Paul VI and the Unexpected Lessons of Populorum Progressio

March 2017 marks the 50th anniversary of Blessed Paul VI’s social encyclical Populorum Progressio. Even today, this document is regularly referenced by some Catholics, particularly Latin Americans, because of its focus upon global poverty. Others, however, view the encyclical as a highly time-bound text and reflective of many now-discredited economic ideas which proliferated in the late-1960s.

The truth is that Populorum Progressio is both these things, and more. In many ways, it exemplifies the core strengths but also the limitations of the tradition of social encyclicals which began with Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum in 1891.

More than Material Development
Over time, I’ve come to admire Paul VI greatly. A sophisticated man of great culture, he managed to guide the Second Vatican Council to a successful conclusion. That was no small achievement. Steeped in sources ranging from Saint Augustine to French Catholic novelists such as George Bernanos, he was also appreciative of the modern world’s accomplishments.

At the same time, Paul was no modernist. He wrote, for example, an entire encyclical defending the Real Presence of the Eucharist against tendencies to reduce it to a symbol. Nor did Paul hesitate to defend the moral absolutes which provide Catholic ethics with its inner coherence. It took courage to issue Humanae Vitae, which refused to fudge Catholic morality in the name of being pastoral, in the cultural maelstrom of 1968. Paul, however, understood that no amount of discernment can legitimize anyone’s choice to engage in intrinsically evil acts.

The vision underpinning Humanae Vitae is one of human beings capable of transcending mediocrity, despite our weaknesses and propensity to sin. Few, however, have noted that Populorum Progressio articulated precisely the same vision of the person and the flourishing to which we are all called.

The language used by Paul to describe this was that of “self-fulfillment” and “self-development.” But fulfillment, according to Paul, wasn’t whatever you feel it to be. Man, he stated, is “endowed with intellect and free will” and thus able to “perfect himself.” Hence, as a “rational creature” a person can “of his own accord direct his life to God, the first truth and the highest good.” Through “this harmonious integration of our human nature” people can realize “a higher state of perfection,” one which “bestows new fullness of life.” That’s one reason why the Church’s moral teaching is no mere ideal. It is the way that leads to true life.

If all this sounds like the classic Christian and natural law argument that people flourish by freely choosing the goods knowable through faith and reason, that’s because it is. Without these theological and philosophical foundations, Populorum Progressio’s warnings that human development can’t be reduced to material progress wouldn’t make any sense.

Mind the Zeitgeist
Catholic social teaching is at its best when it elaborates upon this vision of human flourishing and how it sheds light on the challenges of the time. It is, alas, at its weakest whenever those drafting social encyclicals and other relevant texts don’t maintain a sufficiently critical distance from the prevailing consensus about how to address those same challenges. It’s hard to deny that Populorum Progressio fell into that trap in more than one instance.

The encyclical expressed, for example, considerable skepticism concerning free trade’s potential contribution to overcoming poverty. At the time, such skepticism was commonplace among international development experts.

Fifty years later, however, the evidence that free trade has played a decisive role in helping hundreds of millions escape poverty is overwhelming. By contrast, Populorum Progressio suggested, albeit vaguely, that developing countries should adopt protectionist measures which would allow them to build up “certain infant industries.” In retrospect, we know that those developing nations which failed to open themselves to global trade didn’t prosper economically. As Saint John Paul II’s encyclical Centesimus Annus observed just 24 years later, countries that tended to isolate themselves from the global economy “suffered stagnation and recession.”

Another misjudgment of Populorum Progressio concerned the faith it placed in international aid to address poverty in developing nations. The encyclical even called for the establishment of a “world fund” through which wealthy countries would transfer capital to poorer nations and thereby help “relieve the needs of impoverished peoples.”

Unfortunately, there’s sparse evidence that international aid or government-to-government wealth-transfers have made any systematic contribution to poverty’s reduction in developing nations. Numerous scholars ranging from the late Lord Bauer to Robert F. Gorman, Philip Booth, Dambisa Moyo, Thomas Dichter, Michael Matheson Miller, and William Easterly have raised serious questions about aid’s effectiveness. They have also highlighted the many ways in which aid has actually retarded economic development and even, in some instances, helped facilitate corruption.

Nor did Populorum Progressio show much appreciation of rule of law’s vital role in reducing poverty, let alone how, as Hernando de Soto famously demonstrated in The Mystery of Capital (2000), a coherent and enforceable system of property rights encourages long-term wealth creation. Instead the encyclical emphasized government planning, though cautioning that space be maintained for “private initiative and intermediary organizations” so as to “avoid total collectivization.” Astonishingly, the encyclical’s condemnation of what it called “unbridled liberalism” was accompanied by a deafening silence concerning the socialist economies that dominated much of the planet and which were being imposed by Marxist dictators upon developing nations ranging from Cuba to Guinea.

Leave it to the Laity
Populorum Progressio’s prudential judgments about these matters closely tracked the then-prevalent wisdom concerning economic development. They also conformed to the Keynesian emphasis upon planning that dominated economic policy in the late-1960s. Those like Bauer who advocated alternative positions were a distinct minority at the time and often marginalized by their peers. Some things never change.

That said, it remains unclear why Populorum Progressio entered into the micro-details of these questions and effectively engaged in policy-advocacy about issues to which there’s often no single right answer for Catholics. Such tendencies, however, continue to characterize much Catholic social teaching.

Consider the sheer number of topics addressed in Pope Francis’s Laudato Si’. Among others, these include acidification of the oceans, circular models of production, paper-recycling, public transportation, plankton-levels in the ocean, the disposal of detergents, the effects of synthetic agrotoxins, the replacement of virgin forest with plantations, genetically-modified cereals, environmental renewal projects, and the economic effects of air-conditioning.

The Church qua church has no particular expertise in these matters. More importantly, if addressing the problems which may or may not be associated with these and other questions is largely a prudential matter, it’s unclear why the magisterium should urge the adoption of specific solutions.

This makes it all the more interesting that Paul VI recognized a need for the Church to rethink how it approached such matters. Just 4 years after Populorum Progressio appeared—and having watched many of those who had celebrated Populorum Progressio in 1967 trash Humanae Vitae in 1968—Paul issued an apostolic letter, Octogesima Adveniens. Released to mark Rerum Novarum’s 80th anniversary, Octogesima Adveniens critically analyzed ideologies such as Marxism and liberalism. It also drew attention to new social and economic questions ranging from urbanization to the environment.

Yet Octogesima Adveniens also marked a shift away from advocacy of specific, universally-applicable solutions. This, Paul bluntly stated, “is not our ambition, nor is it our mission.” Rather, the pope called upon Christians

to analyze with objectivity the situation which is proper to their own country, to shed on it the light of the Gospel’s unalterable words and to draw principles of reflection, norms of judgment and directives for action from the social teaching of the Church. (OA 4)

It followed, Paul stressed, that each Christian should “determine, in his conscience, the actions which he is called to share in.” It was also important, the pope added, for Catholics to understand that there is often “a legitimate variety of possible options” about how to address social and economic problems. Few readers of Populorum Progressio would have arrived at that conclusion.

Above all, Octogesima Adveniens reiterated a central teaching of Vatican II: that “the renewal of the temporal order” is the “proper task” of “laymen”—not, sotto voce, the clergy. The responsibility of bishops—which presumably included himself as bishop of Rome—was, Paul stated, “to teach and to interpret authentically the norms of morality to be followed.” This division of labor, he indicated, was important so that “the laity, without waiting passively for orders and directives” could undertake the initiative for shaping the communities in which they live.

All these points remain important today. Certainly, the Church’s pastors have a responsibility to remind us of Catholic social teaching’s principles and their theological and philosophical bases. The moment, however, our pastors enter into the specifics of those policy issues about which Catholics are free to disagree, there’s a serious risk they will crowd out the contribution of laypeople, especially those who want to be respectful of their bishops.

This doesn’t mean that bishops can’t express their views on such subjects. It does, however, suggest that—like Pope Paul—Catholic clergy should readily acknowledge the legitimate plurality of views which Catholics can have on most policy questions. If this is the only insight to be gained from reflecting upon Paul VI’s social teaching fifty years after Populorum Progressio, it would be of immense service to the Church universal.

(Photo credit: Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)


Samuel Gregg is Research Director at the Acton Institute. He has authored many books including, most recently, For God and Profit: How Banking and Finance Can Serve the Common Good (2016).

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