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May 1 brought back happy memories for devotees of St. John Paul II. On that date ten years ago, Benedict XVI beatified his predecessor in a St. Peter’s Square still echoing with the “santo subito” chants of six years earlier. It was the last great beatification or canonization in Rome in the John Paul style of celebration—that of the massive international festivals that marked the elevations of Maximilian Kolbe, Edith Stein, Padre Pio, or Mother Teresa.

Under Pope Francis, the ceremonies have been subdued in the extreme, even for his personal heroes, St. Paul VI and St. Oscar Romero. In 2019, he canonized Sister Dulce Lopes Pontes, the “Mother Teresa of Brazil” and a national heroine, without mentioning her name.

May 1 this year was also the thirtieth anniversary of Centesimus Annus, John Paul’s 1991 landmark encyclical, which Bishop Robert Barron says “sums up Catholic social teaching better than any other document.”

The greatness of teaching documents can be measured by how well they stand up to changing circumstances. The “centennial year” that Centesimus Annus marked was 1891, the year of Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum. In that charter for contemporary Catholic social teaching, Leo diagnosed the Marxist solution to the plight of workers as a “cure worse than the disease,” 26 years ahead of the Bolshevik revolution.

Bishop Barron’s Word on Fire has published an excellent compendium of texts entitled Catholic Social Teaching Collection. It is not your typical treatment of the subject. In the section on witnesses to the tradition—from the Church Fathers to contemporary saints—the longest section is given to Dorothy Day, who explains her support for striking workers “not on the ground of wages and hours and conditions of labor, but on the fundamental truth that men should be treated not as chattels, but as human beings, as ‘temples of the Holy Ghost.’”

The pope of solidarity would have agreed. Indeed, John Paul wrote an entire encyclical on the dignity of work in 1981, Laborem Exercens. It didn’t make it into the magisterial documents part of Barron’s collection. Notably, the only two encyclicals included in their entirety are Rerum Novarum and Centesimus Annus.

Such was the greatness of the former that it became customary for Leo’s successors to issue their own treatments of Catholic social teaching on its decennial anniversaries: Pius XI’s Quadragesimo Anno in 1931, John XXIII’s Mater et Magistra in 1961, Paul VI’s Octogesima Adveniens in 1971, Laborem Exercens in 1981. Pope Francis would have customarily published something this year, but his encyclical on human fraternity, Fratelli Tutti, was published last year so as to appear ahead of the American presidential election.

There are many points of unity between Leo XIII and John Paul II, but in social teaching they might be considered the great champions of human freedom. Each taught that the social order must recognize the freedom proper to individuals, to families, to business associations, and to labor unions—to all the “subjects” whose freedom contributes to the common good.

John Paul strongly defended economic liberty, but noted that “economic freedom is only one element of human freedom.” Man is meant to be free; economic freedom is not the most important freedom, but it is vital, as so much of daily life is dedicated to economic activity.

Thus the “free economy” (John Paul preferred that term to “capitalism” or “market economy”) serves human freedom as a whole:

When it becomes autonomous, when man is seen more as a producer or consumer of goods than as a subject who produces and consumes in order to live, then economic freedom loses its necessary relationship to the human person and ends up by alienating and oppressing him (#39).

John Paul knew well that a free society is not a machine that runs itself. The most stinging lines in Centesimus Annus are: “democracy without values easily turns into open or thinly disguised totalitarianism.” At thirty years' distance, those lines no longer sting; they are a simple description of the current state of the democratic project.

John Paul grew up in an oppressed nation, yearning to be free from foreign occupiers. Hence the emphasis on freedom. Pope Francis grew up in an independent and free country that impoverished itself, the only country to regress (nine defaults on its sovereign debt, three in the 21st century) from world-leading affluence to widespread poverty independent of war or foreign occupation. Pope Francis is thus much more skeptical of what human freedom and creativity can accomplish in the economic sector.

Yet it would be a mistake to see a complete break between John Paul and Francis. Though Francis has narrowed John Paul’s unusually broad vision, Francis does build upon what is found in Centesimus Annus.

The key is “human ecology,” a term John Paul introduced to the magisterium in 1991:

Although people are rightly worried—though much less than they should be—about preserving the natural habitats of the various animal species threatened with extinction, because they realize that each of these species makes its particular contribution to the balance of nature in general, too little effort is made to safeguard the moral conditions for an authentic “human ecology.” Not only has God given the earth to man, who must use it with respect for the original good purpose for which it was given to him, but man too is God’s gift to man. He must therefore respect the natural and moral structure with which he has been endowed (#38).

“Human ecology” is not only a bridge to widespread ecological concern in contemporary culture, it is a bridge to the older Catholic tradition of natural law, the perennial philosophy that Leo XIII was so keen to revive. Benedict XVI would make “human ecology” a central part of his own social encyclical, Caritas in Veritate (2009), as well as the central image of his landmark address to the German federal parliament in 2011. 

Benedict spoke of human ecology using his own term, “integral human development.” That was chosen by Francis in his curial reform as the name of the new Vatican department dealing with political and economic questions. 

Those echoes of Centesimus Annus are found at the heart of the “green” encyclical Laudato Si’, which Pope Francis insists is an encyclical in the Rerum Novarum tradition:

Human ecology also implies another profound reality: the relationship between human life and the moral law, which is inscribed in our nature and is necessary for the creation of a more dignified environment. Pope Benedict spoke of an “ecology of man,” based on the fact that “man too has a nature that he must respect and that he cannot manipulate at will.”

The links between the Church’s pro-life witness, ecological teaching, defense of economic liberty, and solicitude for the poor are all present in Centesimus Annus. Thirty years ago, in the immediate aftermath of the defeat of European communism, the question of freedom was more central. But Centesimus Annus, like all great encyclicals, has endured and matured over time, like Rerum Novarum a hundred years before it.

Raymond J. de Souza is a priest in the archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario.

Photo by Dennis Jarvis. Image cropped. 

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