Back in 1991, the late Richard John Neuhaus penned a now-famous op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, in which he argued that Pope John Paul II’s latest social encyclical, Centesimus Annus, represented a decisive break with the past—a development of doctrine, even. The new encyclical, proclaimed Neuhaus, was nothing less than a “ringing endorsement of the market economy.” He went on to argue that Catholics who defended democratic socialism or a “third way” between capitalism and socialism were in “serious error.” He then wagged his finger at the US bishops’ pastoral letter, Economic Justice for All, proclaiming it “unrepresentative of the Church’s authorative teaching.”
With the instincts of a seasoned politician, Neuhaus understood the importance of defining the narrative from the outset. He actually broke the encyclical’s embargo to do this, a serious ethical breach.
In this, Neuhaus had a team of supporters. George Weigel, for instance, echoed Neuhaus’s claim that this encyclical was part of a hermeneutic of discontinuity. “Centesimus Annus thus marks a decisive break with the curious materialism that has characterized aspects of modern Catholic social teaching since Leo XIII,” he opined back in 1992. There was no ambiguity: the encyclical marked a “new departure in Catholic social thought.” Ten years later, Weigel was still proclaiming that Centesimus Annus “set the social doctrine of the Church on a new path by its endorsement of the free economy.”
Michael Novak also joined the chorus at the time: “The encyclical Centesimus Annus does what many of us had long hoped some church authority would do: it captures the spirit and essence of the American experiment in political economy,” he proclaimed. “Thus Pope John Paul II has brought economic liberty…into Catholic social teaching.”
And Robert Sirico of the Acton Institute weighed in too: “Centesimus Annus represents the beginnings of a shift away from the static zero-sum economic world view that led the Church to be suspicious of capitalism and to argue for wealth redistribution as the only moral response to poverty.”
Their strategy worked. Neuhaus and his fellow travelers were quite successful in defining the narrative, even influencing a good number of American bishops. But this came with a heavy cost. As Cathy Kaveny noted recently in Commonweal, Neuhaus bears a great deal of the blame for the current divisions and bitterness in the Church, not least because he “urged bishops to present Catholic teaching in a way that distorted key concepts and divided the Body of Christ.”
Of course, if you read Centesimus Annus, you will be left with a rather different impression than the one offered by Neuhaus and friends. As with all of the great social encyclicals that characterize modern Catholic social teaching, Centesimus Annus applies enduring principles to the particular circumstances of the times—in this case, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Soviet communism. But there is no fundamental discontinuity between Centesimus Annus with the social encyclicals that came before—or indeed, the ones that came after, Caritas in Veritate and Laudato Si’.
But this was always more about spin than reality, about a deliberate strategy of aligning the Catholic Church in the United States with the political interests of the evangelical right. That meant jettisoning some of the more problematic aspects of Catholic social teaching, and Centesimus Annus was the trump card in this game.
But the game is now up. We might argue that it’s been up for a while, as the global financial crisis, the looming environmental catastrophe, the massively rising levels of inequality combined with the collapse in trust and social capital all point to bankruptcy of the economic ideology embraced with such vigor by Neuhaus, Weigel, Novak, and Sirico.
And now, the final nail in the coffin comes from the Vatican itself. Last week, Catholic University of America held a conference on Catholic social teaching, in which many of speakers seemed to come from the house that Neuhaus built—including George Weigel and Michael Novak themselves! (And I won’t even get into the incompatibility between a nightly cigar reception and the kind of church desired by Pope Francis…)
The headline speaker at this conference was Cardinal Peter Turkson, who spoke on Rerum Novarum, Centesimus Annus, and Laudato Si’. But it was his remarks on Centesimus Annus that proved particularly noteworthy.
Here is what he said: “I should note that some have claimed that Centesimus Annus changed the tenor of Catholic social teaching, and even abrogated prior teaching on the market economy. Nothing could be further from the truth. Saint John Paul II follows directly in the footsteps of his predecessors. And like his predecessors, he recognized the twin dangers of both collectivism and individualism.”
Could there be a more explicit repudiation from the Vatican of the narrative being spun for a quarter century now by Neuhaus, Novak, Weigel, and Sirico?