CHRISTIAN SOCIAL THOUGHT has evolved into a rich and irreducible pluralism (some would say cacophony) of voices. This is nowhere more evident than in ethical reflection on economic life. The recent, nearly global collapse of socialism signals a new era in modern history, an era whose assumptions, structures and practices beg for new ethical reflection, and response from our traditions and churches.
Two recent documents provide the first major official glimpses of how Roman Catholicism and ecumenical Protestantism have begun to chart their courses through the terrain of new economic realities. The first is Centesimus Annus, Pope John Paul II's encyclical issued in May 1991. The second is the ecumenical study document Abundant Life for All: Christian Faith and the World Economy Today, issued in August 1992 by the World Council of Churches' Commission on the Churches' Participation in Development. Previously, modern papal social thought and ecumenical social thought have had to make economic judgments in the midst of a bipolar world, locating their prescriptions somewhere between two extreme visions, with papal thought leaning toward capitalism and Protestant ecumenical thought tending, ambiguously, toward socialism. In light of global changes, these two recent documents reflect some noteworthy continuities and discontinuities.
In Centesimus Annus John Paul accomplishes three things. First, he affirms his direct continuity with the tradition initiated over a century ago by Leo XIII's Rerum Novarum. He reinvokes central ethical components of that tradition (human dignity, the right to private property, the universal destination of creation, the right to a just wage, the right to unionize, subsidiarity) and places them within an explicit christological and incarnational framework: "There can be no genuine solution of the |social question' apart from the gospel." John Paul defines the common thread of this inheritance in terms of its focus on safeguarding human dignity.
For John Paul, this inheritance includes evaluations of systems of political economy, judgments which he believes have been vindicated by recent history. Communism has always been unequivocally condemned in papal social teaching for its atheistic perversion of anthropology, its denial of humanity's spiritual dimension, its denial of economic rights such as private property and its rejection of political values such as self-determination, subsidiarity and the common good. The papal tradition has also been fairly clear in its critique of capitalism -- a critique that includes some notions of capitalist theory ("unregulated capitalism," "laissez-faire capitalism") and certain aspects of capitalist practice (consumerism, extremes of wealth and poverty, violations of workers' rights, persistence of Third World poverty). This posture toward democratic capitalism has nevertheless affirmed most of its central institutional components such as private property, market exchanges, individual rights, democracy and limited government.
Second, John Paul embraces the collapse of Soviet-imposed socialism with unambiguous affirmation. His disgust at and condemnation of socialism are unabashed. Soviet socialism proved to be an evil solution "which, by appearing to reverse the positions of the poor and the rich, was in reality detrimental to the very people whom it was meant to help. The remedy would prove worse than the sickness." He firmly repudiates socialism as a method of social analysis, a worldview and as a practical experiment in political economy. It was a collection of "oppressive regimes" violating the rights of workers and producing severe economic inefficiency. "For a long time the most elementary economic relationships were distorted, and basic virtues of economic life, such as truthfulness, trustworthiness and hard work, were denigrated." Socialism is perceived not merely as inferior to capitalism, but utterly antithetical to human well-being, economic and social development, and the common good. …