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Official Portrait of Pope John Paul II

by Igor Babailoff, Vatican Museum

 

"In Sollicitudo John Paul II speaks of economic systems which incorporate “structures of sin

that work against the common good." *

 

 

Economics and Catholic Social Teaching

March-April 2007

 

Pope John Paul II Criticized Both Capitalism and Marxism Before and During His Pontificate *

by Mark and Louise Zwick

In the encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, the pontiff stated:

“ The Church's social doctrine adopts a critical attitude towards both liberal capitalism and Marxist collectivism.”

John Paul II's opposition to aspects of Marxism and his role in bringing it down are well known. Less well known are his criticisms of capitalism in Sollicitudo and a number of other writings, of the “ all-consuming desire for profit and the thirst for power at any price with the intention of imposing one's will upon others, which are opposed to the will of God and the good of neighbor.”

In Sollicitudo John Paul II speaks of economic systems which incorporate “structures of sin” that work against the common good.

These structures of sin, he said, are not vague, nameless entities for which no one is responsible. Rather, they “are rooted in personal sin, and thus always linked to the concrete acts of individuals who introduce these structures, consolidate them and make them difficult to remove. And thus they grow stronger, spread, and become the source of other sins, and so influence people's behavior.”

John Paul II criticized the economic systems that lacked solidarity, lacked the biblical and Catholic vision of the “option or love of preference for the poor ,” a phrase coined by Latin American theologians and later refined, which eventually became a key concept of the social teaching of the Church. The phrase appears also in John Paul II's Centes-imus Annus, Pastores Gregis, Tertio Millennio Adveniente and Ecclesia in America .

The preferential option for the poor is, the Pope said in Sollicitudo , a “special form of primacy in the exercise of Christian charity, to which the whole tradition of the church bears witness. It affects the life of each Christian inasmuch as he or she seeks to imitate the life of Christ, but it applies equally to our social responsibilities and hence to our manner of living, and to the logical decisions to be made concerning the ownership and use of goods .” (42)

The Pope went so far as to compare an economics which emphasized only self-interest to the story of the rich man and the beggar Lazarus in the Gospel: “Today, given the worldwide dimension which the social question has assumed, this love of preference for the poor, and the decisions which it inspires in us, cannot but embrace the immense multitudes of the hungry, the needy, the homeless, those without medical care and, above all, those without hope of a better future. It is impossible not to take account of the existence of these realities. To ignore them would mean becoming like the "rich man" who pretended not to know the beggar Lazarus lying at his gate (cf. Lk 16:19-31).

In the encyclical Sollicitudo , published twenty years ago, the Pope already pointed out that the way in which international trade between rich countries and poor countries was implemented left the poor ones at such a disadvantage as to be destructive to their economy and whole way of life. He pointed out the injustices of the world monetary and financial system and the debt situation of the poor countries.

In 1987 he already described the reality that was the maquiladora system, or outsourcing in the search for paying the lowest salaries possible, as having all the potential for great injustices. In Laborem Exercens the pontiff had declared that “work, as a human issue, is at the very center of the "social question" (3). Clearly the search for the lowest possible wages around the world where companies do not pay taxes to help the local economy and organizing workers is not only discouraged, but violently opposed, does not meet his criteria for a just situation for workers. (Casa Juan Diego has received workers for many years who left their countries because they could not support their families on the wages paid by “outsourcing.”)

The Pope asked for a change.

He asked for en economics built on solidarity with everyone around the world, extending a famous saying of Pope Pius XII into the world of solidarity:

“The motto of the pontificate of my esteemed predecessor Pius XII was Opus iustitiae pax, peace as the fruit of justice. Today one could say, with the same exactness and the same power of biblical inspiration (cf. Is 32:17; Jas 3:18): Opus solidaritatis pax , peace as the fruit of solidarity.”

Pope John Paul II used the same words in Sollicitudo and various other speeches and writings that Peter Maurin so often quoted, from the earliest tradition of the Church regarding private property: The universal destination of goods means that private property is for everybody, not just for those who use it to make their fortune.

“It is necessary to state once more the characteristic principle of Christian social doctrine: the goods of this world are originally meant for all. The right to private property is valid and necessary, but it does not nullify the value of this principle. Private property, in fact, is under a "social mortgage," which means that it has an intrinsically social function, based upon and justified precisely by the principle of the universal destination of goods .” (42)

The “social mortgage” the Pope spoke of, as Peter Maurin often said, means that whatever property you have is held in trust for the common good.

These teachings of John Paul II undermine those who encourage cutthroat businesses practices that hurt “the Lord's poor,” (so often couched in a revision of Adam Smith's language) to be ameliorated by philanthropy in one's later life—especially philanthropy that only encourages others to do the same.

In Sollicitudo as in his other writings John Paul II placed these questions in a faith and theological perspective which cannot be viewed as an endorsement of an economics which seeks profit and power above all else: That perspective is the theology of communion.

“One's neighbor must be loved, even if an enemy, with the same love with which the Lord loves him or her; and for that person's sake one must be ready for sacrifice, even the ulti-mate one: to lay down one's life for the brethren (cf. 1 Jn 3: 16).

"One's neighbor is then not only a human being with his or her own rights and a fundamental equality with everyone else, but becomes the living image of God the Father, redeemed by the blood of Jesus Christ and placed under the permanent action of the Holy Spirit.”

"Beyond human and natural bonds, already so close and strong, there is discerned in the light of faith a new model of the unity of the human race, which must ultimately inspire our solidarity. This supreme model of unity, which is a reflection of the intimate life of God, one God in three persons, is what we Christians mean by the word 'communion.'"

 

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXVI, No. 2, Mar.-Apr. 2007.