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The Social Ethics of Pope John Paul II: A Critique of Neoconservative Interpretations

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  18 March 2013

John Sniegocki
Xavier University


Neoconservative interpreters of the social ethics of Pope John Paul II have made the claim that John Paul shifted the tradition of Catholic Social Teaching in the direction of an embrace of “democratic capitalism” and other neoconservative ideals. This article challenges those claims. Major differences between the social ethics of Pope John Paul II and those of neoconservatives such as Michael Novak, George Weigel, and Richard John Neuhaus are highlighted. These differences include contrasting assessments of current forms of capitalism and of economic globalization, as well as differing views concerning economic democracy, economic rights, consumerism, the significance of structural injustice as a cause of poverty, the proper economic role of the state, the value of the United Nations, the importance of lifestyle simplification, and the urgency of ecological issues. An understanding of these major differences is essential in enabling Catholic Social Teaching to play a truly prophetic and constructive role in responding to current global crises.

Copyright © The College Theology Society 2006

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1 For an introduction to the philosophy of neoconservative Catholicism, see Weigel, George, “The Neoconservative Difference,” in Being Right: Conservative Catholics in America, ed. Weaver, Mary Jo and Scott Appleby, R. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995), 138–62.Google Scholar In this essay Weigel describes a fundamental goal of the neoconservative project (which he identifies with the work of Novak, Neuhaus, and himself) as being “to devise a religiously grounded moral philosophy for the American experiment in ordered liberty” (ibid., 139). For a critical overview of the neoconservative movement, see Dorrien, Gary, The Neoconservative Mind: Politics, Culture, and the War of Ideology (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993)Google Scholar.

2 Novak, Michael, The Catholic Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (New York: Free Press, 1993), 114.Google Scholar

3 Summarizing his critique of Catholic Social Teaching prior to Centesimus annus, states, Novak: “The intellectual model for peace and justice offered by Catholic Social Teaching is at present closer to a mild form of socialism than to democratic capitalism” (The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism [New York: American Enterprise Institute, 1982], 248)Google Scholar.

4 Novak, , Catholic Ethic, 101.Google Scholar

5 Neuhaus, Richard John, “An Argument About Human Nature,” in A New Worldly Order: John Paul II and Human Freedom, ed. Weigel, George (Washington, DC: Ethics and Public Policy Center, 1992), 123–29Google Scholar, at 124.

6 For the neoconservative critique of Economic Justice for All, see Novak, Michael and Simon, William, on behalf of the Lay Commission on Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy, “Liberty and Justice for All,” in Private Virtue and Public Policy, ed. Finn, James (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1990), 128.Google Scholar

7 See Centesimus annus, no. 13.

8 Ibid., no. 32.

9 “The church acknowledges the legitimate role of profit as an indication that a business is functioning well…. But profitability is not the only indicator of a firm's condition.” For example, “it is possible for the financial accounts to be in order, and yet for the people—who make up the firm's most valuable asset—to be humiliated and their dignity offended” (ibid., no. 35).

10 Ibid., no. 48.

11 Rerum novarum, no. 12; also see nos. 5, 10.

12 Mater et magistra, no. 57; also see Rerum novarum, no. 5; Populorum progressio, no. 25.

13 For the classic text on subsidiarity, see Quadragesimo anno, no. 79.

14 Centesimus annus, no. 33.

15 Ibid., no. 42.

16 Ibid., no. 40.

17 See the reflections of Wilber, Charles, an economist from the University of Notre Dame, in “Argument That Pope ‘Baptized’ Capitalism Holds No Water,” National Catholic Reporter, 7 June 1991, pp. 810Google Scholar.

18 Weigel, Georgey, “The New ‘New Things,’” in A New Worldly Order, 120Google Scholar, at 13.

19 Novak, , Catholic Ethic, 101.Google Scholar Novak and his supporters have frequently asserted that Novak's work on democratic capitalism played a major role in shaping the content of Centesimus annus. Typical of these assertions is the claim made in the introduction to a volume of Novak's essays that Novak's “crowning achievement” is to have provided the theoretical foundations for Centesimus annus. See Younkins, Edward, “Introduction: Michael Novak's Contributions to Political and Economic Thought,” in Three in One: Essays in Democratic Capitalism (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001), xi–xvGoogle Scholar, at xii. For denials by Vatican officials of any significant influence by Novak on the content of the encyclical, see Kwitny, Jonathan, Man of the Century: The Life and Times of Pope John Paul II (New York: Holt, 1997), 622Google Scholar; Todd David Whitmore, “A Response to the Loyal Dissent of Neo-Conservative Economics”; available at Whitmore relates a conversation with Cardinal Agostino Casaroli, Vatican Secretary of State at the time of the writing of Centesimus annus, who dismissed as unfounded the claims that Novak's thought significantly influenced the document.

20 Centesimus annus, no. 35.

21 Paul, John II, “Is Liberal Capitalism the Only Path?Origins 20 (24 May 1990): 1721Google Scholar, at 19. The pope stressed that the church cannot be silent about “the defects of an economic system which often has profit and consumption as its principal driving force, which subordinates people to capital.”

22 Paul, John II, “What Catholic Social Teaching Is and Is Not,” Origins 23 (23 September 1993): 256–58Google Scholar, at 257. Also cited in Szulc, Tad, Pope John Paul II: The Biography (New York: Scribner, 1995), 448.Google Scholar According to Szulc, “John Paul II's concepts [in Centesimus annus] have been distorted to a disturbing degree” (ibid., 447). Similarly, papal biographer Jonathan Kwitny states: “As soon as Centesimus Annus was published, some free-market advocates began quoting the pro-capitalist passages out of context, making it appear that the pope had turned in their direction when he hadn't” (Man of the Century, 621).

23 John Paul II, Ecclesia in America, no. 56. A recent statement of the Jesuit Provincials of Latin America likewise presents many criticisms of neoliberal capitalism, based on the lived experience of their communities. Among the harmful impacts that the Jesuit leaders highlight are “the immense imbalances and perturbations neoliberalism causes through the concentration of income, wealth and land ownership; the multiplication of the unemployed urban masses or those surviving in unstable and unproductive jobs; the bankruptcy of thousands of small- and medium-sized businesses; the destruction and forced displacement of indigenous and peasant populations; the expansion of drug trafficking based in rural sectors whose traditional products can no longer compete; the disappearance of food security; an increase in criminality often triggered by hunger; the destabilization of national economies by the free flow of international speculation; and maladjustments in local communities by multinational companies that do not take the residents into account” (Jesuit Provincials of Latin America, “For Life and Against Neoliberalism,” in We Make the Road by Walking: Central America, Mexico, and the Caribbean in the New Millennium, ed. Butwell, Ann, Ogle, Kathy, and Wright, Scott [Washington, DC: EPICA, 1998], 7479Google Scholar, at 76).

24 Responding to the question of whether “capitalism” could be affirmed or not, the pope states: “If by capitalism is meant an economic system which recognizes the fundamental and positive role of business, the market, private property and the resulting responsibility for the means of production, as well as free human creativity in the economic sector, then the answer is certainly in the affirmative, even though it would perhaps be more appropriate to speak of a business economy, market economy, or simply free economy. But if by capitalism is meant a system in which freedom in the economic sector is not circumscribed within a strong juridical framework which places it at the service of human freedom in its totality, and which sees it as a particular aspect of that freedom, the core of which is ethical and religious, then the reply is certainly negative” (Centesimus annus, no. 42).

25 Laborem exercens, no. 12.

26 In Laborem exercens the pope defines capitalism negatively as involving the commodification of labor and the subordination of labor to capital. “[T]he danger of treating work as a special kind of ‘merchandise’ … always exists, especially when the whole way of looking at the question of economics is marked by the premises of materialistic economism…. Man is treated as an instrument of production, whereas he—he alone, independent of the work he does—ought to be treated as the effective subject of work and its true maker and creator. Precisely this reversal of order, whatever the program or name under which it occurs, should rightly be called ‘capitalism’” (no. 7). In Centesimus annus the pope continues at times to employ this negative definition of capitalism. He states, for example, that the so-called “real socialism” of the former Soviet bloc countries is perhaps better described as a form of “state capitalism,” a way of highlighting the fact that it involved the fundamental subordination of workers to capital (no. 35).

27 Novak, Michael, “Creation Theology,” in Co-Creation and Capitalism, ed. Houck, John and Williams, Oliver (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1983), 1741Google Scholar, at 20.

28 Laborem exercens, no. 14. The pope recommends “joint ownership of the means of work” and “sharing by the workers in the management and/or profits of businesses.”

30 Centesimus annus, no. 35. For an explanation of what the pope means by “state capitalism,” see n. 26 above.

31 Ibid., no. 16.

32 Ibid., no 20. Also see the pope's discussion of “structures of sin” in the global economy in Sollicitudo rei socialis, nos. 16–24, 36–37.

33 Centesimus annus, no. 35.

34 John Paul II, “Promote Real Economic Democracy,” Address to the Central Institute of Cooperative Credit Banks of Italy (26 June 1998); available on the website of the Catholic Information Network at

35 Novak, , Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, 178Google Scholar.

36 Novak, , Three in One, 84.Google Scholar

37 Novak, , Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, 175.Google Scholar

38 Novak, Michael, On Corporate Governance: The Corporation As It Ought to Be (Washington, DC: American Enterprise Institute, 1997), 28.Google Scholar

39 Novak, , Three in One, 159.Google Scholar For Weigel's reservations concerning economic rights, see his essay “Pacem in Terris,” in A Century of Catholic Social Thought, ed. Weigel, George and Royal, Robert (Washington, DC: Ethics and Public Policy Center, 1991), 6179Google Scholar, at 68.

40 See Novak's, essay “Economic Rights: The Servile State,” in Three in One, 156–68.Google Scholar

41 John Paul II, “From the Justice of Each Comes Peace for All,” Message for World Day of Peace 1998, no. 2.

42 John Paul II, “Pacem in Terris: A Permanent Commitment,” Message for World Day of Peace 2003, no. 5.

43 Novak, Michael, “Human Dignity, Human Rights,” First Things (November 1999): 3942Google Scholar, at 42.

44 Laborem exercens, no. 14.

45 The “only legitimate title” to ownership of the means of production, the pope declares, “whether in the form of private ownership or in the form of public or collective ownership, is that they should serve labor and thus by serving labor that they should make possible the achievement of the first principle of this order, namely the universal destination of goods and the right to common use of them” (ibid).

46 Centesimus annus, no. 43.

47 Laborem exercens, no. 14.

48 Novak, Michael, This Hemisphere of Liberty (Washington, DC: American Enterprise Institute, 1990), 59.Google Scholar

49 Novak, , Catholic Ethic, 153.Google Scholar For Novak's discussion of why there should be no maximum limits on wealth, see Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, 213–18.

50 Novak, , Catholic Ethic, 184–85.Google Scholar

51 Ibid. Also see Novak, , On Corporate Governance, 26.Google Scholar

52 Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Towards a Better Distribution of Land: The Challenge of Agrarian Reform, no. 36.

53 Sollicitudo rei socialis, no. 14.

54 “From the Justice of Each Comes Peace for All,” no. 4.

55 Paul, John II, “Food Security Results From Ethic of Solidarity,” Address to World Food Summit (13 November 1996), no. 2.Google Scholar

56 “From the Justice of Each Comes Peace for All,” no. 8.

57 Novak, , Three in One, 245.Google Scholar

58 Neuhaus, Richard John, Doing Well and Doing Good: The Challenge to the Christian Capitalist (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 156.Google Scholar

59 Ibid., 157.

60 Centesimus annus, no. 52.

61 Neuhaus, , Doing Well, 224.Google Scholar Interestingly, Neuhaus presents an edited, condensed version of Centesimus annus at the end of his book in which this paragraph concerning the need for lifestyle change has been eliminated. Also eliminated are significant aspects of the pope's critique of war contained in section 52 of the encyclical.

62 For discussion by John Paul II of the importance of lifestyle simplification for reasons of social justice, ecology, and spirituality, see Sollicitudo rei socialis, nos. 27–34.

63 Centesimus annus, no. 58. Also see nos. 36–37.

64 “From the Justice of Each Comes Peace for All,” no. 8.

65 Sollicitudo rei socialis, no. 16.

66 Ibid., no. 36.

67 Lay Commission on Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy, Toward the Future (New York: Lay Commission, 1984), 50.Google Scholar

68 Novak, , Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, 285.Google Scholar

69 Ibid., 302.

70 Quoted in Baum, Gregory, “An Ethical Critique of Capitalism,” in John Paul II and Moral Theology, ed. Curran, Charles and McCormick, Richard (New York: Paulist, 1998), 237–54Google Scholar, at 246.

71 John Paul II, “Is Liberal Capitalism the Only Path?”, 19.

72 John Paul II, Homily during Holy Mass held in Revolution Square, Havana, Cuba (25 January 1998). Available at For excellent discussion of the negative impacts of IMF and World Bank structural adjustment policies on the Third World poor, see Kim, Jim Yong, Millen, Joyce, Irwin, Alec, and Gershman, John, eds., Dying for Growth: Global Inequality and the Health of the Poor (Monroe, ME: Common Courage, 2000).Google Scholar

73 Pope John Paul II also often used the language of “dependency” that the neoconservatives reject as mistaken. In a 1995 address at the United Nations, for example, the pope declared: “For the emerging countries, the achievement of political independence has too frequently been accompanied by a situation of de facto economic dependence on other countries; indeed, in some cases, the developing world has suffered a regression, such that some countries lack the means of satisfying the essential needs of their people” (Address to the United Nations General Assembly [October 5, 1995], no. 13; available at

74 Ecclesia in America, no. 20.

75 For insightful critiques of current forms of economic globalization, see Korten, David, When Corporations Rule the World, 2nd ed. (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2001)Google Scholar; Cavanagh, John and Mander, Jerry, eds., Alternatives to Economic Globalization: A Better World is Possible, 2nd ed. (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2004)Google Scholar; Mander, Jerry and Goldsmith, Edward, eds., The Case Against the Global Economy (San Francisco: Sierra Club, 1996).Google Scholar

76 Ecclesia in America, no. 55.

77 John Paul II, “The Ethical Dimensions of Globalization,” Address to the Pontifical Academy for Social Sciences (27 April 2001), no. 4; available online at

78 John Paul II, “Address to the Pontifical Academy for Social Sciences” (2 May 2003); available on the Vatican's website at

80 See John Paul II, Address to Members of the Foundation for “Ethics and Economics” (17 May 2001); Sollicitudo rei socialis, 43; Centesimus annus, 40. For additional, specific suggestions for reform of the global economy see the Vatican's “Address to the UN Panel on the Eradication of World Poverty” (2 July 2003), “Address to the UN Conference on Trade and Development” (22 June 2004), and “Ethical Guidelines for International Trade: Note to the Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organization” (10 September 2003), all available at

81 John Paul II, “Address to the Pontifical Academy for Social Sciences” (2 May 2003).

82 For discussion of free trade by Novak and other members of the Lay Commission on Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy, see Toward the Future, 71–73. “We strongly hold,” the Commission asserts, “to the ideal of open markets” (ibid., 71). The positive emphasis placed by the neoconservatives on free trade stands in sharp contrast to the assessment of free trade in the tradition of CST. Pope Paul VI, for example, states: “[T]he rule of free trade, taken by itself, is no longer able to govern international relations ‥‥ [P]rices which are ‘freely’ set in the market can produce unfair results ‥‥ [A]n economy of exchange can no longer be based solely on the law of free competition, a law which, in its turn, too often creates an economic dictatorship. Freedom of trade is fair only if it is subject to the demands of social justice” (Populorum progressio, nos. 58–59).

83 Novak highlights the “record of achievement of the countries of the East Asian Rim,” claiming that they have “followed a liberal theory of capitalist development, low taxes, and free trade” (Will It Liberate? Questions About Liberation Theology [New York: Paulist, 1986], 128). More recently Novak has made similar claims about China and India. See his essay “Globalization with a Human Face” at This analysis by Novak of the economic policies followed by the Asian countries in achieving high levels of economic growth is, however, inaccurate. The East Asian countries, while emphasizing trade, did not follow a path of “free trade” or open investment. They generally kept significant import controls, restricted the entry of foreign capital, and maintained a high level of governmental involvement in economic life. See Chang, Ha-Joon, Globalisation, Economic Development, and the Role of the State (London: Zed Books, 2003).Google Scholar In addition to misdiagnosing the causes of the Asian countries' relative successes, Novak also ignores negative features of the Asian experience, such as the exploitation of industrial workers, heavy environmental damage, and harm to small farmers, which call into question key aspects of the export-intensive industrialization model that these countries followed. For insightful analysis of the Asian experience, including suggested alternative paths for Asian development, see Bello, Walden and Rosenfeld, Stephanie, Dragons in Distress: Asia's Miracle Economies in Crisis (San Francisco: Institute for Food and Development Policy, 1990)Google Scholar and Bello, Walden, The Future in the Balance: Essays on Globalization and Resistance (Oakland, CA: Institute for Food and Development Policy, 2001).Google Scholar

84 Novak, , “Globalization with a Human Face,” 2.Google Scholar

85 Neuhaus, Richard John, “The Public Square,” First Things (February 2002): 7796Google Scholar, at 84.

86 For John Paul IIs discussion of the proper roles of the state in economic life, see Centesimus annus, nos. 15, 48. The quotations cited are from no. 48.

87 Ibid., no. 10.

88 Ibid., no. 58.

89 John Paul II, “Address to the United Nations General Assembly” (5 October 1995), no. 1. Also see John Paul II, “Address to the Diplomatic Corps” (9 January 1995).

90 Neuhaus, Richard John, “The Public Square,” First Things (February 2000): 7792Google Scholar, at 78; Weigel, “Pacem in Terris,” 74.

91 “Father Richard John Neuhaus on the Iraq Crisis,” Zenit News Agency (10 March 2003); available at

92 For John Paul II's critique of consumerism, see Sollicitudo rei socialis, no. 28; Centesimus annus, no. 19.

93 While acknowledging consumerism as a problem, Novak asserts that the extent of the problem is overstated. He chides those who “too glibly denigrate ‘consumerism’” (Catholic Ethic, 102) and asserts that describing the United States as a consumer society “seems very wide of the mark” (Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, 141).

94 See Neuhaus, , Doing Well, 5253Google Scholar.

95 Novak, , Catholic Ethic, 58.Google Scholar

96 Ibid., 115.

97 See ibid., 195–220.

98 John Paul II, “The Ethical Dimensions of Globalization,” no. 3.

99 Octogesima adveniens, no. 44.

100 For warnings in CST against the dangers of concentrated economic power, including warnings against the “international imperialism of money,” see Quadragesimo anno, nos. 109, 132; Populorum progressio, nos. 26, 58–59; Octogesima adveniens, no. 44. For discussion of the ways in which concentrated economic power in the United States has already significantly undermined political democracy, see Moyers, Bill, “Democracy in the Balance,” Sojourners 33 (August 2004): 1218Google Scholar; Greider, William, Who Will Tell the People? The Betrayal of American Democracy (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992).Google Scholar For a global perspective on this topic see the work of Cambridge University economist Hertz, Noreena, The Silent Takeover: Global Capitalism and the Death of Democracy (New York: HarperBusiness, 2003).Google Scholar

101 See, e.g., Centesimus annus, no. 37.

102 Paul, John II, “Is Liberal Capitalism the Only Path?”, 20.Google Scholar

103 “The Eight Great Worries of the World, as Seen by John Paul II,” Zenit News Agency (31 August 2002); available at The quote concerning ecological conversion is from a 17 January 2001 general audience of the pope.

104 Paul, John II, The Ecological Crisis: A Common Responsibility, no. 6.Google Scholar

105 Ibid., no. 13.

106 Neuhaus, Richard John, “Christ and Creation's Longing,” in Environmental Ethics and Christian Humanism, ed. Stackhouse, Max (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996), 125–37Google Scholar, at 126.

107 Michael Novak, “What's Left of the Left?” Paper presented at the Stockholm Network conference “Is Socialism Dead?” in Brussels, Belgium (6 February 2003), 6; available at

108 Novak, , On Corporate Governance, 9.Google Scholar

109 Novak, , “What's Left of the Left?”, 6.Google Scholar

110 Centesimus annus, no. 40.

111 Novak, and Simon, , “Liberty and Justice for All,” 4.Google Scholar “Solidarity,” Michael Novak once wrote, is “a more proper term for the hive, the herd, or for the flock than for the democratic community” (“The Christian Vision of Economic Life,” Catholicism in Crisis 3 (December 1985): 27). The neoconservatives have recently muted their criticisms of the language of solidarity, presumably because the term became so central to the thought of John Paul II, but I would argue that the differences in anthropology nonetheless remain.

112 Novak, and Simon, , “Liberty and Justice for All,” 17.Google Scholar

113 For discussion of methodological individualism, see Daniel Rush Finn, “The Economic Personalism of John Paul II: Neither Right Nor Left” available at

114 For Novak's denial that his economic vision is based on an individualist anthropology, see Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, 143–55.

115 Sollicitudo rei socialis, no. 38.

116 Ibid., no. 46.

117 John Paul II, “Address to the Pontifical Academy for Social Sciences” (12 April 2002), no. 5. Similarly, the pope states that “it is not enough to limit oneself to the law of the market and its globalization. Solidarity must be fomented, avoiding the evils that stem from capitalism, which put profit above the person and make [the latter] the victim of so many injustices” (cited in “Law of the Market is Not Enough, Insists Pope,” Zenit News Agency [15 December 2003]; available at

118 See Madeley, John, Hungry for Trade: How the Poor Pay for Free Trade (London: Zed Books, 2000)Google Scholar; Nader, Ralph et al. , The Case Against “Free Trade” (San Francisco: Earth Island Press, 1993).Google Scholar

119 See the references cited in n. 100 above.

120 See Miller, Vincent, Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture (New York: Continuum, 2004)Google Scholar; Kavanaugh, John, Following Christ in a Consumer Society, rev. ed. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1991)Google Scholar; Ecologist, The, Whose Common Future? Reclaiming the Commons (Philadelphia: New Society Publishers, 1993)Google Scholar; Berry, Wendell, “The Total Economy,” in Wealth, Poverty, and Human Destiny, ed. Bandow, Doug and Schindler, David (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2003), 415–30.Google Scholar

121 Sollicitudo rei socialis, no. 47. For some good books that highlight ways that each of us can participate in the struggle for economic democracy and integral development, see Korten, When Corporations Rule the World; Cavanagh and Mander, Alternatives to Economic Globalization; Madeley, John, A People's World (London: Zed Books, 2003)Google Scholar; Broad, Robin, ed., Global Backlash: Citizen Initiatives for a Just World Economy (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002)Google Scholar; Alperovitz, Gar, America Beyond Capitalism: Reclaiming Our Wealth, Our Liberty, and Our Democracy (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2005)Google Scholar; Jones, Ellis, Haenfler, Ross, and Johnson, Brett, The Better World Handbook: From Good Intentions to Everyday Actions (Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers, 2001)Google Scholar; Meeker-Lowry, Susan, Invested in the Common Good (Philadelphia: New Society Publishers, 1995).Google Scholar For additional resources on these themes, see

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