In Chapter 1, paragraphs 10 through 20, Benedict takes up Paul VI’s forty-year-old encyclical letter, Populorum Progressio . George Weigel notes the long hunger among some more left-leaning Catholics to revive Paul VI’s work and pit it against the economics implied in John Paul II’s Centesimus Annus . If so, they got what the wanted with the unstinting praise of Populorum Progressio , but that praise is studded with some passages that act as brakes on too expansive a reading of Benedict’s work.

The pope insists, as part of his demand for truth, that the Church “has a public role over and above her charitable and educational activities: all the energy she brings to the advancement of humanity and of universal fraternity is manifested when she is able to operate in a climate of freedom. In not a few cases, that freedom is impeded by prohibitions and persecutions, or it is limited when the Church’s public presence is reduced to her charitable activities alone.”

And he warns, in the context of reading Populorum Progressio , that

In the course of history, it was often maintained that the creation of institutions was sufficient to guarantee the fulfilment of humanity’s right to development. Unfortunately, too much confidence was placed in those institutions, as if they were able to deliver the desired objective automatically. In reality, institutions by themselves are not enough, because integral human development is primarily a vocation, and therefore it involves a free assumption of responsibility in solidarity on the part of everyone. Moreover, such development requires a transcendent vision of the person, it needs God: without him, development is either denied, or entrusted exclusively to man, who falls into the trap of thinking he can bring about his own salvation, and ends up promoting a dehumanized form of development.

Populorum Progressio , the pope notes, “repeatedly underlines the urgent need for reform, and in the face of great problems of injustice in the development of peoples, it calls for courageous action to be taken without delay.” That’s the segue to Chapter 2 of the encyclical, and it is not as promising as it might be.

Ask yourself this: Was Populorum Progressio a success or a failure? Was “the urgent need for reform” met or disregarded? The encyclical is forty years old, after all. We should know by now what its results were.

On the one hand, world poverty is massively less than it was forty years ago. With the economic improvement for China’s 1 billion people, it could hardly not be, but many other areas of the world have greatly improved as well. Then, too, the fall of Eastern European communism has occurred in those forty years, again marking a great (if unstable) improvement in freedom and social conditions. So how much of this success came from our following the vision of Populorum Progressio ?

On the other hand, in the last forty years, AIDS has devastated Africa. South America and Asia have seen great improvement, but much of that improvement has served only to increase the gap between the rich and the poor—a gap that was already horrifying in Paul VI’s time. And how much of this failure came from our not following the vision of Populorum Progressio ?

In Benedict’s account—a correct one, I think— Populorum Progressio was prophetic when it saw that the economic relation need not make a fraternal relation, and that the world needed to recommit itself to the Divine. But Populorum Progressio was far less prophetic when read as an account of the economic changes the world would undergo over the forty years after its release.

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