Centesimus Annus (Hundredth Year)

Pope John Paul II, 1991

The encyclical Centesimus Annus was written in 1991 by Pope John Paul II on the one hundredth anniversary of Rerum Novarum.  It came on the heels of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union.  In it John Paul II seeks to conduct a “re-reading” of Pope Leo’s landmark encyclical to re-discover the richness of the fundamental principles in which Rerum Novarum dealt with the condition of workers and the economy as a whole.

John Paul II reemphasizes the main focus of Rerum Novarum – the dignity of the worker, and therefore the dignity of work.  He also mentions the right to private property (referring to land ownership) and the right to establish professional associations.

To this list of rights of the worker, in 1891Pope Leo XIII added a “just wage” – which cannot be left to the free consent of the parties.  “Every individual has a natural right to procure what is required to live; and the poor can procure that in no other way than by what they can earn through their work.” (Paragraph 8)

John Paul II continued in this tradition by adding that “society and the state must ensure wage levels adequate for the maintenance of the worker and his family, including a certain amount for savings.” (Paragraph 15) The Church must continue to defend the weakest and ensure the necessary minimum support for the unemployed worker.  (Paragraph 15)

Upon rereading Rerum Novarum John Paul II notes that one can appreciate the “Church’s constant concern for and dedication to categories of people who are especially beloved to the Lord Jesus.” (Paragraph 11)  The previous encyclicals on the treatment of workers are valuable still for examining the economy of today.

The world has changed greatly since the publication of Rerum Novarum one hundred years earlier, especially after the end of the Cold War.  These events were predicted by Leo XIII when he warned of the negative consequences of socialism.  He noted that state control of the means of production would reduce every citizen to a “cog” in the state machine.  Marxist ideology promoted class struggle to achieve their aims and ignored reasonable compromise.

While there has been some progress in the area of development, overall there is still much to be done.  Nations now independent because of “decolonization” have seen formal sovereignty returned, but still did not have control over their own economies.  The United Nations has not established alternatives to war as effective means for the resolution of international conflicts.

The year 1989 represents the end of a decade which saw many dictatorial and oppressive regimes end in Latin America, Africa, Asia, and especially in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe.  Many of these governments violated the human right to private initiative, to ownership of property, and to freedom in the economic sector.  All Christians and people of good will have a responsibility to sustain efforts to build a better future.

Full development no only refers to economic progress, but also as a process that has a human element.  Not only should it be a question of raising all peoples’ standard of living, but also enhancing people’s dignity and ability to pursue their vocation.  The social message of the Gospel is motivation for action to work towards full development.

Link to: Centesimus Annus

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