Neither Capitalist nor Marxist: Karol Wojtyla's Social Ethics

By Kwitny, Jonathan | Commonweal, October 10, 1997 | Go to article overview

Neither Capitalist nor Marxist: Karol Wojtyla's Social Ethics


Kwitny, Jonathan, Commonweal


Romuald Kukolowicz, now in his seventies, is the son of Polish Catholic intellectuals. In 1953, he was working as a clerk. At the time, Poland was firmly part of Stalin's Soviet empire. During World War II, Kukolowicz had done work as an underground printer. Some friends from those days, now students at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, approached him, raving about a young professor whose lectures on Catholic ethics and communism were inspiring and ought to be published. Did Kukolowicz know anyone who could do it?

Kukolowicz found an underground printer in Lublin. His friends arranged for him to pick up the manuscript from the professor - Father Karol Wojtyla - at a convent in Krakow. As the manuscript was typed, edited, and published, there were more meetings between Kukolowicz and Wojtyla, but little small talk. "When I saw him it was always [to discuss] what to publish and how," Kukolowicz remembers. "It was a very strict conspiracy."

Some 250 reams of printing paper were stolen by the members of this "conspiracy" from the state institutions where they worked. A World War II press was used that required each page be rolled by hand over a typed matrix. Kukolowicz calculates that his friends had to press some 112,750 sheets of paper separately to make the book. It was published in two volumes, the first in 1953, the second the following year, with only 200 to 250 copies in each edition - loose pages in an envelope, to be bound, if desired, by the recipient. Copies went to priests who taught students in all the major cities of Poland. "They weren't given [directly] to students because of the need for secrecy," Kukolowicz says. "Police agents infiltrated the classes. If the security forces found such a book in your apartment, you would be subject to ten years in prison."

The work, called Catholic Social Ethics, is nowhere described in Kalendarium (the official diary of John Paul II's life up to his pontificate) or any other available literature; Kukolowicz's is the only copy I have encountered. The Vatican confirms his story. To my knowledge, this is the book's first public disclosure, and it belies much that has been written in the West about Wojtyla in recent years portraying the pope as an ally of free-market Western politicians.

Bishop Tadeusz Pieronek, now secretary of the Polish episcopate but in 1954 a student in Wojtyla's social ethics course at the Jagiellonian, remembers being stunned to learn that Father Wojtyla had written a manual, several copies of which were passed around at the school. "It was impossible to publish a manual in those days," Bishop Pieronek explains. "All printers were registered by the government. Even typewriters were registered, but authorities allowed you to type. The university had a library, but the books were not accessible to the average reader. You can't imagine how libraries looked. Till the 1980s, whole lists of books were banned."

As a priest in the 1970s, Pieronek visited Cardinal Wojtyla for dinner and found parts of that old manual on a bookshelf in the dining room. "We learned about capitalism for the first time from Wojtyla's text," Bishop Pieronek recalls. "He tried to explain each system."

Catholic Social Ethics reinforces the notion that Wojtyla was a Thomist rather than a phenomenologist; it asserts at its inception that Aquinas's natural law "allows theories of ethics" to be stated with "scientific" precision. It also shows that by age thirty-three, Wojtyla had adopted unreservedly both the welfare-state economic ideas and the courage of Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, the Polish primate. No longer a novice or small-parish priest, Wojtyla instead marked himself in this book as a serious, innovative thinker with his eye on the world.

"The main task of the Catholic social ethic is to introduce the principles of justice and love into social life," Wojtyla wrote in the first volume, on politics. Tracing economic history from feudalism to the industrial age, he endorsed the Marxist notions of a working class and a class struggle. …

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