March 26 will mark the 50th anniversary of Blessed Pope Paul VI’s landmark encyclical Populorum Progressio (“On the Development of Peoples”). A lot has happened in 50 years. A lot has changed in the world in 50 years. Yet, for all that has happened and all that has changed, Paul VI’s challenge to the contemporary world remains as relevant as ever – and maybe more so. Thus in his 2013 Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, the present Pope categorically warned a world, which seems no more ready to listen now than it was in 1967, that we also have to say “thou shalt not” to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills [Evangelii Gaudium, 53].
Faithful to tradition, Paul quoted Pope Pius XI’s 1931 encyclical Quadragesimo Anno on the international imperialism of money to warn against the capitalist economic order and the politics it produces in the form of concepts that present profit as the chief spur to economic progress, free competition as the guiding norm of economics, and private ownership of the means of production as an absolute right, having no limits nor concomitant social obligations [Populorum Progressio 26] Citing the Church Fathers that the right of private property may never be exercised to the detriment of the common good [PP 23] Paul boldly asserted that the common good sometimes demands expropriation [PP 24]
Like his contemporary successor, Pope Francis, Paul highlighted not only the material inequalities and injustices that are consequences of an unjust economy but also its spiritual and cultural consequences: even more necessary still is the deep thought and reflection of wise men in search of a new humanism, one which will enable our contemporaries to enjoy the higher values of love and friendship, or prayer and contemplation, and thus find themselves [PP 20] .
Of course, one of the many calamitous consequences of the capitalist economic order and the politics it produces is the devaluation of human solidarity. In contrast, Paul stressed how the social question ties all human beings together in every part of the world [PP 3] This is not only the case across space but equally so across time. 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 [PP 17]. Paul obviously did not foresee our contemporary climate-change deniers, but his words of warning surely should challenge any mentality which would imperil future generations for the short-term profits of certain industries which have disproportionate influence in our politics.
Paul did foresee – and was certainly sensitive to – the culturally destructive dimension that renders economic development so ambivalent. He warned of the tragic dilemma: either to preserve traditional beliefs and structures and reject social progress; or to embrace foreign technology and foreign culture, and reject ancestral traditions with their wealth of humanism. The sad fact is that we often see the older moral, spiritual and religious values give way without finding any place in the new scheme of things [PP 10].
History has not been kind to Paul VI, to whom it fell to try to steer the Church through one of the more challenging periods in her history. Indeed, history will likely judge him harshly in particular for his role in enabling a liturgical radicalism, which, rather than following the plan for authentic reform proposed by the Second Vatican Council, turned out to be more like a dismantling of the Roman Liturgy – a development which was both a symptom of and in its own way a further contribution to the Church’s apparently increasing loss of self-confidence in the face of secular modernity. Even so, Populorum Progressio shines as one of the brighter accomplishments of Paul’s troubled pontificate, proclaiming a perennially necessary corrective to the spirit of secular modernity and a message that continues to challenge the world today. – City Father