Ethics & Public Policy Center

From Centesimus Annus to Deus Caritas Est

On December 12, the Acton Institute hosted a conference at Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University on the relationship of Pope John Paul II’s 1991 social encyclical, Centesimus Annus, to Pope Benedict XVI’s inaugural encyclical, Deus Caritas Est. EPPC senior fellow George Weigel delivered the principal address, with responses from Dr. Jean Yves Naudet, Professor of Economics at the Universite d’Aix-Marseilles III, and H.I.R.H. Dr. Otto von Habsburg, a member of the European Parliament from 1979 until 1999. George Weigel’s address follows.

As this conference marks the end of a year’s worth of reflection prompted by the fifteenth anniversary of Centesimus Annus — a looking-back that is intended to orient our path into the future — it struck me as useful to attempt three things in this keynote address, in which I have been asked to consider the relationship of Centesimus Annus and Deus Caritas Est. First, I should like to locate these two encyclicals within the longer intellectual history of the papal social magisterium. Second, I should like to underscore the original contributions of John Paul II to that magisterium. And third, I should like to show how Benedict XVI picks up one of the most suggestive of John Paul II’s original contributions to Catholic social doctrine and develops it in light of his own longstanding interest in the public meaning of the Church’s proclamation of the “God with a human face,” the God who is Love.


The social magisterium of John Paul II assumed, even as it developed, the three great principles that shaped the Church’s social doctrine since Leo XIII first gave it a distinctive papal form in 1891 with Rerum Novarum; John Paul also cemented a fourth principle into the foundations of Catholic social doctrine.

The first of these classic principles is the principle of personalism, which can also be called the human rights principle. According to this foundation stone of the Church’s social doctrine, all right thinking about society — in its cultural, political, and economic aspects — begins with the inalienable dignity and value of the human person. Right thinking about society does not begin, in other words, with the state, the party, the tribe, the ethnic group, or the gender group. It begins with the individual human person. Society and its legal expression, the state, are always to be understood to be in service to the integral development of the human person. The state, in particular, has an obligation to defend the basic human rights of persons, which are “built into” us by reason of our very humanity. “Rights,” in the Catholic understanding of the term, are not benefices distributed by the state at its whim or pleasure; they are goods to be protected and/or advanced by any just state.

The second classic principle is the principle of the common good, or what we can call the communitarian principle; it complements and completes the personalist principle. Because men and women grow into the fullness of their humanity through relationships, each of us should exercise his rights in such a way that that exercise contributes to the general welfare of society, and not simply to one’s individual aggrandizement. Living in service to the common good is essential for the integral development of persons as well as for the good of society.

The third classic principle is the principle of subsidiarity, which we can call the free-associational principle or principle of civil society. It was first given magisterial form in Pius XI’s 1931 encyclical, Quadragesimo Anno. The principle of subsidiarity teaches us that decision-making in society should be left at the lowest possible level (i.e., the level closest to those most effected by the decision), commensurate with the common good. American “federalism” is one empirical example of the principle of subsidiarity at work in actual political life. Articulated under the lengthening shadow of the totalitarian project in the first third of the twentieth century, the principle of subsidiarity remains today as a counter-statist principle in Catholic social thinking. It directs us to look first to private sector solutions, or to a private sector/ public sector mix of solutions, rather than to the state, in dealing with urgent social issues such as education, health care, and social welfare.

These were the foundational principles inherited by John Paul II, principles he had taught in his pre-episcopal days as a seminary lecturer on social ethics. As pope, John Paul added a fourth principle to the foundations of the Church’s social doctrine: the principle of solidarity, or what we can call the principle of civic friendship. A society fit for human beings, a society capable of fostering integral human development, cannot be merely contractual and legal, John Paul taught; it needs a more richly-textured set of relationships. It requires what Jacques Maritain used to describe as “civic friendship:” an experience of fellow-feeling, of brotherhood, of mutual participation in a great common enterprise. A genuinely human society flourishes when individuals dedicate the exercise of their freedom to the defense of others’ rights and the pursuit of the common good, and when the community supports individuals as they grow into a truly mature humanity — that is what living “in solidarity” means. Here, we note, is one important way in which the social doctrine of the Church is clearly distinguished from that current of modern political thought that reduces all social relationships to the contractual. According to the principle of solidarity, a merely “procedural democracy,” devoid of moral content, is humanly impossible.

The Contribution of John Paul II


On this four-principled foundation, John Paul II developed the social doctrine of the Church in five of his encyclicals. Three of these were “social encyclicals” stricte dictu; two other encyclicals addressed grave issues at the heart of today’s “social question.” Let me briefly highlight here the original contributions of John Paul II to Catholic social doctrine, before showing how Benedict XVI took one of the most original of these ideas and used it to give a specific public meaning to the Church’s ancient confession, “Deus caritas est” [1 John 4.8].

In his first social encyclical, Laborem Exercens (1981), John Paul II offered the Church and the world a rich phenomenology of work. Challenging the view that work is a “punishment” for original sin, the Pope taught that work is both an expression of human creativity and a participation in the sustaining creative power of God. Work is less to be understood as constraint, and more to be understood as an expression of our freedom. Through our work, John Paul urged, we do not simply make more; we become more. Thus work has a spiritual dimension, and when we identify our work and its hardships with the work, the passion, and the death of Christ, our work participates in the development of the Kingdom of God.

In his second social encyclical, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (1988), John Paul defined, for the first time in Catholic social doctrine, a “right of economic initiative,” which he described as an expression of the creativity of the human person. At a macro level, the Pope insisted that civil society and its network of free and voluntary associations is essential to economic and political development; the Pope also taught that development economics and economic development strategies cannot be abstracted from questions of culture and politics. Nor can the problems of underdevelopment be understood, in Catholic perspective, as a question of victimization only; integral human development, John Paul wrote, requires Third World countries to undertake rigorous legal and political reforms. Participatory government, the Pope suggested, is a crucial part of integral development.

In what seems, in retrospect, a prophetic anticipation of the communist crack-up, John Paul II warned in Sollicitudo Rei Socialis against the dangers to integral human development (at both the individual and societal levels) of a “blind submission to pure consumerism,” a theme to which he would return frequently in the next decade. In another anticipation of the post-Cold War debate, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis also urged the developed world not to fall into “selfish isolation;” “interdependence” (a phenomenon that would subsequently evolve into “globalization”) has a moral, not merely material, character, the Pope taught. No country or region can ever be read out of history or simply abandoned.

John Paul II’s most developed social encyclical, Centesimus Annus, was published fifteen years ago to mark the centenary of Rerum Novarum and to launch the Church’s social doctrine into a new century and millennium. Among its principal themes were the following:

1) What the Church proposes to the world of the twenty-first century is the free and virtuous society. The two are inseparable. The contemporary human quest for freedom is undeniable. But it will be frustrated, and new forms of tyranny will emerge, unless the free society is also a virtuous society.

2) The free and virtuous society is composed of three interlocking parts — a democratic political community, a free economy, and a robust public moral culture. The key to the entire edifice is the moral-cultural sector. Because free politics and free economics let loose tremendous human energies, a vibrant public moral culture is necessary to discipline and direct those energies so that they serve the ends of genuine human flourishing.

3) Democracy and the free economy are not machines that can run by themselves. It takes a certain kind of people, possessed of certain virtues, to run self-governing polities and free economies so that they do not self-destruct. The task of the moral-cultural sector is to form these habits of heart and mind in people, and the primary public task of the Church is to form that moral-cultural sector. Thus the Church is not in the business of proposing technical solutions to questions of governance or economic activity; the Church is in the business of forming the culture that can form the kind of people who can develop those solutions against a transcendent moral horizon.

4) Freedom must be tethered to moral truth and ordered to human goodness if freedom is not to become self-cannibalizing.

5) Voluntary associations — the family, business associations, labor unions, social and cultural groups, charitable organizations and philanthropies — are essential to the free and virtuous society. They embody what John Paul calls the “subjectivity of society,” and they are crucial schools of freedom.

6) Wealth in the contemporary, post-industrial world is not simply to be found in resources, but rather in ideas, entrepreneurial instincts, and skills. The wealth of nations is no longer stuff in the ground; the wealth of nations resides in the human mind, in human creativity.

7) Poverty today is primarily a matter of exclusion from networks of productivity and exchange; it is not to be understood simply or simplistically as a matter of having an unequal and inadequate portion of what are imagined to be a fixed number of economic goods. Thus we should think of the poor, not as a problem to be solved (as modern social welfare states tend to do), but as people with potential to be unleashed. Welfare programs should aim at developing the habits and skills that allow the poor to participate in networks of productivity and exchange.

In his 1993 encyclical on moral theology, Veritatis Splendor, John Paul II also had important things to say about the free and virtuous society. The Pope’s teaching that the equality of citizens before the law is most securely grounded in our common human responsibility to avoid intrinsically evil acts was and remains an intriguing proposal for democratic theory to consider; so were the Pope’s reflections on the relationship between the moral fact of intrinsically evil acts and the taming of passions and interests in democratic politics; the question of the boundaries of the moral community for which democracies accept responsibility; and the question of the threat posed by material decadence to democratic virtue.

Finally, in his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae, John Paul made his most developed statement on the relationship of constitutional and statutory law to the moral law, and on the relationship of the moral law to the free and virtuous society. Democracies risk self-destruction, the Pope warned, if moral wrongs are defended and promoted as “rights.” A law-governed democracy is impossible over the long haul when a certain class of citizens claims the right to dispose of other classes of citizens through the private use of lethal violence. Reducing human beings to useful (or useless, or troublesome) objects for manipulation erodes the moral culture that makes democracy possible; abortion and euthanasia are two chief examples of this lethal syndrome. A “culture of life” is thus essential for democracy and for human flourishing. Unless the state has no other means to defend itself against predatory individuals, the use of capital punishment erodes the culture of life and should thus be avoided.

John Paul’s social doctrine took the Catholic Church into new territory. There was no sense in these encyclicals of a nostalgia for the world of the ancien régime; there was no hint of a longing for the way-things-were before the emergence of the modern state and the modern economy. Centesimus Annus, in particular, brought a new empirical sensitivity to the papal social magisterium, which in previous pontificates was sometimes characterized by a certain abstractness about political and economic life. A Church widely perceived as a foe of democracy in the 19th century has become, through the Second Vatican Council and the social magisterium of John Paul II, perhaps the world’s foremost institutional defender of human rights, and a sophisticated participant in the worldwide debate over the nature and functioning of democracy.

Indeed, one can widen the lens ever farther and say that, at the world’s turn into the third millennium, the social doctrine of the Church had a comprehensive quality and a salience in public life that would have amazed Leo XIII, “prisoner of the Vatican.” As the 20th century gave way to the 21st, and the millennium turned, there were three proposals for organizing the human future that had global reach and were supported by the necessary institutional infrastructure to have a worldwide impact. One proposal was the pragmatic utilitarianism that defined much of public moral discourse in western Europe and North America, even as it was carried worldwide through American popular culture and certain aspects of economic globalization; in its harsher form, especially in western Europe, this cast of mind could be characterized as “exclusivist humanism,” a humanism determined to erase transcendent moral reference points from public life. The second was the proposal of a resurgent Islam, which too often took the form of a jihadist irrationalism, an irrational theism that carried with it a very different idea of what the just society of the future should look like. And the third was the proposal of Catholic social doctrine: a way of living freedom that ties freedom to truth and truth to goodness, and a way of thinking about the human prospect that can be engaged by every person of good will. One does not risk a charge of special pleading by suggesting that the course of the twenty-first century and beyond will be determined in no small part by the answer to the question, how will each of these proposals shape the emerging global culture?

Benedict XVI and the Imperative of Charity


When he was elected the 265th Bishop of Rome, Joseph Ratzinger brought to the papacy a worldwide and well-earned reputation as a dogmatic theologian. Yet he had not been inattentive to questions of public life, and in fact had written extensively in the 1980s and 1990s about the challenges facing democratic societies. Some of these writings find echoes in Benedict XVI’s first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, whose primary purpose was evangelical — to invite the world to consider, once again, the God “with a human face.” Yet this document, too, had a kind of “public” meaning, in the sense that Deus Caritas Est has implications for the ordering of public life, society, and politics. Those implications can be brought into clearer focus if we step back and look at the encyclical in light of an ongoing debate with great consequences for the future of the free society that has been underway for several decades in the United States.

Americans freely give hundreds of billions of dollars each year to an extraordinarily diverse array of charitable activities and institutions, at home and abroad. Add to that the untold millions of hours of volunteer work that Americans donate to non-profit organizations, and the American investment in charitable activity increases exponentially. These patterns of philanthropy and voluntarism are deeply ingrained in the American national character and have long roots in American social and cultural history. Thus Alexis de Tocqueville’s classic 19th century study, Democracy in America, explored the religious, cultural, sociological, and political roots of the American passion for voluntary organizations, voluntarism, and charity in great depth; and in that exploration, Tocqueville came to appreciate the phenomenon that Michael Novak would later call the “communitarian individual,” a distinctive new actor on the stage of western social history. It is not without interest that, even in this post-World War II age of mass government, the federal government of the United States continues to recognize the public importance of this defining characteristic of American culture by making charitable contributions tax-deductible.

American generosity is institutionally embodied in its charitable foundations. Many of those foundations, and the people who lead them, understand their work to be an extension of the average American’s charitable activity: an expression on a larger scale of all of those tithes to churches and synagogues, all those volunteer hours at the local Red Cross, all those checks quickly written to help those left homeless by tsunamis or earthquakes or hurricanes. Yet that is not how most of the largest philanthropies of the American independent sector understand themselves. They have a different agenda in mind. Their intention is to replace charity, not complement it or extend its reach.

As William Schambra, head of the Hudson Institute’s Center on Philanthropy and Civic Life, puts it, “At the beginning of the twentieth century, when the first large foundations like Rockefeller and Carnegie were established on the industrial-age scale of the modern corporation, their leaders were persuaded that they were going to be able to do ‘scientific philanthropy’ rather than old-style charity. Charity, as they put it, merely and futilely treated the symptoms of social problems, usually by deploying a rag-tag crew of amateur ‘friendly visitors.’ But the immense new resources of the foundations, funding an army of public policy experts armed with the new social sciences, would at last be able to get to the ‘root causes’ of social problems, solving them once and for all. In its most expansive mode, modern philanthropy boasts that it, uniquely among social institutions, is able to see and pursue the path to social justice, insulated as it is from petty concerns of profit or political gain.”

Or insulated from the fumbling of all those meddling amateurs who complicate the process of “delivering social services” or, as the current jargon has it, “doing problem-solving charity.” Thus Steve Gunderson, the new Chief Executive Officer of the Council on Foundations (the trade organization of the American philanthropy industry and embodiment of the theory of “scientific philanthropy”), recently made some rather deprecatory remarks in a Business Week interview about “charity,” which, according to Mr. Gunderson, “tends to be a much more emotional response” to human suffering, want, and need. Gunderson then went on to set charity and philanthropy against one another, having been deeply impressed by one of his board members, who drew for him a sharp (and hardly neutral) distinction: “There’s charity, and then there’s philanthropy, and philanthropy is nothing more than problem-solving charity.”

The debate over charity and philanthropy (or charity versus philanthropy) is, clearly, a crucial one — and not only for American charitable foundations, but for the building of free and virtuous societies throughout the world. A new figure entered that debate this past January, when Pope Benedict XVI issued his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, and reminded the entire Catholic Church that there could be no substitute for charity — for the direct and personal involvement of individuals and communities in the lives of those who are suffering, those in need of material or educational assistance, or those simply needing the consolation of human contact. Deus Caritas Est was not, to be sure, a salvo aimed from one side at another in the philanthropy wars. It had things to say, however, that merit reflection, because they challenge us to re-examine one of the central premises of the modern philanthropy industry — a premise that would seem to contradict, or at least to miss, the teaching of John Paul II in Centesimus Annus on the “subjectivity of society.”

Addressing his fellow Catholics in a language that can be engaged by any morally serious person, believer or not, Pope Benedict made several key points in Deus Caritas Est.

First, he insisted that love of neighbor, expressed in works of charity that embody a personal responsibility to the “other,” cannot be outsourced to government agencies. Those agencies have their place, but we fail the test of our own humanity — we fail to grow into the persons we ought to be — if charitable giving and charitable activity are not part of the rhythm of our lives. Something is awry in our own hearts if we imagine that paying the taxes that support governmental social services fulfills the obligation of love-of-neighbor, however we conceive the source of that obligation.

The Pope then looked to the Acts of the Apostles and the story of the first Christian deacons — men who were appointed to look after the material needs of the poor so that the apostles could concentrate on preaching and prayer — for a lesson in the nature of charitable work itself. “The social service which they [the deacons] were meant to provide,” the Pope wrote, “was absolutely concrete yet at the same time it was a spiritual service;” it was a service to the human spirit, to someone, not merely a provision for the needs of somebody. When charity becomes only a “social service” to be “delivered” by a professional, Benedict seemed to be suggesting, that someone is subtly transformed into a problem to be solved, rather than a human being to be encountered. And because of that, an opportunity may be lost — the possibility of meeting the needs of the spirit as well as the need for food, clothing, shelter, medical care, and so forth.

In a section of the encyclical entitled “Justice and Charity,” Benedict XVI traced the intellectual roots of the notion that is, in William Schambra’s terms, “the central theoretical assumption of the modern philanthropy industry.” The papal reference points are, largely, European; but ideas as well as immigrants traveled across the Atlantic Ocean in the 19th century, as Benedict’s analysis, when applied to Schambra’s claim, demonstrated:

“Since the nineteenth century, an objection has been raised to the Church’s charitable activity, subsequently developed with particular insistence by Marxism: the poor, it is claimed, do not need charity but justice. Works of charity [and] almsgiving are in effect a way for the rich to shirk their obligation to work for justice and a means for soothing their consciences, while preserving their own status and robbing the poor of their rights. Instead of contributing through individual works of charity to maintaining the status quo, we need to build a just social order in which all will receive their share of the world’s goods and no longer have to depend on charity.”

As the Gunderson interview in Business Week suggested, this critique of charity, if in a softened form, continues to be argued by major players in the 21st century philanthropy industry (and, of course, by considerable numbers of politicians throughout the democratic world). And yes, Benedict conceded, there is “some truth” to be found here; the state does have a primary responsibility for ensuring justice in society, and a just society is one in which each person has an appropriate share of the material necessities of life. Yet there is also, the Pope insisted, “much that is mistaken” in a line of argument that sets charity against justice, and that treats charitable giving and charitable activity as obstacles to achieving the just society.

To set charity against justice and then to rule in favor of justice, is, Benedict contended, an ultimately dehumanizing exercise, in both personal and political terms:

“Love — caritas — will always prove necessary, even in the most just society. There is no ordering of the state so just that it can eliminate the need for a service of love. Whoever wants to eliminate love is preparing to eliminate man as such. There will always be suffering that cries out for consolation and help. There will always be loneliness. There will always be situations of material need where help in the form of concrete love of neighbor is indispensable. The state which would provide everything, absorbing everything into itself, would ultimately become a mere bureaucracy incapable of guaranteeing the very thing which the suffering person — every person — needs: namely, loving personal concern. We do not need a state which regulates and controls everything, but a state which…generously acknowledges and supports initiatives arising from the differing social forces [which] combine spontaneity with closeness to those in need…”

The Pope then cut to the humanistic core of his case against the case against charity:

“[It] is claimed [that] anyone who engages in charitable initiatives is actually serving the unjust system, making it appear at least to some extent tolerable….Seen in this way, charity is rejected and attacked as a means of preserving the status quo. What we have here, though, is really an inhuman philosophy. People of the present are sacrificed to the Moloch of the future –a future whose effective realization is at best doubtful. One does not make the world more human by refusing to act humanely here and now. We contribute to a better world only by personally doing good now, with full commitment and whenever we have the opportunity…”

Finally, Benedict XVI raised some interesting cautions flags for all religiously-based charities when he writes that “it is very important that the Church’s charitable activity maintains all its splendor and does not become just another form of social assistance.” Does a religiously-based charity become “just another form of social assistance” when a large proportion of its budget comes from the government — funds which inevitably carry certain constraints and restrictions? Can religiously-based charities protect what Pope Benedict would not hesitate to call their soul as they are drawn ever closer into the secularizing embrace of the state? Is there a tipping-point at which, given a certain critical mass of government funding, a religiously-based charity ceases to be something distinctive? Thus Deus Caritas Est put an important question onto the table of ongoing debate about the role of government funds, a debate that has perhaps even greater salience in Europe (and especially in Germany) than in the U.S.

Benedict XVI, writing for a global audience, made a claim that was readily “heard” in the United States, given the social history that Alexis de Tocqueville understood so well, but that has obvious global implications: there is no substitute in the free, just, and virtuous society for a rich diversity of charitable activities and agencies, and there is no substitute for the personal giving and volunteering that Tocqueville recognized as the engine of charitable activism. Giving ourselves to others in works of charity is important for the giver as well as the receiver; such giving strengthens the sinews of what John Paul II called the “subjectivity of society” — an exercise that is good in itself, and that helps us resist the “objectification” of all social life so long deplored by the Left.

Retail charity at the personal level is thus crucial for the individual and crucial for society. And it can’t be replaced by a wholesale form of philanthropy that, aiming to change “unjust social structures,” often ends up turning men and women who part of society, if members of its more troubled sectors, into mere numbers. “We are dealing with human beings,” the Pope concluded, “and human beings always need something more than technically proper care. They need humanity. They need heartfelt concern.”

Just a week after Deus Caritas Est was released, U-2 singer Bono, Time magazine’s co-Person of the Year and a longtime campaigner for increases in government-provided and government-managed development aid (particularly in Africa), addressed the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C. — and, inadvertently illustrated precisely the point of view Benedict XVI was critiquing. After acknowledging that the United States had not abandoned the world’s poor after 9/11 — and in fact had vastly expanded governmental spending on global health care and AIDS relief — Bono had this to say:

“And finally, it’s not about charity after all, is it? It’s about justice. Let me repeat this: It’s not about charity, it’s about justice. And that’s too bad. Because you’re good at charity. Americans, like the Irish, are good at it. We like to give, and we give a lot, even those who can’t afford it. But justice is a higher standard. Africa makes a fool of our idea of justice; it makes a farce of our idea of equality. It mocks our pieties, it doubts our concern, it questions our commitment.”

In truth, the idea that Africa “makes a fool of” is not the western idea of justice; it’s the idea, beloved both of the philanthropy industry and of rock stars with conventional left-liberal politics, that governments should be the primary providers of “social services,” including education and health care. Hundreds of billions, perhaps trillions, of aid dollars have been squandered by despotic African governments or stolen by kleptocratic African government officials over the past forty years. Yes, Africa is in crisis and could easily fall off the edge of history into a continental oblivion that would forever scar the conscience of humanity. But to suggest that the answer to Africa’s crisis of crises is to set justice against charity and to privilege governmental aid programs over other forms of aid is to be willfully blind to the history of the late twentieth century. It also suggests a sorry ignorance of the fact that, in Africa, only non-governmental organizations (and especially churches) have shown themselves capable of promoting the kind of changed behavior that drives down the incidence of AIDS.

To his credit, Bono and celebrities like him have kept issues that many would prefer to forget in the public eye. But Bono, his friends in the philanthropy industry, and government leaders throughout the world really should read Deus Caritas Est. Charity, Pope Benedict reminded everyone, is always needed. Historically, setting justice against charity has shown itself to be a prescription for injustice and a guaranteed method for muffling the sense of fellow-feeling and obligation that gives rise to charity in all its forms, large and small. Setting justice against charity reinforces the instinct of all modern states, including democracies, to absorb every facet of social life into themselves. Setting justice against charity is a conceptual barrier to imaginative thinking about public-sector/independent-sector partnerships in dealing with complex humanitarian emergencies like crisis-ridden Africa.

Charity, Pope Benedict wrote, “is a way of making present here and now the love which man always needs.” That is why there is no substitute for charity, which is an expression of both the personalism of the individual, as analyzed be a century of Catholic social doctrine, and the “subjectivity of society” identified by Centesimus Annus. By drawing these connections, Benedict XVI has built on the foundation laid by his great predecessor and identified a crucial moral, cultural, and social issue for the free and virtuous society in the 21st century.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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