Last Updated:Friday - 09/24/2010
October 29, 2007
Radical encyclical still waits for its day
Earlier this month, the Holy See held a small event at the United Nations to mark the 40th anniversary of one of the greatest social encyclicals - Populorum Progressio (The Progress of Peoples). Pope Paul VI's encyclical was different than others. It was passionate, urgent and readable. Its passion and its call for "radical reform without delay" reflected the idealism of the late 1960s.
But the problems it identified are more urgent today than ever- the gross imbalance among rich and poor nations, the misery of the downtrodden and the sinful avarice that drives it all.
Speaking at the UN event, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, former head of the Vatican's Council for Justice and Peace and now archbishop of Dublin, reflected on what Pope Paul would see as the legacy of his encyclical if he returned to earth today: "You've done a lot but you haven't even started - and you've lost a lot of enthusiasm."
Enthusiasm! There was a word to describe Populorum Progressio. It seemed to assert that if humanity pulled together, we could solve these massive problems "without delay." One of its proposals was for a World Fund made of money from reductions in military expenditures that would be spent on schools, homes and hospitals in places of need.
An entirely reasonable proposal. And a načve one given the tendency of nations to defend what is theirs and take what belongs to others at the point of a gun. The arms race has continued to spread and to escalate. Wars, terrorism and civil violence continue to take thousands, even millions of lives every year.
Pope Paul had a great vision of the brotherhood of man. He spoke of "integral human development" - development that is not only economic, but also social and moral. The key to such development is solidarity. We must see ourselves in communion with our brothers and sisters and reach out to share with those in need.
Pope Paul would not have been enamoured by the trickle-down economy theories of the 1980s - the belief that if the rich are allowed to get even richer, some wealth will trickle down to the poorest. It's never worked that way. The richer the rich get, the more they want it all for themselves.
Even Warren Buffet, the multi-billionaire who wants to give it all away, says that on the whole the middle class are more generous with their wealth than are the rich.
In places, Populorum Progressio could be socialist: "From time to time the good of all demands that private property should be taken over by the state." It established the Church as one of the few global organizations that views capitalism with a critical eye.
But ultimately, it is a balanced encyclical. Its denunciation of untrammelled free trade is followed by a critique of excessive nationalism. Its call for urgent radical reform comes with the rider that revolution tends to "bring only greater evil in its wake."
Populorum Progressio did bear fruit. Latin American theologians gained the key insight that development would not occur unless there was also liberation from oppressive political structures. Thousands of First World Catholics, especially the young, have made "solidarity visits" to poor nations and have been forever changed by the experience.
Still, Archbishop Martin is right. We haven't even started to implement this encyclical. Corporate rule continues unabated. Greed now threatens us with global warming. War and grinding poverty today grind the poor that much harder. And Pope Paul's contention that the Church "was founded to set up the kingdom of heaven right down here on earth" has gained little traction in our congregations.
We live in hope that someday things will be different. We no longer expect "radical reform right away." But Populorum Progressio does provide a beacon of hope.
- Glen Argan
Letter to the Editor - 11/12/07
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