The Social Teaching of John Paul II

John Paul wanted to move forward the Council’s openness and announcement of Christian hope to the postmodern world, but … he saw that the excesses brought about by the Council were having destructive effects and acted to preserve the Church’s structure and doctrines. It is in this context that his social teaching … should be seen.

In 1963, a novel appeared called: The Shoes of the Fisherman—an odd title for a popular novel with an even odder topic, as it was a novel about a pope. 1 The pope in the book was a Slav, a Russian Catholic bishop, providentially elevated to the papacy just in time to prevent a cataclysmic clash between the Capitalist West and the Socialist East, whose name was Kiril. The book was oddly prophetic, for in 1978 a Slav cardinal was elected pope with seemingly providential intervention, a pope whose intervention between the Socialist and Capitalist world made an historic difference, and whose name was Karol. It is the real Slav pope, JohnPaul II, we are concerned with here, since how John Paul dealt with the conflict between the Eastern and Western blocs influenced the three social encyclicals that he wrote during his long and influential pontificate. The world has moved on from the East-West conflict, it is true, but the social encyclicals of John Paul II stand today as the last fully developed exposition of Church policy about economic justice and moral understanding of global social conditions. Neither of his successors has published a major social encyclical, that is, since John Paul issued his last social encyclical, Centesimus Annus in 1991. The three social encyclicals that John Paul promulgated, nonetheless, do have explicit application to the current social and economic situation which is now global.

The term “Thermidorean reaction” is used to describe that point in a revolution when an attempt is made to stop its excesses, to restore a sense of order, and most importantly, to retain the positive effects of the revolution without bringing destruction upon the state. Such events happened in both the French and Russian revolutions. The Second Vatican Council was, in effect, a revolution in the way that the Church faced the contemporary world, but the understanding here is that the Church’s revolutionary openness to change became an opportunity for secular forces with an agenda, and sincere religious people with excessive zeal for change to reconfigure the Church’s liturgy, structure, and doctrines. This produced a situation within the Church of opposing camps of traditionalists and reformers, and a reaction of confusion and horror among lay people who wished the Church well and, indeed, depended upon the Mass and the sacraments, who now faced having to declare themselves on one side or the other.

On social issues, there was no longer a stopping point at which Church authorities could comprehensively state that reforms had reached their inherent conclusion, since the new departure in Catholic social doctrine had virtually abandoned the traditional, natural law doctrine of the Church. 2 Without an established view of the structure of the human person, with an open-ended view of the person’s rights and nature of community, having changed from a policy of anticommunism to one of anti-anticommunism, and casting a cold eye upon the legitimacy of any social structures but its own, Church social doctrine had devolved to a point which produced confusion and dismay. It was at this point that Providence handed to John Paul II the keys of Peter. John Paul wanted to move forward the Council’s openness and announcement of Christian hope to the postmodern world, but as leader of the Church, he saw that the excesses brought about by the Council were having destructive effects and acted to preserve the Church’s structure and doctrines. It is in this context that his social teaching—which can strike the reader, as at turns, favoring left-wing or right-wing positions—should be seen.

Two additional factors in John Paul’s background had an effect upon his social teaching: first, that living as a Pole during the 20th century, he had direct experience of living under totalitarian governments and their hatred of revealed religion, as the Church in Poland was oppressed by both the Nazi and the Communist regimes. John Paul saw this fact not merely as an example of repression of the right of religious worship, but as a denial of the spiritual aspect of human nature. Further, living under Communist rule for all his adult life, John Paul II would necessarily have become conversant with the Marxist basis for communism’s opposition to capitalism.

Second, John Paul II was an intellectual (invited as a visiting professor at the Harvard Divinity School) and former professor who had published several scholarly books and papers, and in particular was an adept of the Phenomenological school of philosophy that grew up in continental Europe in the early 20th century. Phenomenology was founded by the German philosopher Edmund Husserl who taught that essences could be intuitively and immediately known without the formal apparatus of scientific method or psychological process. Among Husserl’s disciples were Martin Heidegger, and more importantly for John Paul, Max Scheler, who developed a phenomenology of ethics on which John Paul wrote one of his two doctoral dissertations. Another of Husserl’s disciples was St. Edith Stein, the Jewish convert, philosopher, and Carmelite nun who was killed at Auschwitz, and whom the Pope had canonized.

To begin an overview of John Paul’s social encyclicals, I start by somewhat discordantly mentioning the Anglo-Saxon common law doctrine of stare decisis which states that in any judicial decision, precedents ought to be honored so that courts “are slow to interfere with principles announced in the former decisions, and often uphold them even though they would decide otherwise were the question a new one.” John Paul’s social encyclicals follow the same method; each of them is given on the anniversary of a social document promulgated by a previous pope that extends themes previously enunciated, although proceeding in a somewhat new direction. His first social encyclical, Laborem Exercens, which addressed the topic of labor, was given in 1981 on the 90th anniversary of Rerum Novarum. His second social encyclical, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, on social and economic development in the third world, was given in 1987 on the 20th anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s Popularum Progressio. His third such encyclical, which is an updated summary of the Church doctrine on social concerns, Centesimus Annus, was given, appropriately, on the 100th anniversary of Rerum Novarum. In all three encyclicals, John Paul seeks to extend Catholic social teaching, and to preserve the doctrines of his predecessors. And, when John Paul II does introduce something new, he tends to do so under the cover of preceding enunciations of doctrine, like a good common-law judge.

John Paul’s first encyclical, Laborem Exercens3  is a treatment of human labor that brings out his own background as a laborer, a student of phenomenology, and a citizen of a country dominated by Communism. Laborem is easily John Paul II’s most personal excursion into social doctrine, in which he made his most original and penetrating contribution to Catholic social doctrine, and, I believe, to social thought in general. In this encyclical, besides being an expositor of explicitly Catholic doctrine, John Paul is also a bona fide social philosopher, for what John Paul is attempting to do is to use human labor as the median topic which bridges the opposition between socialist and capitalist economic systems. Also, by establishing human labor on its own ground prior to its assumption into the theory of an economic system, he uses his own theology of human labor as the critical ground from which to evaluate both socialist and capitalist economic systems.

John Paul attained adulthood during the Cold War, certain episodes of which threatened nuclear war on a cataclysmic scale, and while the pope was dedicated to the release of his homeland from the grip of Soviet occupation, this did not make him a proponent of capitalism over against Soviet style socialism. The point of the so-called “social question” from which to pursue a critical analysis in this context is that of human labor. Indeed, the labor theory of value invented by Karl Marx in his paradigmatic work, Das Kapital, reduces the value of any product, whether raw diamonds dug up from a mine or a high-tech gadget coming off the assembly line, to the labor which went into digging up the diamonds or putting together the gadget. For Marx, the inherent immorality of capitalism arises from the fact that, in order to reap profits, the factory owner and entrepreneur, in effect, steal from the worker the value of his labor. However, the place of labor in economic theory is as firmly implanted in the capitalist system as well. Adam Smith’s paradigmatic work, The Wealth of Nations, starts with a vivid description of the surprisingly complex process of manufacturing the small straight pins used in clothing. Thus, the centrality of labor is duly recognized in the theory of both economic systems. In his treatment of economic justice, John Paul II does not find it necessary to approach labor and capital as two opposing elements of economic organization, as did his predecessors, Leo XIII and Pius XI; rather, he starts with labor itself, rendering a sharply drawn philosophical analysis.

The second of the five parts of Laborem Exercens analyzes human labor under its “objective” and “subjective” aspects. The objective, or technological aspect is the process by which the activity of human beings at their “workbench”—an image which the pope frequently uses—produces the end result of their labor. He is cognizant of the fact that new technologies have made labor less often the tiring work typical of factories and assembly lines, and more often a labor of processing information. But the pope is also aware of what is, from his point of view, the more important aspect of human labor: its “subjective” aspect. By “subjective,” he does not mean the interior feelings or opinions of the individual laborer, so much as the human values implicit in human work—such as the need for fulfillment, and the salient requirement that the nature of the work process must be organized in such a way as to protect the dignity of the worker. Thus, managers should provide not only adequate pay, but adequate safety and, perhaps, above all else, give the laborers the sense of attachment to the end result of their work. Not to render these things threatens the “right order of values,” for “{i}t is precisely these fundamental affirmations about work that always emerged from the wealth of Christian truth, especially from the very message of the ‘gospel of work’ … ”  (para.7).

In emphasizing the priority of labor, the pope cites “the error of economism,” by which he means the reduction of human labor to a merely mechanical process, i.e., viewing it solely from the point of view of “its economic purpose” (para. 13). This reduction took place as a result of the development of the factory system, which was falsely thought to present the opposition between labor and capital, for in truth both are intermingled and cannot be separated. For John Paul, then, the opposition between socialism and capitalism is a false one, since both are materialist economic philosophies which subvert the moral order by putting the economic value of labor above its ethical and theological aspects, and which, therefore, deny the dignity of the worker. In effect, the pope is saying that the tedious toil of spending the entire work day installing tires on truck axles on an assembly line has the same dehumanizing effect on the worker whether he works at a plant in Hamtramck Michigan or Togliattigrad in the former USSR. In this way, Church doctrine, as John Paul enunciates it, takes a “plague on both your houses” stance regarding socialism as represented by the eastern bloc countries, including the Soviet Union, and capitalism as represented by the western nations, including the United States. This implied evenhandedness, however, resulted in a difficulty in John Paul’s last social encyclical, as we shall see.

John Paul proceeds in the last major part of Laborem to develop a theology of work. He must deal first with a seeming contradiction, namely that human labor is an expression of human dignity, and is enjoined by God upon man in his command “to go forth and multiply and subdue the earth” (Gn 1:28). But, at the same time, human labor is a punishment imposed by God upon the descendents of Adam and Eve for Original Sin (Gn 3:17-19). John Paul resolves this contradiction by distinguishing between “toil” and “labor,” and later cites Jesus’ early vocation as a carpenter, referring to him as a “man of work.” To sum up, Laborem Exercens is the most original of John Paul’s social encyclicals, which, by concentrating on the subject of labor, gave the Church an independent stance by which to criticize both the East and the West during the later stages of the Cold War, providing a phenomenology and a theology of human labor.

Pope John Paul’s second social encyclical, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, 4 was published in 1987 on the 20th anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s Populorum Progressio, and follows the general theme of Paul’s encyclical which was on development in the third world. Although John Paul makes some innovations, particularly the notion of solidarity, the second of his social encyclicals does not have the originality, or the flair, of the first. And since Pope Paul’s encyclical was both abstract and condemnatory, prescinding from direct policy recommendations while condemning Western and Eastern bloc nations for not concerning themselves with the welfare of the third world nations, John Paul’s letter often sounds the same. Earlier papal social encyclicals from Leo XIII, Pius XI, and even John XXIII, were written in a Western context, concerned with the plight of workers, or the overweening power of capitalism in Europe and America. But Pope Paul VI’s Popularum Progressio is remarkable for extending Catholic social teaching to the nations that remained pre-industrial, often former colonies of the Western powers, whose politics were being whipsawed between the revolutionary socialist currents from the Soviet Union and China, and counter-revolutionary capitalist currents from America and Western Europe.

The Church’s concern for the pre-industrial nations came about because they were obviously poor, and far less powerful than either the Western or the Eastern blocs, and also because the Church was extending its missionary activities, as never before, into the non-Western world. Indeed, one of the more compelling sights of Vatican II was the procession of 2,000 bishops which consisted of “men of every race and tongue and nation.” For the first time in its history, the Church was fully “catholic” because it was now actually a worldwide institution, whose message of Christian grace and salvation was extended to every culture across the world—Asian, African, and South American—as well as European and North American.

Characterizing the Church as an “expert in humanity,” both Popes Paul VI and John Paul II extended the Church’s social teaching to characterize the development sought by third world nations as not merely economic, i.e., a question of industrialization and raising the standard of living, but also as cultural and moral. The two popes were concerned with the destructive effects of rampant capitalism on millennial traditions of culture and mores within nations, particularly on family and community life. For instance, the dispossession of tribal farmlands for industrial parks (done by native governments) is catastrophic for the displaced farm families who know no other way of life, while at the same time scarring the landscape and polluting the environment. In Sollicitudo, John Paul uses the term “solidarity” to express the sense of interdependence and mutual reliance that should properly characterize development in its moral and cultural aspects. “Solidarity” was famously the name used by the Polish resisters to Soviet rule, and has come into common use.

The underlying issue in both Paul’s, and John Paul’s, treatment of third world development is how social justice is to be achieved for these nations in the precise manner in which the riches of the northern part of the globe should be shared with the southern half, whose economies are far less developed, and in which most of whose people live in dire poverty in dense urban areas, or by subsistence farming. There are apparently only two options: redistribution or capitalism. Neither pope comes down on one side or the other, attempting rather to shame the peoples of the northern hemisphere into transmitting wealth to the peoples of the southern hemisphere, while at the same time recognizing that de facto, free market capitalism, and industrial development, are the only ways that the poorer nations can ever raise their own standards of living.

Sollicitudo deals with a variety of topics resulting in an apparent loss of cohesion in the letter, but one particular topic was controversial among some critics at the time. By following Pope Paul in analyzing the state of the third world as torn between two blocs, John Paul asserted that the Western and the Eastern blocs were, to use the operative phrase, “morally equivalent.” John Paul says at one point: “When the West gives the impression of abandoning itself to forms of growing and selfish isolation, and the East, in its turn, seems to ignore for questionable reasons its duty to cooperate in the task of alleviating human misery, then we are up against not only a betrayal of humanity’s legitimate expectations … but also a real desertion of a moral obligation” (par. 23). Conservative critics, including William F. Buckley and William Safire, decried the pope’s assertion of moral equivalence since the Church had come a long way from its pre-Vatican II stance of relentless anti-communism—as represented by Pope Pius XII, and Cardinal Spellman and Bishop Sheen in the United States—to the accusation of moral equivalence. But, as long as the condemnation of the West was based upon its evident hedonism and materialism, this criticism, while accurate, had little effect.

The year 1991 was the 100th anniversary of Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum, the formative document of Catholic social teaching, which called for a celebratory document from the Vatican. John Paul chose to use it as an opportunity for a comprehensive survey of the world’s economic and social conditions. Centesimus Annus 5 is a wide ranging document that includes a theological dissection of totalitarianism, a phenomenologically based Christian anthropology, a survey of moral and economic conditions in the West, a sympathetic treatment of the challenges facing third world nations in their attempt to modernize, and a statement that the human person is the main focus of Catholic social doctrine. Lay theologian, Michael Novak, a well-regarded neo-conservative, who has attempted to relate Catholic social teaching to capitalist and democratic institutions, praised the document as a “tour d’horizon,” i.e., a comprehensive survey of world social and economic development. 6

Centesimus Annus was written for another reason as well, namely the astounding collapse of Russian Communism in 1989, which was preceded by the withdrawal of Soviet forces from all the former Soviet bloc nations of Eastern Europe. The accession of a Slavic pope, whose election inspired the “Solidarity” movement in Poland, was, perhaps, the major immediate factor in the breakup of the Soviet Union, made all the more remarkable by accomplishing it with a minimum bloodshed. Yet, this immense victory for humanity, and for the Church, presented a challenge to Catholic social teaching, for John Paul’s previous social encyclical, Sollicitudo had furthered the premise of Pope Paul’s Popularum, that the third world nations were prevented from social and economic progress by the competition between two amoral blocs, East and West. Now, however, one of those blocs had imploded as if its members had realized suddenly that the whole enterprise of Soviet Communism had been a torturous fraud, necessarily leaving Western capitalism as the only model for national economic development. Further, the 1980s had been the decade of Reagan and Thatcher, with their policy of promoting an energetic free market philosophy, and resistance to labor union power. Was it time, two years after the stunning collapse, for Church doctrine to come to terms with the victory of Western capitalism? John Paul puts the question starkly: “Returning now to the initial question: can it perhaps be said that, after the failure of communism, capitalism is the victorious social system, and that capitalism should now be the goal of countries making efforts to rebuild their economy and society?” (para. 42).

To answer this question, John Paul, in effect, distinguishes, to use a term from syllogistic disputation, between Western capitalism as a bloc, and Western capitalism as it actually exists. The blocs, presented by Paul and John Paul in Populorum Progressio and Sollicitudo, were foreshortened abstractions of “socialism” and “capitalism,” but of Western capitalism, especially, this usage obscured the existential reality. In America, and in the nations of Western Europe, labor unions had progressed to the point where they constituted major political forces, and an entire “welfare state,” which provided cradle-to-grave security, had been put in place in the Western nations. Above all, it could not be denied that Western style capitalism, depending on the profit motive and market forces, had brought about an undeniable increase in the standard of living of the industrial masses that socialism had not been able to achieve.

In Centesimus, John Paul deals with these realities of Western capitalism, conceding that “{t}he modern business economy has positive aspects” (para. 32). He understands that within a nation “the free market is the most efficient instrument for utilizing resources and effectively responding to need” (para. 34), and states that “The Church acknowledges the legitimate role of profit as an indication that a business is functioning well” (para. 35). Yet, he denies that “the defeat of so-called ‘Real Socialism’ leaves capitalism as the only model of economic organization” (para. 35). In short, John Paul’s appreciation of free market economics is tempered by his need to express the moral and theological aspects of economic development. He notes the need for a cultural infrastructure to support free economic activity, for cessation of command economies, as in the former Soviet Union, do not automatically bring forth a free market economy. John Paul demands that “the market be appropriately controlled by the forces of society, and by the State, so as to guarantee that the basic needs of the whole of society are satisfied” (para. 35). Thus, his appreciation for capitalism is not that of free market proponents, such as Milton Friedman, for John Paul did not believe in an unfettered free market, and did not look to it as the exclusive  solution to social and economic problems.

Perhaps, because his approval is limited, conservatives and free market advocates have not often cited Centesimus to point out the fact that John Paul recognized the moral legitimacy of certain essential aspects of capitalism, including the free market and profits—if not three cheers, or even two cheers, for capitalism, perhaps, one cheer. Conservative critics would probably respond that what the pope is recommending has been tried and found wanting, that over-regulation and aggressive union activity slow down economic growth, and depress the amount of money and goods that are otherwise distributed throughout society. John Paul, however, does not make an idol of the free market, but thinks of it as a human contrivance for human ends, in Burke’s phrase. But, neither does he think that it is the Church’s duty to prescribe alternate economic arrangements to Western capitalism, such as a “third way,” but rather to act as a moral referee. Interestingly, John Paul also criticizes the excesses of the “associational state,” (i.e., welfare state), which was disconcerting to left-wing Catholics, who assumed that expansion of welfare state entitlements in the United States was the preferential option for the poor in action (para. 48).

Centesimus Annus can be understood as an attempt to deal with the providential end of Soviet communism, i.e., of “real socialism,” and the apparent triumph of liberal Western capitalism. This encyclical is, in effect, the Church’s answer to Fukuyama’s thesis, in The End of History, that liberal capitalism is the place where global governmental and economic development comes to its end. The Church states, in effect, that even if Fukuyama’s thesis is true (and subsequent events seem to be contradicting it), that the imperatives of social justice must be preserved; that the status of the person must be the first concern of any economic system or initiative; that human rights, especially freedom of religious worship, must always be defended; and, that the Christian devotion to love of neighbor not be lost in a plethora of plans for economic development. In this context, the appearance of Mother Teresa on the world stage was “no accident.” For her divinely inspired mission remains a “sign” that those unable to participate in global economic development, as either producers or consumers, must not be left behind.

John Paul II’s three social encyclicals share the same central concern of the post-World War II era: namely, the face-off between the socialist East and the capitalist West. Since the demise of Soviet Russian socialism, there have been changes in the global economic situation. Concerns of third world nations now take an important, if not dominant, place, particularly regarding the effects of industrialization on their lifestyles, and massive immigration from third world to first world nations as from North Africa to Europe, and from Central America to the U.S. As a result, other issues have arisen that should engage the Church’s attention. These include, but are not limited to, sovereign debt of whole nations going “bankrupt” due to welfare state expansion; pressures on the environment from industrialization on a global scale; and, the rise of militant Islam, which threatens the existence of Christian populations in Islamic states. Both the good, and the less than good, aspects of these new economic and social developments need to be analyzed and presented in the fullness of the Christian message. Perhaps, it is time for another major social encyclical.

  1. The Shoes of the Fisherman by Morris West; originally published 1963; 40th Anniversary Edition, Toby Press, 2003.
  2. The editor of a popular collection of Church social documents wrote that while the natural law doctrine was based upon the essentiality of family, property and state, “…nevertheless, changes do occur. Pope John XXIII, and the aggiornamento, move from a relatively static view of man’s nature and reason, toward human rights and fulfillment of human capacities, promoted by man’s innate worth.” Joseph Gremillon, The Gospel of Peace and Justice. Orbis, Maryknoll, 1976; p. 8.
  3. Laborem Exercens, “On Human Labor,” 1981, available on the Vatican website: va/edocs .  Paperback edition with official Vatican translation, St. Paul Books and Media.
  4. Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, “On Social Concerns,” 1987, available on the Vatican website as above.
  5. Centesimus Annus, “On the Hundredth Anniversary of Rerum Novarum,” 1991, available on the Vatican website as above.
  6. See Michael Novak’s The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism; Madison Books, New York, 1982.
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avatar About Dr. John C. Caiazza, Ph.D.

John C. Caiazza, Ph.D., is a senior lecturer in Philosophy at Rivier University. His article on the influence of the philosophy of science on the thought of ethicist Alasdair MacIntyre is scheduled for publication in the Quarterly of the American Catholic Philosophic Association.

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