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The Catholic Faith in Slow Motion (no. 70)

The Social Encyclicals of St. John Paul II (part one)

An Encyclical (lit. circular letter) is a formal pastoral letter written by the pope, addressed to the universal Church, and some times to “all persons of Good will”. The term “social encyclical” indicates those letters that address universal matters of political, social, or economic justice. In the long line of papal  encyclicals, only ten fit this description. 

This is a second article on social encyclicals. I was motivated to tackle the subject by the wide ranging interest in Pope Francis's recent encyclical letter Laudato Si' (On Care For Our Common Home). Given media descriptions (“a first”, “groundbreaking” “a departure from past teaching” etc,) I thought it would be useful to remind readers that Laudato Si' claims to stand in clear and organic continuity with preceding social encyclicals. My first article (available on our website) reviewed the social encyclicals written by Leo XIII, Pius XI, St. John XXIII, and Paul VI. This brings us to the papacy of St. John Paul II.

John Paul II’s first social encyclical was published in September of 1981 bearing the title Laborem Exercens (On Human Work). The political context of the time can be recalled by phrases like “cold war,” “arms race,” “East-West power bloc”.  The ideological battle of the times was between capitalism and communist collectivism. In this context, the pope develops a theological and spiritual understand of the meaning of human labor. The basis of this understanding is the doctrine of Creation and the sacred dignity of the human person as  revealed by Christ.

That the subject of labor can be viewed theologically is itself a radical challenge to all purely secularist and materialist economic theories. Human labor must occupy an important place in Christian reflection, because the Church must travel the “way of the human person” in her mission, and labor is at the very center of human well being. This requires the Church’s reflection on economic theory and practice. Three questions are particularly important: (1) the question of the relation of labor to all the various means of production (“capital”), (2) the right of private ownership, and (3) the final uses of human wealth.

In the pope’s analysis, both modern collectivism and capitalism separate labor and capital and place them in opposition (13:4 ff.). Marxism does this explicitly  by proposing “class warfare” between workers and owners, and condemning private ownership as oppression. Capitalism does not divorce labor and capital theoretically. However, separation has happened in the concrete under the doctrine of the absolute right to private ownership, and by the accumulation of the means of production to the few (under the new conditions of the global economy).

Against pure materialism (collectivist or capitalist) the pope directs the doctrine of the priority of labor over capital (12.1-2 ff.). This does not mean labor against capital. But it does mean that the worker can never be reduced by to the status of a mere economic instrument. In fact, the unity of labor and capital is entailed in the fact that human labor is always the efficient cause of capital.

Against collectivism, the pope restates the historic teaching of the Church concerning the right to private ownership. To call it a “right” means that ownership is an expression of true human dignity. However (contrary to modern capitalist tendencies) the right to ownership has always been qualified by the Church in service of the even higher principle of the universal destination of human goods. In and through the analysis above, runs the foundational principle: the absolute primacy of the person over things (12.6.).

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