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Pope John Paul II, Capitalism, and Liberation Theology

Economic Justice vs. the Free Market in the West


Most observers are familiar with Pope John Paul II's attacks on communism, but fewer are familiar with the extent to which John Paul has criticized capitalism. Americans seem to assume that capitalism and Christianity go hand-in-hand, but Catholic social teachings have tended towards more socialist ways of doing things because of the way in which they achieve social and economic justice.

Although Pope John Paul II never condemned capitalist economic systems, he recognized the drawbacks that come with unfettered capitalism. Michael L. Budde writes in A Church Divided:

    “John Paul’s concerns with economic justice are deep and important. He seeks to put the Church on the side of the have-nots of the world economy, and he says that the rich North will be judged by the poor South for its “imperialistic monopoly of economic and political supremacy [gained] at the expense of others.” ...The appropriation of liberation theology themes by John Paul is apparent in his many encyclicals on economic issues. The biggest difference between the liberation theologians and the pope is not on capitalism, dependency, or exploitation — they agree more often than not, at least up to “Centesimus Annus” — but on John Paul’s insistence that...

    apal social teaching is the standard...to which liberation theology must conform.”

It would be a serious mistake, though, to suggest that Pope John Paul II was anti-capitalist. He definitely recognized many virtues that a capitalist economic system brings, especially when combined with general social, political, and religious freedom. In his 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus, he explicitly accepted and justified the practices of capitalist economic institutions as normative and only asked that Catholic social teaching be used as a moderating influence to avoid some excesses.

Centesimus Annus has, in fact, been heavily criticized because it appears to rely more on the authority of John Locke than Aquinas or Augustine. At no point does John Paul even mention the gospel values of poverty, community, selflessness, self-denial, sacrifice, charity, and so forth.

Michael L. Budde and Robert W. Brimlow write in Christianity Incorporated:

    “What the pope describes and justifies...throughout "Centesimus" is a chaplaincy church. In John Paul’s view, the function of the church’s social teaching is twofold: first, not to responsibly confront concrete problems in all their aspects (presumably because there are other social institutions more expert), but to provide an ideal orientation for these practical practitioners; and second, to try to moderate what he believes are “excessive” outcomes of corrupt institutions and practices. Thus John Paul simultaneously accepts and justifies those institutions and practices — at least in an abstract general sense — as normative, as the way economics, for example, ought to be, and then complains because the results of economics-as-it-outght-to-be are anti-Christian, unjust, and oppressive. ...[T]he church described by John Paul sees itself as subordinated to the social reality of democratic politics and market economics. By accepting that subordination willingly and deferring to the power of the empires, the church relegates itself to the role of loyal cheerleader, commentator, and confessor.”

One influence on the general shift towards critiques of capitalism has been the demographic shift within the Catholic Church itself. At one time a primarily European institution, Catholicism has become much more a Third World entity. European and American Catholicism may be richer, but Catholicism in the Third World nations of the Southern Hemisphere is more populous and growing much faster.

Pope John Paul II’s earlier statement about how the South will judge the North is likely to prove prescient and have longer-lasting consequences than the entire Centesimus encyclical. The Catholic Church, as an institution, will come to be dominated by Catholics from Latin America, Brazil, the Philipines, Africa, and other nations where grinding poverty is one of the most important problems and economic justices one of the most important issues. These are regions where the gospel of liberation theology is enthusiastically welcomed and promoted.

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