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Toby Terrar, "Pope John Paul II's Encyclical, Centesimus Annus and Labor." This article originally appeared in Religious Socialism, volume 15, no. 3 (Philadelphia, Fall 1991), pp. 2-5. (Mcg-3.doc).

Pope John Paul II's Encyclical, Centesimus Annus, and the Poor

            Pope John Paul II is a landlord and has the normal instincts and theology of his class. He does not have much use for "the preferential option for the poor." As he puts it in his recent encyclical, Centesimus Annus (One Hundred Years), the preferential option is "never exclusive or discriminatory towards other groups."[1] In contrast, for socialists the poor are everything. Juan Luis Segundo sums it up:

Jesus had a clear preference for all those who have been objects of scorn, injustice, and marginalization, whether they are good or bad. . . The "good news" is for the poor; it is not directly or immediately for everyone. In its historical setting, in fact, it is "bad news" for those who already have had their reward in the present regime or kingdom.[2]

            The "good news" of socialism is "bad news" for landlords. The Polish hierarchy lost one million acres when socialist land reform between 1944 and 1946 turned over without compensation the hierarchy's land to those who had been farming it as tenants.[3] The pope, from his landlord perspective, calls socialism in Poland a failure. From the view of poor, it has been "good news." For example, in the 1930s when the hierarchy last had a hand in education, 23 percent of the population were illiterate. Socialism gave universal literacy to those poor through free education. When the hierarchy last had a hand in health care through ownership of hospitals, there was one physician per 3,100 inhabitants. Socialism reduced the ratio to one physician per 600 people. There are more doctors because the poor, not just the rich, have the right to health care--entirely free. Socialist Poland has doctors for its own people and for years has been providing doctors and other professionals to serve the poor in the developing nations.

            Socialism has been "good news" for the poor not only in education and health care, but in housing, public transportation, old age pensions, and inexpensive culture. With no landlords, housing by law costs no more than 5 percent of one's income. Socialism served the demands of the poor in abolishing unemployment, slums, and prostitution, and in placing the right to a job under constitutional protection. During the 1930s, when the hierarchy had a hand in it, the media, the pulpit, the educational, and the political system were used to propagandize for the established order in which the rich lived on the backs of the poor. The abolition of religious, press, and political freedom for the rich corresponded to an expansion of these freedoms for the poor. Under socialism, religious freedom means freedom for the clergy to serve the needs of all the people, not just the rich. To do this, the number of parish churches has doubled from 7,000 to 14,000. Its 45 seminaries produce enough priests that Poles have for years been a major provider of missionaries to serve the poor of the developing nations.

            Centesimus Annus is written to commemorate the centenary of Pope Leo XIII's Rerum Novarum (1891), which, as would be expected, proclaimed the socialism of its day a failure. In terms of the advance which the poor have made during the past 100 years against the class system in Poland and elsewhere, there can only be optimism that the poor will similarly "fail" in the next 100 years.

            Instead of Rerum Novarum, what the pope should probably be celebrating is the 200th anniversary of Poland's partition. In 1791 the revolutionary poor helped proclaim the Polish democratic constitution, which involved emancipation of the serfs. The hierarchy, which owned 160,000 of Poland's 215,000 villages, joined fellow landlords in calling on the Russian Orthodox and Prussian Protestant landlords to put down the revolution and re-impose serfdom. The nation was "saved" by being destroyed and the hierarchy got back their serfs for half a century. This time the hierarchy is among those that are calling on the multinational capitalists to partition and re-impose the class system.

            Perhaps the pope does not bring up the earlier partition because it might give ideas to the working people made jobless by the economic "miracle." During their fight against the earlier partitioners, the poor captured a number of the hierarchy, including Joseph Kossakowski, bishop of Warsaw and Ignacy Messalski, bishop of Vilnus. After giving them a trial, both were sent to the gallows for treason.[4]



            The attack being waged by liberation theology against the tradition outlined in this article involves the de-mystification of theology. It was noted that some Royalists denounced as blasphemous those who held the monarchy derived from purely historical causes. (Smuts 1987, p. 230). Similarly liberation theology is sometimes denounced by what might be called theological Royalists because it takes an interest in the historical nature of theology. The U.S. bishops in their pastoral on the economy were up-front about the historical roots of their theology: 33 million Americans (15 percent of the population) live in poverty according to the U. S. government and 30 million more are in poverty "by any reasonable standard" (National Conference of Catholic Bishops 1986, paragraph 15). "The poor sleep in our doorways" (National Conference of Catholic Bishops 1986, paragraph 172). The bishops are landlords with all the instincts that belong to their class. But the poor are too many, too vocal, and as the bishops state, too geographically close to be ignored. The bishops decided to see things from the side of the poor not because of mysticism, but because of the obnoxious presence of God on their doorsteps.

            The Roman establishment, which in the past has taken a lesson from the American church, as in the case of Rerum Novarum in 1891, could do likewise now. Like the American bishops, John Paul II is a landlord with the normal instincts and theology of his class. Centesimus Annus (One Hundred Years), which John Paul (1991, p. 586) published on May 1, 1991 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Rerum Novarum, celebrates the collapse of the communist movement in Poland. At the same time, the encyclical expresses fear about the return of the movement because of the unemployment and economic insecurity resulting from the policies of the Solidarity government. The English Catholic weekly, The Tablet, discusses the unbalanced approach which Centesimus Annus takes in failing to acknowledge the achievements of the Polish communist movement (Anonymous 1991, p. 531). These achievements included the right to a job, to an old-age pension, to disability benefits, to free health care and education, and to housing that cost no more than 5 percent of one's income. These rights were achieved in the post-war period under conditions of poverty resulting from the war's destruction far worse than at present. These achievements were made not at the expense of the poor but in part at the expense of the capitalist and landlord. The landlords included the Polish hierarchy, which lost one million acres of land (Piekarski 1978, p. 69). The bishop of Lvov, for example, was forced to give up his 14 landed estates with 10,000 acres.

            During the last 40 years of working class domination, the Polish bishops did not have to step over the bodies of the unemployed poor sleeping on their palace door steps, because the palaces and other housing had been divided up so that everyone had a roof over their head. This preference for the poor having a roof over their head was apparently not liked by some sectors. John Paul II (1991, p. 585), not unlike Robert Persons, S.J. concerning the achievements of seventeenth-century laboring people, remarks in his encyclical that the communist achievements were "detrimental" to the poor and "a remedy that was worse than the sickness." One wonders how many of the 30 million Americans without health care would label as detrimental Poland's comprehensive medical care, despite any of its shortcomings.

            In addition to learning a lesson from the U.S. bishops' pastoral about their desire to give the poor who sleep on their doorsteps a preferential option, the pope could learn several lessons from his own country. First, even from the landlord perspective, the Polish workers' movement was generous to the clergy and hierarchy. Not being allowed to live in palaces may have initially injured the hierarchy's notions of its dignity, but the hierarchy were eventually allowed to own 14,000 buildings, including 45 seminaries, by 1977. This was twice the 7,000 buildings they owned in 1937. The pope's encyclical states that his anti-communism does not stem from "seeking to recover former privileges" (John Paul II 1991, p. 589). One wonders if the hierarchy did not have more privileges from the working people than it had had previously.

            A second lesson the pope might consider from his own country is that long before the communists controlled Poland, Catholic religious orders there had benefited from a type of socialized health care, housing, education, nutrition, and collective ownership of corporate property. The younger children of the gentry sometimes entered religion because that was the place they could have economic security. Why socialism only for the clergy? Why should the Roman establishment counterpoise itself to the social revolutions as they occur from time to time throughout the world? Why did the pope have to insist on the expulsion of Nicaraguans like Fernando Cardinal from their religious orders (Cardinal 1985, 21:1).

            An explanation for the pope's unbalanced views in Centesimus Annus is that the paradigm outlined in this article, despite its over-simplifications, has some truth to it. There were seventeenth-century gentry Catholics who believed the rich had a preferential option, and that belief still hangs on in some sectors of the the church. The one mention which Centesimus Annus makes concerning the preferential option for the poor is to state that the option is "never exclusive or discriminatory towards other groups" (John Paul II 1991, p. 589). Put in less subtle terms, there is no preference for the poor in the Roman establishment's theology.


            1991    "How to Read the Pope's Encyclical" in The Tablet
                        (London). May 4, 1991.

John Paul II, Pope
            1991    Centesimus Annus in The Tablet (London). May 11, 1991.

Piekarski, Adam
            1978    The Church in Poland: Facts, Figures and Information.
                        Warsaw: Interpress.

Cardinal, Fernando
            1985    "Why I was Forced to Leave the Jesuit Order" in National Catholic Reporter. Kansas City.


[1]Pope John Paul II, Centesimus Annus in The Tablet (London), May 11, 1991, p. 589.

[2]Juan Luis Segundo, The Christ of the Ignatian Exercises in the series Jesus of Nazareth, Yesterday and Today (New York: Orbis, 1987), vol. 4, p. 92.

[3]P. Kuzmin, "Poland" Great Soviet Encyclopedia (New York: Macmillan, 1979), vol.  p. 277; Adam Piekarski, The Church in Poland, Facts, Figures, and Information (Warsaw: Interpress, 1978), p. 69.

[4]Robert Bain, The Last King of Poland and his Contemporaries (New York: Arno Press, [1909], 1971), p. 11; Piekarski, The Church in Poland, p. 47.