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How an Unknown Text Could Throw New Light on John Paul II’s Views on Economics

Anyone familiar with the life of John Paul II will recognise the names of books he published before becoming Pope. But they may be surprised to hear that his longest, containing crucial early reflections on Christianity and Marxism, has never been published.

When Polish newspapers wrote about it recently, the news sparked a debate in the late pontiff’s homeland. The institute in charge of Fr. Karol Wojtyla’s pre-papal writings at Poland’s Catholic University of Lublin has promised to publish the work. Yet interpretations of the two-volume Katolicka Etyka Spoleczna Catholic Social Ethics ) have been bitterly contested.

For one thing, the text contradicts views of the pontiff as a life-long fan of liberal capitalism which have been vigorously promoted by US neo-conservatives.

For another, it raised questions as to why, when every detail of Fr. Wojtyla’s life has been examined by researchers and biographers, this substantial 511-page work has apparently escaped notice.

Catholic Social Ethics was bound in a limited print-run of 300 copies at the request of Catholic students in 1953-4 with the approval of Fr. Wojtyla’s archbishop, Cardinal Adam Sapieha of Krakow. It provides no evidence that the future Pope had any political affiliation. However, it shows he’d acquired by his early 30s a sophisticated knowledge of Marxism and an empathy with its critique of capitalist injustices. It also makes clear he’d already rejected both “individualistic liberalism” and “socialist totalism” as prerequisites for a well-organized society.

“The Church is aware that the bourgeois mentality as a whole, with its materialist spirit, acutely contradicts the Gospel,” Fr. Wojtyla writes in one section. “From the Church’s standpoint, it is a question of ensuring, by way of various economic-structural forms, just partici-pation by all members of society, and especially people of work, in possessing sufficient amounts of assets and participating at least to some extent in productive goods.”

Statements like this have proved hard to accept in some Church quarters.

In his lengthy biography, Witness to Hope (1999), George Weigel relegates the work to a mere footnote, claiming Fr. Wojtyla had used lecture notes from an older colleague, Professor Jan Piwowarczyk, and could not be regarded as the author. Catholic Social Ethicswas, in any case, “a rather conventional presentation of the Church’s social doctrine in the 1959s,” Weigel assured his readers.

In a January letter to The Tablet , Weigel again dismissed this “alleged Wojtyla text,” claiming the Pope “did not regard the work as his own.” This is rejected by Polish experts on John Paul II. They insist Catholic Social Ethics , though drawing on Piwo-warczyk, is indeed Wojtyla’s work, and could significantly affect interpretations of the future pontiff’s philosophical development.

“It shows, clearly and unequivocally, how deeply he believed Christians had to resist injustice and oppression,” explains Fr. Jan Gowczyk, an expert with Rome’s John Paul II Foundation. “Though it can’t be treated as an official papal text, it should be studied and interpreted accordingly.”

Yet the work’s exposure to public attention has provoked some anguished reactions, not least at John Paul II’s old Lublin university. In March, the city’s Archbishop, Msgr. Jozef Zycinski, summoned a meeting of professors and declared “support for the views of George Weigel,” dismissing suggestions that Wojtyla had expressed “sympathy for Marxism” and “criticism of capitalism.”

Archbishop Zycinski has worked with Weigel on “Free Society” summer schools in Poland, alongside other neo-conservatives such as Michael Novak and Richard Neuhaus, who’ve made great efforts to highlight the apparent endorse-ment of free-market economics contained in John Paul II’s 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus . A special Church website was needed, Zycinski announced last Spring, to counter “false interpretations of John Paul II’s views.”

The archbishop could be less worried once he studies Catholic Social Ethics . The detailed contents table includes subtitles such as “Communism in its Historical Dimension” and “Marxism’s Ethic of Class Struggle.” But the aim, Fr. Wojytla makes clear, isn’t to apply Marxism to Christianity. Just the opposite: it’s to give Marxist concepts a Christian meaning, and win back some of the ideas Marxism has expropriated.

Fr. Wojtyla traces communism itself back to Christian tradition, even subtitling one section of his text “The Objective Superiority of the Communist ideal.” But he makes clear he is using the term generically to mean common ownership. The Church believes private ownership can be upheld, he says, while “enfranchising the proletariat.”

“In the contemporary com-munist movement, the Church sees and acknowledges an expression of largely ethical goals,” the future pontiff concedes. “In line with patristic traditions and the centuries-old practice of monastic life, the church itself acknowledges the ideal of communism. But it believes, given the current state of human nature, that the general implementation of this ideal – while protecting the human person’s complete freedom – faces insurmountable difficulties.”

This doesn’t, however, invalidate the use of struggle to change the social and economic order. “Since human beings are endowed with free will,” Wojtyla goes on, “they’re able to choose spiritual goodness.” Yet violent upheavals can be ethically justified as a means of resisting unjust rulers. Although Catholicism cannot “agree with materialism,” it recognises that “various facts and historical processes” are economically determined.

“In a well organised society, orientated to the common good, class conflicts are solved peacefully through reforms. But states that base their order on individualistic liberalism are not such societies. So when an exploited class fails to receive in a peaceful way the share of the common good to which it has a right, it has to follow a different path.”

“Class struggle should gain strength in proportion to the resistance it faces from eco-nomically privileged classes,” Fr. Wojtyla writes. “Guided by a just evaluation of historical events, the Church should view the cause of revolution with an awareness of the ethical evil in factors of the economic and social regime, and in the political system, which generates the need for a radical reaction. It can be accepted that the majority of people who took part in revolutions – even bloody ones – were acting on the basis of internal convictions, and thus in accordance with conscience.”

Fr. Wojtyla wasn’t the only Polish priest saying things about Marxism in the 1950s.

The country’s Catholic primate, Archbishop Stefan Wysczynski, who also wrote much about Catholic ethics, claimed in his prison diaries to have “gone through Das Kapital three times,” beginning at seminary before the Second World War, and makes clear he would have supported communist “socio-economic reform” if not for the party’s “narrow atheism.”

In this context, Wojtyla could be said to be using the “language of the epoch.” Although the text’s ideas are couched in Marxist language, the meaning behind them accords with Christian teaching. They merely convey in unconventional terms what popes from Leo XIII onwards had said about the abuses of liberalism and unchecked competition.

Yet that isn’t how Catholic Social Ethics is being viewed in the Polish Church.

Professor Tomasz Styczen, who heads the Lublin Institute, says the work wasn’t submitted for publication originally for fear its analysis of Marxism would offend Poland’s communist censors. Once Wojtyla became Pope, Fr. Styczen admits, it was considered “unpropitious” to draw attention to it.

This seems borne out by the evidence.

Virtually every piece of Wojtyla’s writing has been published, from the youthful poetry he penned as a teenager to the weighty conference papers he delivered as a cardinal. Can a work of such importance as Catholic Social Ethics simply have slipped through the net?

That question is being asked in Poland. In a front-page spread last April, the Zycie Warszawy daily accused the Lublin Institute of attempting to “censor the Pope” by withholding the text from public view. Meanwhile the Polityka weekly criticised Church leaders like Archbishop Zycinski for showing short memories. “Whoever knows a bit about post-war Church history knows what a great challenge Marxism posed to Wojtyla’s generation,” wrote Polityka’s veteran columnist Adam Szostkiewicz. It spoke in a language pleasant to the ears of Catholics disappointed by the failures and faults of inter-war Poland.”

The Catholic University’s rector, Fr. Andrzej Szostek, insists no attempt was made to suppress Catholic Social Ethics – the Lublin Institute had merely found “more important texts” to publish during John Paul II’s 26-year pontificate. Speaking at a Lublin conference in May, however, Szostek conceded that Wojtyla had used Catholic Social Ethics to “formulate fundamental intuitions con-cerning capitalism and Marxism.” That should qualify the work for fair and open study by historians. It should also raise doubts about using the Pope to bless any single ideology.

Yet some Church leaders are plainly worried that the text could challenge the late Pope’s alignment with capitalism. Archbishop Zycinski has rejected suggestions there can be “valid differences of view and interpretation” about John Paul II’s early life and work. Meanwhile, though his university has agreed to publish Catholic Social Ethics , Fr. Szostek has warned that an “authentic version” must be prepared “with commentaries to help with its understanding.”

It may be some time yet before Catholic readers know the full truth about the Polish Pope’s life-long convictions.

Reprinted with permission from Catholic Life (Cheshire, England). Jonathan Luxmoore covers Church news from Oxford and Warsaw.

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXVI, No. 2, Mar.-Apr. 2007.