The Working Catholic: Economic Ideologies
by Bill Droel
The John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin (www.kul.pl/21.html) just published The Catholic Social Ethic by St. John Paul II (1920-2005). This two-volume text of 500+ pages dates from the 1950s, when Fr. Karol Wojtyla was a young parish priest/teacher. Scholars have long known about the text. In fact, about 300 copies were circulated among students and others in the 1950s. Jonathan Luxmoore, an expert on Catholicism in Eastern Europe, reported on the text a dozen years ago. He recently summarized the new book for Catholic News Service (1/19/19) and for The Tablet of London (2/2/19).
Just as there are Biblical fundamentalists who selectively invoke one or another Scripture verse to support their preconceived opinion, so too there are some papal fundamentalists among Catholics. For example, a small but influential number of Catholics in the U.S. and elsewhere pull a phrase from John Paul II or from Pope Benedict XVI to claim that Catholicism is in harmony with unrestricted capitalism (also called neoliberalism). Similarly, a few Catholics pull out one another phrase to say that Catholicism gives unqualified approval to Marxism. This new book by John Paul II got caught up in this pick-and-choose controversy, causing the long delay in publication.
The Catholic Social Ethic, along with John Paul II’s other writing and talks, shows that he never was a big fan of free market capitalism. He repeatedly rejected “individualistic liberalism.” Nor of course did John Paul II ever mount a defense of communism. Yet through study and experience of the communist regime in Poland, he was well-versed in Marxist themes.
John Paul II, Luxmoore says, recognized that Marxism appealed to young workers because of injustices in their situations. To connect with young adults, Catholicism must have a sophisticated alternative to Marxism. It cannot merely condemn a mistaken ideology. Catholicism must furnish an approach to social justice and peace that fits the daily comings-and-goings of young adults. John Paul II, along with several other Polish theologians including Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski (1901-1981), set about crafting an accessible theology of work.
In contrast to materialistic capitalism, John Paul II popularized the principle of the priority of labor over capital. That is, the worker is the subject of work; not the investment of money. Yes, investments are part of production and service delivery. But the purpose of the enterprise is the worker. According to John Paul II, the word worker is inclusive–managers, owners on the scene, shop hands, janitors, truck drivers, clerks, all those who in some way fashion and distribute the service or the product.
In contrast to materialistic communism, John Paul II outlined a spirituality of work which integrates business, family life, civic involvement and more with fidelity to Jesus’ gospel.
Young adults are familiar with today’s materialisms and other empty ideologies: careerism, cost-benefit analysis, consumerism, conspiracy theories, extreme individualism in economics and culture, relativism (or what the White House calls alternative facts), and more.
Some Catholic leaders say they are interested in young adults. Maybe so. But does a young adult ever come upon ideas and experiences within Catholicism that suggest an alternative to the harshness of work, to the arbitrariness in society or to our vacuous culture? Would a young adult ever hear themes about work expressed in spiritual terms? John Paul II’s theology of work project is suggestive, but not enough. Other theologians and particularly interested young Catholics have to take the matter a few steps further: More sources, more reflections, more conversations and for sure more focused action for justice and peace within the workaday world.
At the moment, The Catholic Social Ethic is available in Polish. Perhaps a condensed English version can be published soon. Perhaps it could include a few pastoral comments and top out at let’s say 200 pages.
Droel is editor of John Paul II’s Gospel of Work (National Center for the Laity, PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629; $7)