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From The Bottom Up

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By DONALD DeMARCO

Labor Day weekend always brings to mind the final vacation of a fading summer. It also brings to mind the notion of labor and, for Catholics, the great papal encyclicals on this theme.
St. John Paul II turned his attention to labor and its ancillary relationships with the rights of the person and the order of government and produced Centesimus Annus in 1991. He began this important document with a tribute to Pope Leo XIII’s monumental encyclical, Rerum Novarum (written one hundred years earlier). Pope Leo had accurately predicted the collapse of socialism on the basis of its fundamental error concerning the nature of the human person.
That error, compounded with Communist atheism, brought about a great deal of suffering for humanity.
For John Paul, the main thread and the guiding principle of Pope Leo’s encyclical (and all of the Church’s social teaching) is a “correct view of the human person and of the person’s unique value, inasmuch as the human being ‘is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself’ (Gaudium et Spes, n. 24).”
We find, in contemporary America, a champion of socialism in the fiery personality of Bernie Sanders. The Vermont senator has gone on record stating that there should be no restrictions whatsoever on abortion, a most intemperate remark since, by logical implication, it allows abortion for women who do not want to abort. When John Paul emphasized the fundamental importance of all human beings, he included the unborn. Thus, he would maintain, the government should not encourage and promote the destruction of unborn human persons.
Concerning rights, John Paul parts company with most socialists in stating: “Among the most important of these rights, mention must be made of the right to life, an integral part of which is the right of the child to develop in the mother’s womb from the moment of conception; the right to live in a united family and in the moral environment conducive to the growth of the child’s personality.”
He adds the right to develop one’s intelligence and the freedom to seek and know the truth.
John Paul, being a specialist in anthropology (the nature of the human being), wisely accords centrality to the person in contrast with the view that the government should initiate and control the economic aspects of society. In other words, his view in Centesimus Annus is “from the bottom up” rather than “from the top down,” emphasizing the essential place of the human person. In contrast to Karl Marx, for example, John Paul argues that culture, not economic or technological innovations, is the engine that moves history forward.
Personal initiative, therefore, is imperative and should not be discouraged by a welfare state. Concerning poverty in the modern world, John Paul reasons that it exists because of an exclusion from the world of productivity and exchange. He encourages us to envision the poor in terms of their potential and that social justice demands that their potential be given the opportunity to fulfill itself. The primary task of a culture in a free society, he writes, is to promote “trust in the human potential of the poor and consequently in their ability to improve their condition through work or to make a positive contribution to economic prosperity.”
Welfare systems, by nature, tend to promote dependency rather than stimulate industry and independence. It has been said, with regard to socialism, that the mouse does not know why the cheese is free, nor does the fish know that the bait comes at a high price.
John Paul’s attitude toward poverty is by no means simplistic. “Love for others,” he states, “and in the first place love for the poor, in whom the Church sees Christ Himself, is made concrete in the promotion of justice.” He advises us to see the poor not as an annoyance or a burden, but as people who are asking for kindness and the opportunity for greater enrichment. He reminds his readers of the power of the Gospel that inspired monks to till the land, religious men and women to found hospitals and shelters for the poor, and various confraternities devoted to the needy and those on the margins of society.
“As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (Matt. 25:40). Christianity is not intended to create a pious wish, but “to become a concrete life commitment.”
It would not have been possible for John Paul to ignore environmental issues. He stresses their importance but fears that they are the cause of too much worry. We are not sufficiently concerned, he states, about the “human ecology.” An effort should be made, he urges, to establish an authentic human environment. He understands only too well how certain social environments can be seductive and can lead people astray.
Therefore: “The first and fundamental structure for ‘human ecology’ is the family in which someone receives his first formative ideas about truth and goodness, and learns what it means to love and to be loved, and thus what it actually means to be a person.” Unfortunately, as John Paul notes, it often happens that people are discouraged from creating the proper conditions for human procreation and regard their lives “as a series of sensations to be experienced rather than as a work to be accomplished.”
Twenty-eight years have passed since St. John Paul II penned Centesimus Annus. Nonetheless it is packed with thoughts and recommendations that resonate well in the year 2019. The primacy and dignity of the person, the fundamental importance of the family, the need for virtue, love for the poor, and the freedom to develop as authentic human beings are eternally valid concerns. One hundred years later, when 2091 arrives, Centesimus Annus will still be relevant and worth implementing.

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(Dr. Donald DeMarco is professor emeritus of St. Jerome’s University and an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College. He is a regular columnist for St. Austin Review. His latest two books, How to Navigate through Life and Apostles of the Culture of Life, are posted on amazon.com. 12 Values of Paramount Importance is in process.)

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