A Papal Message Lost, and Found : What Sounds Like ‘Moral Equivalence’ Is a Belief in Liberty

<i> Michael Novak is a theologian and an author who writes a column in Washington</i>

The bad news first. Pope John Paul II’s new encyclical has caused dismay among Americans who heretofore have admired him but who detest the theory of “moral equivalence” between East and West.

No doubt the Pope is vulnerable to criticism for the unguarded way in which he draws parallels between the “two blocs.”

So does the Pope himself actually believe in moral equivalence?

Although the first news reports from Rome asserted that he does, a close reading of his text undercuts that assertion.


The encyclical was written to commemorate (and to modify) the earlier letter of Pope Paul VI in 1967, Populorum Progressio . A comparison of the two letters shows decisive movement by the Roman Catholic Church toward democracy in politics, toward “the right of private initiative” in economics and toward the crucial role in development of the whole Western tradition of human rights. Paul VI showed a more utopian tendency. John Paul II, who knows actual socialist societies well, moves forthrightly in the opposite direction. He suggests Paul VI was too optimistic.

Pope John Paul II, of course, continues to voice many hostile criticisms of “liberal capitalism,” of which he presents a caricature. (Those who live under the real democratic capitalism also love to criticize our system night and day.).

What the Pope means when he uses the word “capitalism” is “an all-consuming desire for profit at any price . . . the absolutizing of human attitudes.” Ivan Boesky was put in jail for that. The average annual profit for U.S. corporations is about 5% per year. A “reasonable rate of return” is not “an all-consuming desire for profit at any price.”

Granted, the Pope’s greatest political wish is to relax the conflict between East and West. He wants Poland (and the other nations locked in the Eastern bloc) to gain some liberating breathing space.

East and West belong together and the world cannot long exist, as Alexander Solzhenitsyn said at Harvard, “A world split apart.” (Solzhenitsyn was more careful than the Pope not to fall into the rhetoric of moral equivalence.)

The Pope roots his theological vision in the declaration of Genesis: Humans are made in the image of God. The vocation of humans, then, is to be creative. In creativity and freedom lies their dignity. Children of one family, whose rights are endowed in them by a common creator, they are bound by ties of “global solidarity.”

“An essential condition for global solidarity,” the Pope writes, “is autonomy and free self-determination.” He writes, as well, that democracy is “the necessary condition” for development.

For the Pope, the denial of human rights--"as for example the right to religious freedom . . . the freedom to organize and to form unions, or to take initiatives in economic matters"--is a form of poverty even worse than material poverty.


In the economy, John Paul II stresses more clearly than any other Pope the central role of “the right of economic initiative.” He blasts the “denial of this right, or its limitation in the name of an alleged ‘equality’ of everyone in society,” that “diminishes, or in practice absolutely destroys the spirit of initiative, that is to say the creative subjectivity of the citizen.”

He goes on: “As a consequence, there arises, not so much a true equality as a ‘leveling down.’ In the place of creative initiative there appear passivity, dependence and submission.”

But even here the Pope sets up an uncalled-for parallelism, outrageously saying that the system of totalitarian, bureaucratic oppression “is similar to the traditional dependence of the worker-proletarian in capitalism.”

Traditional? When? Similar? To the Gulag? To the crushing of Solidarity? The Vatican should know that a worker at General Motors can make $37,000 a year, not counting benefits.


As an Italian communist once told me, the problem with capitalism is that it quickly makes workers middle-class, leaving only intellectuals, students and, lately, clergy for the party.

To me it is nearly inexplicable that the Pope should so often in this letter place a collectivist system, which he is known to loathe from personal experience, on a rhetorical level with the West, all of whose founding values he expressly cherishes. He has no trouble visiting America; visiting Lithuania has so far been impossible.

The Pope expresses a moral vision of a world whose polity is democratic, under law and protective of human rights; whose economy makes central “the right to private initiative,” and whose moral system is marked by religious liberty, “autonomy and free self-determination” (which the Pope calls “an essential condition of global solidarity”).

Were the world ever to be formed according to the vision expressed by the Pope, it would certainly not look like the Eastern bloc.


According to the encyclical’s stated prescriptions, the world the Pope desires would have in structure something very much like the institutions of the United States. Of course, he would want its people to live more disciplined, self-controlled and virtuous lives than Americans now do.

But maybe the explanation is human. Like Solzhenitsyn, the Pope probably feels contempt for the way our media present us to the world. That is no excuse for the few careless passages on parallelism between East and West. Nor for the plain hostility of the United States in such passages.

In focusing on the theologial vision set forth by the Pope rather than on his factual hypotheses about the current geopolitical situation, there is much to take strength from--more, in fact, than any previous Pope has offered.

Bad news, in short, and good.