John Paul II: Sollicitudo Rei Socialis

Critical Comments Selected by Gerald Darring

William Safire. New York Times (22 February 1988) A19. "Pope John Paul II risks becoming known as the foremost political-moral relativist of our time.... he is at least a decade out of date on his geopolitics. Both superpowers now face great schisms within each 'bloc,' and totalitarian ideology is in turmoil. But let us accept his bipolar thesis. We know that the East is statist and atheist, that the West makes an effort to respect the individual's free will rooted in Judeo-Christian precepts. On which side is the Roman Catholic Church? Apparently on neither side.... the West's greed is the moral equivalent of the East's power lust, and both are guilty of impoverishing the innocent and exploited third world. If words have meaning, that is now the official world view of the Vatican. I think it is wrongheaded."

Wall Street Journal (23 February 1988) 30. The pope has been visiting rich and poor countries. "As with anyone who spends much time in the developing world, John Paul is depressed at what he sees--low growth, unemployment, poor prospects. While he tends to overlook the Third World's domestic economic policies in handing out blame, he does recognize" that there is too much fluctuation in exchange and interest rates. "Of course, the pope's harsh words for greed, profit and other traditional chestnuts of the Sunday sermon have drawn the usual first-world harumphing. But it seems to us he's mostly calling for leadership."

National Catholic Reporter (4 March 1988) 12. "Those who criticize John Paul's 'shame-on-both-houses' approach, seeing it as a betrayal of Western Judeo-Christian values, fail to grasp the encyclical's profound theological perspective. That creation-centered perspective leads John Paul to a pronounced holistic view of humanity and humanity's place within the earth's ecosystems. Competing power blocs, with all their social and economic reverberations, violate that ecological web. There is no moral room for them, the pope declares, in the inspired wholeness of creation."

New Republic (14 March 1988) 5. "Who would have thought that John Paul II, the Polish pope, would become an apostle of moral equivalence" instead of being "stalwart in making moral distinctions between the democratic West and the totalitarian East.... He is said to have his earthly reasons for this: he does not want to diminish his international influence with seeming partisanship. He also has theological points to make that transcend geopolitics. He does tilt now and again toward democratic concepts of human rights and religious freedom, and he defends a 'right of economic initiative' against government domination. Also, this encyclical does not have the blame-the-West-for-everything bias of Pope Paul VI's 1967 encyclical, Populorum Progressio.... And yet, when it comes to judging the East and the West, the Pope cops out."

Michael Novak. Crisis (March 1988) 9. "Sollicitudo Rei Socialis goes far beyond Populorum Progressio in emphasizing realism (against 'messianism'); in stressing the present failures and essential responsibilities of poorer countries; in clarifying the point that Catholic social thought does not offer 'a third way' between existing ideas of political economy; in emphasizing the crucial and most important of the economic rights, 'the right to private initiative'; and in its consistent, unfolding development of a theology of creation based upon the Book of Genesis."

William F. Buckley, Jr. National Review (18 March 1988) 18. "This Tweedledum-Tweedledee view of the crystallized division between the visions of Marx, Lenin, Mao Tse-tung, and Pol Pot over against those of Locke, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Churchill makes Christian blood boil with the kind of indignation that fueled the spirit of the Christian martyrs who have died by the millions since 1917 imploring God to relieve mankind of the curse of what at the hands of the Pope in this encyclical becomes merely one of 'two systems' grown 'suspicious and fearful' of the other's domination. Obviously, in the 102 pages one can find the ritual Christian affirmations. But they are swamped by a theological version of the kind of historical revisionism generally associated with modern nihilists. One prays that the Holy Father will move quickly to correct an encyclical heart-tearingly misbegotten."

J. Bryan Hehir. Commonweal (25 March 1988) 170. President Carter defined the new agenda of world politics exclusively in terms of the interdependence issues of North and South. The opposite to this extreme was the one-dimensional East-West approach of the Reagan era. "The value of the papal critique of the superpower role is that it is also an invitation to scholars and politicians to weigh the distinct elements in each set of issues and to probe the intersection of East-West and North-South anew."

Fortune (28 March 1988) 156. Conservatives have groaned over the encyclical's "maddening tendency to hold the Communist East and democratic West ... equally responsible for evil in the world. Much less has been made of the encyclical's economic ideas, which are invariably hostile to market economics. To be sure, this papal posture is not exactly new. Like his predecessors, John Paul II has always criticized liberal capitalism, linking it to individualism, materialism, and selfishness. Indeed he claims only to be updating Populorum Progressio, the 1967 encyclical of Paul VI.... Alas, updating is precisely what's lacking in the new encyclical: It seems very odd these days to read a lengthy statement about economic development that is so oblivious to the resounding triumphs of liberal capitalism in the Third World in the years since Populorum."

James Finn. Crisis (April 1988) 44-47. "To speak of a gap without noting that the term can easily disguise real economic growth in poor countries is to be inadvertently misleading. It is now a commonplace to note the following characteristic of the economic gap: If my income goes from 1 dollar to 2 dollars and yours at the same time goes from 2 dollars to 4 dollars, the gap between our incomes has doubled--but so has my actual income. That may still leave me unsatisfied, even envious, but my standard of living will have vastly improved. So it is with countries. The encyclical's discussion of the alleged increase in poverty in the world is insufficiently complete to be adequate."

Roland J. Faley. America (30 April 1988) 449. The encyclical gives most of its attention to the two superpowers but there are totalitarian regimes that exist quite apart from the superpowers. In many struggling countries, corruption and graft are common, and many of the poor of the world are abused by their own governments. "Exploitation is often a two-way street, with leaders of poor countries entering into arrangements with foreign powers that bring wealth to an elite and leave the masses voiceless and deprived." The pope "alludes to the culpability of the third-world leaders themselves (No. 16), but one would have hoped the encyclical had said more in this regard."

Kenneth Aman. Christianity and Crisis (16 May 1988) 177. "'Social Concerns' is this pope's most traditional writing. For he has taken great pains with this document to situate his reflections in the ongoing tradition of the Roman Catholic church. Indeed, this encyclical can be seen as belonging to no less that three separate strains emanating from the Vatican: the social teaching of the church; Pope John Paul's own personal ruminations on Marxism; reflections on development and underdevelopment." It "focuses basically on the Third World. It has a lot to say about capitalist and socialist economic structures, but usually with an eye to their impact on the developing world. This in itself is important, suggesting that the pope has calmly accepted the insight of the liberation theologians that the redemptive Word is meant first of all for the poor."

Jim Kelly. Catholic Worker (May 1988) 10. "As evenhanded as his criticism of East and West is, it should be noted that the letter criticizes the restraint of economic initiative in command economies without setting out the traditional foil of linking materialist hedonism and the 'free-market' system. But to focus primarily on John Paul's commentary on the superpowers would be to miss the Pope's point that their political division aggravates the economic division between North and South."

Peter Henriot. National Catholic Reporter (27 May 1988) 8. "Solidarity, the political response to the political analysis of John Paul II, is in my view the new encyclical's major contribution to development of the church's social teaching. His discussion of solidarity poses serious challenges to U.S. government stances and policies, not only toward Third World peoples but also toward our domestic population. The poor are part of our community wherever they may be. Moreover, the emphasis on solidarity also has profound implications for the community we call church and its structures of relationships of mutuality. A church os solidarity is more liable to be both sign and instrument for a world of solidarity."

Miriam Therese MacGillis. National Catholic Reporter (27 May 1988) 12. John Paul II is "a man in anguish. He is presiding over the collapse of the world. Published 20 years after Populorum Progressio, this new encyclical goes further in citing evidence of a massive dysfunction within Western structures (and) the failure of 20th-century industrialism to advance the authentic development of the earth's peoples."

John Kenneth Galbraith. National Catholic Reporter (27 May 1988) 13. "The encyclical letter takes issue squarely with one of the more entrenched positions of our time, one that also has powerful theological overtones. That is the belief of many well-endowed people, including, one imagines, a certain number of conservative Catholics, that government, in the words of President Reagan, is not the remedy but the problem in any approach to the poor. Its role should be restricted severely; the burden of proof must always be on public action; only national defense, military expenditure, is sacrosanct.... Here is an uncompromising collision of faiths, and in this confrontation there can be no doubt where the pope stands -- the encyclical makes this wholly clear."

M. Kiliroor. Month (June 1988) 714. In its assertion of adaptation rather than development of church teaching, the encyclical "seems to retract from the position established by the theological development in the entire area of social teaching and social justice that is signaled in the post-Vatican II statements.... Furthermore, there is the question about the subject who adapts. We have seen above that the present encyclical, at least in the context of its defense of the 'constant' character of the 'social doctrine,' seems to take away from the local Christian communities the active role of 'drawing principles of reflection, norms of judgment, and directives for action' as allocated by Octogesima Adveniens 4. This does not favor an ecclesiology of communio, nor does it help to encourage the mission and vocation of the laity in the church and the world."

Dennis A. O'Connor. Social Justice Review (September-October 1988) 136. "The journey we are to take in the betterment of the world community has a very definite destination" but "we are unsure of the appropriate path to follow. John Paul II offers some insight as to the proper road, but does not specify with exactness where that road lies. This, I believe, is precisely what he intended to do. Within the encyclical, he states that the Catholic Church is not offered as the road between the East and the West, nor is it a completely alternative route. Nor is church doctrine another ideology. The road chosen for development is the one which provides that human dignity is properly respected and promoted, that the goods of this world are originally meant for all, and that we are all equally invited to this banquet of life by God. The road chosen will be marked with the signs of justice."

Matthew Habiger, O.S.B. Social Justice Review (September-October 1988) 139. "The obstacles to development also have a moral character. This is Pope John Paul's contribution to the advancement of Catholic social teaching. He singles out the moral causes which retard development and hinder its full achievement, be dealing with the behavior of individuals considered as responsible persons. Obstacles to development will be overcome only by means of essentially moral decisions."

John W. Donohue, S.J. America (8 October 1988) 211-12. "Like most Western and Marxist capitals, Washington has treated the encyclical with official reserve, but in the secular press, commentators who are not often in agreement have been united in pointed criticism of the letter.... In total contrast to these negative voices, Secretary General Perez de Cuellar told the seminar that the encyclical calls for just what the United Nations has always tried to do--raise the living standards of all the world's people. He agreed with the Pope that this work is nowhere finished and emphasized, just as the encyclical does, the deterioration of life in poorer countries that are struggling to pay off their insupportable foreign debts. He particularly liked, therefore, the Pope's emphasis upon the moral responsibility of the richer nations to help their poor neighbors."

Robert E White. Commonweal (21 October 1988) 556. "Sollicitudo raises the question whether either East or West has the capacity to put an end to policies that have resulted in oppression and exploitation for the poor nations of the earth. John Paul II states the problem this way not because he sees a 'moral equivalency' between liberal capitalism and Marxist collectivism as conservative critics have charged. A close reading of the encyclical leads to quite a different interpretation. The pope may be concerned because just as the USSR appears ready to play a more constructive role in reducing superpower involvement in regional conflicts, the U.S. appears increasingly committed to militarism as the primary tool for advancing its interests in Asia, Africa, and Latin America."

Peter L. Berger. In Myers, ed., Aspiring to Freedom (1988) 114-15. "He chooses here to take a neutral position between Eastern totalitarianism and the democratic capitalism of the West. The fact that he does is the most negative feature of the entire document and ipso facto undermines the moral authority as well as the empirical plausibility of this encyclical."

Richard John Neuhaus. In Myers, ed., Aspiring to Freedom (1988) 153. "This is the occasion of the document's strictures against the 'blind submission to pure consumerism' (28). It seems that the pope intends to warn against the classic vice of gluttony, and that warning is of course always in order. But his warning descends into a description of life in the 'superdeveloped' countries that few Americans, for example, would recognize as an accurate version of how they actually live. 'An object already owned but now superseded by something better is discarded,' we are told, 'with no thought of its possible lasting value in itself, nor of some other human being who is poorer.' It is hard to know what to make of that. Does Sollicitudo refer to automobiles, television sets, computers, clothing, or what? Surely a television set has little, if any, 'lasting value in itself.' One wonders if the author of this section is aware of the practice of trading things in, or of the Salvation Army, Volunteers of America, and hundreds of thousands of second-hand stores. And surely there is some necessary connection between replacing things and production, which in turn is closely related to employment and all the other issues addressed by this encyclical under the rubric of 'development.'"

Philip S. Land, S.J., and Peter J. Henriot, S.J. In Baum and Ellsberg, eds., The Logic of Solidarity (1989) 74. "We believe that a major contribution of Sollicitudo to the development of Catholic social teaching is, precisely, its methodology. Experientially in touch with today's reality through a reading of the signs of the times, analytically focused on the global structures of underdevelopment, theologically sensitive to both tradition and scripture, and pastorally open to whatever system respects authentic human development, the encyclical demonstrates an approach to social teaching that will have long-term consequences."

John A. Coleman, S.J. In Baum and Ellsberg, eds., The Logic of Solidarity (1989) 92. The Pope blames both East and West for 1) fostering ideological bloc formation, 2) the arms race, 3) lack of a realistic sense of interdependence, and 4) exporting to the Third World two different concepts of development.

William K. Tabb. In Baum and Ellsberg, eds., The Logic of Solidarity (1989) 158. "The weaker are called on to be neither passive nor destructive of the social fabric, but they are given little guidance as to how to claim what is their legitimate right except that they should do what they can for the good of all. This is so imprecise a formulation that it could be interpreted as condemning action to demand the very redistribution of wealth and power for which the situation of injustice would seem to cry out."

Mary E. Hobgood. In Baum and Ellsberg, eds., The Logic of Solidarity (1989) 174. "For the first time a pope has issued a social justice document completely lacking an analysis or prognosis that can be aligned with the liberation social model. On Social Concern does not give 'a fuller and more nuanced' application of Paul's encyclical On the Development of Peoples to the present time, as John Paul II claims that he does. Rather, On Social Concern departs significantly from Paul's teaching by failing to appropriate or even acknowledge important liberation dimensions both of Paul's analysis of capitalism and Paul's understanding of the process of social change."

Maria Riley, O.P. In Baum and Ellsberg, eds., The Logic of Solidarity (1989) 200. "Sollicitudo Rei Socialis is an important but dated document. Its failure resides in its blindness to the essential contribution that feminists, both women and men, are making to the development debate. I suggest that the framers and consultants of this document are trapped by the myopic position that 'women's issues' are marginal to the so-called great issues of our day. This particular myopia results from a patriarchal mind-set."

Gregory Baum. Ecumenist (1989) 73. "What is new in the encyclical is the analysis of 'the logic of the two blocs,' which creates ideological and political hostility between East and West, has a devastating impact on the development of the third world, and orients the entire world toward self-destruction. For the sake of the human family, the logic of the two blocs must be dissolved. Yet what is missing in the encyclical are hints what Catholics in Western societies should do to overcome the logic of the two blocs.... What is missing in the encyclical, moreover, is the recognition that in addition to the two blocs there is the world of the Far East and the Pacific Ocean which does not fit into the received categories. More than that, missing in the analysis of the encyclical is the full realization that the capitalist economic system has achieved global proportions, that even the communist countries, including the Soviet Union, trade with the West and hence to a considerable extent depend on the global capitalist system, and that it is therefore the orientation of this global system that largely determines the economic well-being of the world population."

Robert Benne. "John Paul II's Challenge to Democratic Capitalism or Be Still and Know That I Am the Pope" (1991) 122. The encyclical does things which "are dear to the enemies of democratic capitalism": "He retains the medieval notion of the just wage. He has little appreciation for the role of profit and competition in a market system. He makes dubious empirical judgments about the shrinking sources of work, a widening gap between developed and developing nations and about the likelihood of military cuts releasing money for development aid. He talks about the 'traditional dependence of the worker-proletarian in capitalism.' He makes blanket assertions about the earth and its wealth belonging to all without regard for differences in peoples' capacities to become economically productive. He proposes work as a positive right. He gives a strong push for planning and asserts the priority of labor over capital (whatever that might mean). Perhaps most galling for U.S. conservatives, he wheels out the moral equivalency theory concerning the two blocs of 'imperialist' powers."

Dennis P. McCann. "The Unconstrained Vision of John Paul II or How to Resist the Temptation of an Economic Counterculture." (1991) 160. "John Paul II's encyclicals, culminating in Sollicitudo Rei Socialis tend to cast suspicion on precisely those Western economic and social institutions that, arguably, have done as much as anyone to promote real progress toward development. Not that these institutions are beyond criticism, but I would hope that such criticism would proceed without prejudice in a climate of genuine understanding."

Leslie Griffin. "Moral Criticism as Moral Teaching: Pope John Paul II's Sollicitudo Rei Socialis" (1991) 246, 252. --"As John Paul defends a full theory of the individual, he fails to provide a hierarchy of rights or values. The result is that John Paul's theory appears unable to deal with the conflicts of values or conflicts of rights which arise in the concrete circumstances of human social life." --"Despite his insistence that the Church must proclaim as well as condemn, his ethic lends itself more readily to condemnation of what is imperfect than to positive norms for human society." --"Paul and John Paul offer different theories of political institutions. In some contrast to Paul VI, in Sollicitudo a new weight is attached to personal conversion and to individual endeavor, while a pronounced skepticism attaches to the possibilities of political activism."

John Howard Yoder. "The Conditions of Countercultural Credibility" (1991) 266-67. The encyclical pays little attention to questions of the sacredness of life. "The text denounces war as bad economics but not as morally wrong... The occasional references to 'structures of sin' do not identify nationalism as one of them. Military rule as a bad form of civil government bears more blame for misdevelopment than the text indicates. There is no reference to the phenomenon of the anticommunist National Security State, one of the major reasons for misallocations of resources and for the abuse of the poor. I find no reference to corrections and prison. I find none to abortion.... My point is not that every encyclical should cover every subject, but that caring for the social process, accentuating the difference between authentic and unauthentic development, should on intrinsic grounds, not bypass most of the other standard considerations of the sacredness of life."

John Langan, S.J. "Personal Responsibility and the Common Good in John Paul II" (1992) 143. I want to raise some critical questions. 1) There is some tension between the call for conversion and the involvement of people in structures of sin. 2) The pope seems impatient with the historical, technical, and institutional explanations of the problems we face. 3) There is a refusal to come to terms with the ways in the freedom of others complicates and frustrates our efforts to resolve our problems. 4) The pope is reluctant to examine the problems presented by the negative and unintended consequences of our well-intentioned actions. "If one thinks that something like this set of criticisms is correct, even if they are put in rather cryptic and undiscriminating fashion, then one has reason to suspect that the underlying tendency of this pope's social thought is a utopian and ahistorical moralism."