In 1991, Pope John Paul II issued an encyclical called “Centesimus Annus.” It is a sweeping and fascinating discussion about socialism, capitalism, the welfare state and the nature of free society.
The encyclical is a deeply thoughtful and courageous document and it is something every American, of every religious persuasion, should consider taking a few hours to read and think about. It touches in the most serious way the major issues about individual freedom and the role of government with which we Americans struggle every day.
It’s hard to read this document without concluding that we cannot compartmentalize and separate how we think about government from the way we relate to the rest of our lives. There is a clear message that the abuse and misuse of politics and government is itself a moral problem.
This is relevant to all Americans. But at this moment I’m thinking about African-Americans.
If intensity measures religiosity, then African-Americans are the most religious of all Americans. A survey done by the Pew Center a number of years ago showed blacks responding at higher rates than whites that religion plays a “very important” role in their lives. Yet churchgoing blacks continue to overwhelmingly support welfare-state politics and politicians.
I believe African-Americans mistakenly, and destructively, disconnect the way we express our religious convictions on Sunday and what we do in the voting booth on Tuesday. In church, we express our conviction that our lives reflect and are the result of our faith, our choices and our responsibilities. Yet, we then buy a political message that government is the place to turn to solve our problems.
Here is what John Paul II had to say about the welfare state:
In recent years the range of such interventions has vastly expanded to the point of creating a new type of state, the so-called “welfare state” … Malfunctions and defects in the social-assistance state are the result of an inadequate understanding of the task proper to the state.
By intervening directly and depriving society of its responsibility, the social-assistance state leads to a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase of public agencies, which are dominated more by bureaucratic ways of thinking than by concern for serving their clients, and which are accompanied by an enormous increase in spending.
The welfare state is, of course, our limited version of socialism. Here are John Paul’s observations about socialism:
Socialism considers the individual person simply as an element, a molecule within the social organism, so that the good of the individual is completely subordinated to the functioning of the socioeconomic mechanism. Socialism likewise maintains that the good of the individual can be realized without reference to his free choice, to the unique and exclusive responsibility which he exercises in the face of good and evil.
John Paul was a unique combination of personality and experience. This Polish pope lived through the worst abuses of government in the last century – Nazism and communism. He saw firsthand the human suffering that resulted from government and politics becoming religion itself.
This encyclical, however, does not point to excessive government and politics as the exclusive source of evil.
The individual today is often suffocated between two poles represented by the state and the marketplace. At times it seems as though he exists only as a producer and consumer of goods, or as an object of state administration.
The images of rap music that offend us so are the product of kids digesting a message, delivered by our popular culture, of a materialistic society devoid of meaning. If our ultimate values are acquisition and power, then it doesn’t matter how we behave or how we acquire these things. Dealing drugs is as reasonable a means to this end as getting an MBA.
People lose sight of the fact that life in society has neither the market nor the state as its final purpose, since life itself has a unique value which the state and the market must serve. Man remains above all a being who seeks truth and strives to live in that truth, deepening his understanding of it through a dialogue which involves past and future generations.
This is a message for all Americans. However, African-Americans, in particular, need to focus on this. Government cannot and should not provide our answers. On the other hand, freedom without values is not freedom at all. We need to digest this critical message and pass it on to our children.