Reading Populorum Progessio, Part I

Reading Populorum Progessio, Part I January 17, 2021

This is my first post on the encyclical Populorum Progressio by Paul VI.   It continues my reflections on the major encyclicals on Catholic social teaching.  Previously, I have written multi-part posts on Rerum Novarum, Quadragesimo Anno, Mater et Magistra, Pacem in Terris, and Gaudium et Spes.  Populorum Progressio is the first Catholic social encyclical written after Vatican II, and it relies heavily on Gaudium et Spes as well as the encyclicals of Pope John XXIII.  Paul VI was also the first modern pope to travel outside Italy, and the encyclical is clearly informed by his journeys, which he mentions explicitly: see, for example,  paragraphs 4, 51, 76.  In some ways, this was the first social encyclical to try to speak to the whole world, and not just to a European and North American audience.  It was not completely successful:  the discussion of colonialism, for instance, still wants to excuse European imperialism:  writing rather weakly that “Certain types of colonialism surely caused harm and paved the way for further troubles.” (par. 7), or describing racism by saying

During the colonial period it often flared up between the colonists and the indigenous population, and stood in the way of mutually profitable understanding, often giving rise to bitterness in the wake of genuine injustices. (par. 63)

Nevertheless, its explicit attention to the needs, desires, and legitimate demands of the developing world mark an important turning point in Catholic social teaching.

In our discussion we first read paragraphs 1-31.   Our attention was first drawn to the succinct statement on the role of the Church, and what it is trying to accomplish through its social teaching.  This paragraph is worth quoting in full:

Founded to build the kingdom of heaven on earth rather than to acquire temporal power, the Church openly avows that the two powers—Church and State—are distinct from one another; that each is supreme in its own sphere of competency.  But since the Church does dwell among men, she has the duty “of scrutinizing the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel.”  Sharing the noblest aspirations of men and suffering when she sees these aspirations not satisfied, she wishes to help them attain their full realization. So she offers man her distinctive contribution: a global perspective on man and human realities. (par. 13c)

This passage further develops the role of the Church in the world as taught by Vatican II in Gaudium et Spes.  The Church is called to build the kingdom of God on earth, but this kingdom is not political and temporal, but supernatural and grounded in the solidarity of all people.  What the Church has to offer is a detailed vision of authentic development, one which is grounded in a more complete understanding of the human person.  As subsequent paragraphs make clear, authentic development must be concerned with the material progress of each person, but must also be “well rounded” (par. 14) and enable people “to enjoy the higher values of love and friendship, of prayer and contemplation, and thus find themselves.” (par. 20)

After laying out a vision of authentic development, the encyclical then turns to the general duty to promote the common good on a global scale, thinking both of all people around the world and of future generations:

We are the heirs of earlier generations, and we reap benefits from the efforts of our contemporaries; we are under obligation to all men. Therefore we cannot disregard the welfare of those who will come after us to increase the human family. The reality of human solidarity brings us not only benefits but also obligations. (par. 17b, emphasis added).

The idea that there exist ties of mutual obligation among all people, ties that transcend national, racial, or ethnic divisions, is a powerful statement of the principle of solidarity.

Our discussion then turned to the critique of capitalism (also referred to as “liberalism”: see paragraph 26).  It begins with a rejection of materialism and the quest for unlimited possessions, which in turn leads to constraints on private property:

Now if the earth truly was created to provide man with the necessities of life and the tools for his own progress, it follows that every man has the right to glean what he needs from the earth…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. (par. 22b,c)

As an application of this principle, Paul VI makes a very strong statement in favor of land reform, stronger perhaps than what was said in Gaudium et Spes:

If certain landed estates impede the general prosperity because they are extensive, unused or poorly used, or because they bring hardship to peoples or are detrimental to the interests of the country, the common good sometimes demands their expropriation. (par. 24a)

One member of our group had some reservations about this, since he felt that it seemed to be saying that it was okay to steal from the rich.   This led us back to a discussion we had when reading Rerum Novarum, where I had some reservations about the seeming absolute defense of private property made by Leo XIII.  The question is whether some kinds of ownership of private property is, in and of itself, unjust, and therefore not defensible.  I returned to my example of King Leopold and the Congo, which he claimed as his personal domain.  (The story is told in harrowing detail in the book King Leopold’s Ghost.)  It appears that now the Church is trying to lay out criteria for determining when the right to private property must be subordinated to the duty to promote the common good.  One member of the group called attention to the fact that Paul VI chose to quote St. Ambrose in this context:

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. (par. 23a)

Another member of the group pointed out that Leo XIII and Paul VI were speaking to different situations, responding to different “signs of the times” as GS put it.   In the 19th century,  Leo XIII was responding to attacks on the concept of private property itself by socialists, where as in the 20th century, Paul VI is looking at the impact of capitalism on the 3rd world, particularly Africa and Latin America.  These new situations, particularly the accumulation of large estates because of colonialism or later because of economic imperialism (think of United Fruit in Central America), suggest that while there is a right to private property, it must be tempered by other things.

This seems a cogent argument, but to me it raised the following question:  if the process of development in the 3rd world is being done wrongly, in that it hinders the authentic development of peoples, does that mean the early days of capitalism and the industrial revolution in Europe and North America were also done wrongly?  In other words, if the current situation in the 3rd world is unjust, does it mean that it was unjust in our past as well?  Moreover, if the structures we inherited from then are the consequences of an unjust development, to what extent are they “structures of sin”  (to use terminology later used by liberation theologians and Pope John Paul II) and so in need of reform?   This suggests that an important application of CST is a re-interpretation of our own past, and a determination of the changes (perhaps profound) that we have to make to bring our own nations into conformity with the demands of the common good.  In other words, with respect to the 3rd world, the West should “first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. (Mt 7:5)

The critique of capitalism in paragraphs 26-28 is strong and draws upon QA where Pius XI condemned the “international imperialism of money.” (par. 26b)  But beyond criticism, Paul VI contrasts it with his vision of authentic development, which he says must be “complete development” (par. 5b).  One member of the group noted that the Spanish text reads this as “integral development“, making it a precursor to the call by Pope Francis for an “integral ecology” that includes the development of all people.  This ties back to the problems that Paul VI identified earlier, where he talked about the cultural conflicts generated by strictly material development:

Moreover, traditional culture comes into conflict with the advanced techniques of modern industrialization; social structures out of tune with today’s demands are threatened with extinction. (par. 10a)

This passage speaks directly to our discussion previously about pre-modern, modern and post-modern cultures, with the observation that (then) current models of development  caused “older moral, spiritual and religious values [to] give way without finding any place in the new scheme of things.” (par. 10c)  This includes the destruction of indigenous cultures by colonialism, often aided and abetted by the Church, which viewed all native ways as primitive and in need of replacement by Western ways.

We finished our discussion by looking at paragraphs 30 and 31, which talk about the need for reform without revolution.  There is a real tension between the belief that revolutions are bad because of the evils (usually related to violence) they involve and the bad outcomes that have historically come from violent revolution, and the sense that revolution is good, or at least necessary, to end tyranny and the harm to the common good that this entails.   Previously, John XXIII in PT had insisted that reforms must be gradual; here Paul VI is beginning to acknowledge that, in the words of Martin Luther King, “justice deferred is justice denied.”  PP makes it clear that progress is required immediately, and not in some future moment:

We want to be clearly understood on this point: The present state of affairs must be confronted boldly, and its concomitant injustices must be challenged and overcome. Continuing development calls for bold innovations that will work profound changes. The critical state of affairs must be corrected for the better without delay. (par. 32a)

I want to contrast this with an argument I read recently, in which the author was musing about the “end” of the Republican party, as the tensions between radicalism and conservatism come to the fore.  He wrote:

As a moral question, we might be with John Brown, even while we concede that as a political question Abraham Lincoln had the better case.

To understand that, as conservatives must, is to put yourself into the intolerable position of looking into the face of a man suffering the worst kind of injustice and tyranny and then explaining: “It’s horrible, of course, but it just isn’t practical at the moment to relieve your inhuman suffering. Maybe in four years, after the next election.”

Previously, Popes had sided completely with the conservative position as articulate here.  But, ever so slowly, the Church is opening itself to the radical demands that flow from the Gospel itself.


Cover Image: Pope Paul VI by BastienM, used with permission, from Wikimedia Commons.

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