The thirtieth ‘birthday’of John Paul II’s social encyclical Centesimus Annus. By Stefano Fontana

This year, 2021, recently dawned upon us, and. looking ahead, celebrated this year will be the thirtieth ‘birthday’of John Paul II’s social encyclical Centesimus Annus which saw the light of day on May 1, 1991. We will have occasion to speak about this important text of the Church’s social Magisterium, but it may be useful right now, at the beginning of this thirtieth anniversary year, to ask ourselves something fundamental: what is the heart of this encyclical? What is its essential and central message? What is the pillar that supports its entire discourse?

Centesimus annus abounds with substantial content. First of all, it celebrates the hundredth anniversary of Rerum novarum (1891-1991) to which it devotes the first chapter. Secondly, it deals with the great events of 1989, the collapse of the Berlin Wall and Soviet communism in Eastern Europe. Then pondered is whether this meant the victory of the Western system. Finally, the encyclical outlines the forms of the Church’s engagement in society in the near future.  Important statements on the nature of the Social Doctrine of the Church are also worth mentioning.

Therefore, many indeed are the themes, but which is the fundamental one? Since the title of the last chapter of the encyclical is “Man is the way of the Church” (an expression taken from John Paul II’s first encyclical, Redemptor hominis), one might think that the main topic is man and that Centesimus annus is an expression, albeit a moderate one, of an “anthropological turning point”. It is true that in the encyclical, as in the rest of John Paul II’s Magisterium, personalism is present, albeit in the effort to center it always in Christ, but I am of the opinion that it is not the heart of Centesimus annus, and that this heart is the centrality of God also in social issues.  The heart remains the cry “open the doors to Christ!” of John Paul II’s  first homily as pontiff.

This is evident above all in the way Centesimus annus considers the Social Doctrine of the Church. This is the “proclamation of Christ in temporal realities”, a capital component of the “new evangelization”, a primary element of the “evangelizing mission” of the Church, an “essential part of the Christian message” of which it “proposes the direct consequences in the life of society”. The encyclical reiterates, with Rerum novarum, that “there is no real solution to the social question outside the Gospel”. Centesimus annus thus confirms the Christian claim not to be a simple new humanism and not to have to beg from the world the truths to be announced and incarnated.

For this reason, Centesimus annus recalls that Rerum novarum had conferred on the Church a “statute of citizenship in the changing realities of public life”. “Statute of citizenship” must be understood as the essential and non-accidental exercise of a public role connected with the Church’s evangelizing mission. If this evangelizing mission has “man as its way”, it is nonetheless based on God the Savior insofar as the Social Doctrine “frames daily work and struggles for justice in witness to Christ the Savior”. This point is not made in the same forthright manner of Leo XIII, and at times the language wavers, as when the encyclical claims the right to rest on Sunday as  due public worship of the divine majesty, then basing this on the freedom of religion. It cannot be denied, however, that the centrality of God is affirmed.

Certainly, Centesimus Annus speaks of man as “the way of the Church” and states  that the Church’s  aim is the “defense of man”, but it specifies and confirms that it “receives the meaning of man from Divine Revelation”, that “Christian anthropology is really a chapter of theology”, that “the theological dimension is needed both for interpreting and solving present-day problems in human society” . When it speaks of man, it never forgets to express his “transcendent dignity”, thus referring to a foundation of human dignity that lies not in man but in God: “It is in the response to God’s call, contained in the being of things, that man becomes aware of his transcendent dignity”.

The centrality of God (and not man) is also present in the encyclical in a negative form. The communist system collapsed not primarily for economic or political reasons, but because it claimed to “eradicate the need for God from the heart of man, and yet the results have shown that it is not possible to do so without upsetting the heart.” John Paul II speaks of an “anthropological error” of communism, but he means that it is essentially a theological error: “the spiritual void caused by atheism”. True alienation is the lack of God. Totalitarianism “stems from the denial of truth in the objective sense”, hence of its ultimate objective foundation, which is God, without whom freedom frees itself from truth and thus becomes totalitarian.

Centesimus annus contains many affirmations of the theology of culture, conducted in a very different way from what the Church does today. And here too, we see the centrality of God and not of man. Certainly, “man is understood if he is framed in the sphere of culture,” but “at the center of every culture is the attitude man assumes before the greatest mystery: the mystery of God”.

During this year, 2021, which marks the thirtieth anniversary of Centesimus annus, it will be necessary to rediscover the centrality of God and hence the Social Doctrine as a mission of the Church and not as mere social animation of consciences in a pluralistic society. Man is the way of the Church, says Centesimus annus, but “only faith reveals his identity in full”, and the Church proposes to assist him “on the journey of salvation”.

Stefano Fontana