Are Pope Leo XIII and Pope Saint John Paul II “feeling the Bern”?

Two recent conferences in Rome expressed and explored similar concerns for the poor while holding markedly different anthropological understandings of man and the state.

One week ago, the morning after the Vatican’s one-day conference Centesimus Annus 25 Years Later, Pope Francis and U.S. presidential candidate Bernie Sanders happened to meet in the lobby of the Vatican hotel, Casa Santa Martha. Sanders had spoken at the conference but the pope had not attended.

The impromptu meeting was surprising not only because it was unscheduled – Vatican officials had consistently dismissed the idea that any meeting was possible – but because Francis was just rushing off for a whirlwind one-day trip to the Greek island of Lesbos to meet with stranded migrants and refugees.

Although it is normally very unusual for a pope to meet with a candidate for president from any country, the two leaders exchanged greetings and a few words. Afterwards, a glowing Senator Sanders, accompanied by his wife and a few others, sang the Holy Father’s praises to the press. Pope Francis, on the other hand, shrugged off the encounter as mere cordial hospitality and not an endorsement of any kind, according to Reuters, the Associated Press and other reports. He also added, surely somewhat annoyed at the accusations, that anyone seeking to interpret their meeting as a political maneuver on his part had better “look for a psychiatrist.”

In a BBC News article, Francis elaborated with a brief statement reported by the Associated Press: “This morning when I was leaving, Senator Sanders was there …. He knew I was leaving at that time and he had the courtesy to greet me. I greeted him, his wife and another couple who … were sleeping in Santa Martha. When I came down, I greeted him, I shook his hand and nothing more.”

“This is called good manners and it is not getting involved in politics,” concluded Francis.

Sanders later told the Associated Press that he deemed Francis to be “one of the extraordinary figures not only in the world today but in modern world history” and that he was “incredibly appreciative of the incredible role that he is playing in this planet in discussing issues about the need for an economy based on morality, not greed.” He repeated this message, loudly and clearly, in an ABC video, which shows the American still aglow.

A Veteran advocate of government intervention

It is a well-known fact that the feisty 74-year old Vermont Senator is a self-proclaimed socialist born and raised in the rough-and-tumble world of Brooklyn, New York. A life-long, “forward-thinking” progressive, Sanders’ 35-year political career has been characterized by outspokenness, heavy-hitting language, and unstoppable activism – especially within government. His career as an elected official dates back to his 1981 election as the mayor of Burlington, Vermont, a post he held until 1989. This was followed by nearly two decades (1991-2007) of service in the U.S. House of Representatives and then another nine years in the Senate.

Many of his younger supporters – especially among the influential ‘millennials’ – may not realize just how long Sanders has worked in government. The truth is that despite the carefully crafted ‘outsider’ persona he has created for himself, Sanders is steeped in government work and imbued with the bureaucratic spirit. He is through and through a man of the state – , and this has profoundly shaped his economic and political beliefs. One might even say that government has come to define him.

This can be seen in the statements he made while in Rome. In his April 15 Vatican talk, “The Urgency of a Moral Economy: Reflections on the 25th Anniversary of Centesimus Annus”, Sanders considered the ideas of Leo XIII, John Paul II and Francis, exalting their moral spirit in the face of the ‘challenges’ of the market economy. Yet all of his responses were notably statist: Sanders consistently called for more government regulation, more government solutions, and increased government enforcement of fairness, among other suggestions.

“The Church’s social teachings,” stated Sanders toward the beginning his Vatican conference speech, “stretching back to the first modern encyclical about the industrial economy, Rerum Novarum in 1891, to Centesimus Annus, to Pope Francis’s inspiring encyclical Laudato Si’ this past year, have grappled with the challenges of the market economy. There are few places in modern thought that rival the depth and insight of the Church’s moral teachings on the market economy.”

Sanders then said: “Over a century ago, Pope Leo XIII highlighted economic issues and challenges in Rerum Novarum that continue to haunt us today, such as what he called ‘the enormous wealth of a few as opposed to the poverty of the many.’” He then hammered and sickled away with his ideas about class struggle, increasing global poverty, and the general moral imperative to reduce “vast inequalities of power and wealth [that] lead to marginalization of the poor and the powerless.” In Sander’s view, this amounts to state interventions everywhere, especially where he believes the market has either failed or simply not lived up to his utopian expectations.

His were tired and pessimistic notions. He underscored the belief that socio-economic conditions are today worse for most people. He brought up the old hobbyhorse that in 2016, “the top one percent of the people on this planet own more wealth than the bottom 99 percent, while the wealthiest 60 people – 60 people – own more than the bottom half.” His predictable solution was to say that the state and society “must ensure wage levels adequate for the maintenance of the worker and his family, including a certain amount for savings.”

Although he did make one explicit reference to Centesimus Annus, John Paul’s ‘free market’ encyclical, Sanders used it to warn against the exploitation of workers and their treatment as “disposable cogs” and Wall Street “criminality”:

The essential wisdom of Centesimus Annus is this: A market economy is beneficial for productivity and economic freedom. But if we let the quest for profits dominate society; if workers become disposable cogs of the financial system; if vast inequalities of power and wealth lead to marginalization of the poor and the powerless; then the common good is squandered and the market economy fails us …. Financial excesses, indeed widespread financial criminality on Wall Street, played a direct role in causing the world’s worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.

Without ‘Big Government’ addressing such problems, Sanders seemed to suggest, the outlook for the future would be bleak. But inside the beautiful Casina Pio IV, home to the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, not everyone was ‘feeling the Bern’.

A “moral and anthropological analysis”

Sanders did have one sound thing to say during his talk. For those concerned about the woes of any political or economic system, he said, one must seek a proper “moral and anthropological analysis”. This seemed to recall Centesimus Annus, in which John Paul II spoke of an “anthropological error” underlying socialism – and, on occasion, capitalism as well, if relying on misconceptions of human nature.

But John Paul II’s full, extended citation is well worth reading:

“[T]he fundamental error of socialism is anthropological in nature. Socialism considers the individual person simply as an element, a molecule within the social organism, so that the good of the individual is completely subordinated to the functioning of the socio-economic mechanism. Socialism likewise maintains that the good of the individual can be realized without reference to his free choice, to the unique and exclusive responsibility which he exercises in the face of good or evil. Man is thus reduced to a series of social relationships, and the concept of the person as the autonomous subject of moral decision disappears, the very subject whose decisions build the social order. From this mistaken conception of the person there arise both a distortion of law, which defines the sphere of the exercise of freedom, and an opposition to private property. A person who is deprived of something he can call ‘his own’, and of the possibility of earning a living through his own initiative, comes to depend on the social machine and on those who control it. This makes it much more difficult for him to recognize his dignity as a person, and hinders progress towards the building up of an authentic human community.” (CA, 13)

This same basic moral anthropological question – about the nature and dignity of the human person – was considered a few days later on April 20 at an Acton Institute Rome conference under the theme “Freedom with Justice: Rerum Novarum and the New Things of Our Time”. Participants there discussed Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical and considered the emergence of many “new things” – both of a political and economic sort, such as the welfare state, attacks on the family, and nuanced forms of socialism. But the general conclusion reached at the conference was that none of these were really ever ‘new’ because human nature is always the same.

Human nature is the same in that it was created in the image and likeness of God; and it is the same in terms of always having embodied a tendency towards free, self-giving, virtuous, and supportive social relationships between neighbors, family, and civil society. Furthermore, there is a kind of ‘sameness’ in terms of anthropological priority when it comes to order of importance and existence of God, man, and the state.

As Fr. Wojciech Giertych, OP, Theologian of the Papal Household and one of the speakers at the conference, said last Wednesday: “In Rerum Novarum, Pope Leo XIII insisted that by nature man precedes the state – and independently of it he has the right to provide for his own needs (RN, 7).”

Although Pope Leo XIII criticized some of the inhumane working conditions that began to appear during the Industrial Revolution, he also robustly defended the importance of private property rights, the importance of individual creativity to find solutions to big social problems, and the centrality of the nuclear family. More importantly, unlike Bernie Sanders, Leo XIII’s first instinct as a moral theologian was not to promote a ‘nanny state’ to pamper all individuals and dress all societal wounds. Rather, he argued that individuals, families, and society must all be given plenty of room so that relationships may operate and develop among them, inspired by God. In that way they may all be given a chance to respond to their own challenges – before assuming the state should get involved.

Fr. Giertych summarized this by saying: “The family comes before the state. It has its own duties and rights (RN, 12) that are equal to that of the state (RN, 13). Paternal authority and responsibility cannot be abolished by the state (RN, 14).”

In his 1891 encyclical, Pope Leo (Leone in Italian, which means ‘lion’) roared with other prophetic pronouncements, often to deaf ears, against socialist ideas, against too much state control, and against giving the state too much anthropological importance. In fact, all the speakers at the April 20 conference would surely agree that Leo XIII likely would have used the same human anthropology today, 125 years later, in 2016 as he did in 1891 to address socio-economic problems. It is an anthropology that puts the emphasis on private, entrepreneurial, and creative responses to individual and social problems – rather than on state-centric approaches.

Unfortunately, this difference in emphasis divides many countries and regions. As Fr. Giertytch noted, in contrast to Europe, the United States is more often able to respond to many big problems precisely because it does not have a ‘state-first’ approach to social questions:

Today, even with the socialist moves of some politicians, there is great scope for private autonomies entities that are self-governing and free from the restrictions of the public law in the United States, much more so than in Europe. In the United States, it is possible to home-school children without government interference; it is possible to set up private schools, colleges and universities, working out their programs locally in subsidiary fashion; it is possible to set up hospitals, health-care institutions and pension systems that are not controlled by the state. In Europe all this is extremely difficult, because the state, and now the supra-state attributes to itself a monopoly in all these fields. Religious liberty has been reduced to the liberty of cult, but the right to live according to the ethics one upholds, both in private and public life is questioned. And as taxation is high, the wealthy are not inclined to support private initiatives. Instead, it is possible to accede to state and supra-state funds, but this involves accepting all the ideological and administrative strings that are attached to them.”

European leaders would be wise to heed and learn from these sound words. But so too would some Americans, including Senator Sanders.

Leo vs. Sanders

Just imagine if Leo XIII – born during the Church-hating French rule of Rome – had been on the stage with Senator Sanders. It’s an interesting thought experiment, for it would have been a most curious encounter between a 19th century pope and a 21st century American politician.

Both men had long careers typified by a sense of duty to others: one with a long 35-year reign in government, the other as a great spiritual pastor and first pope since the eighth century not to be head of the Papal States, which were dissolved in 1870. Both can be described as morally sensitive and politically conscious men, with a deep and abiding concern for the poor. But each would advocate entirely different solutions to social and economic problems.

There they would stand: the private property, subsidiarity-minded Pope Leo XIII one on side, and the redistributive, state-first advocate Sanders on the other. One could certainly imagine Sanders making catcalls at Leo the “Lion” as narrow and small-hearted, and the pontiff in turn decrying the Brooklyn-born fighter’s pugnaciousness – while pointing out that he was making a gross “anthropological error”. You can then almost see the steam rising from Sander’s 74-year old head, with the Senator then likely resorting to a series of ad hominems and tired clichés.

But Leo XIII would remain standing there reiterating the importance of ensuring sound anthropological reasoning before addressing any social problems. And just like in Rerum Novarum, he would firmly repeat the fundamental message that God comes before man, and man comes before the state. He would restate his formulation that the state is the last resource while God is the first, and man is the second.

As John Paul II emphasized, “from the Christian vision of the human person there necessarily follows a correct picture of society.” And, referring to Leo XIII’s great encyclical on social doctrine:

According to Rerum Novarum and the whole social doctrine of the Church, the social nature of man is not completely fulfilled in the State, but is realized in various intermediary groups, beginning with the family and including economic, social, political and cultural groups which stem from human nature itself and have their own autonomy, always with a view to the common good. (CA, 13)

After all, John Paul II reminded us, Leo XIII “frequently insists on necessary limits to the State’s intervention and on its instrumental character, inasmuch as the individual, the family and society are prior to the State, and inasmuch as the State exists in order to protect their rights and not stifle them” (CA, 7). Those are observations that are as true in this century as they were in the past century and the century prior.

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About Alvino-Mario Fantini 7 Articles
Alvino-Mario Fantini is Editor-in-Chief of "The European Conservative", journalist, and speechwriter. He and his wife live in Vienna, Austria