Academic journal article Journal of Markets & Morality

From Leo XIII's Rerum Novarum to John Paul II's Centesimus Annus

Academic journal article Journal of Markets & Morality

From Leo XIII's Rerum Novarum to John Paul II's Centesimus Annus

Article excerpt

Comparing the social encyclicals by popes in the first century after the publication of Rerum Novarum, one can notice an evolution not only in their attitude toward the real political-economic situation but also in their postulated social solutions. It seems that an analysis of the contents of the encyclicals gives one the right to propose the statement that the general view of political-economic life is rather similar and quite comparable to the model of democratic capitalism in the first encyclicals. However, the later period witnessed gradual but consistent change of this stance. At first, the encyclicals published in this period barely perceptibly remove themselves from, and then act with obvious distance toward the social solutions of democratic capitalism. This tendency is brought to a halt and partly turned around in the first two social encyclicals of John Paul II.

Looking through particular encyclicals at the role that the State should play in social life, one can perceive crucial shifts in accents. As might be expected, all the popes have shared an opposition to more extreme liberal concepts of the nation and recognition of its key role in social life. However, the very manner, as well as the scope of acting foreseen for the State, differ according to various encyclicals in a crucial way. In the beginning, there was a Scholastic vision of the State as the societas perfectae responsible for the realization of the common good of all its citizens. In this vision--shared by both Leo XIII and Pius XI--the State should not only react in cases of trespass upon that good but should also actively support its construction by focusing particular attention on the poorest social classes (the accent is less on direct aid and more on creating conditions for a better future).

The holism of such an approach, which, in practice could be transformed into statism, leads, however, to a strongly balanced emphasis on the servile role of the State as well as its decentralization based upon the principle of assistance. In this vision, the primacy of the human person in relation to the State is stressed, along with the primacy of the family and any indirect associations that should be supported by the State, since the creation of a thick network of grassroots social ties is one of the sources of its strength. In time the underlining of this social differentiation, as well as its subjectivity in regard to the State, gradually weaken while the task of the State becomes, mainly, the assurance of an increasingly larger package of laws understood as rights for the individual. The connections of these rights with responsibilities, still clearly seen in John XXIII, become nearly absent in the teachings of Paul VI but return with John Paul II.

Together with progressive globalization, successive encyclicals consistently strengthen, too, the role of the State in the international dimension; not only does the State's responsibility rise for maintaining peace in the global dimension but also for international production and economic exchanges, as well as aid to weaker nations. The conviction that interested countries are, above all, responsible for good use of the aid received and also for their own development is emphasized in John XXIII but weakens with Paul VI, then again returns in the teachings of John Paul II. This is the opposite with the problem of planning social development, which, according to all the encyclicals--is the prerogative of the State. Still, in Populorum Progressio, the planning and coordinating role of the State (present in prior encyclicals) shifts in the direction of centrally planning social life while the areas of State intervention are clearly expanded. The meaning of this role for the State and the view of central planning are again clearly halted in John Paul II.

Deliberations on specific political systems, and especially about democracy, are almost nonexistent in the encyclicals, though Leo XIII allowed for a multiplicity of political forms--which was a novelty in those days--and removed from it the odium that it had borne since the French Revolution. …

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