You donít have to be a
Roman Catholic ó and despite what my family name may suggest, Iím not ó to
appreciate the contributions that John Paul II made to freedom, economic and
His achievements in advancing freedom were many: revealing the lies of totalitarian ideologies through his life and teaching; encouraging a civil society in communist Poland; and applauding the role of entrepreneurship.
Perhaps it is because he
lived as a young man under both Nazism and Communism that he understood better
than most the moral failings of an overreaching state.
German Nazis, Soviet Communists, or anyone else, hold all forms of freedom in
In that environment,
ordinary acts of life become acts of courage. While living under Nazi rule,
Karol Wojtyla (as John Paul was known before becoming pope) organized an
underground theater. At a time when a "Pole could be shot for going to the
even for speaking Polish in the wrong place,"
Wojtyla carried the banner of freedom. His underground seminary studies were
another testimony to his determination to live in freedom even in the face of
Freedom requires that
citizens create space between themselves and the government. As the columnist
Anne Applebaum recounts from her days
living in Poland in the 1980s, the church there was the space for human freedom.
One of its contributions, she wrote, was in "offering people a safe place to
meet and intellectually offering them an alternative way of thinking about the
world." While the novel "1984" described a year in which an
all-encompassing state practiced mind control, people actually living in the
year 1984 had created space for a civil society by drawing on the example and
teaching of the pope.
While totalitarian regimes
depend on fear to maintain control, John Paulís watchword, from his very first
sermon as pontiff, was, "Be Not Afraid." His visit to Poland a short time after
becoming pope is widely credited with undermining the authority of the Communist
regime there, and ultimately, in all of Eastern Europe. As Applebaum notes, "It
wasn't a coincidence that Poles found the courage, a year later, to organize
PROCLAIMING THE VALUE OF
John Paulís support for
freedom came not only through providing inspiration and teaching to Poland, acts
that would eventually lead to the dissolution of the entire Soviet empire, but
to his subsequent teachings.
One of his most well known
encyclicals, "Centesimus Annus," was issued shortly
after the fall of communist states in Europe. In it, John Paul offered a lengthy
commentary on the events of 1989, Marxism, capitalism and morality.
While ideological partisans
should be careful not to claim more support from the pope than his teachings
merit, "Centesimus Annus" offers a strong endorsement of giving civil society a
In response to the question
of whether capitalism is "the victorious social system," the pope writes: "If by
Ďcapitalismí is meant the economic system which recognizes the fundamental and
positive role of business, the market, private property and the resulting
responsibility for the means of production, as well as free human creativity in
the economic sector, then the answer is certainly in the affirmative."
By contrast, the failure of
communist government stems in part from "the inefficiency of the economic
system." Its inefficiency in turn is the "consequence of the violation of the
human rights to provide initiative, to ownership of property and to freedom in
the economic sector." John Paul also blamed the all-encompassing nature of the
old regime for using government power to absorb culture. "Where society is so
organized" to "suppress the sphere in which freedom is legitimately exercised,
the result is that the life of society becomes progressively disorganized and
goes into decline."
While it is sometimes
assumed that self-interest, a key part of economic thought since Adam Smith, is
somehow in conflict with religious teaching, John Paul saw things differently.
"Where self‑interest is violently suppressed," he warned, "it is replaced by a
burdensome system of bureaucratic control which dries up the wellsprings of
initiative and creativity."
While John Paul gives
self-interested behavior a significant role, he is also careful to ground it
within legal and moral frameworks. In other words, his support for free markets
comes with qualifications that will please or displease various ideological
partisans to some degree. But as Richard John Neuhaus noted in his May 1991
commentary on "Centesimus Annus," published in The Wall Street Journal, the
encyclicalís teaching is based, in part, on a principle that is key to economic
freedom: "The individual, his free associations, and society itself are all
prior to the state in both dignity and rights."
While John Paulís
scholarship was of course grounded in Catholic doctrine concerning God, man and other topics, an appreciation of John Paulís contributions to economic freedom can transcend most any sectarian
John R. LaPlante is an adjunct scholar with the Mackinac Center for Public
Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich.
Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the
author and the Center are properly cited
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Copyright © 2005 Mackinac Center for Public Policy