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John Paul II's new social encyclical, Sollicitudo rei socialis

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 Contents - May 1988AD2000 May 1988 - Buy a copy now
John Paul II's new social encyclical, Sollicitudo rei socialis - B.A. Santamaria
Cardinal Ratzinger: defender of the Faith - Andrew Greenwich

The new encyclical Sollicitudo rei socialis, which can be broadly translated as "The concern (of the Church) for the Social Order" was designed by its author, Pope John Paul II, to mark the twentieth anniversary of the encyclical Populorum Progressio. The latter was published slightly more than a year before the even more famous encyclical Humanae Vitae. The year between the publication of these two encyclicals might be regarded as the last of the relative Indian Summer which followed the close of the Second Vatican Council in 1965. The publication of Humanae Vitae marked the end of the calm before the storm.

John Paul lI's latest encyclical has received less public attention than might have been expected, although in the United States, in particular, some aspects of its analysis have been subject to criticism, which has come particularly, although not exclusively, from liberal "free marketeers".

John Paul presents his new encyclical as a reconsideration, after a lapse of 20 years, of the central theme of "development", covered by his predecessor in Populorum Progressio. The new document is, in addition, the most recent in a long series of encyclicals dealing with the social question, which began with Leo XlII's Rerum Novarum (1891), followed forty years later by Pius Xl's Quadragesimo Anno; then by John XXlII's Mater et Magistra (1961); by Paul Vl's Populorum Progressio (1967); then by the same Pope's Apostolic Letter Octogesima Adveniens (1971); and John Paul II's Laborem Exercens (1981). These represent not merely a chronological sequence, but a progressive application of the central concept of justice.

As the present Pope sees it, the Catholic concept of social justice was applied first at the individual level - between employer and worker, then to the relationship between the classes, inevitably confronting the Marxist concept of "class struggle"; and was only finally applied to the inter-relationship between nations, and indeed between the major regions of the world.

"Development" is the application of the concept of justice specifically to that relationship. This gradual evolution from the individual to the international expression of justice follows the gradual development of the world economy itself. A world economy, linked internationally through the multinationals and the Western financial system, is a relatively recent phenomenon.

The Papal definition of "development" differs from the various purely political interpretations of the same concept (whether the liberal, capitalist, "free market" concept or the Marxist concept). Both of these define development in purely economic terms. The former insists that aspects other than the purely economic must be taken into consideration and must, in fact, regulate the adoption of purely economic remedies.

"True development cannot consist in the simple accumulation of wealth and in the greater availability of goods and services, if this is gained at the expense of the development of the masses, and without due consideration for the social, cultural and spiritual dimensions of the human being."

In other words. "Development" which is registered in terms of higher GDP but which results in the disintegration of family and/or tribal patterns, is not automatically to be regarded as progress - unless it can be shown that the institutions which have disappeared (like slavery) did not deserve to survive.

In the third section of the new encyclical, John Paul II surveys the contemporary world and discovers that the social crisis which prevailed in 1967, and which it had been hoped that the application of Pope Paul's principles would ameliorate, far from diminishing, "has become notably worse". The awful expansion of poverty, the exacerbation of the housing crisis as a result of the flight of rural people to the "great wens" of the Third World, the growth of unemployment and of under employment, war, terrorism, the tide of refugees, the heavy pressure of international debt - all of these constitute world- wide problems which are as familiar as they are apparently insoluble.

The Pope has no illusions concerning his own limited resources in finding a solution. The decisions which either accelerate or slow down the development of peoples are really political in character.

"In order to overcome the misguided mechanisms mentioned earlier and to replace them with new ones which will be more just and in conformity with the common good of humanity, an effective political will is needed."

If, as is obvious, the only solutions are political, the Church is disqualified from playing a direct role in providing them.

"The Church does not have technical solutions to offer for the problem of underdevelopment as such, as Pope Paul Vl already affirmed in his encyclical. For the Church does not propose economic and political systems or programs, nor does she show preference for one or the other, provided that human dignity is properly respected and promoted, and provided she herself is allowed the room she needs to exercise her own ministry in the world ... Its aim is thus to guide Christian behaviour. It therefore belongs to the field, not of ideology, but of theology and particularly of moral theology."

What is possible for the Church is to (a) establish in the minds of its members a "commitment to justice", (b) to offer certain guidelines as to the priorities which they should pursue, and (c) to delineate the special responsibilities of Catholics in seeking to influence the policies of their respective governments.

John Paul II leaves no doubt that, for the Catholic, the central objective of social action is not to be found merely in its political dimension but in "our manner of living", which should reflect the "love of and preference for the poor".

The question is "How?", or in Chernyshevsky's more famous phrase, "What is to be done?"

It is here that the encyclical will inevitably prove disappointing to the politician or the economist, not merely in the lack of practical suggestions, inevitable in the light of the Church's inability to project "economic and political systems or programs", but in some aspects of its analysis. Just as the Church cannot engage its authority in prescribing "programs", so in the field of social, economic and political analysis, its role is equally limited. The Pope clearly recognises this when he calls on Catholics "to respond with the support of rational reflection and of the human sciences to their vocation as responsible builders of earthly society.

It is dismally true that exaggerated expenditures on armaments, rightly attacked in the encyclical, on the part of great and small powers alike, is a scandal. However, there are legitimate reasons for spending money on defence, reasons which are as cogent for the Soviet as for the Western leadership. What, for instance, would follow a self-denying decision by the USA to reduce its military expenditure by up to 40 per cent by demobilising all or part of its European forces?

There is the appalling fact that nations with vast populations, millions of whose people continue to experience the worst extremes of poverty with little hope of alleviation, spend equally vast sums on modern arms, of which some has been provided as economic aid. India, for instance, with nearly one billion people, many of them experiencing the most pressing extremes of poverty, last year increased its expenditure on arms by 43 per cent. India is about to lay the keel of its third aircraft carrier, and to buy six Soviet nuclear submarines, although as far as one can see, no power threatens its shores

China, with more than one billion people, follows exactly the same policies, although in recent times it appears to have reduced its defence expenditure. Nevertheless, China does have the Soviet on its northern frontier, and Vietnam (with one million men also under arms) on its southern border. Neither of these regimes is likely to be influenced by any specifically Christian policies, and quite apart from the political ambitions of their leaders neither of them can be expected to disregard their essential defence requirements. The tragedy is that few, if any, nations can afford to act otherwise, original sin being what it is.

The closer one comes to a study of the practical problems involved in general disarmament, the more one studies the local, cultural, factors largely responsible for the appalling problems of poverty in countries as different as Tanzania and the Philippines (which both have had sincerely Christian leaders benefiting from a great deal of economic aid, much of which has, however, been stolen, and much wasted), the less convincing does it seem to place the weight of responsibility for under-development allotted in the new encyclical on "the existence of two opposing blocs commonly known as the East and the West". There are obviously other, equal, perhaps even more important, factors which the Encyclical admittedly identifies but, perhaps for diplomatic reasons, does not sufficiently emphasise.

We would all be better off if these blocs did not exist, and if there were no factors operating to bring them into existence. Yet the influence of the "bloc factor" should not be exaggerated in fixing responsibility for under-development. It has not prevented the extraordinary surge in prosperity which has been experienced by countries like Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, in emerging from static backwardness into modern, rich industrial states in which, although there are still extremes of poverty, despite heavy expenditure on defence the condition of the people as a whole has been raised.

However harsh the conditions of life may be in a number of Hong Kong's industrial areas, its present population would have been tripled or quadrupled as a result of a never- ending exodus from Communist China if immigration curbs had not been imposed for years.

Further, one cannot but observe that what the Philippines and the Latin American countries together have in common, apart from being backward societies, is the Spanish tradition of State-controlled economies and military "caudillos". This does not fit the "North-South" theory and has not entered into the calculations of the "liberation theologians", whose theory has had some influence on the formulation of the encyclical; but who, incidentally, have played little if any part in influencing their own societies in the aftermath of the overthrow of military juntas in Brazil and the Argentine, or, if they have, with indifferent success.

It is not without importance that the Soviet Union, China and Vietnam, whose systems are based par excellence on Marxist premises, are now offering every kind of inducement to attract Japanese and Western capital, and to interest the once-despised multinationals in aiding their economic development. This, surely, says something. Additional factors operate in African societies like, for instance, Zambia, which despite the Christianity of its leader Kaunda, and generous international aid, through its own mistaken economic policies, beginning with the disregard of agriculture, is a basket case. These factors have been well described by authorities like the Marxist, Rene Dumont, like Peter Bauer, and most recently by Jean- Claude Chesnais in his La revanche du tiers monde.

Perhaps the most controversial section of the encyclical is that which articulates its view of "two imperialisms", or more accurately, "two tendencies towards imperialism":

"Each of the two blocs harbours in its own way a tendency towards imperialism as it is usually called or towards forms of neo-colonialism: an easy temptation to which they frequently succumb, as history, including recent history, teaches."

This paragraph has drawn heavy criticism from some American (including Catholic) publicists. These criticisms have come not only from conservatives like William P. Buckley, Michael Novak and William Safire, but from liberal journals like the New Republic and the New York Times. With some justification they pointed out that after all, the Holy Father can and does visit and preach in any and every democratic country in the West, but that he is precluded from visiting the Soviet Union or (with the exception of Poland), any of its subject nations. Nor can he visit China and Vietnam, unless he is prepared to sacrifice the underground Church in these countries.

Furthermore, whatever mistakes the West has made in its dealings with Africa, Asia and Latin America, all of the Western empires have been dissolved. There is no "gunboat diplomacy", for instance, to force the repayment of Western debt. The post-colonial indigenous governments can, if they will, tell their former Western masters to "go jump in the lake". On the other hand, the Soviet Union still remains the imperial master of the only remaining colonial empire in the world, as the Poles, the Ukrainians, the Armenians and the Baltic peoples can testify.

Common tendency

No one can believe for a moment that the present Pope accepts the theory of moral equivalence. The similarity between the two societies lies less in any common "tendency towards imperialism", as that moral is commonly understood, than in the imperialism which they both practise and export. The Pope is making the same point about Western society that Solzenhitsyn has made. The hatred of the West which characterises many of the poorer nations derives less from the imposition of political sovereignty (viz the Soviets over Eastern Europe) than with the disruptive impact of Western "culture" - with its commercialised pornography, population controls and so on - on traditional ways of life.

The Soviet's "imperialism" is political and military. The West's is cultural. Both are equally powerful. It would be difficult to distinguish which is the more destructive. In that sense the Pope's phrase is only too accurate.

The Pope deals carefully with the concept of "structures of sin", by which he means the political and economic institutions, policies and practices which underlie the exploitation of the weak. He rightly sees these structures as "rooted in personal sin", practices which over long periods of history have been the expression of mere greed and the lust for power, both of which are personally sinful but which, unlike many ordinary personal sins, have become encrusted in "institutions".

My own criticism of the present shape of Catholic social thought, which goes far beyond the present encyclical, is that it does not go down to basic causes.

Without over-simplification, the kernel of the social problem is the same in apparently wealthy industrial countries as it is in underdeveloped countries. It lies in the institutions which have led to the concentration of wealth and economic power and to the concomitant concentration of political power, centralised in the banking and financial systems which govern the West, and in the monopoly of State power experienced in totalitarian societies, power which thereupon overflows into the under-developed world.

"The Church's social doctrine is not a 'third way'," writes John Paul, "between liberal capitalism and Marxist collectivism ... rather it constitutes a category of its own."

This truth, having been stated, is not amplified. This is a grievous loss, since the present Pope's admirable distaste for the excesses of consumer capitalism might have led him to explore the relationship between the doctrine of subsidiary function, outlined in Quadragesimo Anno, and an economic structure based on the widespread distribution of ownership and control.

It is strange that the dual foundation on which corporate capitalism rests - the legal principle of incorporation without which the modern concentration of property would have been impossible, and the complementary institution of interest- taking which, through the compounding of interest, has concentrated wealth - occupy so little of the attention of Catholic social thinkers and are not mentioned in the encyclical. These are the heart of the matter. Because Catholic minds have devoted so little systematic attention to these matters, Catholic social thought is disposed to deal with effects rather than with basic causes. Yet the Medieval Church concerned itself deeply with the morality of interest-taking, while the distributists, headed by Belloc and Chesterton focussed their attention on the concentration of property.

Catholics, in particular, should have noted the remarkable words of that most uncatholic of economists, Lord Keynes, in his General Theory.

"I was brought up to believe that the attitude of the Medieval Church to the rate of interest was inherently absurd, and that the subtle discussions aimed at distinguishing the return on money-loans from the return to active investment were merely Jesuitical attempts to find a practical escape from a foolish theory. But I now read these discussions as an honest intellectual effort to keep separate what the classical has inextricably confused together, namely, the rate of interest and the marginal efficiency of capital. For it now seems clear that the disquisitions of the schoolmen were directed towards the elucidation of a formula which should allow the schedule of the marginal efficiency of capital to be high, whilst using rule and custom and the moral law to keep down the rate of interest.

"Even Adam Smith ... favoured a low rate of interest as increasing the chance of savings finding their outlet in new investment rather than in debts; and for this reason, in a passage for which he was severely taken to task by Bentham, he defended a moderate application of the usury laws."

The present writer is not so foolish as to believe that mere academic analysis of the factors leading to the concentration of economic and political power will suffice to solve the problem. Analysis is no more than the beginning. As the London Financial Times observed in relation to one section of the 1981 Report of the Bank of International Settlements dealing with this issue:

"The argument cannot be faulted for abstract logic but it can be questioned for realism and relevance. Talk of 'structural reform' sounds innocuous, but the issue is a struggle over power, political as well as market power. Governments in inflation- prone countries often represent, directly or indirectly, the power centres which the BlS [that is, the central bankers] would have them attack."

When the Church addresses itself to this problem, it will really be cutting into the heart of the social question. There may be encouragement in Lord Keynes' statement: "The power of vested interest is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas."

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Reprinted from AD2000 Vol 1 No 2 (May 1988), p. 4

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