Catholic Social Doctrine Isn't a Surrogate for Capitalism

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 (§2). In Quadragesimo Anno Pius XI, for his part, used clear and strong words to stigmatize the international imperialism of money (§109).
—John Paul II, speaking in Latvia in 1993

Saint John Paul II died sixteen years ago. There are still many people alive in Poland who knew him personally and were his close friends. That still does not change the fact that, due to fundamental misunderstandings, some key elements of his thought are still little-known to the wider public. In fact, his thinking remains so lively that a few years ago in Poland it sparked a heated controversy about his stance on capitalism.

Paweł Rojek admirably summarized this disagreement between reporter Jonathan Luxmoore and popular Catholic writer George Weigel in a synoptic essay here. Briefly, Wojtyła’s recently published early writings on Catholic social ethics were at the center of the controversy. These 1953-1954 lectures were previously known but only became available to the general public a couple of years ago in a critical edition simply entitled Catholic Social Ethics.

The controversy in Poland centered around Luxmoore accusing the neo-conservatives associated with First Things (George Weigel, Michael Novak, and Richard John Neuhaus) of manipulating the pope’s message. Weigel replied by claiming that during their meetings the pope never suggested that Weigel’s pro-capitalist interpretation of Centesimus Annus was wrong. As far as those early lectures on social ethics go, Weigel maintained that their text was merely derivative of the book Catholic Social Ethics by Jan Piwowarczyk. And so, ultimately, when Luxmoore said that the pope sympathized with Marxism and criticized capitalism, Weigel responded that Wojtyła was invariably critical toward Marxism.  

It must be noted, that the accusation of an excessively pro-capitalist reading of the pope’s teaching was not just the provenance of a narrow group of leftist authors with agendas who are unfamiliar with Catholicism. Luxmoore is a Catholic himself and has written about the Church in many respected publications. Furthermore, the excessive boosting of capitalism by Weigel et al. was also criticized by mainline conservative Polish scholars such as Michał Łuczewski (former Deputy Director of the Centre for the Thought of JPII), and Rafał Łętocha (author of a commentary in Wojtyła’s Catholic Social Ethics). Additionally, after the publication of Laborem Exercens several left-Catholic authors wrote in the Journal of Religious Socialism, that by criticizing capitalism, the pope implicitly proposed some form of democratic socialism (David Hollenbach, SJ) or a soft, non-Marxist, socialism (Nicholas von Hoffman).

On the other hand, with all due respect for Mr. Weigel, no careful reader of John Paul II can possibly regard John Paul’s II social teaching as being straightforwardly pro-capitalist. Even though Weigel is correct in asserting that Wojtyla is invariably critical toward Marxism (whose doctrine is based on false premises about humanity), it is also the case that Wojtyła’s critique of capitalism, when one compares his early writings from the 1950s with later encyclicals and homilies, did not change very much.

To behave as if this other continuity did not exist in the papal teaching is as much a corruption of his teaching as saying that the pope was pro-Marxist. We simply have too many examples in his teaching—in books, encyclicals, speeches, homilies, interviews—explicitly criticizing the capitalist system. Of course, one cannot say that Wojtyła’s opinions on capitalism were constant and did not evolve over time. But, we must ask: was there any radical change with regard to this topic between the young Wojtyła living in an emerging socialist state and a pope who observed and commented upon the fall of Soviet communism?

This depends on whether we can reconstruct his early views on Marxism, communism, and capitalism. Looking back at Piwowarczyk’s text, as well as the future pope’s restatement of this text in Catholic Social Ethics, we can see many additions made by the young lecturer. If Wojtyła was more apologetic about Marxism than Piwowarczyk then we would surely find traces of it in the text. However, here we need to agree with Weigel, that the future pope’s criticism of Marxism is indisputable. Marxism, being in its basic assumptions a purely materialistic doctrine, is in conflict with Christianity because it is based on a false anthropology and a false view of creation.

But what about non-Marxist communism? A careless reader may be confused by statements such as this chapter subheading in the early text by the future pope: “Communism, as a higher ethical principle of possessing material goods, makes higher ethical demands on people. The principle of private property respects the actual state of human nature.” The case gets even more complicated because “communism” is not reduced here only to twentieth-century communism, which was an attempt to implement Marxist theories, but is for him a general idea, a very technical one. Most of what Wojtyła and Piwowarczyk wrote about communism concerns this general notion of communism—community life and the communal possession of goods. In this general sense the first Christian communities might be called “communist.” There is the example of the Jerusalem commune, where disciples of Jesus “had everything in common” (Acts 4:32).

Using this criterion, some might say figures as diverse as St. Ambrose, John Chrysostom, and St. Albert can also be regarded as advocates of communism. After all, communal monastic life is communist in its substance. But this meaning should not be confused with modern atheistic communism. Private property is regarded as a natural and necessary institution, but the communal possession of goods and communal life are the supernatural flowering of the natural order and are the ideal of the Christian life. This ideal is within a horizon toward which one should aspire, but it is impossible to attain globally, and all attempts to impose it at the global level border upon fantasy. Wojtyła writes in his lectures on social ethics that the communist ideal:

Necessarily demands brotherhood from people, without which the communal possession of goods seems impossible. This brotherhood is nothing else but the Christian idea of social love. Thus, in this way, the ideal of social love as the zenith of Christian ethical teaching converges with the communist ideal at its peak, when it comes to the realization of this ideal in the area of possessing material goods by people. Because of that when choosing between ideals, the Church must choose the communist ideal over the principle of private property (300).[1]

But let us note, the young Wojtyła is still speaking about the “ideal,” not about any earthly, existing communism proposed by materialist ideologues. The Christian teaching about poverty and the detachment from material goods favors this very ideal. But it is based on the subjective will of those individuals who make an effort to pursue this calling within Christian communities—it is not forced upon them and everyone else by a regime. Being guided by love is a necessary precondition for Christians to implement this ideal, but love cannot be imposed coercively. Furthermore, this ideal does not in any way nullify private property, but it, if you will, surpasses it. Therefore, we should understand that the renouncement of private ownership in favor of communal ownership must come from the initiative of free individuals (or better: persons) and communities.

Wojtyła’s original addition to the subject of communism is his observation that “the principle of private property given the current state of human nature” (304) allows for the abuse because of the Fall. Moreover, he says that the Catholic ethic by accepting the principle of private property must be prepared for the accusation that it legitimizes with its authority the institution which must result in “immense moral evil in human life” (304). This danger is, however, disarmed by the Catholic principle of using property for the common good, which is prior to that of private property and to which the latter is subordinated.

And what about capitalism? How much is it justified to say that Wojtyła, later John Paul II, was critical towards it? Moreover, what do we mean when we speak of “capitalism,” because the term itself is already ambiguous? John Cort, the author of Christian Socialism: An Informal History, sees the papal definition of capitalism in Laborem Exercens in the following passage from the encyclical:

There is a confusion or even a reversal of the order laid down from the beginning by the words of the Book of Genesis: man is treated as an instrument of production, whereas he—he alone, independently of the work he does—ought to be treated as the effective subject of work and its true maker and creator (§7).

Are we justified in accepting Cort's singling out this fragment as the normative definition of capitalism for the pope's thought? Let us look at his writings from the 1950s to see. Wojtyła repeatedly stresses that capitalist enterprise is guided by the rule of “profit” and by “making profit.” And work “falls to the role of a tool, a means, which capital uses for its gain of profit” (364), thus “capitalism definitely subordinates humans to things . . . for profit is the main driving force of economic action, it is its primary and superior end” (365).

Capitalism is a child of liberalism which is focused on the good of the individual, and “in capitalism this good of the individual appears as the economic profit of the enterprise” (366). Young Wojtyła dedicates three pages to the critique of the “spirit of capitalism” to show how it is inconsistent with Christianity. This is his original addition, which does not have an equivalent in Piwowarczyk’s text. One could speculate that he was influenced by Stefan Cardinal Wyszyński, because there are some resemblances with his Kościół a duch kapitalizmu (The Church and the Spirit of Capitalism). In those paragraphs Wojtyła writes about the injustice and the abuse of women and about child labor of which “The reading of The Capital provides us with abundance” (366).

He is much more radical than Piwowarczyk, strongly emphasizing that the tradition and the statements of the Church contradict capitalism, either as a socio-economic system or a system of values. For the Church, capitalism is a purely materialistic system, focused on the accumulation of wealth, even at the expense of the dignity of persons. Growing out of the secular liberal doctrine it is based on a false concept of human freedom. The conception of freedom that places the atomized individual at the center of it does not have anything in common with Christian freedom, which is a liberation from the constraints of sin toward freedom in obedience to God. The goal in the latter is salvation, not accumulating earthly wealth.

Consequently, the capitalist system thus understood is, in its core, not that much different from real-existing communism, which is defined by Wojtyła in his early writings and which in his later writings likens to a nationalist capitalism. In his last interview with Vittorio Possenti, just before becoming pope, Wojtyła said that “liberalism and Marxism actually grow from the same root. Namely, materialism in the guise of economism.” He contrasts those two doctrines against Catholic Social Teaching, which is rooted in the Gospel and that makes it completely unique.

However, many free-market authors believe that the pope drastically changed his views in Centesimus Annus. Let us now take a quick look at this document to see if their views hold any water. Adrian Pabst says that there are two main readings of this document—“a U.S. Neocon reading” and “a reading which reads the affirmation of the free market passage within the context of the Church’s social teaching as a whole, with all the caveats about the need to regulate the markets with reference to the common good.” The first school, to which the First Things community mentioned earlier belongs, puts the utmost emphasis upon the “free-market” parts of this encyclical, distorting its message. The myth of the pro-capitalist encyclical is refuted by the very representatives of liberal economic thought, for whom Christian revelation is not in any way the central point of reference, as it obviously is in the case of the pope saint.

For example, the document was commented upon by Milton Friedman, one of the main representatives of Chicago School of laissez-faire economics, whose thought, according to some biographers, supposedly inspired John Paul II. Although in his 1991 article Friedman notes that the Polish Pope rejects communism and real-existing socialism, he is utterly disappointed with the affirmation of unions, and workers being called “people of good will.” For Friedman this means that the Pope is not “immune to the influence of Marx.” He is also very concerned with the pope’s attacks on consumerism and consumer society. He is even disturbed by statements of traditional Catholic social ethics, for example, that material possessions should not be considered as something private but common to all, that “there are many human needs which find no place on the market,” that there are some collective goods, a just wage, etc. which should be defended by the state. The main reason behind this incompatibility of the liberal concept of free-market capitalism with the concept of free market defined by Centesimus Annus can be summarized by the last sentences from Friedman’s essay:

But I must confess that one high-minded sentiment, passed off as if it were a self-evident proposition, sent shivers down my back: “obedience to the truth about God and man is the first condition of freedom.” Whose “truth”? Decided by whom? Echoes of the Spanish Inquisition?

The previously mentioned problem emerges yet again in Friedman's statement: the concept of freedom in Christian tradition is radically different from the one in the liberal capitalist tradition. We cannot speak of a free market when we forget about this fundamental matter, which is the cornerstone of the whole Christian theoretical construction according to which human life should be ordered.

As we can see, the definition of capitalism does not change significantly in the thought of John Paul II/Wojtyła—rather it becomes more nuanced. There is still harsh critique of the profit-oriented action (which is characteristic for all Catholic Social Teaching), as well as an emphasis on the primacy of work and the need for guaranteed access to fundamental human needs. However, he says that “capitalism” can be understood as 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,” for which the pope finds different names like a “business economy”, a “market economy,” or a “free economy” (Centesimus Annus, §42). Still John Paul II states that this kind of freedom in an economic order definitely must be “circumscribed within a strong juridical framework which places it at the service of human freedom in its totality”—not the thin liberal-capitalist freedom as we know it in our late-capitalist societies.

Capitalism based upon a liberal ideology is blind to exploitation and human misery. The pope warns in his encyclical to not get deluded after the collapse of communism by a “radical capitalistic ideology,” which is dominated by blind faith that all the problems could be solved by “free development of market forces.” In the face of a new challenge he points out that “it is unacceptable to say that the defeat of so-called ‘Real Socialism’ leaves capitalism as the only model of economic organization” (Centisimus Annus §35).

In the age of the Polish post-1989 economic reforms John Paul II did not give up his critique of unfettered capitalism (as many of the previous leaders of Solidarity movement actually did). He warned about the dangers of free-market capitalism during his pilgrimages to Poland in his homilies, for example in 1991 and in 1997 in Legnica. In Lubaczow during a 1991 visit he warned to not take shortcuts in economic reforms by surrendering moral guidelines, exploiting workers, and pursuing only wealth. In Legnica he taught about the negative effects of this reform, about mass unemployment and the masses of people left behind because they became mere obstacles on the way to prosperity. Exploitation and misery are and will be fruits of the free market forces unrestricted by ethical responsibility.

In the light of John Paul II’s legacy it would be false to maintain, as his many neoconservative readers still do, that his teaching on capitalism changed significantly as the result of the collapse of communism. Capitalism, a fruit of liberalism, is still a threat to human dignity and life. Free economic activity, based upon the Christian idea of freedom, is something radically different. The error inherent in real-existing capitalism is similar to that of communism since both are based upon the secular ideal of brotherhood. Yet just as Christian freedom is something fundamentally different from liberal freedom of the individual, so secular brotherhood is something radically different from Christian caritas.

The consequences of original sin do not allow for the realization of utopian projects—whether they be those of capitalism with its voluntaristic freedom as a determinant for every relation, or communism, with an absolute community of goods and lack of any private property. And although “the communist ideal,” as Wojtyła wrote along with Piwowarczyk and other Catholic authors, is closer to the ideal of Christian life it cannot be in any way joined with the two atheistic utopias of the twentieth century: communism and capitalism.

From the perspective of Catholic Social Teaching, the conflict between capitalism and communism is not central, because these totalitarian systems grow from one materialistic root. The real battle is between “godless capitalism/communism” and the social teaching of the Church whose roots lie in revelation. The twentieth century witnessed the clash of two powerful godless systems, communist and capitalist. The latter may have won, but Christians should not be deluded into thinking that capitalism is a surrogate for the calling of Christian life, as Pope St. John Paul II warned throughout his life.

EDITORIAL NOTE: A version of this essay originally appeared in Polish in Wszystko Co Najważniejsze, used by permission. 

[1] Here Wojtyła paraphrases R.P. Ducatillon OP, who is originally quoted by Piwowarczyk.

Featured Image: President Reagan Meeting with Pope John Paul II During Visit to The Papal Library Vatican Pontifical Palace, 6/7/1982; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD.


Piotr Popiołek

Piotr Popiołek is a doctoral candidate in systematic theology at the Pontifical University of John Paul II in Kraków. 

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