Where did Pope John Paul II stand on economic issues? The same place he stood on all other issues involving the well-being of the human person. He favored the rights and dignity of all people, their freedom to work and create, an environment of security that permits the flourishing of families and communities of faith. He had faith in freedom and no love for the grand secular faith in the state. Thus did this pope understand something that a surprising number of pundits and intellectuals have yet to fully understand, namely that human dignity implies non-socialist political and economic structures, which are commonly known as the business economy.
He was a fierce critic of socialism and worked to bring about its end in Eastern Europe. He saw the merit of the institutional arrangements commonly called capitalistic: protection of private property, the freedom of trade, the enforcement of contract, the right of economic initiative, and the social merit of a growing economy essential to support a rising population. If the last two decades can be seen as a time of unraveling structures of central planning and advancing structures of global trade, this pope can be seen as a champion of these precise trends and their humanistic merit.
Whenever I’ve made these claims in any kind of public forum, I’m immediately hit with a barrage of objections to the effect that John Paul II was also a critic of American consumerism, worried about the effects of globalization on the poor, called for the forgiveness of loans to poor countries, backed labor unions–all positions uncharacteristic of an uncritical backer of the American capitalist state. To this, I can only respond: True indeed, and note that none of the claims above contradict his essential conclusion that socialism and socialist institutions are incompatible with freedom and dignity, whereas institutions of the business economy are just so compatible.
Here is a good way to understand the pope’s economics: College economics students take a course sometimes called “comparative systems,” which for generations usually taught that the decision between capitalism and socialism was a toss up. In the old days, students were taught that both can lead to economic growth, and both have their merits (socialism provides health care for all, albeit with fewer choices). Such preposterous claims are no longer made today, but you do find far more said against business than for it in the average course on this topic.
Well, if we imagine Pope John Paul II teaching such a course, we can also imagine that he might have restated the traditional Catholic condemnation of socialism. He would do that not just because of its Marxian-style atheism but because socialism failed to understand the depth of who human beings are, and the necessity for their liberty, which so often resulted in a trampling of human rights and a failure to provide for the material well being of humanity. This pope was the first in modern times to take matters a step further, or rather many steps further, and say that there is positive evil associated with socialism to the same extent that there is positive good associated with the business economy that operates within the juridical framework of the rule of law.
To be sure, individuals and institutions must also use their freedom within the marketplace in a manner consistent with virtue and in accord with the common good. The business economy is a necessary but not sufficient condition; what is crucial from the point of view of comparative systems, however, is that the pope taught that it was necessary.
“The modern business economy has positive aspects,” he writes. “Its basis is human freedom exercised in the economic field, just as it is exercised in many other fields. Economic activity is indeed but one sector in a great variety of human activities, and like every other sector, it includes the right to freedom, as well as the duty of making responsible use of freedom.” Again, he says, “it would appear that, on the level of individual nations and of international relations, the free market is the most efficient instrument for utilizing resources and effectively responding to needs.”
It is why the pope took special mention of the political and economic institutions in the United States, where such freedoms are a primary element of the political culture and the driving force behind economic life, during his 1987 visit: “Among the many admirable values of this nation there is one that stands out in particular. It is freedom. The concept of freedom is part of the very fabric of this nation as a political community of free people.
Freedom is a great gift, a great blessing of God. From the beginning of America, freedom was directed to forming a well-ordered society and to promoting its peaceful life. Freedom was channeled to the fullness of human life, to the preservation of human dignity, and to the safeguarding of all human rights. An experience of ordered freedom is truly a part of the cherished history of this land. This is the freedom that America is called to live and guard and to transmit. She is called to exercise it in such a way that it will also benefit the cause of freedom in other nations and among other peoples.”
It is a particular contribution of John Paul II to have introduced the “right of economic initiative” into the theological vocabulary. “It should be noted,” writes the pope, “that in today’s world, among other rights, the right of economic initiative is often suppressed. Yet it is a right which is important not only for the individual but also for the common good. Experience shows us that the denial of this right, or its limitation in the name of an alleged ‘equality’ of everyone in society, diminishes, or in practice absolutely destroys the spirit of initiative, that is to say the creative subjectivity of the citizen.”
For a strong economics education, I cannot recommend too highly John Paul II’s 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus, which discusses the division of labor, property, prices, profits, debate, development, sound money, trade, the environment, and a host of other issues, all with the desire to teach and encourage more freedom. He said he had no models to present or endorse, but what he did offer was a higher ideal that challenges all nations in the world to reject the failed economics of planned states and embrace total freedom, including an economic freedom, directed towards the truth.
–Rev. Robert A. Sirico is president of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty in Grand Rapids, Michigan.