Some of the greatest misunderstandings of the Catholic Church arise from trying to fit it into the political and economic categories we use to analyze figures and organizations. Is the Catholic Church liberal or conservative? Is the pope a libertarian or socialist? Documents are pulled out, and the proof-texting begins. In truth, the Catholic Church cannot fit into these categories. The pope is not a politician but a custodian of truths. Yet popes do speak on many of the most contested topics of our time. How, then, should we understand their words, and what contribution do they offer to the discussion?

In Papal Economics: The Catholic Church on Democratic Capitalism, from Rerum Novarum to Caritas in Veritate, the Polish theologian Maciej Zieba, OP provides good answers to these questions. A physicist who became a Dominican priest, a member of the Solidarity movement that peacefully overthrew the Polish communist regime, and a close friend of John Paul II, Zieba approaches this topic with experience and learning. His book is partly an introduction to Catholic social thought (CST) and partly a study of CST’s engagement with liberal democracy and the free-market economy, particularly in John Paul II’s encyclical Centesimus Annus. Zieba could have drawn clearer lines between those two parts, but, on the whole, his book succeeds on both counts.

Before examining what CST says, we first need to understand what kind of thought it is. The first example of CST is Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum, which was written in 1891 to address the political and economic crises of the industrial revolution. Since that time, subsequent popes have sought to apply the theological truths of Catholicism to a rapidly changing world. Because CST attempts to apply unchanging principles to changing circumstances, it is more contingent on historical circumstance than dogmas such as the Trinity or the human and divine natures of Christ. Yet CST is not a policy white paper. It specifies ends and goals, leaving the question of what means to employ open for debate. CST also eschews utopianism for meliorism, which Zieba defines as “the gradual perfection of existing structures and institutions.”

Perhaps most important, CST is not an ideological program that purports to have the ability to solve all of society’s problems, if only it were implemented fully and correctly. Christianity, Zieba argues, is not an ideology, no matter what its critics claim. Following John Paul II’s understanding in Centesimus Annus, Zieba writes:

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ideology maintains a concept of truth and goodness that captures all of reality in a simple and solid schema, and its advocates believe that this concept can be imposed on other people. Christian truth, the pope observes, does not fulfill this second condition and therefore is not an ideology.

To further the point, Zieba argues that Christians cannot impose their own concepts because, in a sense, they are not their own. The Church is not the owner of Christian truth, “only its depository”—an idea Pope Francis echoed recently when he said that it is not so much that Catholics possess the truth as that Catholics are possessed by the truth. One must acknowledge, of course, that this is more a statement of principle than of history: examples of Christians using their faith as an ideology abound. But Zieba and Francis are right: an epistemological humility should lie at the heart of Christian thought. Maintaining that humility makes CST all the more powerful as a tool of analysis and critique.

The subject of CST is the human person in all his fullness. As now-Cardinal Carlo Caffara put it, “Neither homo technicus, nor homo oeconomicus, nor homo politicus is the pastoral object of the Magisterium, but rather homo humanus.”

First and foremost, human beings are made in the image and likeness of God. This gives us an inviolable dignity that serves as the cornerstone of CST. Second, being made in the image of God means that human beings are creative by nature. We are subjects who can exercise our rational thought and will on the objects around us. We can make something that reflects our personhood and is our own. In this way, creative subjectivity grounds the right to private property.

For John Paul II, work is a means by which a person realizes himself, and private property allows the laborer to enjoy the fruits of his labor. But the laborer is never an isolated individual, and the right to private property is not absolute. The principle of the universal destination of human goods places social obligations on the owners of property. They are stewards of their goods, but they should ultimately order their possessions toward the good of others in society. As Zieba puts it, “Possession is inherently social in nature.”

Because it bases its principles on truths about the human person, CST examines the philosophical anthropology that grounds other schools of social thought. The popes, especially John Paul II, tend to see faulty ideas about economics, life, marriage, and politics as coming from faulty concepts of what it means to be human.

Frequently, faulty anthropologies are reductive. According to John Paul II, Zieba writes, “socialism reduces man ‘to a series of social relationships,’ and as a result ‘the concept of the person as the autonomous subject of moral decision disappears.’” From this bad anthropology comes a political system that violates the rights of the human person and an economic system that violates property rights. In capitalist societies, on the other hand, many subordinate the interior and spiritual parts of human nature to the material and instinctive. Hence, John Paul II writes, “people are left to consider themselves and their lives as a series of sensations to be experienced.” They chase thrills and possessions, neglecting the cost to themselves and to society as a whole.

Note that, for John Paul, consumerism is not a problem of economics, but of society’s moral culture. It is not an evil endemic to free markets but a warped understanding of what is good for human beings. Hence, Zieba writes, “the true measure of an economic system, for John Paul, lies in whether it respects the truth about man as a person.”

Likewise, the true measure of a government is whether it respects the rights of its citizens and cares for their needs. A healthy democracy, Zieba argues, must be founded on right anthropology. Five truths in particular serve as an “anthropological minimum”: the certitude that the actors in society are equal; the conviction that the majority of people will behave rationally; the conviction that people are prepared to distinguish good from bad, and that the majority is apt to choose the good; the pursuit of the common good as the raison d’être of the political community; and generosity toward minority groups.

In other words, “the foundation of liberal democracy is something that liberal democracy itself cannot guarantee.” It is the truth, particularly the truth about human nature, that provides the foundation for freedom and justice, which must be oriented toward what is truly good and human. A free economy, a just government, and a sound moral culture serve as the three pillars of a flourishing society. All of them, in turn, must be founded on and reflect sound anthropology.

This “methodological anthropology” leads to one of the strongest passages in Centesimus Annus. John Paul asks whether, after the fall of communism, capitalism should be proposed as the model for countries seeking economic progress. He responds:

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’s careful use of the term capitalism is exemplary, Zieba argues, and demonstrates a precision sometimes lacking in other documents of CST. This precision partly explains why Zieba treats it so extensively—but there is more to it than that.

The Catholic Church does not endorse particular models, Zieba repeats (though it certainly excludes some models and seems to come close to endorsing others). But Zieba does endorse particular models, and he evaluates CST in light of them. Zieba belongs to a school of thought that sees Centesimus Annus as the pinnacle of CST, because it offers the deepest and most favorable account of liberal democracy and free-market economics. This is a valid reading of CST, but not the only one. Hence the need for greater clarity in the book between those times when Zieba articulates “papal economics” and when he makes a Catholic case for the soundest form of economics.

Zieba also rarely mentions solidarity, a curious omission for a former member of a movement bearing that name and an unfortunate one in terms of treating CST. Solidarity, a concern for and union with other members in society, especially those who are marginalized, is one of the core principles of CST. It is sometimes presented as being in opposition with the principle of subsidiarity, which states that judgments, decisions, and actions should take place at the proper level in society. Zieba’s critics might say that, as a proponent of democratic capitalism, it is no surprise that he omits solidarity and places a strong focus on subsidiarity. But opposition between the two is mistaken. Without solidarity, subsidiarity is unthinkable, and without subsidiarity, solidarity would be disastrous. Each needs the other in order to be effective. Such an argument could have strengthened Zieba’s account.

Those weaknesses aside, Papal Economics offers a thorough treatment of economics and politics in CST. It evaluates the failed systems of the past and the more successful ones of the present. And it speaks to the future of liberalism, as well. If liberalism is to survive, Zieba concludes, it must be grounded in right anthropology. That is a project for all men and women of good will, but it is also a project in which the Catholic Church will play a vital role.