‘Centesimus Annus’ turns 30

Every summer since 2006, I have had the privilege to spend three and a half weeks in Krakόw, Poland as part of the Tertio Millennio Seminar on the Free Society. The seminar provides participants – mostly recent university graduates from the United States, Canada, Poland, and Eastern Europe – with a deep dive into the Church’s social teaching.

The seminar first met in 1992, in a very different time and a very different world. The faculty has changed over the years, as one might expect, though George Weigel and Russ Hittinger still anchor the lineup. Changed, too, are the questions that weigh most upon the minds of the students who join us.

The challenges posed by the immediate aftermath of the fall of European Communism have given way over the decades to other pressing concerns: from growing secularism and questions about religious freedom, to the economic crisis and the resurgence of nationalism, to questions of migration, ecology, and the foundations of liberal democracy.

The seminar does continue to address, to one degree or another, the entire social doctrine of the Church from Leo XIII to Francis. Yet after all these years, the central document around which our seminar discussions revolve is still Pope John Paul II’s 1991 encyclical, Centesimus annus. Why, thirty years after it was published, is this document still at the center?

One reason Centesimus annus retains pride of place has to do with history. Young Poles, for example, often know less about the events which led to the Revolutions of 1989 than they do about the (at least partially) failed promise of freedom that followed. Centesimus annus acts as a sort of bridge between the Church’s experience of 20th-century totalitarian ideologies and today, a point underscored by studying in Krakόw.

More than an historical bridge, Pope John Paul II’s analysis of the ideologies of both socialism and liberalism connects the theological and philosophical foundations of Catholic social teaching – in Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum – to the ideological challenges of our own century.

John Paul II’s criticism of socialism is well known. His experience living under the totalitarian regime of his native Poland, his support for the Solidarity Movement – and even the failed attempt to assassinate him in 1981 – ought to dispel any notion that his was a purely academic critique.


But neither was his treatment of socialism an exercise in (to use an American idiom) spiking the football after Communism’s collapse. His concern was with how ideology distorts our grasp of the human person and, accordingly, of human society itself.

“[T]he fundamental error of socialism,” Pope John Paul II wrote, “is anthropological in nature.” By reducing the human person to a cog in a machine, a mere molecule of society, socialism obscured the person as the “subject of moral decision. . .the very subject whose decisions build the social order.”

The result of this was not only the elimination of a sense of the transcendent destiny of every person, but of the true nature of the human society itself, in all its richness and complexity – what John Paul called the “subjectivity of society.”

The chief cause of socialism’s “anthropological error,” according to the Polish pope, was atheism. An atheistic view of society – that is, a purely materialistic view – leads inexorably to an inadequate understanding of the human person, the destruction of the social sources of solidarity, and to atomization and social breakdown.

If John Paul II’s critique of the inhumanity of socialism was unsparing, those who touted the material advantages of capitalism were put on notice as well.

An affluent, consumerist society, the pope warned, will follow a similar trajectory to socialism precisely because it makes a nearly identical mistake about human nature. “[I]nsofar as [the affluent society] denies an autonomous existence and value to morality, law, culture and religion, it agrees with Marxism, in the sense that it totally reduces man to the sphere of economics and the satisfaction of material needs.” A materialistic view of society leads to defective understanding of the human person, the destruction of the social sources of solidarity, and atomization and social breakdown.

Pope John Paul’s dire warnings applied not just to the economic sphere, but to the political as well: “As history demonstrates,” he wrote, “a democracy without values easily turns into open or thinly disguised totalitarianism.”

It’s worth noting that John Paul II’s critique finds echoes in Pope Benedict XVI’s Caritas in Veritate, which decries the reduction of society to a function of state and market forces: “The exclusively binary model of market-plus-State is corrosive of society, while economic forms based on solidarity, which find their natural home in civil society without being restricted to it, build up society.”

This connection between a materialist anthropology and social dissolution also shows up in Pope Francis’ Laudato Si’: “[W]e should not be surprised to find, in conjunction with the omnipresent technocratic paradigm and the cult of unlimited human power, the rise of a relativism which sees everything as irrelevant unless it serves one’s own immediate interests.”

Anyone interested in today’s most hotly contested debates – about the viability of liberalism (or Liberalism), the role of “woke capital,” the revival of interest in socialism especially among the young, or the rise of Integralism, and so on – will profit from a close reading (or rereading) of Centesimus annus. It has a prophetic quality that endures.

One thing Centesimus annus does not do is provide ready-made solutions to the problems of today. The work of building a society worthy of the name “free” is a moral task, not an abstract one:

The Church has no models to present; models that are real and truly effective can only arise within the framework of different historical situations, through the efforts of all those who responsibly confront concrete problems in all their social, economic, political, and cultural aspects, as these interact with one another.

In that work, the Church offers sure guidance. Centesimus annus, thirty years on, remains an invaluable guide.


*Image: Painting of St. John Paul II by Piotr Topczyłko, 2020 [Stalowa Wola, Poland ]. St. John Paul’s words at the bottom: “I embrace Stalowa Wola from the heart, a city that symbolizes the workers’ great faith.”

Stephen P. White is executive director of The Catholic Project at The Catholic University of America and a fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.