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Papal Economics:
The Catholic Church on Democratic Capitalism, from Rerum Novarum to Caritatis in Veritate
by maciej zieba, o.p.
isi, 264 pages, $26.95

There exists a great deal of confusion regarding the popes’ social encyclicals. The problem is threefold: they span over one hundred years in changing political and social milieus; the language that is used is inconsistent; and, finally, there are competing tensions contained in the documents. This book navigates the reader through the confusion.

In Papal Economics: The Catholic Church on Democratic Capitalism, from Rerum Novarum to Caritatis in Veritate , Maciej Zieba, O.P., a personal friend and interpreter of the thought of John Paul II examines the Pope’s encyclical Centissimus Annus (1991), and his other social encyclicals Laborem Exercens (1981) and Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (1987), in light of Rerum Novarum (1891) and Quadragesimo Anno (1931). He also examines the social encyclicals of Pope John XXXIII, Paul VI, and Benedict XVI in light of the foundational pillars of Catholic Social Thought: the dignity of the human person, subsidiarity, solidarity, and the common good.

Zieba shows how John Paul II believed that democracy and capitalism were good for the human person. Having come out of a socialist state, the Pope recognized the dehumanizing effect that an un-free political system has on personal creativity and the creation of wealth. The Pope, he claims, in no way promoted a “third way” redistributionist economic system. He rather held to the “ordoliberal” principles, perfected in post-World-War II Germany. Ordoliberals maintain that the role of the state is to establish the rules for a real free market in which capitalism and free competition can cooperate for the common good. Rather than being a bureaucratic agency controlling the economic process and interfering with business decisions, ordoliberals hold that the state is only responsible for ordering the framework and regulating the process that will enable free market forces to develop their own potential.

It also included a transcendent dimension, Zieba writes: “Ordoliberal thinkers operated on the basic principle that the spiritual dimension of human life cannot be ignored and therefore neither can the transcendent dignity of each person.” In Centissimus Annus , the Pope recognized freedom of religion as a sine qua non for respecting human dignity. The good state, he said, respects the witness of religion which in turn should help to promote a culture of life and love. All of the Pope’s insights, Zieba explains, are based on his understanding of human anthropology which is rooted in man’s God-given rights, his concomitant obligations to others, and his eternal destiny. Zieba describes John Paul’s thought as follows:

To survive and flourish, the market economy and democratic politics must recognize the fundamental importance of transcendent truth and create a vigorous cultural system capable of preserving and “anthropological minimum,” that common vision of dignity of man shared by people of different religions and world views.

Yet John Paul was no libertarian, as Zieba explains: “The libertarian approach to the right of private property, through theoretically not an absolute right, is in practice free of social and moral obligations.” Instead, Catholic social teaching calls for the state to make available to all its citizens the bounty of the earth which may be attained through work. In Laborem Exercens , the Pope says humans express themselves in their work. In no way does the Pope call for a welfare state, but he does ask that governments help to provide opportunities for their citizens to earn a decent living. To this end he urges just laws, a fair economic system, sensitivity to and the protection of the rights of minorities, and aid for those who fall below the poverty level.

In examining Pope John XXXIII’s, Mater et Magestra (1961), Zieba says, that the encyclical reflects the Pope’s concern for the needs of developing nations and the obligations of developed countries to aid them. Pacem in Terris (1963), he says, “was written in the context of the erection of the Berlin Wall and the Cuban Missile Crisis, two political confrontations that threatened the outbreak of yet another global conflict.”

Paul VI, in Popoulorum Progressio (1967), Zieba states, differs from the other encyclicals insofar as it relies more on philosophy than theology. In it the Pope “sharply criticizes the free-market economy, and he seems to question private property rights. In addition, he portrays central planning as a panacea for the injustices of economic life.” The weight of this encyclical is difficult to gauge since it is an anomaly to the genre.

Zieba says, that Pope Benedict’s encyclical, Caritatas in Veritate (2009), is a composite document comprised of the Pope’s theology, which is impeccable, and the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace ’s desire for a global plan for the allocation of wealth. This hybrid makes the encyclical confusing. He says, “ Caritas in Veritate ‘does not say enough about the nature of the common good.’ It ‘leaves us guessing a bit as to the principles needed to spell out the relationship’ between subsidiarity and globalism.”

What is obvious from these papal writings is that the church does not promote a specific economic program for humanity since, self-admittedly, it is beyond her competence. The social encyclicals are prudential judgments on the part of the popes who issued them. As John Paul said, in Sollicitudo Rei Socialis ,

[The Church’s social doctrine] is not an ideology, but rather the accurate formulation of the results of a careful reflection on the complex realities of human existence, in society and in the international order, in the light of faith and the Church’s Tradition. Its main aim is to interpret these realities, determining their conformity with or divergence from the lines of the Gospel teaching on man and his vocation, a vocation which is at once earthly and transcendent; its aim is thus to guide Christian behavior.

In a recent interview Pope Francis said, “The church must feel responsible for both souls and bodies.” This captures the purpose for the papal social encyclicals. Unfortunately, the theological and philosophical concepts used by past popes in their encyclicals as well as the complex nature of the economic issues they have attempted to address has limited their impact on the general public. One can only hope that Pope Francis’ direct manner will bring more clarity to the social problems the Church is compelled to address. And, that he and future popes will more simply enunciate the basic principles proposed for their amelioration.

In the meantime, Zieba’s book is an invaluable resource for those who want to have a better understanding of the Catholic social justice tradition.

The Reverend Michael P. Orsi is a chaplain and research fellow in law and religion at the Ave Maria School of Law.

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