Editors’ Note: The following is a condensation of Centesimus Annus (“The Hundredth Year”), Pope John Paul II’s ninth encyclical. Words added for continuity are in square brackets.
1. The Centenary of the Encyclical Rerum Novarum [“New Things”] by my predecessor Leo XIII is of great importance for the present history of the Church and for my own Pontificate. I wish to satisfy the debt of gratitude that the whole Church owes to this great Pope and his “immortal document.” I also mean to show that the vital energies rising from that root have not been spent with the passing of the years, but rather have increased even more.
2. [This occasion] honors also those Encyclicals and other documents of my Predecessors that have helped to make Rerum Novarum live in history, thus constituting what would come to be called the Church’s “social doctrine,” “social teaching,” or even “social magisterium.”
3. I propose a “rereading” of Pope Leo’s Encyclical by issuing an invitation to “look back” at the text itself, but also to “look around” at the “new things” that surround us, very different from the “new things” at the final decade of the last century. Finally, it is an invitation to “look to the future” at a time when we can glimpse the third Millennium of the Christian era, so filled with uncertainties but also with promises. A rereading of this kind confirms the permanent value of such teaching, but also manifests the true meaning of the Church’s Tradition, which, being ever living and vital, builds upon the foundation laid by our fathers in the faith.
The Lord compares the scribe to “a householder who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (Matt. 13:52). The treasure is the Church’s Tradition, which contains “what is old” and enables us to interpret the “new things” in the midst of which the life of the Church and the world unfolds. Millions of people, spurred on by the social Magisterium, have sought to make that teaching the inspiration for their involvement in the world. [They] represent a great movement for the defense of the human person and the safeguarding of human dignity, [and have] contributed to the building up of a more just society, or at least to the curbing of injustice.
The present Encyclical involves the exercise of [the Church’s] teaching authority. But pastoral solicitude also prompts me to propose an analysis of some events of recent history. Such an analysis is not meant to pass definitive judgments since this does not fall per se within the Magisterium’s specific domain.
I. CHARACTERISTICS OF RERUM NOVARUM
4. Towards the end of the last century the Church faced a historical process that was reaching a critical point. In politics, the result of these changes was a new conception of society and of the State, and consequently of authority itself. A traditional society was passing away and another was [emerging]. In economics, a new form of property had appeared—capital; and a new form of labor—labor for wages, characterized by high rates of production that lacked due regard for sex, age, or family situation, and was determined solely by efficiency, with a view to increasing profits.
Labor became a commodity freely bought and sold on the market, its price determined by the law of supply and demand, without taking into account the minimum required for the support of the individual and his family. Moreover, the worker was not even sure of being able to sell “his own commodity,” continually threatened as he was by unemployment. The result of this transformation was a society “divided into two classes, separated by a deep chasm.” At the same time, another conception of property and economic life was beginning to appear in an organized and often violent form, one that implied a new political and social structure.
At the height of this clash, fanned by ideals that were then called “socialist,” Pope Leo intervened with a document dealing with the “condition of the workers.” [Papal teaching] called attention to the essential bond between human freedom and truth, so that freedom that refused to be bound to the truth would fall into arbitrariness and end up submitting itself to the vilest of passions, to the point of self-destruction. Indeed, what is the origin of all the evils to which Rerum Novarum wished to respond if not a kind of freedom that cuts itself off from the truth about man?
5. The “new things” [that the Pope addressed] were anything but positive. The Church was confronted, as was the civil community, by a society that was torn by a conflict all the more harsh and inhumane because it knew no rule or regulation. It was the conflict between capital and labor. The Pope’s intention was certainly to restore peace, and the reader cannot fail to note his severe condemnation of the class struggle. However, the Pope was very much aware that peace is built on the foundation of justice.
The Church has something to say about [such] specific human situations. She formulates a genuine doctrine, a corpus that enables her to analyze social realities, to make judgments about them, and to indicate directions for the just resolution of problems. In Pope Leo’s time such a concept of the Church’s right and duty was far from being commonly admitted. [His] approach in publishing Rerum Novarum gave the Church “citizenship status,” as it were, amid the changing realities of public life. Her social doctrine pertains to the Church’s evangelizing mission, and is an essential part of the Christian message.
The “new evangelization” which the modern world urgently needs must include a proclamation of the Church’s social doctrine. This doctrine indicates the right way to respond to the great challenges of today when ideologies are being increasingly discredited. We repeat that there can be no genuine solution of the “social question” apart from the Gospel. In the Gospel we find the context for proper moral perspective on the “new things.”
6. Pope Leo affirmed the fundamental rights of workers. Indeed, the key to reading the Encyclical is the dignity of the worker as such, and [therefore] the dignity of work. Work belongs to the vocation of every person; indeed, man expresses and fulfills himself by working. Another important principle is that of the right to “private property.” Private property is not an absolute value. [There are] necessary complementary principles, such as the universal destination of the earth’s goods. The type of private property that Leo mainly considers is land ownership. [But the same principles apply] in the face of the changes we are witnessing in systems formerly dominated by collective ownership of the means of production, as well in the face of the increasing instances of poverty or, more precisely, of hindrances to private ownership in many parts of the world.
7. Rerum Novarum affirms other rights as inalienable and proper to the human person. Prominent among these is the “natural human right” to form private associations. This means above all the right to establish professional associations of employers and workers, or of workers alone, and the establishment of what are commonly called trade unions. The right of association is a natural right of the human being, which therefore precedes his or her incorporation into political society. The Encyclical also affirms the right to the “limitation of working hours,” the right to legitimate rest, and the right of children and women to be treated differently with regard to the type and duration of work.
8. The Pope adds another right that the worker has as a person, the right to a “just wage.” If work as something personal belongs to the sphere of the individual’s free use of his own abilities and energy, as something necessary it is governed by the obligation to ensure “the preservation of life.” “It necessarily follows,” the Pope concludes, “that every individual has a natural right to procure what is required to live, and the poor can procure that in no other way than by what they can earn through their work.” A workman’s wages should be sufficient to enable him to support himself, his wife, and his children. The Pope attributed to the “public authority” the “strict duty” of providing properly for the welfare of the workers, because a failure to do so violates justice; indeed, he did not hesitate to speak of “distributive justice.”
9. Leo XIII adds another right, namely the right to discharge freely one’s religious duties. The general opinion, even in his day, [was] that such questions pertained exclusively to an individual’s private life. He affirms the need for Sunday rest so that people [may offer] the worship they owe to Almighty God. [We] see in this statement a springboard for the principle of the right to religious freedom, which was to become the subject of many solemn International Declarations as well as of the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration and of my own repeated teaching.
10. Another aspect is the relationship between the State and its citizens. Rerum Novarum criticizes two social and economic systems: socialism and liberalism. “When there is question of defending the rights of individuals, the defenseless and the poor have a claim to special consideration. The richer class has many ways of shielding itself, and stands less in need of help from the State.” [Such] passages [speak today to] the new forms of poverty in the world.
The principle of solidarity, both within each nation and in the international order, is clearly seen to be one of the fundamental principles of the Christian view of social and political organization. Leo uses the term “friendship,” [while] Pius XI refers to it as “social charity,” and Paul VI speaks of a “civilization of love.”
11. Rereading the Encyclical in the light of contemporary realities enables us to appreciate the Church’s constant concern for and dedication to categories of people who are especially beloved to the Lord Jesus. [There is] the continuity within the Church of the “preferential option for the poor.” The Encyclical is thus [about] the poor and the terrible conditions to which the new and often violent process of industrialization had reduced great multitudes of people. Today, in many parts of the world, similar processes of economic, social, and political transformation are creating the same evils.
The State has the duty of ensuring that every sector of social life, not excluding the economic one, contributes to achieving the common good, while respecting the rightful autonomy of each sector. Pope Leo did not expect the State to solve every social problem. On the contrary, he frequently insists on necessary limits to the State’s intervention and on its instrumental character, inasmuch as the individual, the family, and society are prior to the State, and inasmuch as the State exists in order to protect their rights and not stifle them. The guiding principle of all the Church’s social doctrine is a correct view of the human person. God has imprinted his own image and likeness on man (Gen. 1:26).
II. TOWARDS THE “NEW THINGS” OF TODAY
12. The prognosis of Rerum Novarum has proved to be surprisingly accurate. This is especially confirmed by the events near the end of 1989 and at the beginning of 1990. Pope Leo foresaw the negative consequences of the social order proposed by “socialism,” which at that time was still only a social philosophy and not yet a fully structured movement. He correctly judged the danger posed to the masses by the attractive presentation of this simple and radical solution to the “question of the working class.”
[He demonstrated] great clarity, first, in perceiving, in all its harshness, the actual condition of the working class; second, in recognizing the evil of a solution [that] was in reality detrimental to the very people whom it was meant to help. The remedy would prove worse than the sickness. By defining socialism as the suppression of private property, Leo arrived at the crux of the problem. His words deserve to be reread: “Were the contentions [of the socialists] carried into effect, the working man himself would be among the first to suffer. They are moreover emphatically unjust, for they would rob the lawful possessor, distort the functions of the State, and create utter confusion in the community.” The evils caused by what would later be called “Real Socialism” could not be better expressed.
13. The fundamental error of socialism is anthropological. Socialism considers the individual simply as an element, so that the good of the individual is completely subordinated to the socio-economic mechanism. Socialism maintains that the good of the individual can be realized without reference to his free choice in the face of good or evil. A person who is deprived of something he can call “his own,” and of earning a living through his own initiative, comes to depend on the social machine and those who control it.
In the Christian vision, the social nature of man is not completely fulfilled in the State but is realized in various intermediary groups, beginning with the family and including economic, social, political, and cultural groups that stem from human nature itself and have their own autonomy, always with a view to the common good. This “subjectivity” of society, together with the subjectivity of the individual, was cancelled out by “Real Socialism.”
The first cause of socialism’s mistaken concept of the person is atheism. It is by responding to the call of God contained in the being of things that man becomes aware of his transcendent dignity. This response constitutes the apex of his humanity, and no social mechanism or collective subject can substitute for it. Such atheism is also closely connected with the rationalism of the Enlightenment, which views human and social reality in a mechanistic way.
14. From this atheistic source, socialism derives the means of action [that it calls] class struggle. The Church recognizes the positive role of conflict when it takes the form of a “struggle for justice.” What is condemned in class struggle is the idea that conflict is not restrained by ethical or juridical considerations or by respect for the dignity of others (and consequently of oneself). Conflict becomes “total war.” Marxist class struggle and militarism have the same root, namely, atheism and contempt for the human person, which place the principle of force above that of reason and law.
15. The State’s task is to determine the juridical framework within which economic affairs are to be conducted, and thus to safeguard the prerequisites of a free economy, which presumes a certain equality between the parties, such that one party is not so powerful as to reduce the other to subservience. Society and the State assume responsibility for protecting the worker from unemployment. Historically, this happens in two converging ways: either through policies [of] balanced economic growth and full employment, or through unemployment insurance and retraining that ensures a smooth transfer of workers from crisis sectors to those in expansion.
The society and the State must ensure wage levels adequate for the worker and his family, including a certain amount for savings. Improving workers’ training will [make them] more skilled and productive. [Measures are needed to protect] especially the most vulnerable workers—immigrants and those on the margins of society. The role of trade unions in negotiating salaries and working conditions is decisive. Trade unions serve the development of an authentic culture of work and help workers to share in a fully human way in the life of their place of employment. The State must contribute to these goals both directly and indirectly. Indirectly and according to the principle of subsidiarity, by creating conditions for the free exercise of economic activity. Directly and according to the principle of solidarity, by defending the weakest and ensuring support for the unemployed.
The Church’s social teaching had far-reaching influence in the numerous reforms introduced in the areas of social security, pensions, health insurance, and [creating a] framework of greater respect for the rights of workers.
16. The role of the workers’ movement was important in these reforms. Later, this movement was dominated to a certain extent by the Marxist ideology that Rerum Novarum criticized. The reforms were also a result of an open process by which society organized itself through instruments of solidarity that sustained economic growth more respectful of the person. We thank God that the Encyclical was not without an echo in human hearts and indeed led to a generous response on the practical level.
17. The Encyclical points to the error [of] an understanding of freedom that detaches it from obedience to the truth, and consequently from the duty to respect the rights of others. This error had extreme consequences in the wars that ravaged Europe and the world between 1914 and 1945. There was no hesitation to violate sacred human rights, with the extermination of entire peoples and social groups. Here we recall the Jewish people in particular, whose terrible fate has become a symbol of the aberration of which man is capable when he turns against God.
18. Since 1945, there has been in Europe and the world a situation of non-war rather than genuine peace. Half of the continent fell under the domination of a Communist dictatorship, while the other half organized itself in defense against this threat. Many peoples were [contained] within the suffocating boundaries of an empire [that attempted] to destroy their historical memory and the centuries-old roots of their culture. An insane arms race swallowed up the resources needed for development. An ideology, a perversion of authentic philosophy, was called upon to provide doctrinal justification for [this] new war. We must repudiate the idea that the effort to destroy the enemy, confrontation, and war itself are factors of historical progress. [When we do that] the concepts of “total war” and “class struggle” must necessarily be called into question.
19. After World War II, [we saw] the spread of Communist totalitarianism over more than half of Europe and other parts of the world. The war, which should have reestablished freedom and restored the right of nations, [did not] attain these goals. Following the war, we see in some countries an effort to rebuild a democratic society inspired by social justice. Such attempts preserve free market mechanisms, ensuring, by means of a stable currency and the harmony of social relations, the conditions for economic growth in which people through their own work can build a better future for themselves and their families.
[Other countries] set up systems of “national security” aimed at controlling the whole of society in order to make Marxist infiltration impossible. They run the grave risk of destroying the freedom and values of the person, the very things for whose sake it is necessary to oppose Communism. Another response, practical in nature, is represented by the affluent society or the consumer society. It seeks to defeat Marxism on the level of pure materialism by showing how a free-market society can [better satisfy] material needs. Insofar as [such a society] denies morality, law, culture, and religion, it agrees with Marxism by reducing man to the sphere of economics and the satisfaction of material needs.
20. After “decolonization,” many countries gained State sovereignty but find themselves merely at the beginning of the journey toward genuine independence. Decisive sectors of the economy and political life itself are controlled by foreign powers. Also lacking is a class of competent professional people capable of running the State and managing the economy in an honest and just way. Many think that Marxism offers a shortcut for building the nation and the State, [and] thus Marxist-Leninist concepts mingle with militarism and popular traditions in many variants of socialism.
21. After World War II, there arose a more lively sense of human rights [expressed] in International Documents. The focal point of this evolution has been the United Nations Organization. While we note this with satisfaction, policies of aid for development have not always been positive. Moreover, the United Nations has not yet established alternatives to war for the resolution of international conflicts. This seems to be the most urgent problem that the international community has yet to resolve.
III. THE YEAR 1989
22. In the course of the 1980s, certain oppressive regimes fell one by one in some countries of Latin America and also of Africa and Asia. A decisive contribution was made by the Church’s commitment to defend and promote human rights. In situations [under Communist] ideology, the Church affirmed forcefully that every individual bears the image of God and therefore deserves respect. From this process, new forms of democracy have emerged that offer hope for change in [societies] weighed down by injustices and resentments, and by a heavily damaged economy and serious social conflicts. I thank God for the often heroic witness borne in such circumstances by many Pastors, entire Christian communities, individual members of the faithful, and other people of good will.
23. The decisive factor in the fall of oppressive regimes was the violation of the rights of workers. The crisis of systems claiming to express the dictatorship of the working class began with the great upheaval in Poland in the name of solidarity. On the basis of a hard, lived experience of oppression, it was they who recovered the principles of the Church’s social doctrine. The fall of this empire was accomplished almost everywhere by means of peaceful protest, using the weapons of truth and justice. It seemed that the order resulting from the war and sanctioned by the Yalta Agreements could only be overturned by war. Instead, it has been overcome by people who [found] effective ways of bearing witness to the truth. This disarmed the adversary, since violence always needs to justify itself through deceit.
24. The second factor in the crisis was the inefficiency of the economic system, which is not simply a technical problem but a consequence of the violation of the human rights to private initiative, to ownership of property, and to freedom in the economic sector. To this must be added the cultural and national dimensions; it is not possible to understand man on the basis of economics alone. Man is understood within the sphere of culture through his language, history, and the position he takes towards the fundamental events of life, such as birth, love, work, and death. At the heart of every culture lies the attitude man takes to the greatest mystery: the mystery of God. The true cause of the new developments was the spiritual void brought about by atheism. Marxism had promised to uproot the need for God from the human heart, but it is not possible to succeed in this without throwing the heart into turmoil.
25. The events of 1989 are a warning to those who, in the name of political realism, wish to banish law and morality from the political arena. Only by trust in the Lord of history is man able to accomplish the miracle of peace and to discern the often narrow path between the cowardice that gives in to evil and the violence that, under the illusion of fighting evil, only makes it worse. [We can see] that not only is it ethically wrong to disregard human nature, which is made for freedom, but in practice it is impossible to do so.
Moreover, man, who was created for freedom, bears within himself the wound of original sin. Man tends toward good, but he is also capable of evil. He can transcend his immediate interest and still remain bound to it. The social order will be the more stable the more it takes this fact into account and does not place in opposition personal interest and the interests of society as a whole, but rather seeks to bring them into fruitful harmony. Where self-interest is suppressed, it is replaced by a burdensome system of bureaucratic control that dries up the wellsprings of initiative and creativity. [There is no] perfect social organization that makes evil impossible. No political society can ever be confused with the Kingdom of God. God alone can separate the subjects of the Kingdom from the subjects of the Evil One, and this judgment will take place at the end of time. By presuming to anticipate [that] judgment, man puts himself in the place of God and sets himself against the patience of God.
26. The events of 1989 [involved] an encounter between the Church and the workers’ movement. For about a century, the workers’ movement had fallen in part under the dominance of Marxism. The crisis of Marxism does not rid the world of the injustice and oppression that Marxism itself exploited. To those searching for a new and authentic theory and praxis of liberation, the Church offers her social doctrine, her teaching about the person redeemed in Christ, and her concrete commitment and material assistance in the struggle against marginalization and suffering.
In the recent past, many believers sincerely sought an impossible compromise between Marxism and Christianity. Beyond all that was short-lived in these attempts, circumstances are leading to an authentic theology of integral human liberation. [In this way], the events of 1989 are important also for countries of the Third World.
27. In Europe, many injustices were committed during and prior to the years in which Communism dominated; much hatred and ill-will have accumulated. It is hoped that all people will grow in the spirit of peace and forgiveness. Between nations, international structures are needed to arbitrate conflicts, especially in Europe, where nations are united in a bond of common culture and an age-old history. A great effort is needed to rebuild morally and economically the countries that have abandoned Communism.
28. For some countries of Europe, the real postwar period is just beginning. They need the help of Western Europe. They find themselves in [such need] not as a result of free choice or mistakes that were made, but as a consequence of tragic historical events that were violently imposed on them. Assistance, especially from countries of Europe that bear responsibility for that history, represents a debt in justice. It is also in the interest of Europe as a whole.
This must not lead, however, to a slackening of efforts to assist the countries of the Third World. What is called for is a special effort to mobilize resources, which are not lacking in the world, for the purpose of economic growth and common development. Enormous resources can be made available by the disarmament of huge military machines. It is above all necessary to abandon a mentality in which the poor are considered a burden, as irksome intruders trying to consume what others produce. The advancement of the poor constitutes a great opportunity for the moral, cultural, and even economic growth of all humanity.
29. Development is not only a question of raising all peoples to the level currently enjoyed by the richest countries but of building a more decent life [appropriate to] man’s vocation from God. The apex of development is the exercise of the right and duty to seek God, to know him and to live in accordance with that knowledge. Total recognition must be given to the rights of human conscience, which is bound only to the truth, both natural and revealed. The recognition of these rights is the primary foundation of every authentically free political order. In some countries, religious fundamentalism denies to citizens of [other] faiths the full exercise of their civil and religious rights. No authentic progress is possible without respect for the right to know the truth and live according to that truth.
IV. PRIVATE PROPERTY AND THE UNIVERSAL DESTINATION OE MATERIAL GOODS
30. The natural right to private property, which is fundamental for the autonomy and development of the person, has always been defended by the Church. [But] the possession of material goods is not an absolute right. The “use” of goods, while marked by freedom, is subordinated to their original common destination as well as to the will of Christ.
31. The original source of all that is good and sustains human life is the very act of God who created [all] and gave the earth to man to have dominion over it by his work and enjoy its fruits (Gen. 1:28). This is the foundation of the universal destination of the earth’s goods. It is through work that man, using his intelligence and exercising his freedom, dominates the earth and makes it a fitting home. This is the origin of individual property. Individuals [must] not hinder others from having their own part of God’s gift; indeed, they must cooperate so that together all can dominate the earth.
At one time, the natural fruitfulness of the earth was the primary factor of wealth. In our time, the role of human work is increasingly the productive factor both of nonmaterial and material wealth. Also, more than ever work is work with others and work for others; it is a matter of doing something for someone else.
32. In our time, another form of ownership is becoming no less important than land: the possession of know-how, technology, and skill. The wealth of the industrialized nations is based much more on this kind of ownership than on natural resources. A person produces something so that others may use it after they have paid a just price, mutually agreed upon through free bargaining. The ability to foresee both the needs of others and the factors [best fit] to satisfying those needs is another source of wealth in modern society. In this way, the role of disciplined and creative human work and initiative and entrepreneurial ability become increasingly decisive.
Besides the earth, man’s principal resource is man himself. Disciplined work in collaboration with others creates the ever more extensive working communities that transform man’s natural and human environments. Important virtues are involved in this process, such as diligence, industriousness, prudence in undertaking reasonable risks, reliability and fidelity in interpersonal relationships, as well as courage in carrying out decisions that are difficult and painful but necessary, both for the overall working of a business and in meeting possible setbacks.
33. [There are] risks and problems connected with this process. Many people do not have the means enabling them to take their place within a productive system. Thus, if not actually exploited, they are to a great extent marginalized; economic development takes place over their heads, so to speak. Allured by the dazzle of an opulence beyond their reach, these people crowd the cities of the Third World without the possibility of becoming integrated. Their dignity is not acknowledged and there are even attempts to eliminate them from history through coercive forms of demographic control.
Many others, while not completely marginalized, live in situations in which the rules of the earliest period of capitalism still flourish. In other cases the land is still the central element in the economic process, but those who cultivate it are excluded from ownership and reduced to a state of quasi-servitude. In these cases, it is still possible to speak of inhuman exploitation. In fact, for the poor, to the lack of material goods has been added a lack of knowledge and training that prevents them from escaping their state of humiliating subjection.
Countries isolating themselves from the world market have suffered stagnation, while the countries that experienced development take part in economic activities at the international level. The chief problem is that of gaining fair access to the international market. [At the same time,] aspects typical of the Third World also appear in developed countries, where [market] transformation devalues skills and expertise, thus requiring continual retraining. Those who fail to keep up with the times can easily be marginalized.
34. It would appear that the free market is the most efficient instrument for utilizing resources and effectively responding to needs. But there are many human needs that find no place on the market. It is a strict duty of justice and truth not to allow fundamental human needs to remain unsatisfied. It is also necessary to help needy people acquire expertise, to enter the circle of exchange, and to develop their skills to make the best use of their capacities and resources. Prior to the logic of a fair exchange of goods, there exists something that is due to man because he is man, by reason of his lofty dignity.
35. In [one] sense, it is right to speak of a struggle against an economic system, if that system upholds the absolute predominance of capital, the possession of the means of production and of the land, in contrast to the free and personal nature of human work. The alternative is not the socialist system, which in fact turns out to be State capitalism, but rather a society of free work, of enterprise, and of participation.
The Church acknowledges the legitimate role of profit as an indication that a business is functioning well. But profitability is not the only indicator of a firm’s condition. It is possible for the financial accounts to be in order, and yet for the people—who are the firm’s most valuable asset—to be humiliated and their dignity offended. This is morally inadmissible [and] will eventually have negative repercussions on the firm’s economic efficiency. The purpose of a business firm is to be a community of persons endeavoring to satisfy basic needs at the service of the whole of society.
It is unacceptable to say that the defeat of “Real Socialism” leaves [the present operation of capitalism] as the only model of economic organization. It is necessary to break down barriers and monopolies in the international community. Stronger nations must offer weaker ones opportunities for taking their place in international life, and the latter must learn how to use these opportunities by making the necessary efforts and sacrifices, by ensuring political and economic stability, by the improvement of workers’ skills, and [by] the training of competent business leaders conscious of their responsibilities.
Positive efforts along these lines are affected by the unsolved problem of the foreign debt of the poorer countries. The principle that debts must be paid is certainly just. However, it is not right to demand payment at the price of unbearable sacrifices. In such cases it is necessary to find—as in fact is partly happening—ways to lighten, defer, or even cancel the debt.
36. In the more advanced economies, the problem is also one of responding to a demand for quality: the quality of goods and services, the quality of the environment, and of life in general. A given culture reveals its understanding of life through the choices it makes in production and consumption. Here the phenomenon of consumerism arises. Of itself, an economic system does not possess criteria for correctly distinguishing new and higher forms of satisfying needs from artificial new needs that hinder the formation of a mature personality. Thus a great deal of educational and cultural work is urgently needed, including the education of consumers in the responsible use of their power of choice. A striking example of artificial consumption contrary to the health and dignity of the human person is the widespread use of drugs. Drugs, pornography, and other forms of consumerism exploit the frailty of the weak.
It is not wrong to want to live better; what is wrong is a style of life presumed to be better when directed towards “having” rather than “being.” Even the decision to invest in one place rather than another, in one productive sector rather than another, is always a moral and cultural choice. The decision to invest. that is, to offer people an opportunity to make good use of their own labor, is also determined by an attitude of human sympathy and trust in Providence that reveals the human quality of the person making such decisions.
37. Closely connected to consumerism and equally worrying is the ecological question. Desiring to have and to enjoy rather than to be and to grow, man consumes the earth and his own life in an excessive and disordered way. Man thinks that he can make arbitrary use of the earth, as though it did not have its own prior God-given purpose, which man can develop but must not betray. Instead of being a cooperator with God in creation, man sets himself in place of God, provoking a rebellion on the part of nature, which is more tyrannized than governed by him.
38. Yet more serious is the destruction of the human environment. People are rightly worried about the extinction of animal species, but too little effort is made to safeguard the moral conditions for an authentic “human ecology.” God gave the earth to man, but man too is God’s gift to man. Here attention should be given a “social ecology” of work.
39. The first and fundamental structure for “human ecology” is the family, in which man receives his first ideas about truth and goodness and learns what it means to love and be loved, and thus what it means to be a person. But it often happens that people are discouraged from creating the proper conditions for human reproduction and are led to consider their lives as a series of sensations to be experienced rather than as a work to be accomplished.
The result is a lack of freedom that causes a person to reject a commitment to enter into a stable relationship and to bring children into the world, or that leads people to consider children as one of the many “things” that an individual can have or not have, and that compete with other possibilities. The family is indeed sacred. In the face of the so-called culture of death, the family is the heart of the culture of life. Human ingenuity seems directed more towards limiting or destroying the sources of life—including recourse to abortion—than towards defending and opening up the possibilities of life. [I have] denounced systematic anti-childbearing campaigns that, on the basis of a distorted view of the demographic problem, subject people to a new form of oppression.
These criticisms are directed not so much against an economic system as against an ethical and cultural system. The economy is only one aspect of the whole of human activity. If material goods become a society’s only value, the reason is to be found not so much in the economic system itself as in the fact that the entire socio-cultural system, by ignoring the ethical and religious dimension, has been weakened.
40. It is the task of the State to preserve common goods that cannot be safeguarded simply by market forces. In the time of primitive capitalism, the State had the duty of defending the basic rights of workers, and so now, with the new capitalism, the State and all of society have the duty of defending those collective goods that constitute the framework for the legitimate pursuit of personal goals. There are important human needs that cannot be satisfied by market mechanisms. There are goods that by their very nature cannot and must not be bought or sold. [Forgetting this] carries the risk of an “idolatry” of the market.
41. Marxism affirms that only in a collective society can alienation be eliminated. However, historical experience has sadly demonstrated that collectivism increases alienation, adding to it a lack of basic necessities. Alienation—and the loss of the authentic meaning of life—is a reality in Western societies too. In consumerism people are ensnared in a web of false and superficial gratifications. Alienation is found in work when it is organized so as to ensure maximum profits with no concern for the worker.
The gift [of authentic life] is made possible by the person’s “capacity for transcendence.” Man cannot give himself to a purely human plan for reality, to an abstract ideal or to a false Utopia. A man is alienated if he refuses to transcend himself in self-giving and in the formation of human community oriented toward his final destiny, which is God. A society is alienated if it makes it more difficult to offer this gift of self. Exploitation, at least in the forms analyzed by Karl Marx, has been overcome in Western society. Alienation, however, exists when people use one another, ignoring obedience to the truth about God and man, which obedience is the first condition of freedom.
42. Can it perhaps be said that, after the failure of Communism, capitalism is the victorious social system, and that capitalism should be the goal of the countries now making efforts to rebuild their economy and society? Is this the model that ought to be proposed to the countries of the Third World?
If by “capitalism” is meant an economic system that recognizes the fundamental and positive role of business, the market, private property, and the resulting responsibility for the means of production, as well as free human creativity in the economic sector, then the answer is certainly in the affirmative, [although it is] perhaps more appropriate to speak of a “business economy,” “market economy,” or simply “free economy.” If by “capitalism” is meant a system in which freedom in the economic sector is not circumscribed within a strong juridical framework that places it at the service of human freedom in its totality, and that sees it as a particular aspect of that freedom, the core of which is ethical and religious, then the reply is certainly negative.
Vast multitudes live in conditions of great material and moral poverty. The collapse of Communism removes an obstacle to facing these problems, but it is not enough to bring about their solution. There is a risk that a radical capitalistic ideology could refuse even to consider these problems, blindly entrusting their solution to market forces.
43. The Church offers her social teaching as an indispensable and ideal orientation that recognizes the positive value of the market and of enterprise when [they are] oriented towards the common good. In the light of today’s “new things” we have reread the relationship between individual or private property and the universal destination of material wealth. Man works in order to provide for his family, his community, his nation, and ultimately all humanity. He collaborates in the work of his fellow employees, of suppliers, and in the customers’ use of goods in a progressively expanding chain of solidarity. Just as the person fully realizes himself in the free gift of self, so too ownership morally justifies itself in the creation of opportunities and human growth for all.
V. STATE AND CULTURE
44. Rerum Novarum presents the organization of society according to the three powers”legislative, executive, and judicial. It is preferable that each power be balanced by [the] others. This is the “rule of law” in which the law is sovereign and not the arbitrary will of individuals. This concept has been opposed by Marxist-Leninist totalitarianism, which maintains that some people are exempt from error and can therefore exercise absolute power. The root of totalitarianism is the denial of the transcendent dignity of the human person who, as the visible image of the invisible God, is by his very nature the subject of rights that no one may violate.
45. Totalitarianism also involves a rejection of the Church. The State sets itself above all values [and] cannot tolerate the affirmation of an objective criterion of good and evil beyond the will of those in power. The State tends to absorb within itself the nation, society, the family, religious groups, and individuals themselves. In defending her own freedom, the Church is also defending the human person, who must obey God rather than men (cf. Acts 5:29).
46. The Church values the democratic system [that] ensures the participation of citizens in making political choices, guarantees to the governed the possibility of, electing and holding accountable those who govern and of replacing them through peaceful means when appropriate. Nowadays, there is a tendency to claim that agnosticism and skeptical relativism are the philosophy and attitude that correspond to democratic forms of political life. It must be observed [however] that if there is no ultimate truth to direct political activity, then ideas can easily be manipulated for reasons of power. A democracy without values easily turns into open or thinly disguised totalitarianism.
Christian truth does not claim the right to impose on others [one] concept of what is true and good. Since it is not an ideology, the Christian faith does not imprison changing socio-political realities in a rigid schema. Human life is realized in history in conditions that are diverse and imperfect. Further, reaffirming the transcendent dignity of the person, the Church’s method is always that of respect for freedom. While paying heed to every fragment of truth he encounters [elsewhere], the Christian will not fail to affirm in dialogue with others all that his faith and the correct use of reason have enabled him to understand.
47. Today we are witnessing a predominance of the democratic ideal, together with lively attention to human rights. Those rights [are] the solid foundation of democracy. Among the most important is the right to life, an integral part of which is the right of the child to develop in the mother’s womb from the moment of conception. The source and synthesis of [all such rights] is religious freedom, the right to live in conformity with one’s transcendent dignity as a person. The Church respects the legitimate autonomy of the democratic order and is not entitled to express preferences for this or that institutional or constitutional solution. Her contribution to the political order is her vision of the dignity of the person revealed in all its fullness in the mystery of the Incarnate Word.
48. The market economy cannot be conducted in an institutional, juridical, or political vacuum. The role of the State is to guarantee individual freedom and private property, as well as a stable currency and efficient public services. The State also oversees the exercise of human rights in the economic sector. However, primary responsibility in this area belongs not to the State but to individuals and to the groups and associations that make up society. The State could not directly ensure the right to work for all its citizens unless it controlled every aspect of economic life and restricted the free initiative of individuals. The State has a duty to sustain business activities by creating conditions that will ensure job opportunities.
The State has the right to intervene when monopolies create obstacles to development. In exceptional circumstances the State can also exercise a substitute function, when social or business sectors are too weak or just getting underway. Such supplementary interventions must be as brief as possible, so as to avoid removing permanently from society and business the functions that are properly theirs, and so as to avoid enlarging excessively the sphere of State intervention to the detriment of both economic and civil freedom.
In recent years, such intervention has vastly expanded, creating the “Welfare State.” Excesses and abuses have provoked very harsh criticisms of the Welfare State, dubbed the “Social Assistance State.” Malfunctions in the Social Assistance State result [from] an inadequate understanding of the tasks proper to the State. The principle of subsidiarity must be respected: a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to coordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society. always with a view to the common good. Needs are best understood and satisfied by people who are closest to them, and who act as neighbors to those in need.
49. The Church has always been present and active among the needy. Active charity has never ceased to be practiced, and today it is showing a gratifying increase. Special mention must be made of volunteer work, which the Church favors and promotes. To overcome today’s individualistic mentality we require a concrete commitment to solidarity and charity, beginning with the family. It is urgent to promote family policies for [among other tasks] looking after the elderly, so as to avoid distancing them from the family unit and in order to strengthen relations between generations. Apart from the family, other intermediate communities, communities [that function between] the State and the marketplace, exercise primary functions and give life to networks of solidarity.
50. From the open search for truth the culture of a nation derives its character. Evangelization plays a role in the culture of the various nations, sustaining culture in its progress to truth. When a culture becomes inward-looking and tries to perpetuate obsolete ways by rejecting any exchange with regard to the truth about man, it becomes sterile and is heading for decadence.
51. The first and most important [cultural] task is accomplished within man’s heart. The way in which he builds his future depends on the understanding he has of himself and his destiny. It is on this level that the Church’s specific and decisive contribution to true culture is to be found. The Church renders this service to human society by preaching the truth whereby the Son of God has saved mankind and united all people, making them responsible for one another. No one can say that he is not responsible for the wellbeing of his brother or sister (cf. Gen. 4:9, Luke 10:2937, Matt. 25:31–46). Concern for one’s neighbor is especially important in searching for alternatives to war in resolving international conflicts.
52. On the occasion of the recent tragic war in the Persian Gulf, I repeated the cry: “Never again war!” As in individual States a system of private vendetta and reprisal has given way to the rule of law, so too a similar step is now needed in the international community. Another name for peace is development. As there is a collective responsibility for avoiding war, so too there is a collective responsibility for promoting development. This is the [international] culture that is hoped for, one that fosters trust in the human potential of the poor, and in their ability to improve their condition through work. They need to be provided opportunities [through a] concerted worldwide effort to promote development, an effort that also involves [surrendering the advantages] of income and power enjoyed by the more developed economies.
VI. MAN IS THE WAY OF THE CHURCH
53. For a hundred years the Church has expressed her thinking [on] the social question, [but] not in order to recover former privileges or to impose her own vision. Her sole purpose has been care and responsibility for man, who has been entrusted to her by Christ himself. The horizon of the Church’s wealth of doctrine is man in his concrete reality as sinful and righteous.
54. The human sciences and philosophy are helpful for interpreting man’s central place within society. However, man’s true identity is only fully revealed to him through faith, and it is from faith that the Church’s social teaching begins. The Church’s social teaching is itself a valid instrument of evangelization.
55. Christian anthropology is really a chapter of theology, and the Church’s social doctrine [as I earlier wrote] “belongs to the field of theology and particularly of moral theology.” The theological dimension is needed both for interpreting and solving present-day problems in society. This is true in contrast to both the “atheistic” solution and to permissive and consumerist solutions. On the eve of the third Millennium the Church continues to be “a sign and safeguard of the transcendence of the human person,” walking together with man through history.
56. I wish this teaching to be applied in the countries that, following the collapse of “Real Socialism,” are experiencing a serious lack of direction. The Western countries, in turn, run the risk of seeing this collapse as a one-sided victory of their own economic system, and thereby failing to make necessary corrections in that system. Third World countries experience more than ever the tragedy of underdevelopment.
57. The social message of the Gospel [is] not a theory but a basis and motivation for action. That message will gain credibility from the witness of actions. This awareness is also a source of the Church’s preferential option for the poor, which is never exclusive or discriminatory toward other groups. This option is not limited to material poverty, [for] there are many other forms of poverty—not only economic but cultural and spiritual. In the West there are forms of poverty experienced by groups that live on the margins, by the elderly and the sick, by the victims of consumerism, by so many refugees and immigrants. In developing countries tragic crises loom on the horizon.
58. Justice will never be attained unless people see in the poor person who is asking for help in order to survive not an annoyance or a burden but an opportunity for showing kindness and a chance for greater enrichment. It is not merely a matter of “giving from one’s surplus,” but of helping entire peoples that are presently excluded or marginalized to enter into the sphere of economic and human development. Today’s “globalization” of the economy can create unusual opportunities for greater prosperity. In order to direct the economy to the common good, increased coordination among the more powerful countries is necessary, with international agencies [to assure that] the interests of the whole human family are equally represented.
59. For the demands of justice to be met, what is needed is the gift of grace. Grace in cooperation with human freedom constitutes that mysterious presence of God in history that is Providence.
60. Solving serious national and international problems is not just a matter of economic production or of juridical or social organization, but calls for ethical and religious values. There is hope that the many people who profess no religion will also contribute to providing the necessary ethical foundation. [But] the Christian Churches and world religions will have a preeminent role in preserving peace and in building a society worthy of man.
61. After World War II, the Church put the dignity of the person at the center of her social messages. As she has become more aware of the too many people living in the poverty of the developing countries, she feels obliged to denounce this [marginalization] with absolute frankness, although she knows that her call will not always win favor with everyone.
62. I again give thanks to Almighty God, who has granted his Church the light and strength to accompany humanity on its earthly journey toward its eternal destiny. In the third Millennium, too, the Church will be faithful in making man’s way her own. It is Christ who made man’s way his own, and who guides him, even when he is not aware of it.
Given in Rome, at Saint Peter’s, on 1 May, the Memorial of Saint Joseph the Worker, in the year 1991, the thirteenth of my Pontificate.