The Church’s engagement with modernity is, to say the least, a work in progress. Though Catholics remain divided in their understanding of authentic engagement, the Church has been blessed with the guidance of visionary popes who, over the past century, have arguably surpassed in piety, virtue and wisdom any succession of popes over an equivalent length of time in the history of the papacy. The past month of October offered relatively new feast days celebrating two of these popes, St. John XXIII and St. John Paul II.
Sadly, these popes have too often been set against each other by partisans within the Church: “liberals” claiming John XXIII as their champion, “conservatives” claiming John Paul II. Two years ago, Catholic World Report published an article by George Weigel reclaiming John XXIII from the pejorative sense of “liberal”: unorthodox, modernist. In this essay, I would like to rescue John Paul II from the pejorative sense of conservative: libertarian anti-communist.
Opposition to communism was no doubt one of the most dramatic features of John Paul’s pontificate. His trip to Poland in 1979 inspired the birth of the Solidarity movement, which was instrumental of the downfall of communism in Eastern Europe and ultimately the downfall of the Soviet Union itself. The confusion arises when people consider the positive vision of society with which John Paul opposed communism. There is far too great a tendency among conservative American Catholics to equate John Paul’s opposition to communism with that of the other great anti-communist warrior of the 1980s: Ronald Reagan. Paul Kengor, for example, claims the two shared a common spiritual vision. John Paul II was a Roman Catholic. Ronald Reagan claimed to be a born-again Christian, which in American can pretty much mean anything anyone wants it to mean.
Kengor’s efforts, often by innuendo, supposition, and even imagined conversations between John Paul and Reagan, fall in a long line of patriotic Catholic wishful thinking in relation to nation’s Protestant leaders.1 There are still Catholics who believe that George Washington converted to Catholicism on his death bed. The aspects of Reagan’s beliefs that concern me here relate more to man than to God. What is the nature of man? What is the nature of society? What is the nature of politics?
On these matters we have a much clearer sense of what Reagan believed and a much clearer sense of his contrast with John Paul. Reagan had one answer to all of the above questions: freedom. A New Deal Democrat through most of his career in Hollywood, Reagan took a sharp turn to the right when he began to pursue his new career in politics. During the 1950s and 1960s, he came of political age as a Barry Goldwater-style libertarian, denouncing the New Deal and the welfare state, limiting government to the basic tasks of law enforcement and national defense. The conservative Catholic L. Brent Bozell famously questioned the moral and spiritual basis of this libertarianism in his 1962 National Review article, “Freedom or Virtue.” Bozell’s sense that freedom-first libertarianism jeopardized virtue and Christian faith by reducing them to individual choices would lead him to abandon conservatism in search of a more authentically Catholic politics.2
Conservative politicians such as Reagan remained focused on attacking big government at home and communism abroad. Conservatism did not “get religion” until the rise of the Moral Majority in the late 1970s, and opposition to abortion served as the galvanizing issue for the Religious Right. Curiously, though opposed to “choice” in abortion, Reagan and his Republican Party remained pro-choice in just about everything else, most especially the libertarian assault on government. These strange bedfellows produced some initial cognitive dissonance for New Deal Catholic Democrats whose pro-life principles led them to the Republican Party.
Soon, again improbably, economic libertarianism acquired virtue, even piety, by association with a political party opposed to abortion. For American Catholics with any sense of history, this required a dramatic break from past ideals and experience. The tradition of the social encyclicals, which sought a third way between state socialism and laissez-faire capitalism, was either dismissed as non-binding or reinterpreted to endorse the very free-market ideals they were once understood to challenge. This hermeneutic of rupture provided the context for the reception of John Paul II’s contribution to the social encyclical tradition, Centisimus Annus (1991).
Published to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum, the encyclical also seemed to provide an endorsement of the West in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union. For both conservative and liberal American Catholics, it seemed more specifically a vindication of the policies of Ronald Reagan, both his aggressive stance toward the Soviets and his rolling back of the New Deal in the name of the free market. Now, for conservatives, the market acquired virtue and piety through proximity not only to a holy cause, but to a holy man. Yes, John Paul presents the collapse of the Soviet Union as a vindication of the “free economy.” The question is, what does he mean by a “free economy”?:
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 path 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 which sees it as a particular aspect of that freedom, the core of which is ethical and religious, then the reply is certainly negative.
Here John Paul addresses issues similar to those raised by Brent Bozell in his “Freedom or Virtue” essay some thirty years earlier. For John Paul as for Bozell, economic freedom is not primary but must be exercised within a legal, ethical, and religious framework that guides people toward the common good. No self-respecting defender of the free market would recognize this as a “free” economy. Some, like Bozell’s interlocutors, might insist we need freedom and virtue, but this misses the point of the primacy of virtue and a proper ordering of goods. To put freedom first is to make virtue a choice; in a pluralistic society, there are many competing models of virtue and individuals must be free to choose, limited only by the prohibition of imposing one’s personal choice on others.
Pope Benedict XVI would dub this moral and spiritual anarchy the “tyranny of relativism.” John Paul identifies a more specifically economic manifestation in what we could call the tyranny of consumerism:
A given culture reveals its overall understanding of life through the choices it makes in production and consumption. It is here that the phenomenon of consumerism arises. In singling out new needs and new means to meet them, one must be guided by a comprehensive picture of man which respects all the dimensions of his being and which subordinates his material and instinctive dimensions to his interior and spiritual ones. If, on the contrary, a direct appeal is made to his instincts — while ignoring in various ways the reality of the person as intelligent and free — then consumer attitudes and life-styles can be created which are objectively improper and often damaging to his physical and spiritual health. Of itself, an economic system does not possess criteria for correctly distinguishing new and higher forms of satisfying human needs from artificial new needs which hinder the formation of a mature personality. Thus a great deal of educational and cultural work is urgently needed, including the education of consumers in the responsible use of their power of choice, the formation of a strong sense of responsibility among producers and among people in the mass media in particular, as well as the necessary intervention by public authorities.
Consumerism cuts across political categories. In the post-Cold War West, it is one of the few commitments shared by liberals and conservatives alike. Still, the type of critique John Paul offers here could have no traction if one proceeds from the primacy of freedom. True, John Paul’s hope that “education and cultural work” might tame consumerism fits with the conservative insistence on the need for virtue; however, the notions that an attitude or life-style might be “objectively improper” or that proper ordering might require “the necessary intervention by public authorities” would never pass the freedom-first test.
Perhaps nowhere does Centesimus Annus offend conservative sensibilities more than in John Paul’s observation concerning the environmental consequences of consumerism:
Equally worrying is the ecological question which accompanies the problem of consumerism and which is closely connected to it. In his desire to have and to enjoy rather than to be and to grow, man consumes the resources of the earth and his own life in an excessive and disordered way. At the root of the senseless destruction of the natural environment lies an anthropological error, which unfortunately is widespread in our day. Man, who discovers his capacity to transform and in a certain sense create the world through his own work, forgets that this is always based on God’s prior and original gift of the things that are. Man thinks that he can make arbitrary use of the earth, subjecting it without restraint to his will, as though it did not have its own requisites and a prior God- given purpose, which man can indeed develop but must not betray. Instead of carrying out his role as a co-operator with God in the work of creation, man sets himself up in place of God and thus ends up provoking a rebellion on the part of nature, which is more tyrannized than governed by him.
When Pope Francis expresses similar concerns, he is vilified by conservative Catholics as at best a dupe of liberals, at worst an apologist for population control. John Paul here, like Francis later, simply gives voice to the much-maligned “seamless garment” of Catholic social teaching—a garment that does not fit particular well on either liberal or conservative bodies.
John Paul saved his most powerful indictment of post-Cold War triumphalism for his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae. As anti-communists danced on the grave of the Soviet Union, John Paul considered the ever-expanding graveyard of the unborn in the West. The death toll from abortion in the United States alone surpasses that of the death camps of Hitler and Stalin combined. More frightening still, these deaths come not from a clearly identifiable state tyranny over the individual but from the principle of individual freedom itself, the right to choose. John Paul observes how disagreement on abortion inevitably leads to the compromise of choice as the only option “if one wants a society in which the maximum possible freedom is guaranteed to each individual.”
This appears to be what most Americans want; sadly, it also appears to be what most American Catholics want. Revisiting the writings of St. John Paul II may not persuade liberal and conservative Catholics to change their politics, but it may at least dissuade them from seeking to use him to advance their flawed political visions.
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