Reading Populorum Progessio, Part III

Reading Populorum Progessio, Part III January 24, 2021

This is my third and final post on the encyclical Populorum Progressio by Paul VI; you can read the first part here and the second part here.  In this sitting we read paragraphs 61-87, which continues the discussion of integral development.

Our discussion started by focusing the rules which should govern trade and economic relationships so as to foster the common good.  One passage immediately came into focus:

Indeed, competition should not be eliminated from trade transactions; but it must be kept within limits so that it operates justly and fairly, and thus becomes a truly human endeavor. (par 61a)

This led to a discussion of what constitutes fairness and justice in competition.  I am reminded of the Fair Trade movement, whose aim is precisely to engage in trade with the the developing world in ways which promote sustainable and equitable trade relationships.   The idea is to create practices that cause as much of the profit as possible to flow directly to the workers and farmers, reducing the amount that is taken by middle-men and by first world corporations.  The net result is often somewhat higher prices, but accompanied by the knowledge that the money is going to help communities and individuals develop.  Some of these groups are non-profit, motivated strictly by religious or humanitarian motives, others are businesses or even large corporations that have committed to purchasing in this fashion.  Personally, I buy all of my coffee from Equal Exchange, a workers cooperative that deals directly with farmers cooperatives to buy its beans.  One can engage in this on a local level as well:  for instance, you can buy your produce from a farmers market or a community supported agriculture program.

One member of my group, who used to own a small business and imported products from China, brought up the role of tariffs in keeping trade fair.  Common wisdom has been that reducing tariffs should be a goal of international trade agreements.  Eliminating internal tariffs in the European Union has contributed to the growth of the member nations and the reduction in tariffs between the US and Canada seems to have helped both countries.  Recently, the Trump administration got into a tariff war with China, but it is not clear if it had the desired effect.  It is less clear, however, if the elimination of tariffs has helped or hurt developing nations.  Or, perhaps more accurately, helped the poor in developing nations, as opposed to the rich or middle class.  Again, trade must be a “human endeavor” and not simply a source of profits for large corporations or rich nations.

Paul VI seems particularly concerned that the richer nations will use their wealth and power to create trade agreements that will be to the exclusive benefit (or primary benefit) of themselves, rather than being equitable or contributing to the common good by aiding in the development of poorer nations:

Now in trade relations between the developing and the highly developed economies there is a great disparity in their overall situation and in their freedom of action. In order that international trade be human and moral, social justice requires that it restore to the participants a certain equality of opportunity. (par. 62b)

This ties back into the central emphasis of PP, which is development and the promotion of the common good.  Fair trade agreements lead to further international collaboration, and help to check the “economic dictatorship” that Pius XI warned against in QA.   Paul VI echoes the goal of his predecessor, John XXIII, for greater cooperation among nations:

We cherish this hope: that distrust and selfishness among nations will eventually be overcome by a stronger desire for mutual collaboration and a heightened sense of solidarity. (par. 64)

Paul VI identifies two significant barriers to such collaboration:  nationalism and racism.   What I find curious is that his criticism of nationalism seems to be exclusively focused on the newly independent nations, and not the long established nations of Europe or the US:

It is quite natural that nations recently arrived at political independence should be quite jealous of their new-found but fragile unity and make every effort to preserve it. It is also quite natural for nations with a long-standing cultural tradition to be proud of their traditional heritage….Haughty pride in one’s own nation disunites nations and poses obstacles to their true welfare. It is especially harmful where the weak state of the economy calls for a pooling of information, efforts and financial resources to implement programs of development and to increase commercial and cultural interchange. (par. 62)

Though he faults rich nations in other ways, he does not identify their shortcomings with a “haughty pride” in their own nation.  It would be interesting to explore in what ways American exceptionalism, a particularly insidious form of nationalism, has contributed to unfair trade relations between the US and developing nations.   How does our arrogant pride as a nation prevent us from seeing the ways in which we might be detracting from the common good by not helping poorer nations.

Racism is strongly condemned by Paul VI, following up on the condemnation of John XXIII in PT.  I read on social media that when Paul VI and Martin Luther King met in 1964, MLK asked the pope to speak out against racism, but I have not be able to confirm this.   If he did, this passage is a powerful response.  Though he mentions its role in colonialism, he makes it clear that racism is an evil that has a negative impact in the developed world as well: it is

a cause of division and hatred within countries whenever individuals and families see the inviolable rights of the human person held in scorn, as they themselves are unjustly subjected to a regime of discrimination because of their race or their color. (par. 63)

This is a striking passage, particularly for the subtle emphasis on “a regime of discrimination” rather than simply “discrimination.”  It seems to me that he is pointing to (or at least allowing) for the broader problem of the structural sins which manifest themselves today as structural racism.  (For a recent talk I gave on this, see here.)

Both nationalism and racism challenge the fundamental fact that all men are brothers, and lead nations to sin against fraternity.   One antidote to this is, as noted later, “sincere dialog between cultures.” (par. 73a)  One member of our group suggested that this is a traditional liberal assumption:  if we get to know one another better, we will get along better.   This is a complicated, but two examples came to my mind, one local and one properly on the international level.   While in graduate school I belonged to a small urban parish in Oakland, Sacred Heart.   It was a very diverse parish:  I remember there being African-Americans, recent immigrants from Africa, Italians, Portuguese, French Canadians, Filipinos.   In an effort to promote understanding among these groups, we scheduled talks about each one.   One talk in particular had stuck with me.  The Filipinos were a new group, attracted by our new pastor who was himself Filipino.  They were recent immigrants, and very reserved.  So for the talk our pastor brought in a Filipino deacon from another parish, who urged us to actively reach out to them to attend parish events.  He also said, “if you want them to take your invitation seriously, tell them to bring food.”   He explained to us the cultural beliefs behind this and why it was so important.   We did, they came bearing heaping bowls of lumpia and adobo, and quickly became integrated into our parish community.

On the international level, I remembered the cultural exchanges that were part of detente.  I learned about these from a roommate in college who was a Soviet emigre.  He talked about the museum exhibit that was put up in Moscow by the American Department of Agriculture.  It included a movie about a suburban woman grocery shopping, that was roundly denounced as propaganda by ordinary Muscovites, since it showed the woman going to a store whose shelves were full, she could take as much as she wanted, and there were no lines.  (At the time, standing in line to shop was the ordinary lot of Russians.)  However, he said they were fascinated by the college students (Russian majors) who worked in the exhibit as “cultural ambassadors.”  The audience carefully questioned them to try to get to “the truth” about the US:  How much does your father make?  How much did your blue jeans cost?  Do you have to wait a long time to buy a car?   It is not clear what geopolitical impact these visits had, but in some small way they helped make the US less mysterious to ordinary Russians.  I wonder if there were similar cultural missions to the US, and what impact they had on American beliefs about the “godless communists” of the Soviet Union?  Once can hope that they helped lead to a situation in which

every citizen—be he a government leader, a public official, or a simple workman—is motivated by brotherly love and is truly anxious to build one universal human civilization that spans the globe. (par. 73a)

It was noted, however, that cultural exchanges are not an unalloyed good.  One member pointed to the pernicious impact of popular entertainment, which can both undermine local cultures and create distorted and unrealistic images of another culture.  This can work against understanding and cooperation between nations.  On a trivial level, I was reminded of my time as an exchange student in France, living in the small town of Lisieux.  At the time, a popular TV show in France was Dallas, and there was a student in the school who was from Texas.   His host family, anxious to make him feel at home, welcomed him on his first morning by bringing him breakfast in bed:  steak and champagne.  One of the critical roles that the Church can play is to foster real and meaningful cultural exchange and understanding, since, as PP notes earlier in the text,  “[the Church] offers man her distinctive contribution: a global perspective on man and human realities.” (par. 13c)

We talked briefly about the call in PP for a supranational political authority, which builds upon the calls of both John XXIII and Vatican II.   Paul VI writes:

international collaboration among the nations of the world certainly calls for institutions that will promote, coordinate and direct it, until a new juridical order is firmly established and fully ratified. We give willing and wholehearted support to those public organizations that have already joined in promoting the development of nations, and We ardently hope that they will enjoy ever growing authority. (par. 78)

Building upon previous discussions we talked about the lack of any historical precedent for guiding the growth of such a public authority, and how to prevent it degenerating into a dictatorship.   To me this points to the need to encourage and sustain international “public organizations” that promote transparency, democratic values, and the dignity of the human person.   This in turn requires engagement with these organizations, and encouraging the cooperation of all people of good will.  It won’t be easy, but the alternative is isolationism, which is contrary to the demands of solidarity.

We concluded our discussion by looking at the role assigned to the laity in encouraging integral development:

In the developing nations and in other countries lay people must consider it their task to improve the temporal order. While the hierarchy has the role of teaching and authoritatively interpreting the moral laws and precepts that apply in this matter, the laity have the duty of using their own initiative and taking action in this area—without waiting passively for directives and precepts from others. (par. 81a)

This marks a major change in Catholic social teaching.  While Leo XIII and Pius XI both saw an important role for the laity, they envisioned them acting very much under the direction and authority of priests and the hierarchy.   Now, however, the laity are openly encouraged to take the initiative: while looking to the hierarchy for guidance on overarching moral issues, they are called to, in the language of Gaudium et Spes, to “read the signs of the times” and respond appropriately.   This freedom of initiative is an application of the emphasis that Vatican II put on the grace of baptism and the way in which all the baptized are incorporated into the mission of the Church.   To make this a reality, on the local level parishes needs to educate the laity, both as children in their initial formation and adults in their ongoing formation, on what being Catholic means.  We need laity who live out their faith in their daily lives, and who understand that Catholic social teaching is not an optional part of our faith, but rather is integral to it.  We need Catholics who embrace human solidarity at all levels, and who see that the development of all peoples is necessary and involves all of us.


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

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