In his encyclical letter, Centesimus annus, promulgated in 1991, just a few years after the fall of communism, to mark the one-hundredth anniversary of Pope Leo XIII's Rerum novarum, the encyclical established the foundation of the Church's modern social teaching, John Paul II sought to lay down for us the fundamentals of morality for the economy according all the factors of reality, most importantly factoring in the structure of the human person.
It's here where we cut to the chase of the current unrest. The struggle seems to perennially be between "capitalism" and "collectivism," or socialism. Like Hilare Belloc in his still relevant book The Servile State, John Paul II seeks a middle way, which Belloc contrasts with capitalism by calling it distributism, whereas John Paul II seeks to clarify what we mean by the word "capitalism":
If by "capitalism" is meant an economic system which 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, even though it would perhaps be more appropriate to speak of a "business economy", "market economy" or simply "free economy". But if by "capitalism" is meant a system in which freedom in the economic sector is not circumscribed within a strong juridical framework which places it at the service of human freedom in its totality, and which sees it as a particular aspect of that freedom, the core of which is ethical and religious, then the reply is certainly negative (par. 42)While on the need for a strong(er) "juridical framework," the Holy See announced that on Monday it will release a document proposing reforms of the international financial system.
As Fr. Thomas Reese observed in a blog post (to which I am indebted for this part of my own post), it is safe to say that these proposed reforms will be closer to the aims of the more moderate OSW protesters than to the Tea Party, or the more fringe elements of OSW. Undoubtedly, this document will take its cue directly from Pope Benedict's encyclical Caritas in veritate. In this too little read and commented on encyclical, very different from his first two, the Holy Father asks us to rethink our reasons for engaging in economic activity in the first place and posits a system in which profit is not the main motive, a system based on an ethics centered on the human person and concerned first with the common good. In this vein, the Holy Father notes that profit should not be an end-in-itself, but a means of achieving the common good.
Pope Benedict observed, "Once profit becomes the exclusive goal, if it is produced by improper means and without the common good as its ultimate end, it risks destroying wealth and creating poverty That certainly proved true by the economic greed and reluctance that caused the recent recession" (par. 21). I would be hard-pressed to think of a more succinct way of diagnosing the cause of the meltdown of the global economy several years back and the folly of trying to re-build things on this ruined foundation.
Prescinding from my post on Cardinal Reinhard Marx, I have sought to show how unfettered capitalism, that is, in the negative sense as defined by John Paul II, is not a conservative force. I want to wrap up by returning to Centesimus annus and noting that a human being can only be "understood in a more complete way when he is situated 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. Different cultures are basically different ways of facing the question of the meaning of personal existence. When this question is eliminated, the culture and moral life of nations are corrupted. For this reason the struggle to defend work was spontaneously linked to the struggle for culture and for national rights" (par. 24). This is precisely why it is never a strictly or simply a matter of economic policy. Any system that destroys culture ultimately destroys humanity. Rampant consumerism, as much as anything, is a cause of great disharmony in the world, as some cultures actively resist being drawn into the orbit of McWorld, not wanting the Disney-fication, or, worse yet, the porn-ification, of everything and everyone. Our failure to recognize this resistance for what it is will only serve to perpetuate and exacerbate these global problems.
These issues are just as important as the other moral issues we are always going on about. It seems to me that polarization in the Church results from self-styled conservatives, who refuse to be provoked by the Church's social teaching, clashing with equally determined liberals, who care very little about things like personal sexual morality in their quest for what they call "social justice," a term that is often remains ambiguous, especially when applied to the issue de jour. Of course, these polarities can be reversed.
Collect for today:
O God, who are rich in mercy
and who willed that the Blessed John Paul II
should preside as Pope over your universal Church,
grant, we pray, that instructed by his teaching,
we may open our hearts to the saving grace of Christ,
the sole Redeemer of mankind.
Who lives and reigns.