In his more than 26 years as Supreme Pontiff and Bishop of Rome, Blessed John Paul the Great must have addressed tens of thousands of Filipinos in his numerous audiences in Rome. A good number of these were OFWs in Italy and many other neighboring European nations. I can only surmise that among the one million or so persons who attended his beatification rites last May 1, there were OFWs who have been doctrinally enlightened and spiritually comforted by the words of the new Blessed.
Probably unknown to many of these OFWs, it was Blessed John Paul the Great who strongly defended their human right to work in any occupation and in any country of their choice. Their decision to leave their country in search of better economic opportunities can be considered as part of the freedom of economic initiative.
It was in his Encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis that Blessed John Paul the Great contributed to the lexicon of human rights the right to individual economic initiative. The original Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations did not include this fundamental right, which is the key to the economic of development societies and the antidote to totalitarianism, socialism, and communism in the economic sphere. When individuals are allowed to exercise freedom of economic initiative, the unlimited creativity of the human mind and spirit inevitably leads to sustainable economic development. This is a philosophical and theological principle, not an ideology. It was the freedom of individual economic initiative that was unleashed in China by Deng Xiao Peng in 1978 and by in India by then Finance Minister Mamohan Singh in 1991 that led to the unprecedented rapid growth of the economies in these two giant countries. It will be the same freedom of individual economic initiative that can lead to economic progress in the Middle East and Africa in the coming decades.
As the Compendium of the Social Doctrine the Church states (336), the Church’s doctrine considers the freedom of the person in economic matters a fundamental value and inalienable right to be promoted and defended. Everyone has the right to economic initiative; everyone should make legitimate use of his talents to contribute to the abundance that will benefit all, and to harvest the just fruits of his labor. This teaching warns against the negative consequences that would arise from weakening or denying the right of economic initiative. Experience shows that the denial of this right, or its limitation in the name of an alleged “equality” of everyone in society, diminishes, or in practice absolutely destroys the spirit of initiative, that is to say the relative subjectivity of the citizen.
It was in Centessimus Annus Blessed John Paul the Great described with utmost clarity both the strengths and limitations of the market economy. He recognized that the market takes on a significant social function in contemporary society. He advises, therefore, that it is important to identify the most positive potentials of the market to create the conditions that allow them to be put concretely into effect. He said that market operators must be effectively free to compare, evaluate and choose from among various options. Freedom in the economic sector, however, must be regulated by appropriate legal norms so that it will be placed at the service of integral human freedom: “Economic freedom is only one element of human freedom. When it becomes autonomous, when man is seen more as a producer or consumer of goods than as a subject who produces and consumes in order to live, then economic freedom loses its necessary relationship to the human person and ends up by alienating and oppressing him.”(Centessimus Annus, 39).
Blessed John Paul the Great did not favor the unlimited functioning of the market. It was clear to him that the market alone cannot be entrusted with the task of supplying every category of goods. There cannot be an idolatry of the market. The Church’s social doctrine underlines the limits of the market, which are easily seen in its proven inability to satisfy important human needs, which require goods that by their nature are not and cannot be mere commodities, good which cannot be bought and sold according to the rule of the “exchange equivalents” and the logic of contracts, which are typical of the market. In many developing countries such as the Philippines, where a large number of citizens are living below the poverty line, there are millions of individuals who are too poor and, therefore, too hungry, too unclothed, too unhoused, too unhealthy, too unschooled or too unskilled to be able to offer anything to the market. They must be first helped by either the State and/or civil society to overcome their extreme lack of goods and services before they can be enabled to participate actively in the market. Some examples here are quality basic education and basic health services for the poorest of the poor, which the State has to provide at no or very little costs. A country like the Federal Republic of Germany has arrived at the optimum combination of the freedom of economic initiative and the strict responsibility of the State and civil society to directly help the poorer segments of society to attain a minimum level of physical well-being to be able to participate actively in the market economy. This is what is known as the social market economy.
In his social encyclicals, Pope John Paul II, building on all the other papal encyclicals containing the social doctrine of the Church, has laid out very clear guidelines that can help countries all over the world redesign their respective economic systems so that we can avoid the excesses of the market economy that led to the Great Recession from whose harmful effects many countries, especially in the developed world, have not yet recovered. The Philippines, among other developing countries, can learn from the mistakes of the U.S. and Europe so that we can arrive at an optimum balance between the many benefits of the market economy with the strict responsibility of the State to regulate the actions of the private sector so that the authentic good of society will be effectively promoted.
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