John Paul II's Memorial to 'Rerum Novarum': a summary of 'Centesimus Annus'

John Paul II's Memorial to 'Rerum Novarum': a summary of 'Centesimus Annus'

B.A. Santamaria

Pope John Paul II has marked the hundredth anniversary of the 1891 publication of Leo XIII's first Encyclical on the Christian organisation of society, 'Rerum Novarum' ('Of new things'), with his new Encyclical, 'Centesimus Annus' ('The hundredth year'). The following article is a summary, not a critique.

In structure, the new Encyclical begins with a description of the historical situation which prevailed in 1891, the emergence of hyper-industrialism, the accelerated division of Western societies into rich and poor, the spirit of revolution, based largely, but not exclusively, on class war and Marxist philosophy.

John Paul II then outlines the essential principles promulgated by his predecessor - among them, the natural right to the ownership of private property (and the limit placed on that right); the right of workers to form trade unions and of employers to form parallel organisations; the right to an adequate period of rest, recreation, safe and hygienic conditions of work; the right to a just wage (sufficient for an entire family) guaranteed by the State; the right to religious freedom. Those rights, says John Paul II, are as unchallangeable today as they were then.

The latter is a not-unimportant point in present day Australia and New Zealand where, under the slogan of the "de-regulation of labour" (allegedly to complement the preceding de-regulation of the financial exchanges), the real purpose is not so much to limit the power of the unions according to law, but to smash them.

The third section of the new Encyclical traces the social history of Western societies since World War II, which the Pope characterises as "a situation of non-war rather than genuine peace!" Of this the main features were the loss of freedom of half the European continent to Communist totalitarianism; the consequent vast flow of refugees and of other migrants; the arms race whose economic cost alone made it impossible to realise many aspects of social justice; terrorism and counter-terrorism, de-colonisation.

The third chapter of the Encyclical is entitled "The Year 1989", the decisive turning-point, marked by the collapse of the Communist bloc "accomplished almost everywhere by means of peaceful protest, using only the weapons of truth and justice!" Nobody, writes the Pope, ever believed that the overthrow of the Communist empire could have been achieved by anything short of war. He rightly adds, however, that the inefficiencies of the Communist social and economic system, based on a denial of the right to property and freedom of production was a major contributing factor to the result.

Religious roots

What, in the end, overthrew the Communist system, however, was the indomitable urge of a new generation which knew that it had been robbed of any knowledge of the meaning of life and wished to regain "the religious roots of their national cultures ... and the person of Christ Himself." Here, it is possible to believe that the Pope has perhaps generalised too widely from forces he observed - and helped to create - in Poland.

The Pope does not make the mistake of believing that this is the happy "end of history", as the American writer, Francis Fukuyama put it: "Much hatred and ill-will have accumulated. There is a real danger that these will re-explode after the collapse of dictatorship." The condition of near civil war in Yugoslavia, as well as the many ethnic conflicts in the Soviet Union would serve as illustrations to fill in the Pope's picture.

The dangers which the Pope foresees are of a possible revival of totalitarian controls, the domination of new societies by consumerist practices, and the rise of religious fundamentalism, which is perhaps natural granted the apocalyptic nature of the age.

As for remedies, the Pope went back to apply the principles of Rerum Novarum to a completely new and highly technological age.

(1) The right of private property is insisted upon as the foundation of economic well-being and progress, to be accompanied however by measures which will share the proceeds in the interest of relieving poverty and distress.

(2) This qualification is all the more necessary, since the exploitation of the European factory worker, characteristic of the early stages of industrialisation, has to a large extent been shifted on to the back of the inhabitants of the Third World. Today they are exploited, not so much by whites, as by black ruling elites who have taken over what were once colonies, and now rule them brutally by the use of methods which mark a reversion to primitive tribalism buttressed by modern weapons technology.

Foreign debts

(3) Of the foreign debts which plague the more backward societies - and not only those - the Pope writes of "the still largely unsolved problem of the foreign debt of the poorer countries. The principle that debts must be paid is certainly just. However, it is not right to demand or expect payment when the effect would be the imposition of political choices leading to hunger and despair for entire peoples. It cannot be expected that the debts which have been contracted should be paid at the price of unbearable sacrifices. In such cases it is necessary to find - as in fact is partly happening - ways to lighten, defer or even cancel the debt, compatible with the fundamental right of peoples to subsistence and progress."

(4) The Encyclical refers briefly to the ecological question, condemning "the irrational destruction of the natural environment." However, it adds, "Although people are rightly worried - though much less than they should be about preserving the natural habitats of the various animal species threatened with extinction, because they realise that each of these species makes its particular contribution to the balance of nature in general, too little effort is made to safeguard the moral conditions for an authentic 'human ecology'. Not only has God given the earth to man, who must use it with respect for the original purpose for which it was given to him, but Man too is God's gift to man. He must therefore respect the natural and moral structure with which he has been endowed. In this context, mention should be made of the serious problems of modern urbanisation, of the need for urban planning which is concerned with how people are to live, and of the attention which should be given to a 'social ecology' of work ...

"The first and fundamental structure for 'human ecology' is the family, in which Man receives his first formative ideas about truth and goodness, and learns what it means to love and to be loved, and thus what it actually means to be a person. Here we mean the family founded on marriage, in which the mutual gift of self by husband and wife creates an environment in which children can be born and develop their potentialities, become aware of their dignity and prepare to face their unique and individual destinies".

(5) "The Church acknowledges the legitimate role of profit as an indication that a business is functioning well ... Profit is a regulator of the life of a business but it is not the only one; other human and moral factors must also be considered which, in the long term, are at least equally important for the life of a business."

Acknowledging that the Western capitalist system had demonstrated its superiority over the Communist both in generating productivity and in distributing goods more effectively, the Pope emphasised that "the economy is only one aspect and one dimension of the role of human activity ... Economic freedom is only one element of human freedom." In other words an economic freedom which, for instance, destroys the family by absorbing the majority of married women into the workforce, is a freedom not worth having. This type of market system "denies an autonomous existence and value, to morality, love, culture and religion." The market is a means not an end.

(6) The Church reiterates its commitment to the principle that a just wage is a family wage. It does not see the Welfare State as a solution to the problems of modem societies.

"... excesses and abuses, especially in recent years, have provoked very harsh criticisms of the Welfare State, dubbed the 'Social Assistance State' ... By intervening directly and depriving society of its responsibility, the Social Assistance State leads to a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase of public agencies, which are dominated more by bureaucratic ways of thinking than by concern for serving their clients, and which are accompanied by an enormous increase in spending ...

Principal object

"It is urgent therefore to promote not only family policies, but also those social policies which have the family as their principal object, policies which assist the family by providing adequate resources and efficient means of support, both for bringing up children and for looking after the elderly as to avoid distancing the latter from the family unit and in order to strengthen relations between generations."

The emphasis here is quite different from that contained in the Australian Bishops' Draft Statement Common Wealth and Common Good in which the current 'welfarist' principles, despite the enormous costs of their bureaucratic structures, were presented as the remedy, with the family running a bad second.

It is to be hoped that in the light of this explicit declaration in Centesimus Annus the Final Statement of Common Wealth and Common Good, when it appears, will be re-cast, although it is difficult to see that this is likely to be done satisfactorily by persons whose 'mind-set' was created in the Australian universities of the sixties and seventies.

The Encyclical is part historical, part sociological and fundamentally religious. Where it will divide from much that passes for modem economics is in its insistence that the economy is not an end in itself; that it exists to serve man; and that man is a spiritual being and not, as Bertrand Russell would have it, merely "a mammal."

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