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Peter HenriotMarch 24, 2008
Brazil experienced an economic boom in the late 1960s. With its gross national product growing handsomely at a rate of 7 percent to 8 percent, Brazil was praised by many development economists as an example of diversified, investment-led prosperity. But while the industries of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo produced remarkable riches, the favelas, or crowded slums, in these same cities showed miseries disturbingly unimproved. The rewards of economic growth were not shared by the masses of Brazilians. The Brazilian military dictator of the day is alleged to have said, Brazil has taken off...and left the Brazilians behind!

The sad truth of his observation has come home to me recently because of two personal experiences. The first is the practical day-to-day fact of living in a developing African country, where economic growth rates are accelerating but social growth rates are not. Although the annual G.N.P. in Zambia in 2007 grew by 6 percent or 7 percent, the indicators of poverty show little or no improvement. What eco-nomists like to call shared growth is not a fact in this mineral-rich countryjust as it was not in Brazil decades earlier.

The second reason for recalling the dictators observation is that last year was the 40th anniversary of a great papal teaching on development, The Progress of Peoples (Populorum Progressio). In 1967 Pope Paul VI wrote the encyclical, which offers a challenging perspective on what true development would require on a globe increasingly divided into first, second and third worlds.

Why celebrate a 40-year-old document? Because of what it said, what it did and what it continues to do. The letter provided directions for its own time; it challenges our time; and it offers hopes for the futurethree themes that at times cross over each others neat, respective boundaries.

Directions in the Past

The Progress of Peoples influenced the church and wider society as a fresh and radical approach to addressing the joys and hopes, sorrows and anxieties of the women and men of our age, especially the poor and those in any way afflicted. Coming just two years after the close of the Second Vatican Council and its monumental constitution The Church in the Modern World, the encyclical letter provided an agenda and a path for the church to follow as it strove to be faithful to the councils social message. The church would need structure to promote social justice, for example. The encyclical put one in place by endorsing the establishment of the Vaticans Justice and Peace Commission, now a pontifical council (No. 5). From it have emerged the thousands of national, diocesan and local justice and peace groups around the world that have become vital in promoting integral evangelization.

If the church was to be heard, it had to speak out clearly on the burning social issues of the day, even if in doing so it sounded radical. Two good examples of such clarity and radicality can be found: first, in Paul VIs discussion of the extreme capitalist economic ethic and what today we call neoliberalism; second, in his explanation of the social teaching on private property and ownership of land.

Regarding capitalism, the pope used very strong words in condemning a system that considers profit as the key motive for economic progress, competition as the supreme law of economics, and private ownership of the means of production an absolute right that has no limits and carries no corresponding social obligation (No. 26). He reminded his readers, This unchecked liberalism leads to dictatorship rightly denounced by Pius XI as producing the international imperialism of money (No. 26). He questioned a fundamental principle of liberalism, as the rule for commercial exchange, in challenging prices set in free trade markets that produce unfair results (No. 58).

One of the letters most radical teachingsregarding private property (No. 23)earned the document real trouble in some countries; the military dictatorship in Brazil purportedly banned it. Here Paul VI applied the message about the social responsibilities of landowners and the duty of the government to promote the common good in order to establish grounds for justifying the expropriation of landed estates that are extensive, unused or poorly used, or because they bring hardships to peoples or are detrimental to the interests of the country and the wider common good (No. 24).

I recalled this teaching as I reflected on the start of the process of land reform in Zimbabwe (a process which, admittedly, has gone somewhat astray in terms of overall social justice) and on the challenge of land reform in such countries as South Africa, Namibia and possibly Zambia. Inasmuch as the encyclical addresses requirements of domestic and international economic and social justice, capitalist economies and land reform, Paul VIs teaching was influential at the Medellín Conference, which met the following year to chart directions for the churchs mission in Latin America, a mission that even today influences the worldwide church.

Challenges to the Present

Forty years after The Progress of Peoples was published, we still must pay attention to the challenges it poses. Foremost among these are our contemporary understanding of development and our quest for peace.

But before touching on both, let me acknowledge two other contemporary challenges, not dealt with in the letter. Environmental issues were not high on the Vatican agenda in the 1960s, nor on the agendas of many others. In the following decade the World Council of Churches would introduce the integrity of creation to run as a parallel theme with justice and peace. Also notably overlooked was the role of gender/the role of women, which is crucial for integral development. In the late 1960s, however, the Catholic Church was theologically and institutionally weak and reluctant to face gender issues. Despite some improvement, we still have a long way to go.

Nonetheless, the encyclical letter makes clear what true development requires, a perspective needed today as the process of globalization rushes ahead. Central to Pope Pauls perspective is his holistic understanding of development, defined as for each and all the transition from less human conditions to those which are more human (No. 20). His definition predated by more than 20 years the human development index of the United Nations Development Program. Today the index is the standard measure of what is happening to people, in contrast to what is happening to the economy. It addresses the kind of contradictory situations that existed in Brazil and Zambia.

The Progress of Peoples sums up the aspirations of women and men who live now in misery as to seek to do more, know more and have more in order to be more (No. 6). Development, then, encompasses much more than economic growth; Pope Paul writes, In order to be authentic, it must be complete: integral, that is, it has to promote the good of every person and of the whole person (No. 4).

It is important to highlight the popes perspective, because we still hear acceptance, even praise, for development approaches that focus on economics but lack a social face. If the poor are mentioned at all, they are put at the bottom end of a trickle, following a model that builds up the prosperity of a few while the survival of the many depends on improvements slowly trickling down to them. That model was recently recommended for Zambia.

In our era, marked by terrorism, we can profit from the letters wisdom on building lasting peace, captured in the subtitle to the concluding section: Development is the new name for peace. This section challenges those who ignore the causes of conflict and concentrate only on the responses to it. Excessive economic, social and cultural inequalities among people arouse tensions and conflicts, writes Paul, and are a danger to peace (No. 76). The pope sees waging war on misery and struggling against injustice as central to preventing war and conflict.

A look at the conflicts ravaging countries across Africa confirms the correctness of this observation. Whether we note tragedies in the Horn of Africa or the chaotic battles of Congo, Sierra Leone or Chad, we can see how poverty and injustice breed war; then war causes greater poverty and injustice. Peace cannot be limited to the mere absence of war, the result of an ever precarious balance of forces, writes Paul VI. No, peace is something that is built up day after day, in the pursuit of an order intended by God, which implies a more perfect form of justice among humans (No. 76).

What does all this mean as we face the threat of terrorism? A closer look at The Progress of Peoples, particularly those parts linking peace and development, would broaden the agenda of possible solutions.

Hope for the Future

What strikes me in rereading The Progress of Peoples is the optimistic tone with which Paul concludes his letter. It is a bit surprising. Paul has often been pictured as a rather melancholic figure. His letter details the suffering of the worlds poor, for whom real development is only a mirage. Paul condemns the woeful underdevelopment of those in the rich countries who ignore such suffering, while chasing after more and more for themselves. He considers it avarice (the exclusive pursuit of possessions), a vice that is for nations and individual persons the most evident form of moral underdevelopment (No. 19). For this reason, the pope strongly asserts: The world is sick (No. 66); its sickness shows in a lack of sisterhood and brotherhood among individuals and peoples.

Given the analysis, it is encouraging that the letter ends on an optimistic note, expressing confidence that, for all its problems, the world is moving closer to the Creator and the Creators good plans. The letter states: Humanity is advancing along the path of history like the waves of a rising tide encroaching gradually on the shore (No. 17). Paul sees the international cooperation of groups like the United Nations as a response to the vocation to bring not some people but all peoples to treat each other as sisters and brothers (No. 78).

For those who see such a hope as purely utopian, Paul writes: It may be that these persons are not realistic enough, and that they have not perceived the dynamism of a world which desires to live more fraternallya world which, in spite of its ignorance, its mistakes and even its sins, its relapse into barbarism and its wanderings far from the road of salvation, is, even unaware, taking slow but sure steps towards its Creator (No. 79).

This expression of optimism is found not only in The Progress of Peoples but in Pauls subsequent writings. He returns to the dynamism in a world moving toward greater justice in his 1971 Call to Action (Octogesima Adveniens), describing a hope that springs also from the fact that the Christian knows that other women and men are at work, to undertake actions of justice and peace working for the same ends. For beneath an outward appearance of indifference, in the heart of every person there is the will to live in sisterhood and brotherhood and a thirst for justice and peace, which is to be expanded (No. 48). Such optimism is but one of many reasons The Progress of Peoples deserves to be celebrated, imitated in other church writings and implemented in the mission of the church to promote integral, sustainable development.

These directions, challenges and hopes from a 40-year-old document mean much to me, serving in a country with enormous problems and immense potential. It is surely one of the greatest of the documents of the churchs social teaching. There are rumors that a new social encyclical will soon be issued by Pope Benedict XVI, putting together such issues and themes as human rights, poverty, the environment and solidarity. I pray that Benedicts document will offer as much direction, challenge and hope as did Pauls The Progress of Peoples.

Read the editors and Mary McGrory on Populorum Progressio, from 1967.

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16 years 1 month ago
Thanks to Peter Henriot for bringing me up to date on one of my favorite encyclicals, "Populorum Progresio".

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