This issue of the “Bulletin” is entirely devoted to the encyclical Centesimus annus of John Paul II, the thirtieth anniversary is being celebrated this year: in fact, it bears the date of May 1, 1991. We hope this anniversary will become an occasion for many people to reread this prime  encyclical and recover the essence of its teachings. For the moment, we are doing our part, hoping others will join in this dutiful commemoration.

Centesimus annus abounds with substantial content. First of all, it celebrates the hundredth anniversary of Rerum novarum (1891-1991) to which it dedicates 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 or not this meant the victory of the Western system. Finally, it outlines the forms of the Church’s engagement in society of the near future. Important statements about the nature of the Church’s social doctrine are also well worth recalling, such as definitions of it as a proclamation of Christ in temporal realities (n. 55), its belonging to the Church’s mission of salvation (n. 5), its being an instrument of the new evangelization (n. 5), its being centered on faith (n. 54), its practical nature (n. 57), its interdisciplinary character (n. 59), and its character as a doctrinal corpus (n. 5),

The themes addressed by the encyclical, therefore, are many indeed, 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 albeit moderate expression of an “anthropological turning point”. It is true that in this encyclical, as in the rest of John Paul II’s Magisterium, personalism is present, even though in the effort to center it always on Christ. I am of the opinion, however, that this is not the heart of Centesimus annus, and that the heart is the centrality of God also in social issues.  The heart remains the cry “open the doors to Christ!” of his first homily as pontiff.

The centrality of God results first of all from the way Centesimus annus considers the Social Doctrine of the Church. As I have already said, it is seen as the “proclamation of Christ in temporal realities”, an essential component of the “new evangelization”, an essential 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”.  In all of these expressions, note well the use of the adjective “essential”, indicating something that cannot be lacking. 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 neither to be a simple new humanism, nor to have to beg from the world the truths to be announced and incarnated.

For this reason, Centesimus annus recalls that Rerum novarum conferred on the Church a “citizenship status in the changing realities of public life” (n. 5). “Citizenship status” must be understood as the essential and non-accidental exercise of a public role connected with the evangelizing mission of the Church. If this evangelizing mission has man as its “way” (cf. n. 53), 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 manner of Leo XIII and at times the language wavers, as when the encyclical claims the right to holiday rest as due public worship of the divine majesty, then basing it on 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”, it says that its aim is the “defense of man”, but specifies and confirms that the Church “receives the meaning of man from divine revelation” (n. 55), that “Christian anthropology is actually a chapter of theology” (n. 55), and that “the theological dimension is necessary both to interpret and to resolve the current problems of human coexistence” (n. 55). When it speaks of man, the encyclical never forgets to express man’s “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 human heart, but the results have shown that it is not possible to succeed in this without throwing the heart into turmoil” (n. 24). 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” (n. 24). True alienation is the lack of God. Totalitarianism “stems from the denial of truth in an objective sense,” hence 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. And here too, one notes the centrality of God and not man.   Certainly “man is understood if he is framed in the sphere of culture” (n. 24), but “at the center of every culture is the attitude that man takes before the greatest mystery: the mystery of God” (n. 24).

In 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 the mere social animation of consciences in a pluralistic society. Man is the way of the Church, says Centesimus annus, but “only faith fully reveals his identity” (n. 54), and the Church proposes to assist him “on the path of salvation” (n. 54).

H.E. Mons. Giampaolo Crepaldi

Bishop of Trieste

Founder and President Emeritus of the Observatory

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Mons. Giampaolo Crepaldi

Vescovo Emerito di Trieste