Social Teaching in the City of John Paul II

St. Mary’s Basilica, Krakow

In his 1991 encyclical, Centesimus Annus, Pope John Paul II wrote about the immense challenges facing those nations—including his native Poland—which were emerging from a half-century of totalitarian oppression into a new era marked by the promise and hope of freedom and prosperity. The Pope knew even then that simply being rid of communism was, in itself, not enough to make good on the promise of the future. A “great effort” would be needed if freedom were to serve the truth about the human person:

For a long time the most elementary economic relationships were distorted, and basic virtues of economic life, such as truthfulness, trustworthiness and hard work were denigrated. A patient material and moral reconstruction is needed, even as people, exhausted by longstanding privation, are asking their governments for tangible and immediate results in the form of material benefits and an adequate fulfilment of their legitimate aspirations.

If it is to serve humane ends, freedom—in politics as in the market—requires virtue and people of a certain moral character. Freedom is never merely procedural—a matter of merely voting or buying or selling. The final outcome of the “Revolution of 1989” was thus far from secure. Toward the end of the encyclical, the Pope reiterated the importance of studying and applying Catholic social teaching, not just for the “new democracies” but for the established Western democracies, too:

In particular, I wish [Catholic social] teaching to be made known and applied in the countries which, following the collapse of “Real Socialism”, are experiencing a serious lack of direction in the work of rebuilding. The Western countries, in turn, run the risk of seeing this collapse as a one-sided victory of their own economic system, and thereby failing to make necessary corrections in that system.

In 1992, in response to this call, a group of American and European scholars founded what has become known as the Tertio Millennio Seminar on the Free Society. The seminar seeks to deepen the understanding of Catholic social doctrine among future leaders from both North American and central and eastern Europe. Taking Centesimus Annus as our point of departure, the seminar explores the three-fold foundations of the “free society”: a democratic polity, a free economy, and, crucially, a vibrant public moral culture. (It has been my privilege to help organize the seminar since 2006. I’ve written about the incredible experience before, here and here.)

The historical circumstances of 2014 are very different than those of 1992 (though recent events in Ukraine suggest they’re not all that different.) But the relevance of the Church’s social teaching endures. Thus, the seminar addresses the classic themes of the Church’s social doctrine while also considering the challenges of our current circumstances: the moral crisis of global capitalism, secularization and the family, the rise of Islam in Europe, religious freedom, ecumenism, interreligious dialogue, bioethics and the “culture of life,” etc.

Lecturers this year will include George Weigel, Mary Eberstadt, Russell Hittinger, Fr. William Joensen, Jarosław Kupczak, OP, Fr. Raymond J. de Souza, Maciej Zięba, OP, and myself.

In addition to more than two weeks of intense intellectual work, the seminar includes visits to sites that highlight Poland’s distinctive history and culture: Częstochowa, Auschwitz, the old Jewish quarter of Kraków, the shrine of St. Faustina, and a walking tour of “Karol Wojtyła’s Kraków.”

The seminar is academically rigorous, and competition is stiff for the 10-12 spots open to applicants from North America. While there is no cost to attend the seminar, other than travel and spending money, the investment in time and travel is not insignificant. The entire program is conducted in English.

If you or someone you know would be interested in finding out more about the Tertio Millennio Seminar, you can visit the seminar’s website. The deadline for applications to the 2014 seminar is March 28.

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