“…in recent years it was thought that the poorest countries would develop by isolating themselves from the world market and by depending only on their own resources. Recent experience has shown that countries which did this have suffered stagnation and recession, while the countries which experienced development were those which succeeded in taking part in the general interrelated economic activities at the international level.”
John Paul II, Centesimus Annus, May 1, 1991
That Christianity is skeptical about wealth and commerce is an understatement. One of the most quoted stories about Jesus ends with him telling his disciples that it is harder for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. Despite the efforts of many Christian theologians to explain passages such as this, there has long been a flavor in Christianity implying that the poor are somehow virtuous and the rich will get their comeuppance.
Pope John Paul II was steeped in this history but had been exposed to another. He had witnessed the utter and complete failure of communism in his native Poland and he saw the bankruptcy of socialism in the developing world. He saw that capitalism was the only system compatible not only with economic success but also with human liberty. And he wrote a brave encyclical, Centesimus Annus, in 1991 after the fall of the Berlin Wall and on the 100th anniversary of another papal encyclical on economics, which was rooted in the early industrial age and filled with a skepticism of capitalism.
In analyzing the fall of communism, Pope John Paul II showed not only a more sophisticated understanding of economics but also a recognition of the connection between human rights and economic liberty: “The second factor in the crisis was certainly the inefficiency of the economic system, which is not to be considered simply as a technical problem, but rather a consequence of the violation of the human rights to private initiative, to ownership of property and to freedom in the economic sector.”
One of John Paul II’s key insights was that while the 100-year-old encyclical spoke of private property almost exclusively in terms of land, changes in the economy had changed the very nature of property: “In our time…there exists another form of ownership which is becoming no less important than land: the possession of know-how, technology and skill,” explains the encyclical. “Man…utilizes the things of this world as objects and instruments and makes them his own. The foundation of the right to private initiative and ownership is to be found in this activity.”
Much of the Church’s teaching on economics up to this point suffered because it was basically an importuning — a demand that employers be more benevolent so that workers would be protected. A plea that government take steps to guarantee the rights of workers. But John Paul II saw another possibility — that workers could be protected by having ownership of their own intellectual capital recognized.
John Paul II was concerned, though, that many of the world’s poor had no practical means of participating in this new world order. He supported charity and aid but wanted its purpose to be focused: “The poor ask for the right to…make good use of their capacity for work.”
Perhaps most significant to international trade policy, John Paul II was the first Pope to speak in favor of trade as a mechanism by which the poor could find prosperity. (See passage above.)
Even today a lot of economic policy in the West is influenced by the old Christian sensibility in which policy is not so much judged by its practical effects as by the moral fiber of the person proposing it. So a proponent of raising the minimum wage is always considered to be doing the Lord’s work as he aims to help the poor, even if the practical consequence of such a policy is increased unemployment and human misery for the unskilled.
John Paul II tried to nudge the Church away from these teachings by the use of three crucial words: “experience has shown” — in other words, the ethics of policy must be judged by the outcomes of the policies, not the nobleness of their proponents.
Perhaps the greatest gift of the encyclical was to note the connection between free markets and human freedom. The Church, by its nature, needs voluntary adherents and, as such, a world in which men are free to make decisions. Pope John Paul II saw that human dignity could be expressed by individuals owning their own intellectual property and that it was not merely good policy but a fundamental human right that individuals be allowed to trade, own and work — to possess “freedom in the economic sector.”
John Paul II is already being called John Paul the Great. With his integral role in falling communism, he is certain to have a prominent place in history. By not only rejecting communism but also by moving the Church to take its first tepid steps to embrace capitalism, his holiness did not only help end a horror but also urged the world on the path most likely to bring prosperity to the common man. To all of us who work each day in international trade, John Paul II’s words remind us that we may strive to do well, but in so doing we also do much good.