Famous for Humanae Vitae, Paul VI left us a central work for Catholic social teaching. 

Pope Paul VI.

Pope Paul VI.

Paul VI is most remembered today for his important, and controversial, encyclical on the regulation of birth—Humanae Vitae—where he reaffirmed the Church’s teaching on the immorality of contraception. Yet this is clearly not his only legacy as Pope. During his 15-year pontificate, Paul oversaw the close of the Council, the promulgation of its texts and the reform of the liturgy. He wrote beautiful letters on devotion to Mary, Christian joy, evangelization and the Church. And he also made a significant and enduring contribution to Catholic social thought.

Paul’s major endowment to Catholic social teaching was his 1967 encyclical letter Populorum Progressio. This letter has sometimes been dismissed as a rambling document that uncritically embraced a typically 1960s leftist read of the economy and of the causes of wealth and poverty. As recently as 2009, Lord Brian Griffiths, vice-chairman of Goldman Sachs International, summarily described Populorum Progressio as “the encyclical published by Paul VI in 1967, at the height of anti-capitalism in Europe. It attacked liberal capitalism, was ambivalent about economic growth, recommended expropriation of landed estates if poorly used and enthused about economic planning.”

Pope John Paul II obviously didn’t share this severe critique of the text and issued a commemorative encyclical in 1987, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, in which he called Populorum Progressio a “distinguished encyclical” with “enduring relevance.” This was the first time that any social encyclical except Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum had been commemorated in this fashion.

Pope Benedict XVI went further still with the promulgation of Caritas in Veritate in 2009. Not content with merely producing a second encyclical in commemoration of Populorum Progressio, Benedict expressed his astonishing conviction “that Populorum Progressio deserves to be considered ‘the Rerum Novarum of the present age.’” This statement holds exceptional importance. For decades Rerum Novarum was considered the “Magna Carta” of Catholic social doctrine, and Pope John Paul II wrote that, through Rerum Novarum, Pope Leo had “created a lasting paradigm for the Church.” In the only social encyclical of his pontificate, Benedict modified this vision in no insignificant way.

In the rather brief history of formal Catholic social doctrine, Popes have sought to continually update historical evaluations of social events and processes in an effort to keep social doctrine current and culturally relevant. In fact, since the vast majority of social encyclicals have been written to commemorate other social encyclicals (nearly always Rerum Novarum), each has sought to distill the perennial principles offered earlier (thus guaranteeing continuity) and to apply them to present circumstances (thus guaranteeing contemporary relevance).

Rerum Novarum has conveniently lent itself to this endeavor, in no small part through its title. Having treated the “new things” of his day, Leo XIII provided a perfect justification for his successors to continue applying the same dynamic. Thus he not only furnished a foundational document, but also provided a helpful model for what would become an important subset of papal teaching. Pope John Paul II, to take one example, in his encyclical commemorating the 100th anniversary of Rerum Novarum, proposed a re-reading of Leo’s encyclical, which expressly included looking around “at the ‘new things’ which surround us and in which we find ourselves caught up, very different from the ‘new things’ which characterized the final decade of the last century.”

In singling out Populorum Progressio as the new Rerum Novarum, Benedict in no way intended to break from the tradition of his predecessors. Rather, he took pains to stress the unity and continuity of all Catholic social doctrine and to place both Populorum Progressio and Caritas in Veritate squarely in the line of his predecessors’ works. Benedict did not seek to place Populorum Progressio in a class by itself but rather notes that the Pauline encyclical “would be a document without roots” if viewed outside of tradition of the apostolic faith.

Yet clearly, by honoring Populorum Progressio with the title of “the Rerum Novarum of the present age,” Benedict meant to elevate the encyclical, conferring on it a paradigmatic status not dissimilar to that enjoyed by Rerum Novarum throughout the 20th century. He didn’t, after all, just state that Populorum Progressio was an important or useful encyclical—he exalted it as the new Rerum Novarum. What specifically about Populorum Progressio provoked this important move by Benedict? In what way did he see it assuming a referential role for the present day like that played by Rerum Novarum for the past 120 years?

Rerum Novarum was itself an unlikely candidate for the central place it was to assume in Catholic social thought. Leo XIII had no idea that his letter on the “worker question” would generate an entirely new category of papal encyclicals and indeed a new theological discipline! Leo penned an incredible 87 encyclicals, several of which could be considered “social encyclicals,” yet it was Rerum Novarum that was singled out for this exalted function. Why not, for instance, Diuturnum (June 29, 1881) on the origin of civil authority? Or Immortale Dei (Nov. 1, 1885) on the Christian constitution of states? Or Graves de Communi Re (Jan. 18, 1901) on Christian democracy? Or even Inscrutabili Dei Consilio (April 21, 1878) on the evils of modern society?

The prominence of Rerum Novarum grew out of its tremendous popularity, especially among workers, and the rise of real socialism, which had been condemned by the encyclical. It was, however, the decision of Pius XI to commemorate it in 1931 with Quadragesimo Anno that locked Rerum Novarum into its critical role. When introducing that encyclical, Pius wrote that it was Rerum Novarum out of all Leo’s writings that had the special distinction of laying down for all mankind “the surest rules to solve aright that difficult problem of human relations called ‘the social question.’” Yet for all its importance and opportuneness, Rerum Novarum was, after all, a letter that addressed the worker question and the socialist response rather than a comprehensive treatise on social ethics.

Populorum Progressio, on the other hand, for all its possible deficiencies, brought about an important conceptual shift in Catholic social thinking, by moving from the worker question (with its attendant concerns of just wages, private property, working environment, and labor associations) to the broader and richer social benchmark of integral human development. As a touchstone for Catholic social thought, integral human development is unquestionably more central and encompassing than the labor question, and, in fact, comprises it.

In Caritas in Veritate, Benedict held up this shift in focus—rather than Paul’s analysis of concrete development issues or practical solutions to those problems—as what led him to put forward Populorum Progressio as especially apt for our age. In fact, Benedict downplays Paul’s contingent judgments, noting that “an evaluation is needed of the different terms in which the problem of development is presented today, as compared with forty years ago.” On the contrary, Benedict summarizes the substantive and enduring contribution of Populorum Progressio as “two important truths” conveyed by Paul VI.

The first is that the whole Church, in all her being and acting—when she proclaims, when she celebrates, when she performs works of charity—“is engaged in promoting integral human development.” In other words, human development (rightly understood) stands at the very center of the Church’s mission, and everything the Church does can be seen as a service to this development.

The second “important truth” proposed in Populorum Progressio is that authentic human development “concerns the whole of the person in every single dimension.” The truth of development, Benedict insisted, “consists in its completeness: if it does not involve the whole man and every man, it is not true development.” And the Pope importantly adds: “This is the central message of Populorum Progressio, valid for today and for all time.” Here Benedict underscored the nature of human development as going beyond the economic or merely material dimension and comprising every aspect of the person’s good, including the spiritual. In his 2013 apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis, too, in commenting on Populorum Progressio, underscored this same idea of the universality of true development, calling it Paul’s “principle of discernment.”

Benedict’s most incisive judgment on Populorum Progressio was his assertion that Paul VI saw the notion of integral development as “the heart of the Christian social message.” And from this Benedict concludes that Paul’s vision of development at the core of Populorum Progressio is “the principal reason why that Encyclical is still timely in our day.” To see Populorum Progressio as the Rerum Novarum of the present age, therefore, is to grasp its vision of integral development as the kernel of Catholic social thought.

Some of Paul’s contingent analyses and solutions may now seem out of date, or have shown, with time, to be impracticable. His prognosis that the price of manufactured goods would steadily increase while the price of raw materials would decrease, for example, proved to be the reverse of what actually occurred. One could critique his analysis of the relation between agriculture and industry, his suggestions regarding the imposition of trade tariffs, and his proposal for a great World Fund, but these were prudential judgments offered as examples to stimulate reflection and practical initiative, rather than to close discussion on the matter.

Other proposals showed themselves to be prescient and would have been beneficial had they been carried out. If effected, his proposition that international loans be accompanied by guarantees that the capital would be put to use “according to an agreed plan and a reasonable measure of efficiency” surely would have prevented many of the loan defaults and credit swaps witnessed in the past decades.

The task of Catholic social thought, however, does not lie so much in engineering the most apt tactical remedies to problems as it does in providing a moral analysis of social realities and indicating virtuous paths to a solution. Where some of Paul’s more concrete proposals may be conscientiously left aside, the crux of his message and the principles he articulates hold true. His call for world solidarity and a greater attention to the plight of the poor and underdeveloped is as timely today as in 1967. And his proposal of integral human development as the permanent point of reference for social ethics is a contribution that will guide Catholic social thought for generations to come.m

Thomas D. Williams, Ph.D, is author of The World As It Could Be: Catholic Social Thought for a New Generation (New York: Crossroad, 2011)

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