Economic liberals within the Catholic Church frequently cite Pope John Paul II’s social encyclical Centesimus Annus (CA) for the proposition that Catholic Social Teaching is not a “third way” between and beyond communism/socialism and capitalism. In fact, following CA, the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, writing for The Wall Street Journal, called this third-way view “a serious error.” On the 20th anniversary of the encyclical, George Weigel triumphantly boasted in First Things that CA had “abandon[ed] ‘Catholic third way’ fantasies[.]” Given that the term “third way” appears nowhere in CA, one might ask what is the textual basis of this audacious claim? Typically, the economic liberals quote the following:
Returning now to the initial question: can it perhaps be said that, after the failure of Communism, capitalism is the victorious social system, and that capitalism should be the goal of the countries now making efforts to rebuild their economy and society? Is this the model which ought to be proposed to the countries of the Third World which are searching for the paths to true economic and civil progress?
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 sees it as a particular aspect of that freedom, the core of which is ethical and religious, then the reply is certainly negative (§42).
The Church has no models to present; models that are real and truly effective can only arise within the framework of different historical situations, through the efforts of all those who responsibly confront concrete problems in all their social, economic, political and cultural aspects, as these interact with one another. For such a task the Church offers her social teaching as an indispensable and ideal orientation, a teaching which, as already mentioned, recognizes the positive value of the market and of enterprise, but which at the same time points out that these need to be oriented towards the common good (§43).
The problem with this and other passages in CA which superficially appear to endorse free-market capitalism is that they are often divorced from the rest of the text and, indeed, the rest of the Church’s social magisterium. As Thomas Storck discusses in his excellent “What Does Centesimus Annus Really Teach?,” Distributist Review, Feb. 21, 2009, these passages are not full-throated endorsements of unhinged capitalism, and in fact the text of CA points out that the fall of socialism does not entail the triumph of capitalism. Here is Storck:
Relevant to this also is the following neglected passage in Centesimus, which makes it clear that John Paul has not decided that the capitalist option is all there is: “We have seen that it is unacceptable to say that the defeat of so-called `Real Socialism’ leaves capitalism as the only model of economic organization” (§35). In fact, if any actual existing economy receives praise in Centesimus Annus, it is West Germany’s “social market economy.”
Richard Aleman, in another excellent piece, “The Continuity of Centesimus Annus,” The Distributist Review, Sept. 22, 2011, takes Weigel’s earlier quoted claim to task, arguing, contra the economic liberals, that CA is a continuation of the magisterium set forth by Popes Leo XIII and Pius XI rather than a radical break from it. By doing so, Aleman keeps faith with Pope-Emeritus Benedict XVI’s call to read the Church’s magisterium through a hermeneutic of continuity. While many economic liberals insist that this is the right way to go with respect to the Second Vatican Council, they seem to implicitly reject such a hermeneutic in the social realm. Why? Could it be that no pontiff has ever accepted their liberal worldview, one which totalizes the market and claims — falsely — that the “findings” of “economic science” trumps the moral prescriptions of the Holy Catholic Church? Whatever their reasoning, the fact remains that economic liberals, now more than ever, are at pains to keep their questionable doctrines looking pure despite frequent reminders from Pope Francis that the logic of greed, backed up by a utilitarian outlook, is not acceptable for a world in which God still reigns as Lord and King.