8.2.2 Chap. 2: ‘Towards the “New Things” of Today’

Back to 8.2.1

Unit 8 Contents


It is impossible to understand Centesimus Annus fully if we don’t keep in mind that it was written just a year after the fall of Communist regimes across much of central and eastern Europe, including in Pope John Paul’s native Poland.  In chapter 1, he has already alluded to those momentous, unexpected events of 1989 and 1990.  Indeed John Paul speaks of them in the present tense: “the changes we are witnessing in systems formerly dominated by collective ownership of the means of production” (#6).  This is appropriate because the demise of the Soviet Communist regime in Russia did not take place until later in 1991.

Here is short slide-show produced by the BBC which shows the order in which Communist governments fell in the years 1989-91.


Slide show (5 mins)

BBC News Channel, ‘Mapping the fall of Communism


Chapter 2 of CA begins by mentioning these events and chapter 3 centres on them – it is called simply, ‘The Year 1989’.  I say above that they were unexpected and this is certainly true.  Even though there had been the beginnings of change in the Soviet Union from 1985, it is fair to say that in early 1989 virtually no-one in the whole world expected that Communist regimes across Europe would collapse within a year or so and that the Cold War would basically be over.

So John Paul was composing the encyclical to mark the centenary of Rerum Novarum at a time of momentous, heady, celebratory change.  To begin to get a sense of the mood of those events, you need only to look at some of the clips on YouTube of the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989.  (Here’s a link to one, relating the experience of one outside observer: YouTube: Time/Anthony Suau, ‘The Iconic Photo of the Fall of the Berlin Wall‘.)

In this unique moment, moreover, John Paul could argue credibly that the stance on both capitalism and socialism that CST had taken since Rerum Novarum had proved itself against both of those views, although this was more obviously so in relation to the ‘Real Socialism’ of the Soviet bloc than to the capitalism of the West.

Chapter 2 of CA begins to make this argument, one with which you will be familiar from reading Laborem Exercens for Unit 4 (cf. screens 4.3.6 and 4.3.8).  Basically it is that socialism, especially Marxism, adopted from capitalism – despite its purported radical critique of capitalism – the mechanistic way of seeing the world to which the ‘seventeenth century scientific revolution’ and the ‘Enlightenment’ had led.  In this worldview, whether in its capitalist or its Marxist variant, human beings become seen as only parts of the mechanism, cogs in the machine.  Especially when this worldview becomes explicitly atheistic, as in Marxism, the basis for affirming human dignity is lost.  Therefore there cannot be a correct understanding of the human person, and the consequences for real people in economic and political life prove to be devastating.

After beginning by referring to the events of 1989-90, and outlining that argument (##12-14), chapter 2 can be seen as continuing chapter 1’s “re-reading” of RN.  John Paul shows that some of RN’s main planks continue to be fully relevant, including the responsibility of the state for guaranteeing workers’ rights (#15) and the role of trade unions (#16).  These points mark out ways in which CST is deeply different from economic liberalism.

The second half of the chapter, ##18-21 surveys the period from the end of the Second World War up to 1989, the decades of the Cold War.  Some of Pope John Paul’s language here is very strong, especially in denouncing the “insane arms race” of this period in #18.  At the end, he refers to what he sees as the highly positive emergence of real commitment to human rights in the aftermath of WW2 (as covered in Unit 7 of this module).


Reading (c.8pp)

Pope John Paul II, Centesimus Annus,

Chapter 2, ‘Towards the “New Things” of Today




Unit 1 of the module introduced the prophetic tradition in Scripture.  It also suggested that some statements of CST can be seen as in that tradition, as making severe criticism of abuse of power and wealth.

From your reading of CA so far, do you think it can be seen as in the prophetic tradition?


In light of reading CA chapter 2, here are a couple more things to note:

  • In #17, John Paul speaks of the error of separating freedom from truth.  We have not given this point attention in this module because it a focus in the twin VPlater module, ‘Living in a Just and Free Society’, Unit 4.
  • If you studied Unit 6, you will recall the hugely influential argument made by the theologian Henri de Lubac that much Catholic Christianity had, between the sixteenth and the twentieth century, lost its earlier sense that human beings are created to find fulfilment only in relationship with what transcends human nature – that is, with God – and that this understanding urgently needed to be recovered.  In other words, human nature inherently points beyond itself, seeking its own wellbeing in what transcends it.  (See 6.2.3 on this.)  One can see the influence of this crucial point at many places in official Church statements of recent decades, including in both chapters 1 and 2 of CA.  See #5, where John Paul rejects a particular “two-fold approach” that prevailed in the nineteenth century – which de Lubac criticised – and, in this chapter, the end of #13. The same point comes up later, although less plainly, at #24 and #55. Implicit here is a significant difference between John Paul’s perspective and standard assumptions at the time of Rerum Novarum.


End of 8.2.2

Go to 8.2.3 Chapter 3:  ‘The Year 1989’

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