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George Weigel’s recent syndicated article (“The Enduring Importance of Centesimus Annus,” June 22, 2011) attempts to reconcile Catholic Social Teaching with his free-market opinions by praising Centesimus Annus as a departure from the social patrimony of the Church, which began with Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum.

But Mr. Weigel’s conclusions clearly contradict the very encyclical he lauds.

Weigel’s insistence that Pope John Paul II’s encyclical embraces, “[the] free market of the liberal democracies” is nowhere to be found in the text. The “free market,” a self-regulating system determining prices, wages, interest rates, and so forth, with little or no interference by government, is the same economy described as shooting from “a polluted spring” by Pius XI in Quadragesimo Anno and “radical capitalistic ideology” by Pope John Paul II in Centesimus Annus:

“… there is a risk that a radical capitalistic ideology could spread which refuses even to consider these problems, in the a priori belief that any attempt to solve them is doomed to failure, and which blindly entrusts their solution to the free development of market forces.” (Centesimus Annus, no. 42, emphasis mine.)

Described by Pius XI as, “that economic system in which were provided by different people the capital and labor jointly needed for production,” capitalism in toto never found endorsement in the entire social compendium, let alone free-market capitalism. Quite the opposite, Pope Pius XI’s weighty criticism of capitalism as the “individualist economic teaching” which spread the error of “direct[ing] economic life” by the “free competition of forces,” is arguably just as condemning of capitalism as it is of socialism.

When regulating the market, Weigel correctly affirms the need for public morality and the development of a virtuous society, however, public choice is insufficient to rid us of pornography, abortion, or to instill justice in the marketplace. John Paul says, “the market [must] be appropriately controlled by the forces of society and by the State, so as to guarantee that the basic needs of the whole of society are satisfied.” (CA, no. 35, emphasis mine). Indeed, “the more that is done for the benefit of the working classes by the general laws of the country, the less need will there be to seek for special means to relieve them” (Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum, no. 32). A proportionate approach to curbing the market through laws and regulations also limits largesse government, as Big Government is product of the very imbalances created by the “free market,” a system dependent upon the growth of government to limit market entry and for the outsourcing of social benefits. While it is true that the Social Assistance State inadequately responds to the needs of the poor, John Paul II does also say that the poor must rely primarily “on the assistance of the State” because they have “no resources of their own to fall back on,” while the wealthy cannot say the same.

Another thing Centesimus does not do, is discard those “third way fantasies” Mr. Weigel is so excited to dismiss. Weigel claims Centesimus is a “… sign of contradiction to those who had long insisted that Catholic social doctrine proposed some ‘third way’ that was neither communism’s state ownership of the means of production nor the ‘free market of the liberal democracies.’” The implications are that we either have the concentration of property in the hands of the State or in the hands of the few. But the very document he adamantly defends as embracing the “free market” debunks this position.

“[I]t is unacceptable to say that the defeat of so-called ‘Real Socialism’ leaves capitalism as the only model of economic organization.” (CA, no. 35, emphasis mine.)

Indeed, there are alternative models. One of them is called Distributism.

Distributism is an economic theory born in response to the social justice principles of the Church’s majestic social teachings. Key to Distributism is that widespread ownership of the means of production will generate stability for the poor and middle classes through decentralized, local economies where the masses own their businesses, whether family or cooperatively-owned. Distributists believe most organizational functions should be proportionate to their competence, reflective of the Church’s teaching on subsidiarity. Distributism is also compliant with Pius XI’s call for the restoration of vocational groups or guilds to help with regulating the economy. Finally, Distributism is a practical system validated by thousands of small family firms and employee-owned companies, micro-lending banks, and credit unions. On the large-scale, Distributist businesses like Mondragon Cooperative in Spain, and the Distributist economies of Emilia-Romagna, Bologna, where 45% GDP come from cooperatives, demonstrate how Distributist economies and firms have a built-in advantage that capitalist and socialist systems cannot begin to match.

We should ask ourselves why Mr. Weigel hesitates to share the same enthusiasm for Pope Benedict XVI’s Caritas in Veritate. In a piece for National Review Online, Weigel called the encyclical “muddled,” and hijacked by “confused sentimentality.” Perhaps Benedict’s teachings clearly demonstrate that the Church doesn’t embrace the “free-market of the liberal democracies.” Neither does John Paul.


About the author: Richard Aleman


Richard Aleman is the president of The Society for Distributism, a contributing editor for Gilbert Magazine, The Remnant, and he blogs at St. Austin Review‘s Ink Desk. A native Spaniard, Richard resides in New York where he has just completed The Hound of Distributism, a book of various authors.


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  3. This is an excellent article, and its unfortunate it hasn’t gotten more attention. The sad truth is that according to Pius XI’s teaching in Ubi Arcano, Weigel is little more than a social modernist, and he demonstrates it here, picking and choosing what parts of papal encyclicals he can cite to promote his neo-conservative agenda.