The Legacy of Paul VI for Catholic Engagement with Development

By: Drew Christiansen

January 26, 2015

Why Catholic Social Thought Matters for the Future of Global Development

The father of modern Catholic Social Teaching is Pope Leo XIII, whose 1891 encyclical letter Rerum novarum (“On the Condition of Labor”) set in motion the Catholic Church’s long-time alliance with the labor movement and a string of papal teaching. Every twenty years, popes have offered an updated teaching on economic life and particularly the situation of working people. Pope Pius XI’s Quadragesimo anno (“After Forty Years.” 1931), Pope Saint John XXIII’s Mater et Magistra (“Christianity and Social Progress,” 1961) Pope John Paul II’s Laborem Exercens (“The Priority of Labor,” 1981) and Centesimus Annus (“On the Hundredth Anniversary of Rerum Novarum,” 1991) all have their origins in Pope Leo’s teaching.

If Leo can be regarded as the godfather of Catholic social teaching and labor activism, Pope Paul VI can be regarded as the source of teaching on development and advocacy on its behalf. His 1967 encyclical Populorum Progressio (“On the Development of Peoples”) was the first in a series, and the focus of reflection for later encyclicals: John Paul II’s Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (“On Social Concern,” 1987) and Benedict XVI’s Caritas in Veritate (“Love in Truth,” 2009).

Papal teaching on development, of course, is not restricted to major social teaching documents. Paul’s Octogesima Adveniens (“A Call to Action,” 1971) written on the eightieth anniversary of Rerum Novarum, though not an encyclical, set a wide agenda for Catholic social action. It also laid out important policies on the relationships of socially engaged Catholics with co-religionists with different political commitments and with the ideologies of the day, especially Marxism. 

John Paul II’s Tertio Millennio Adveniente (“The Coming Third Millennium,” 1994) made debt relief for developing economies a top priority for the Great Jubilee of the year 2000, leading to a multi-year dialogue and collaboration among the Holy See, the Latin American and U.S. bishops’ conferences and international financial institutions (the IMF and World Bank) on debt relief for the poorest nations. In addition, yearly messages for the World Day of Peace, January 1, also updated the Holy See’s development agenda.
But Paul’s thought has played an especially important role in the teaching of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. In “On Social Concern” and “Love in Truth” both popes have not only reflected on Paul’s teaching on development, but also consciously built on it to elaborate a theology of development and to identify a development agenda for their day.

"The Development of Peoples” is probably best known for its maxim, “Development is a new name for peace,” built on the conviction that “peace is something build up day after day, in the pursuit of an order intended by God, which implies a more perfect form of justice among men (sic).” While Pope Paul affirmed, “The peoples themselves have the prime responsibility to work for their own development,” he also saw the necessity of regional and international collaboration “to establish programs for closer cooperation among groups of nations.” For Paul solidarity among nations, and in particular between rich and poor nations, was key to development. It needs to be practiced in trade negotiations as well as in aid programs. Today inequity in trade relations and their lack of worker protections remain today the primary sources of underdevelopment and obstacles to equitable development.

Paul’s encyclical also laid out the premises of an integral theory of development. To begin with, it rests on the universal purpose of created things, the belief, the ancient belief “that God intended the use of the earth and all it contains for the use of every human being and people. . . All other rights whatsoever, including those of property and free commerce, are to be subordinated to this principle.”

The encyclical also presented “A Christian View of Development.” Given the rich, complex nature of human beings, development can and should not be restricted to equitable distribution of material resources. It also includes social and spiritual development. Since we are talking about the development of persons, “integral development,” as Paul termed it, includes an array of goods and capacities, material, social, intellectual and spiritual.

John Paul II’s “On Social Concern” built on Paul’s teaching to reflect on conditions at the end of the Cold War. He astonished many by criticizing both blocs, East and West, for both their specific and common deficiencies. The Cold War aggravated underdevelopment, he believed, by siphoning resources that might otherwise have been used for development. Neoconservative critics in the West, who had presumed John Paul was a fellow anti-Communist, took umbrage at the “moral equivalence” he drew between the “Marxist collectivism” of the East and the “liberal capitalism” of the West. Peace, he argued, “demands . . . a rigorous respect for justice, and consequently a fair distribution of true development.”

John Paul also identified “superdevelopment,” an overgrown consumer economy, as the source of the spiritual emptiness felt by men and women in the West. In addition, he named “the fourth world,” extensive zones of poverty and underdevelopment in the developed world. He also made explicit the belief that “the cosmos,” especially the biosphere (“the beings which constitute the natural world”), is a component of the universal common good to which all must contribute.

Finally, John Paul reminded world leaders “a leadership role among nations can only be justified by the willingness to contribute widely and generously to the common good.” He also augmented Pope Paul’s teaching on solidarity, calling for a “reawakening of the religious awareness of individuals and persons” in the hope that we will see the other” as our ‘neighbor,’  a ‘helper’ to be made a sharer, on a par with ourselves in the banquet of life to which all are equally invited by God.”

Benedict XVI’s “Charity in Truth” followed the model of “On Social Concern,” offering both homage to the memory of Paul VI and developing Catholic teaching on development for the twenty-first century. Caritas sets out to revisit Pope Paul’s teaching on integral development “and to apply it to the present moment.” At several points, given Benedict’s overall theme of charity, his encyclical seems to be an explicit elaboration of Paul’s notion of “a civilization of love.” Of particular note is Benedict’s construction of social justice (just institutional reform) as “political charity.”

Politics, according to the encyclical, is “that complex of institutions that give structure to the life of society, juridically, civilly, politically and culturally, making it a polis or ‘city.’” The common good, accordingly, is “the institutional path—we might call it the political path—of charity.” This conviction may be seen especially in Benedict’s vision of global governance.

Globalization had been of interest to Catholic social teaching since the Second Vatican Council, but it had become a much more visible issue and the subject of public discussion in the years leading up to Pope Benedict’s pontificate. Benedict argues that reform of institutions at every level is necessary to forestall excessive inequalities and “to prioritize the good of access to steady employment for everyone.” But, following the financial crisis of 2007-2008, reform of international financial institutions grew especially urgent.

“In the face of the unrelenting growth of global interdependence,” Benedict writes, “there is felt need, even in the midst of a global recession, for reform of the United Nations Organization and of economic institutions and international finance, so that the concept of the family of nations can acquire real teeth.”

After laying out the institutional and moral limits of such an authority, he reminds his readers reform in the name of development cannot be achieved through technical fixes alone. “Development is impossible,” he adds, “without upright men and women, without upright politicians and financiers whose consciences are finely attuned to the requirements of the common good.”

Private efforts cannot attain equitable development without institutional reform, but the reform of global development in turn depends on the engagement of people of conscience and moral vision. With “Love in Truth” Pope Paul’s civilization of love has become imbedded in a rich understanding of political charity. The charge is that we strive together to build the human city in the image of the city of God.

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