Last week, I had the pleasure to attend one of the Acton Institute’s seminars here in Rome. Located at the campus of the Pontifical University of Regina Apostolorum, the seminar drew more than 100 religious and lay persons from all over the world. It was apparent that the topic was not only an interesting one, but also a personal one for many in the room. The presentations dealt with the papal encyclical Populorum Progressio forty years later. Asking the pertinent question of whether or not progress has failed the developing world, each presentation dealt with a different aspect of the theory and the praxis of this topic.
Acton’s own Michael Miller opened the seminar with a few thoughts on Populorum Progressio and society today. Referring to the enhanced living conditions of the developing world, Mr. Miller mentioned the advances of progress. However, he was not blind to the failures felt in the past few decades. Too often the focus is on poverty, but he believes the focus needs to be on wealth. We know what makes people poor, we need to study what makes people rich. Another example Mr. Miller used is the idea of population control to alleviate the sufferings of the poor. Calling to mind the words of Pope John Paul II, man’s best resource is man himself.
This idea of human resources and their importance to development was a key aspect of the next speaker’s presentation. Fr. Thomas Williams, Legionary of Christ priest and teacher at Regina Apostolorum, theorized about the necessity and effects of development. He reasoned that a way to understand development and progress is to understand their nature. Delving into the papal documents from recent history, Fr. Williams gave an excellent exegesis of their meaning. Paul VI wrote, six years after Populorum Progressio, that development cannot be measured by mere economic growth, but also as an improvement for the very being of the human person. But many critics of Christianity say that Christians are anti-wealth, anti-progress. While Christians love the poor, they do not promulgate poverty. Similarly, they love the sick but hate sickness, love the sinner but hate the sin. The difficulty arises when the human person is secondary to economic success; when wealth becomes the supreme good at the cost of human dignity. This attitude of greed leads to avarice. However, Pope Paul VI comments that both rich and poor fall prey to this vice. He adds that just as the Ancient philosophers loved leisure because it led to contemplation, Christians love prosperity because it leads to time for prayer.
Progress for the Catholic Church and the majority of Christianity is measured by the development of the common good. A healthy economy aids the needs of the human family. Thus, in this sense, wealth can be viewed as a good once again. But, development must go beyond a nation’s GNP. It must serve the personal development of its members. Another papal encyclical, Rerum Novarum holds that it is impossible to reduce society to one level. Talents and abilities are not even across the board for all men. However, each person chooses that which benefits him best. Vatican II documents further this idea by commenting that talents are not equally divided. Thus, the successful contribute to the less fortunate. Where the rich advance at the sake of the poor there exists grave injustice. However, in certain developing countries where the rich get richer and the poor get richer (albeit at a different rate), that constitutes a common goal of success and improvement.
Finally, Fr. Williams commented on industrialization as an aid to development. John Paul II believed that industrialization is a sign of development, a spur. Without the opportunity to learn a trade and apply one’s particular talents, a worker stagnates and becomes dependent.
It is this very stagnation that afflicts much of the developing world today. Prof. Philip Booth gave an interesting presentation on Aid and Development which complimented Fr. Williams’s talk. Basing his argument on many of the same documents used by Fr. Williams, Prof. Booth’s speech highlighted many of the failures of Government Aid to developing nations. He said that the basic cause of this dichotomy between the rich nations and the poor ones is a simple lack of involvement in globalization. He used China as an example when he referred to the more than 425 million people now out of the dollar-a-day income bracket thanks to globalization. But, he argues that aid is not the solution, it is one of the problems. In countries where the governing elite keep their people poor and uneducated, progress stagnates. In such nations, there frequently exists a mentality that promotes the persecution of productive ethnicities. The greater proportion of controlled government wealth, the greater the incentive for ethnic groups to revolt. In this case he used many of the African countries as his examples. Prof. Booth believes that nations who partake in globalization will inevitably escape the clutches of poverty, without the need for aid. Again, he agreed with Fr. Williams when he distinguishes the difference between charity and government aid.
But this distinction between charity and aid was the cause of some disagreement in the room. When Prof. Silvestri, in his presentation on the work of the AVSI Foundation (a non-governmental organization that implements development projects), proposed the idea of government funding for Catholic organizations through trickle down processes, Prof. Booth disagreed. Prof. Silvestri, as president of AVSI, has worked first-hand in many developing countries and gave a presentation on Catholic charities and progress in the developing world. Many of the students and religious in the room understood only too well what a difficult mission AVSI and other such organizations have. The practical examples and first-hand information provided by Dr. Silvestri was the perfect way to end the seminar.
After hearing the major issues and teachings found in Populorum Progressio from Mr. Miller, the audience learned the basic, philosophical principles underlying Christian ideals regarding development and progress by Fr. Williams. Complimenting Fr. Williams’s theoretical discussion of Catholic Church teaching was Prof. Booth’s presentation on the practical issues regarding globalization, progress and aid. Bringing the evening to a close was the practical, hands-on presentation of Dr. Silvestri which showed just how the theoretical can be applied in the real world. The comments from the religious and lay people in attendance were overwhelmingly positive. Many said that the reason they enjoyed the conference so much was the clear explanation of Catholic Church teaching, the application of this teaching in a real setting, and the fact that so much is being done for the people of the developing world.