God, Truth and the Free Society

Twenty years later, Pope John Paul II’s great social encyclical is as relevant as ever

Father Raymond J. de Souza
Columbia Magazine
May 2011

It was for liturgical and devotional reasons that May 1 was chosen as the beatification date for Blessed John Paul II: Just as the pope died on the liturgical feast of Divine Mercy in 2005, he would be raised to the honors of the altar on the same feast this year. May is also the month of the Blessed Mother, which is fitting for a pope who was so devoted to Our Lady. But the calendar provides yet more significance for the date chosen.

This year, May 1 also marks the 20th anniversary of Centesimus Annus, John Paul II’s 1991 encyclical on Catholic social doctrine. Human rights, liberty, justice, education, working conditions, wages, the alleviation of poverty, health care, the environment — all of these topics fall under the field of Catholic social doctrine. This body of teaching looks at the social order — culture, politics and economics — through the lens of the Gospel. While deeply rooted in Catholic tradition, Catholic social teaching is generally dated in its modern form to the 1891 encyclical by Pope Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum — an encyclical on “capital and labor” that was written in the wake of the industrial revolution.

Rerum Novarum was published May 15, 1891. To mark its centenary, John Paul II published Centesimus Annus (literally, the “hundredth year”) in May 1991. It remains the great Christian charter of the free society, written in the immediate aftermath of the defeat of the Soviet communist empire, a historical drama in which John Paul II himself was a great protagonist.


John Paul II dated Centesimus Annus May 1 as a not-too-subtle way of dancing on communism’s grave since May 1, or May Day, was a great communist holiday. In 1955, Pope Pius XII instituted the feast of St. Joseph the Worker on May 1 as a Christian response to communist propaganda. The publication of Centesimus Annus added an exclamation point to this response.

Indeed, John Paul II spent most of his life combating the wicked ideas that animated the totalitarian empires of the 20th century. The shape of the 21st century will depend in large part on whether the humane, Christian vision of Centesimus Annus can prevail against the negative alternatives that can corrupt the hearts of nations. The coincidence of John Paul II’s beatification with the anniversary of his great social encyclical provides a propitious occasion to revisit this vision.

“[There are] two theses that I regard as central to Centesimus Annus: first, that both politics and economics have their matrix in culture, and second, that culture is incomplete without religion,” wrote the late Cardinal Avery Dulles, S.J., on the fifth anniversary of the encyclical. “The political and economic orders cannot prosper without support from the order of culture, which provides the convictions and values on which the state and economy are predicated. The world of culture, moreover, touches closely on that of religion. If it attempts to suppress the dimension of ultimate mystery, it impoverishes itself. It has everything to gain if it opens its doors to God and to Christ.”

In Centesimus Annus, John Paul II began by asking why communism failed. The fundamental problem, he concluded, was a faulty, impoverished and erroneous vision of the human person.

The pope wrote, “It will be necessary to keep in mind that the main thread and, in a certain sense, the guiding principle … of all of the Church’s social doctrine, is a correct view of the human person and of his unique value” (11).

Against those who claimed that communism failed for practical reasons of economic inefficiency, the pope insisted that man does not live by bread alone. In a brief paragraph, he moved from the question of economics to the greatest of mysteries:

“[I]t is not possible to understand man on the basis of economics alone, nor to define him simply on the basis of class membership. Man is understood in a more complete way when he is situated within the sphere of culture through his language, history, and the position he takes toward the fundamental events of life, such as birth, love, work and death. At the heart of every culture lies the attitude man takes to the greatest mystery: the mystery of God. Different cultures are basically different ways of facing the question of the meaning of personal existence” (24).

This emphasis on the human person and the meaning of personal existence is the characteristic twist of John Paul II. His encyclical was the great charter of a free society because he insisted that religious, political and economic freedom are all required so that man can give his free response to God.

Rocco Buttiglione, the Italian philosopher who served as a consultant on Centesimus Annus, has said that the “general principle” that undergirds the whole teaching of John Paul II is that “nothing good can be done without freedom, but freedom is not the highest value in itself. Freedom is given to man in order to make possible the free obedience to truth and free gift of oneself in love.”

It should not be a surprise that the encyclicals of Pope Benedict XVI — including God is Love and Charity in Truth — focus on love, picking up where John Paul II left off.


The question must still be asked: Is Centesimus Annus still relevant 20 years later, with communism no longer a credible intellectual option, even if communists themselves hang on in parts of the world? Yes, more than ever. Twenty years ago, the passages of John Paul II’s encyclical that drew the most attention were about economics; today the most relevant passages relate to the role of religion in public life. The questions now are: What kind of free society should we build, and is there room in a free society for the mystery of God?

“Authentic democracy is possible only in a State ruled by law, and on the basis of a correct conception of the human person,” John Paul II wrote. “Nowadays there is a tendency to claim that agnosticism and skeptical relativism are the philosophy and the basic attitude which correspond to democratic forms of political life. Those who are convinced that they know the truth and firmly adhere to it are considered unreliable from a democratic point of view, since they do not accept that truth is determined by the majority, or that it is subject to variation according to different political trends. It must be observed in this regard that if there is no ultimate truth to guide and direct political activity, then ideas and convictions can easily be manipulated for reasons of power.”

The pope then concludes with a stinging observation: “As history demonstrates, a democracy without values easily turns into open or thinly disguised totalitarianism” (46).

With this statement, was John Paul II associating the governments of the United States, Canada or Europe with a “thinly disguised totalitarianism”? Surely he was not talking about us, was he? In 1991, it might have been harder to step back and see the truth of the Holy Father’s observation. But John Paul II saw what is now becoming more evident: The United States and Canada are not totalitarian nations, but the totalitarian impulse is very thinly disguised indeed, and the signs on the horizon are ominous.

Consider political developments affecting the Catholic Church: The state pays for abortion and calls it a human right; Catholic employers are forced to pay for insurance coverage contrary to Catholic teaching; conscience protections for Catholic doctors, nurses and pharmacists are eroding; the freedom of Catholic schools to present the ancient tradition regarding love, marriage and sexuality is challenged; and Catholic associations, including the Knights of Columbus, run afoul of bureaucrats enforcing a flawed notion of equality.

“Can anyone doubt that this is what is happening — in Canada, in the United States, in Europe?” asked Cardinal William Levada, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in a March 2010 address in Ottawa, Canada. “Pope Benedict has described this as ‘the dictatorship of relativism,’ the phrase he made famous on the eve of his election as bishop of Rome. The dictatorship of relativism does not so much seek to impose one view on everybody, but rather to drive from political life, academic life and cultural life anyone who refuses to concede that all truths are relative, or to put it more bluntly, that there is no truth which can be known with certainty. Against this relativism and skepticism, the Christian believer proclaims that Jesus Christ is the way, the truth and the life. It is a direct confrontation with the dictatorship of relativism.”

In this way, Cardinal Levada described the challenge — as well as the solution — perceived by Pope Benedict and his predecessor. Freedom is preserved, rather than inhibited, when religion and the truth about man are professed. From “thinly disguised totalitarianism” to the “dictatorship of relativism,” John Paul II and Benedict XVI are of one mind on the threats to the free society. When the latter beatifies the former on May 1, the teaching of the “hundredth year” will be proposed again.