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May 30, 2011

This month marks the 20th anniversary of Centesimus Annus, arguably the greatest document in Pope John Paul II's magnificent body of writings.

Expectations for the encyclical were at first modest. Popes had written encyclicals of Church social teaching to mark the 40th, 70th, 80th and 90th anniversaries of Pope Leo XIII's 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum. The centennial of that landmark document could not pass without comment. The problem was that Pope John Paul had issued social encyclicals in 1981 and 1988. What more could he say?

Events took care of that. In 1989, the seemingly impregnable fortress of Soviet bloc communism collapsed like a house of cards. The pope's native Poland, led by the Solidarity trade union, to which he had given his unabashed support, was instrumental in driving communism to the ground.

The pope had his topic. In Centesimus Annus, he laid out the reasons that communism was so fragile. It was based on an impoverished understanding of the human person; it violated the rights of workers; its economy was inefficient; it tried to eliminate evil through repression.

Given the Church's long opposition to communism, Pope John Paul could have danced on the grave of communism. He didn't. His concern was with what would happen next. What social and economic system could best foster the flourishing of the human person?

Pope John Paul was a saint, not an ideologue. He did not give a rubber stamp of approval to Western market economies; he stated moral truth.

While the encyclical did give restricted approval to a market economy, it is more notable for its warnings to those who naively believed that replacing communism with capitalism would bring peace, justice and joy. The pope even said a consumerist, market society "agrees with Marxism, in the sense that it totally reduces man to the sphere of economics and the satisfaction of material needs" (n. 19).

Centesimus Annus could be seen as giving this advice to countries emerging from communism: Respect the right to own private property, but realize that the benefits of private ownership must accrue with equity to all the people. Respect the importance of trade unions. Society must be governed, not by the survival of the fittest, but by solidarity and cooperation. Society should be organized, as much as possible, around local control, not central planning or big corporations. The government must determine the framework in which the economy functions.

The Church, the pope would say, has no formula for organizing the economy. But it does speak for human rights and dignity. Centesimus Annus remains the most forthright papal document in putting the dignity of the human person above the exigencies of economic systems, whether communist or capitalist. It deserves our ongoing attention.