Not the least of the effects of the rise and success (for a while) of Communism, was that is worldly terms it left the Church with no choice but to support capitalism. Rerum Novarum expressed the concerns the Church felt for some of the effects of free-market capitalism, but whatever those doubts, they were as nothing compared to the evils of Communism and its godless creed. Such evils come and they go, and the Church has seen off all of them, as its founder promised it would; it has even survived centuries of man’s attempts to govern it! So it was that a century after Rerum Novarum, St Pope John Paul II (as he then wasn’t) issued an important encyclical, Centesimus Annus, in which, freed from the constraints of the Cold War (which he, himself, had done so much to bring to a successful conclusion), he was able to bring his wisdom to bear on the issues raised by Leo XIII.
The fatal flaw in socialist anthropology was its materialism – it subordinated the individual to the socio-economic system, and it believed that class war was the motor of history; where Christianity had preached the value of every human being, socialism, based on atheism, saw each of us as no more than ants in the common ant-heap. No fan of a system he had grown to manhood under, John Paul II was equally clear-eyed about the alternative, asking whether those countries recently freed from the Communist yoke should seek to adopt capitalism, he offered this reflection:
The answer is obviously complex. If by capitalism is meant an economic system which recognizes the fundamental and 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, then the answer is certainly in the affirmative even though it would perhaps be more appropriate to speak of a business economy, market economy, or simply free economy. But if by capitalism is meant a system in which freedom in the economic sector is not circumscribed within a strong juridical framework which places it at the service of human freedom in its totality and which sees it as a particular aspect of that freedom, the core of which is ethical and religious, then the reply is certainly negative [CA 42]
As he said at the time, the Church “has always refused and still refuses today to make the market the supreme regulator or almost the model or synthesis of social life.” As he said in 1993:
Catholic social doctrine is not a surrogate for capitalism. In fact, although decisively condemning “socialism,” the church, since Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum, has always distanced itself from capitalistic ideology, holding it responsible for grave social injustices (cf. Rerum Novarum, 2). In Quadragesimo Anno Pius XI, for his part, used clear and strong words to stigmatize the international imperialism of money (Quadragesimo Anno, 109). This line is also confirmed in the more recent magisterium, and I myself, after the historical failure of communism, did not hesitate to raise serious doubts on the validity of capitalism … .
The Church does not endorse any economic system. Capitalism has delivered more people from poverty than any other system mankind has invented, but it is to the job of Catholic social teaching to uncritically endorse it – whatever some culture warriors might have us think – the church’s proper contribution is its social teaching which, in the prophetic mode, “recognizes the positive value of the market and of enterprise, but which at the same time points out that these need to be oriented toward the common good” [CA 43].
For the past few days I have been suggesting that our Western society has, in losing God, lost a set of principles which are more valuable than those of any economic system and which, if (and when) understood, infuse any economic system with a concern for the common good which stands in the tradition of our social teaching. We have, as a people, grown and prospered, and yet this has brought no greater degree of happiness and social cohesion; and now the great machine has slowed, we can see this more clearly. Catholic social teaching has been seen by some as the last remaining ‘show in town’ – let us hope it gets a prolonged run.