Pope Paul’s views on development 50 years ago important today
Pope’s encyclical challenged trickle-down theory and warned of uneven growth
Children in Malawi, Africa who lost their mother to Aids. Pope Paul VI wrote: “The development of peoples has the church’s close attention, particularly the development of those striving to escape from hunger, misery, endemic diseases and ignorance.” Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
Of all the many papal encyclicals down the ages, it is arguable that the document known as Populorum Progressio, issued by Pope Paul VI 50 years ago on March 26th, was one of the most important.
It can be placed in the context of papal social encyclicals of the century before its publication, such as Rerum Novarum of Pope Leo XIII (1891), Quadregesimo Anno of Pope Pius XII (1931) and Mater et Magistra of Pope John XXIII (1961), but its scope was broader than theirs.
They were mainly concerned with the position of the church in an increasingly industrialised society and their focus was chiefly on Europe and North America. Populorum Progressio took a global perspective and a wider view of human development.
The inspiration behind the encyclical was the Second Vatican Council, which had ended just two years before, and particularly the social teachings enunciated there. In addressing issues of trade, debt, the limits of capitalism, oppressive regimes and the temptation to violent revolt, superfluous wealth and the need for generous aid, Paul VI set out the issues that were to become central to Catholic social teaching.
The 1960s could be referred to as the first development decade. It was a period of decolonisation, with the emergence of newly independent states throughout the developing world, and especially in Africa. It was a time of great optimism in developing countries but also a period of great naivety as regards development.
The “trickle-down theory” (the politico-economic argument that an increase in the wealth of the rich is good for the poor because some of that additional wealth will eventually trickle its way down to them) was very much in vogue.
Taoiseach Seán Lemass articulated it in this country with his statement that “a rising tide lifts all boats”.
Development at the time was characterised by large infrastructural projects and little attention tended to be paid to human development. Paul VI could see the dangers and limitations of this approach and published his encyclical to highlight these and to offer a different vision of development.
His opening sentence set the tone: “The development of peoples has the church’s close attention, particularly the development of those peoples striving to escape from hunger, misery, endemic diseases and ignorance; of those who are looking for a wider share in the benefits of civilisation and a more active improvement of their human qualities; of those who are aiming purposefully at their complete fulfilment.”
He warned of the evils and dangers of uneven economic growth, in contrast to the proponents of the trickle-down theory. A key passage stated: “The development we speak of here cannot be restricted to economic growth alone. To be authentic, it must be well rounded; it must foster the development of each man and of the whole man.”
Basic human needs
Central to this sentiment was the recognition that sustainable development requires the participation of communities and peoples in the development process, and that basic human needs must take precedence in development planning.
In order to fulfil the wishes of the Second Vatican Council, Paul VI said he had set up the Justice and Peace Commission “to awaken in the people of God full awareness of their mission today. In this way they can further the progress of poorer nations and international social justice, as well as help less-developed nations to contribute to their own development”.
This initiative led to Bishops’ Conferences setting up development-aid organisations around the world, such as Trócaire in Ireland, and these NGOs have been doing enormously beneficial work ever since.
Have the aims of Populorum Progressio been fulfilled? Only to a very slight extent, if at all, it must be said. John Paul II, in three social-justice encyclicals (Laborem Exercens, 1981; Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, 1987; and Centesimus Annus, 1991) and Benedict XVI in Caritas in Veritate (2009) continued its emphasis on human development, the dignity of work, opposition to dictatorial regimes, the duty of the state to help and protect the poor, and attacked unbridled capitalism.
Pope Francis, who is noted for his humility and his concern for the poor, in his second encyclical, Laudato Sì (2015), argues that concern for the environment is no longer “optional” but an integral part of the church’s teaching on social justice and reiterated that the more well-off countries are morally obliged to assist the poorer to help them combat climate change.
Brian Maye is a journalist and historian