It has long been a tradition within the church on the anniversary of a noteworthy event or document to reflect on it and view its contents again with hindsight and some historical distance. This is especially true of papal social encyclicals — teaching documents that treat a specific topic or theme and apply ancient wisdom to “the signs of the times.”
This year marks the 80th anniversary of Pope Pius XI’s encyclical, “Quadragesimo Anno.” In this time of economic uncertainty and crisis, Pope Pius’s prophetic words are remarkable because they seem just as true today as they were in 1931. Permit me to share with you an extended excerpt:
“[I]n the first place, it is obvious that not only is wealth concentrated in our times but an immense power and despotic economic dictatorship is consolidated in the hands of a few, who often are not owners but only the trustees and managing directors of invested funds which they administer according to their own arbitrary will and pleasure.
“This accumulation of might and of power generates in turn three kinds of conflict. First, there is the struggle for economic supremacy itself; then there is the bitter fight to gain supremacy over the State in order to use in economic struggles its resources and authority; finally there is conflict between States themselves, not only because countries employ their power and shape their policies to promote every economic advantage of their citizens, but also because they seek to decide political controversies that arise among nations through the use of their economic supremacy and strength.
“This dictatorship is being most forcibly exercised by those who, since they hold the money and completely control it, control credit also and rule the lending of money. Hence they regulate the flow, so to speak, of the life-blood whereby the entire economic system lives, and have so firmly in their grasp the soul, as it were, of economic life that no one can breathe against their will.
“This concentration of power and might, the characteristic mark, as it were, of contemporary economic life, is the fruit that the unlimited freedom of struggle among competitors has of its own nature produced, and which lets only the strongest survive; and this is often the same as saying, those who fight the most violently, those who give least heed to their conscience.
“The ultimate consequences of the individualist spirit in economic life are those which you yourselves, Venerable Brethren and Beloved Children, see and deplore: Free competition has destroyed itself; economic dictatorship has supplanted the free market; unbridled ambition for power has likewise succeeded greed for gain; all economic life has become tragically hard, inexorable, and cruel.
“To these are to be added the grave evils that have resulted from an intermingling and shameful confusion of the functions and duties of public authority with those of the economic sphere — such as, one of the worst, the virtual degradation of the majesty of the State, which although it ought to sit on high like a queen and supreme arbitress, free from all partiality and intent upon the one common good and justice, is become a slave, surrendered and delivered to the passions and greed of men.
“And as to international relations, two different streams have issued from the one fountain-head: On the one hand, economic nationalism or even economic imperialism; on the other, a no less deadly and accursed internationalism of finance or international imperialism whose country is where profit is.”
The pope continues:
“‘Wherefore,’” to use the words of Our Predecessor, ‘if human society is to be healed, only a return to Christian life and institutions will heal it.’ For this alone can provide effective remedy for that excessive care for passing things that is the origin of all vices; and this alone can draw away men’s eyes, fascinated by and wholly fixed on the changing things of the world, and raise them toward Heaven. Who would deny that human society is in most urgent need of this cure now?
“Minds of all, it is true, are affected almost solely by temporal upheavals, disasters, and calamities. But if we examine things critically with Christian eyes, as we should, what are all these compared with the loss of souls? Yet it is not rash by any means to say that the whole scheme of social and economic life is now such as to put in the way of vast numbers of mankind most serious obstacles which prevent them from caring for the one thing necessary; namely, their eternal salvation.”
The contraventions of social and distributive justice characteristic of the industrializing nations between the two World Wars when Pius XI was writing, as well as in many parts of the “developed” world today, are symptoms of a deeper problem: a denial of the justice owed to God.
People will commit all manners of injustice against one another — and the whole of creation — when they turn their back on the Creator and the truth that each person is made in his image and likeness.
G.K. Chesterton titled one of his great works of social criticism, “What’s Wrong with the World.” His answer was simple: “Me.” My sin and your sin is what disorders social and economic life. And although we continue to work in the political arena to remove “structures of sin” — those institutions and laws which undermine justice, the common good, and the pursuit of virtue and holiness — there is no political solution to what is fundamentally a moral and religious problem.
The only ultimate solution to society’s ills in this excessively politicized age is to turn toward the Lord, repent and render him worship. Then will we begin to restore all things in his holy name.
Jason Adkins is executive director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference.