions, writers on the subject have represented the Catholic position as being emphatically anti-capitalist. Centesimus has shaken the foundations of those conventional wisdoms.

Already in his 1987 encyclical, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (“The Social Concerns of the Church”), John Paul explicitly disowned the idea that the Church proposes a “third way” between competing economic systems. In that document he also affirmed the importance of allowing space for entrepreneurial initiative. In retrospect, it can be seen that Sollicitudo was preparing the way for Centesimus, but it must frankly be acknowledged that almost nobody was prepared for the present encyclical’s comprehensive affirmation of the market economy. The free market, according to the Pope’s argument, is the economic correlate of a Christian understanding of human nature and responsibility.

Those still in thrall to the conventional wisdoms have tried, not surprisingly, to downplay the significance of Centesimus. Stubbornly resisting the imperative to reexamine old presuppositions, some have argued, for instance, that there is an unruffled continuity between this encyclical and the 1986 pastoral letter by the U.S. bishops, “Economic Justice for All.” Journalists, too, have been somewhat disoriented by the encyclical. Accustomed to reporting what they took to be papal condemnations of capitalism, most of the news stories managed little more than an acknowledgment that Centesimus is a more qualified criticism of the market economy. An accurate reading of the document, we believe, is that it strongly affirms capitalism while, with equal urgency, it challenges capitalists to make the free economy work better for those in the world who are marginal to its operations.

It will no doubt take time for Catholics and others to digest the significant development represented by Centesimus. Some early commentaries betray a touching desire to seize upon snatches of the document in order to justify continuing in old and familiar patterns of thought. For example, there is a passage in which the Pope calls for a concerted effort in Third World development that will reduce the relative advantage of developed economies. This, we are told, shows that the Pope believes that economic justice requires a massive redistribution of wealth along the lines of a “new international economic order” proposed some years ago by sundry socialists in the United Nations and elsewhere.

Such an interpretation, however, flies in the face of the entire argument of Centesimus. If, as John Paul urges, the Third World is more fully included in the free economy’s circle of productivity and exchange, the relative advantage of the developed countries will of course decline. In the same way, the American share of the global economy declined relatively with the reconstruction of Germany and Japan after World War II. Such relative decline is to be welcomed, indeed eagerly sought. But readers will judge for themselves whether Centesimus offers support for zero-sum economic theories of redistribution or whether, as we believe, it is an urgent call for an ever more inclusive process of growth in the risks and benefits of the free economy.

Finally, the Pope’s clear distinctions between the economic, the political, and the cultural can benefit enormously our public discourse. These three spheres can, of course, only be distinguished, they cannot be separated. But, as the Pope notes, a certain style of liberalism is like Marxism in reducing everything to the economic. In this view, whatever is wrong with the social order is the fault of “the economic system.”

In rejecting that view, John Paul emphasizes that there are many parts to the social order, that the most important part is the cultural, and that at the heart of the cultural is the moral and spiritual. The remedy for “consumerism,” for instance, is not to have a less free or a less productive economy, for the poor are as susceptible to consumerism as are the rich. The remedy, rather, is in attending anew to the moral order and to the importance of the communities that bear witness to those truths that instruct us in the dignity, duty, and destiny of man. That affirmation of the cultural and of its religious core is, of course, the constituting premise of this journal of religion and public life, and it should help explain why we recommend a careful reading of Centesimus Annus.