This Paul VI Encyclical Really Deserves a Birthday Party

This Paul VI Encyclical Really Deserves a Birthday Party July 25, 2018

Populorum progressio

Pope Paul VI with Joseph Ratzinger (public domain).

On March 26, 1967, Pope Paul VI published an encyclical entitled Populorum Progressio. It is about the right to a just wage, employment, safe working conditions, to join a union, and the universal destination of goods. Correct me if I am wrong, but last year did I miss it when Catholics threw a 50th birthday party for Populorum Progressio?

I mean, Pope St. John Paul II thought that PP merited birthday celebrations. In 1987, when it was twenty years old, the pope celebrated it with a brand new encyclical. Maybe you recall this. It was called Sollicitudo Rei Socialis. St. John Paul II says that PP is a “distinguished” addition to the body of Catholic social teaching. He says it has “enduring relevance.” Thus it is important, says John Paul II, to “pay homage … to its teaching.” What Paul VI teaches, he says, “retains all [its] force as an appeal to conscience today.”

And Pope Benedict XVI, too, speaks of the relevance of PP in his encyclical Caritas in Veritate. (Indeed, in CV, you can find the words “Populorum Progressio” fifty-four times.)

At a distance of over forty years from the encyclical’s publication, I intend to pay tribute and to honour the memory of the great Pope Paul VI, revisiting his teachings on integral human development and taking my place within the path that they marked out, so as to apply them to the present moment. This continual application to contemporary circumstances began with the Encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, with which the Servant of God Pope John Paul II chose to mark the twentieth anniversary of the publication of Populorum Progressio. Until that time, only Rerum Novarum had been commemorated in this way. Now that a further twenty years have passed, I express my conviction that Populorum Progressio deserves to be considered “the Rerum Novarum of the present age,” shedding light upon humanity’s journey towards unity.

The “Rerum Novarum of the present age”! Well, that’s an endorsement. So why are we seeing Catholic Internet fall all over itself in homage to Humanae Vitae, while the fiftieth anniversary of Populorum Progressio passes without remark?

“Well!” you say. “Catholics rebel against Humanae Vitae! We need to tell them why Paul VI was right!” So there need to be HV classes at parishes, of several weeks’ duration, to say that Paul VI was right. There need to be books on the sexual morality of HV, written by people who, being very consistent, defend Milo Yiannopoulos.

I see. So there are no Catholics anywhere, search the wide world, who rebel against Church social teaching. This is news to me. I mean, we have people like John Zmirak who says that Catholic social teaching is a myth. And we have people like Leila Miller, who time and again repeat the silly view that social justice is just about the left-wing, Democrat agenda. It appeals to “the Catholic left,” but not “faithful Catholics.” And we have people like George Weigel, who had a meltdown in National Review in 2009 when Benedict XVI published Caritas in Veritate. He said that you could go through CV with a gold marker to highlight the obvious “Benedictine” passages and a red marker to highlight the obvious Pontifical Council for Justice for Peace passages.

And which ones are the “Benedictine” passages? Mr. Weigel tells us.

The clearly Benedictine passages in Caritas in Veritate follow and develop the line of John Paul II, particularly in the new encyclical’s strong emphasis on the life issues (abortion, euthanasia, embryo-destructive stem-cell research).

So you see, the issues that the American right-wing cares most about are the ones that Benedict wrote. He couldn’t have written those other ones. Oh, heavens, no!! And which ones are they? Why, the ones about “defeating Third World poverty,” of course. Those ones. Mr. Weigel finds those passages “clotted and muddled.” (Whereas, the ones condemning abortion are very crystal clear. Hooray!)

Not too many years ago, Judge Andrew Napolitano had a fit over the notion that the pope’s interest in social justice was an “attack on the free market.” At First Things, Maureen Mullarkey went mad, and said that Pope Francis wanted to destroy freedom across the globe!

And as far back as 1961, the same National Review published a column telling us that the expression “Mater si, Magistra no” was “going the rounds of conservative circles.” The expression was a play on Pope St. John XXIII’s encyclical Mater et Magistra, and was meant to affirm, yes, the Church is my mother, but hell no, she is not my teacher. Big middle finger to that.

(Except on abortion, and contraception, and gay sex. We love the Church when she says this. And if Pope Francis does not say this when he comes to the United States, he is mud.)

And in 2006, New Oxford Review published evidence that “Mater si, Magistra no” was still alive and well among pick-and-choose conservative Catholics. (Specifically, in this case, concerning just war doctrine. Conservative Catholics in 2006 needed to remain faithful to Pope George W first. Certainly they must defend at all costs the idea that the Church is wrong to condemn the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.)


So if you want to say, “Hey, we need to explain to dissenters why Humanae Vitae is totally right and stuff,” fine. But dissenters need some splainin regarding Populorum Progressio, too, and the bulk of Church social teaching.

As much as it may be true that we have an obligation to the life-giving meaning of the sexual act, Paul VI also tells us that “we are under obligation to all men” now living. “The reality of human solidarity brings us not only benefits but also obligations.” And one of those “obligations” is the universal destination of goods.

Conservative dissenters love to appeal to property rights. And the Church does not deny property rights, but listen to what Paul VI also says.

All other rights, whatever they may be, including the rights of property and free trade, are to be subordinated to this principle. They should in no way hinder it; in fact, they should actively facilitate its implementation. Redirecting these rights back to their original purpose must be regarded as an important and urgent social duty. (22)

The right to private property is not absolute. Paul VI continues:

Everyone knows that the Fathers of the Church laid down the duty of the rich toward the poor in no uncertain terms. As St. Ambrose put it: “You are not making a gift of what is yours to the poor man, but you are giving him back what is his. You have been appropriating things that are meant to be for the common use of everyone. The earth belongs to everyone, not to the rich.” These words indicate that the right to private property is not absolute and unconditional.

I am not sure “everyone knows” this any more. Tender hearts on the right may blow up at the suggestion. Now, we hear a lot about how contraception and gay sex violate the natural law. But be careful when you invoke natural law. In Summa Theologica, St. Thomas Aquinas says that “Whatever certain people have in superabundance is due, by natural law, to the purpose of succoring the poor.

And Paul VI brings up natural law in Populorum Progressio too, as well as in Humanae Vitae. He mentions it when he brings up the right to a just wage. Conservative dissenters love to deny that we know what a just wage even is. They love to appeal to the right of contract; didn’t the laborer agree to that wage when he accepted the job? Paul VI and Leo XIII look down on this thinking.

The teaching set forth by our predecessor Leo XIII in Rerum Novarum is still valid today: when two parties are in very unequal positions, their mutual consent alone does not guarantee a fair contract; the rule of free consent remains subservient to the demands of the natural law.

To not pay a just wage is a violation of natural law too, according to Paul VI; and you cannot just appeal to “the right of contract” as an out on natural law. Denying a just wage is a sin that cries to heaven for vengeance, by the way.

And you know, let me say something else on this point. I have heard any number of cheerleaders for Humanae Vitae, when asked about women who have grave reasons to avoid pregnancy, and yet can’t use NFP because their cycles are irregular and can’t be charted, who have no difficulty at all saying, “Well, you’ll just have to be celibate for the duration.”

And yet many of these wery same people are aghast when the Church demands that employers pay a just wage commensurate with family size, or provide adequate health insurance for women.

Personally, I don’t know many Catholics who blithely rebel at Humanae Vitae and say, “Well, big middle finger to the Church, I will do what I want.” (I am sure there are some.) Instead I know a great many who have a great deal of fear due to goods that compete against the good of new life, such as the good of their own health, or the economic security of the family, and who at the same time find it impossible to use NFP for one reason or another (like irregular cycles).

But I have run into a lot of Catholics who give a middle finger to the Church when she talks about social justice (mater si, magistra no); and it is because of that that encyclicals like Populorum Progressio need a loud and regular birthday party. PP is the Rerum Novarum for today; Benedict XVI says so. How about, next year, we have a nice little homage to Caritas in Veritate? It will be ten years old.

As for Humanae Vitae, if women who are fearful could be approached with some degree of compassion rather than judgment (Oh, just have more faith in God, little one), that would be nice on this fiftieth anniversary.


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