Book Review: Papal Economics

by Stephanie Johnson


People often criticize capitalism as an economic system that drives corporations to act as sources of injustice in the world. As a student in the Carroll School of Management, I can attest to being frowned upon a few times for my desire to someday work for a large corporation. Many of my peers believe that corporations in a free market economy aim solely for profit and power. It may come as a surprise to some, but democratic capitalism is the economic system supported by the Catholic Church and the papacy. While capitalism has its imperfections, it remains the system that most accurately aligns with Catholic social teaching as long as it satisfies human needs, converges with human anthropology, and accents rationality, independence, and the social nature of the human being.


In Father Maciej Zięba’s book, Papal Economics: The Catholic Church on Democratic Capitalismfrom Rerum Novarum to Caritas in Veritate, he sets out to conquer the challenging task of explaining the reflections of the papacy on the economic and political order found in their social encyclicals. He guides his audience through the past century of social encyclicals. Gradually, throughout the course of the past century, the papacy has evolved from an initial hostility to democracy to endorsement of it by Pope John Paul II. Zięba argues that John Paul II’s encyclical, Centesimus Annus, assumed the role of the flagship of Catholic social doctrine by offering the most comprehensive teaching on democratic capitalism. Therefore, he chooses to devote the majority of his book to analyzing Centesimus Annus.

Centesimus Annus, written in 1991, is Pope John Paul II’s response to the fall of the Communist regime. According to Zięba, Centesimus Annus is “not only a modern link to the foundation of the Church’s social thinking; it is also an innovative document.” In addition to clarifying the Church’s position on democracy and capitalism, the document distinguishes faith from ideology, illustrates a relationship between society and the state, and demonstrates the preeminence of culture and anthropology over politics and economics.


The first theme present in Centesimus Annus is political community. Regarding teachings on the foundations of social life and the role of the state, John Paul contends that respect for human dignity is the ultimate goal. He argues that democracy encompasses the essential values and conforms to the vision of society and the state laid out in his encyclical. He states, “The Church values the democratic system inasmuch as it ensures the participation of citizens in making political choices.” The broad participation is an expression of the personal dignity of every man.


Democracy depends on principles derived from a certain vision of man and his nature, and at the center of John Paul’s anthropology is the “view of the transcendent dignity of the person.” Man’s rights derive from that dignity. The majority of participants in a democratic system must have a common vision of man and demand a certain anthropological minimum. John Paul II asserts that the elements of this anthropological minimum include: certitude that the actors in a democratic society are equal, intellectual optimism (the conviction that the majority of people will behave rationally), moral optimism (the presumption that the majority is apt to choose the good), realizing the common good as the reason for existence of the political community, and generosity toward minority groups. Looking at democracy from an anthropological point of view, it possesses the qualities necessary to respect the dignity of persons.


In this manner, John Paul II praises the democratic system, yet he is sure to warn that government interference should be kept to a minimum to ensure autonomy in all areas of social life. John Paul argues that the responsibility for the shape of economic life rests on “society and the state.” Zięba states, “broadly speaking, we could sum up these reflections simply: the less there is of the state, the better, because it is better to have ‘more society.’”


The second theme present in Centesimus Annus is economic life. In his analysis of economic life, John Paul II offers a criticism of “unbridled capitalism” and offers a vision of economic life as it would appear if Catholic social teaching were widely implemented. Pope John Paul’s critique is not of “capitalism per se but rather economism, a mechanistic and materialistic concept of human activity.” The error of economism lies in the belief that economic reality is the only reality. In reality, the economy is “only one aspect and one dimension of the whole of human activity.” When economic freedom is viewed as the only freedom, it “loses its necessary relationship to the human person and ends up alienating and oppressing him.” Problems with capitalism arise when humans are thought of as consumers and producers rather than humans who consume and humans who produce.


After offering this criticism of unbridled capitalism, John Paul offers his opinions relating to the positive aspects of capitalism. He argues that when capitalism recognizes the “positive role of business, the market, private property, and the resulting responsibility for the means of production, as well as free human creativity in the economic sector” the system aligns with Catholic social teachings. Throughout Centesimus Annus, he notes the developments and improvements to global prosperity brought about by capitalism throughout the past century.


Among John Paul’s affirmations of a free market economy, he comments on the positive role of profit. As long as profit is not the only focus of a corporation, profit indicates that a corporation is functioning well. He states, “When a firm makes a profit, this means that productive factors have been properly employed and corresponding human needs have been duly satisfied.” When a free market society respects human dignity, it corresponds with Catholic social teaching.


The final theme addressed is the primacy of culture. The pope concludes Centesimus Annus by arguing that culture enjoys primacy over political and economic reality. He states, “a given culture reveals its overall understanding of life through the choices it makes in production and consumption,” and “even the decision to invest in one place rather than another, in one productive sector rather than another, is always a moral and cultural choice.” Culture ultimately dictates societal decisions.


As a Catholic student in the Carroll School of Management here at Boston College, it is fascinating to witness my faith and my education interacting. I highly recommend reading Papal Economics: The Catholic Church on Democratic Capitalism, from Rerum Novarum to Caritas in Veritate.


The book, which is published by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, can be purchased through Amazon.


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