Centesimus Annus – The Hundredth Year

Context

Pope John Paul II issued his last major social encyclical, Centesimus Annus, in 1991. It commemorates the one hundredth anniversary of Rerum Novarum. Momentous historical events shape its content. Communism fell in much of Eastern Europe in 1989. The Gulf War had just ended, and the USSR would soon collapse. John Paul II’s own involvement in these dramatic events lends additional significance to his reflections.

Major Issues

John Paul II is highly critical of communism. He warns against the risk of the welfare state usurping the responsibilities of individuals and smaller non-state groups. Yet he does not uncritically endorse capitalism:

“We have seen that it is unacceptable to say that the defeat of so-called “Real Socialism” leaves capitalism as the only model of economic organization. It is necessary to break down the barriers and monopolies that leave so many countries on the margins of development, and to provide all individuals and nations with the basic conditions which will enable them to share in development.”

John Paul II stresses the role of culture in integral human development. He warns of the danger of consumerism and raises ecological questions. In Centesimus Annus he reminds us that there are “collective and qualitative human needs which cannot be satisfied by market mechanisms.” Far from uncritically promoting the free market, he argues for a strong juridical framework to ensure the rights of all people.

Methodology

In this encyclical John Paul II follows the pattern of other commemorative encyclicals. He recalls the teachings of Rerum Novarum, surveys changes since then, and applies its teachings to the current situation.

Contribution to Catholic Social Teaching

Centesimus Annus summarises Catholic objections to communism and explains the reasons for its failure. It clearly rejects the idea that the fall of communism reflects the victory of capitalism. In fact, the encyclical presents a detailed critique of contemporary capitalism. It signals that the Church will continue to critique all social and political systems in view of human dignity and the common good.

Read Centesimus Annus

Read the full text of the official English translation here.

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