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Samuel Gregg on the unexpected lessons of ‘Populorum Progressio’

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In a recent article for Crisis Magazine, Samuel Gregg, Acton’s director of research, reflects on Pope Paul VI’s social encyclical Populorum Progressio. He criticizes it for faulty “time-bound” economic ideas and international approach to charity efforts, but praises the work it for its openness to variety in how to address social and economic problems as well as its affirmation of the differing roles of clergy and the laity. In his criticism, Gregg challenges the protectionist ideals put forth in Populorum Progressio, as well as the positive effects of transfer of capital from richer to poorer nations. He says:

The encyclical expressed, for example, considerable skepticism concerning free trade’s potential contribution to overcoming poverty. At the time, such skepticism was commonplace among international development experts.

Fifty years later, however, the evidence that free trade has played a decisive role in helping hundreds of millions escape poverty is overwhelming. By contrast, Populorum Progressio suggested, albeit vaguely, that developing countries should adopt protectionist measures which would allow them to build up “certain infant industries.” In retrospect, we know that those developing nations which failed to open themselves to global trade didn’t prosper economically. As Saint John Paul II’s encyclical Centesimus Annus observed just 24 years later, countries that tended to isolate themselves from the global economy “suffered stagnation and recession.”

Another misjudgment of Populorum Progressio concerned the faith it placed in international aid to address poverty in developing nations. The encyclical even called for the establishment of a “world fund” through which wealthy countries would transfer capital to poorer nations and thereby help “relieve the needs of impoverished peoples.”

Unfortunately, there’s sparse evidence that international aid or government-to-government wealth-transfers have made any systematic contribution to poverty’s reduction in developing nations. Numerous scholars ranging from the late Lord Bauer to Robert F. Gorman, Philip Booth, Dambisa Moyo, Thomas Dichter, Michael Matheson Miller, and William Easterly have raised serious questions about aid’s effectiveness. They have also highlighted the many ways in which aid has actually retarded economic development and even, in some instances, helped facilitate corruption.

Conversely, Gregg affirms Paul VI in his support of individual liberty in acting with one’s conscience, as well as articulating the differing roles of clergy and the laity:

It followed, Paul stressed, that each Christian should “determine, in his conscience, the actions which he is called to share in.” It was also important, the pope added, for Catholics to understand that there is often “a legitimate variety of possible options” about how to address social and economic problems. Few readers of Populorum Progressio would have arrived at that conclusion.

Above all, Octogesima Adveniens reiterated a central teaching of Vatican II: that “the renewal of the temporal order” is the “proper task” of “laymen”—not, sotto voce, the clergy. The responsibility of bishops—which presumably included himself as bishop of Rome—was, Paul stated, “to teach and to interpret authentically the norms of morality to be followed.” This division of labor, he indicated, was important so that “the laity, without waiting passively for orders and directives” could undertake the initiative for shaping the communities in which they live.

All these points remain important today. Certainly, the Church’s pastors have a responsibility to remind us of Catholic social teaching’s principles and their theological and philosophical bases. The moment, however, our pastors enter into the specifics of those policy issues about which Catholics are free to disagree, there’s a serious risk they will crowd out the contribution of laypeople, especially those who want to be respectful of their bishops.

This doesn’t mean that bishops can’t express their views on such subjects. It does, however, suggest that—like Pope Paul—Catholic clergy should readily acknowledge the legitimate plurality of views which Catholics can have on most policy questions. If this is the only insight to be gained from reflecting upon Paul VI’s social teaching fifty years after Populorum Progressio, it would be of immense service to the Church universal.

To read the full article from Crisis Magazine, click here.

Image: “Pope Paul VI” (CC BY-SA 3.0) via Ambrosius 007

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Devin Ryan

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