5.4.1 Critical assessments of Populorum Progressio

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Unit 5 Contents



PP was subject to critique from at least two directions.  I shall outline these here by reference to the ‘left’/‘right’ political spectrum, although this is only shorthand and cannot capture all the factors that differentiate economic and political positions.  This approach makes sense as the critical points below do express lines of argument that are characteristic of stances generally seen as on the ‘left’ and on the ‘right’.  We shall look at its pros and cons of this terminology at the start of Unit 6 (6.1.1).

Three points critical of Populorum Progressio from the ‘left’

1. Overcoming poverty and injustice requires confrontation

How can societies be changed for the better?  PP laments the suffering that poverty causes.  But how can this actually be overcome?  Donal Dorr helpfully contrasts two models of social change.1

There is a confrontation model.  The elites of the powerful and the rich who benefit from current social arrangements won’t give up their privileges easily.  So they need to be confronted: an adversarial stance is necessary.  Nothing will really change unless people take sides and are prepared for social conflict.

Second, there is also a consensus model.  Change comes about because relevant social groups come to agreement, even if this is not easy to reach.  “The presupposition… is that all the parties have sufficient goodwill and commitment to justice to move them to make concessions… [and] to promote the common welfare of all”.2

One theme of Dorr’s book is that, from RN through to the Second Vatican Council and beyond, CST has not recognised the extent to which confrontation and social conflict are in practice necessary to bring about the kind of change that its own vision requires.  One reason for this, Dorr thinks, is precisely CST’s rejection of the Marxist theory of class conflict and revolution; this repudiation was both in principle and because many of its adherents believed violence was justified.  In Dorr’s view, this pushed CST in the other direction, to great nervousness about any sort of adversarial approach to social change.

Dorr sees this reflected in PP.  Paul VI expresses “the hope that a ‘more deeply felt need for collaboration and a heightened sense of unity will finally triumph over misunderstandings and selfishness’”, and his conviction that “the world, despite all its failures, is in fact moving towards greater brotherhood/sisterhood and an increase in humanity”.3

Even though PP also warns that the continued greed of the rich “will certainly call down upon them the judgment of God and the wrath of the poor, with consequences no one can foretell” (#49), Dorr points to what it does not include:

Conspicuously absent from Populorum Progressio is any direct and explicit proposal… to the poorer groups or classes within each country that they should mobilise themselves politically and engage in strong, though non-violent, action in pursuit of justice”.4



In relation to PP specifically, do you think this line of critique is fair?  As well as the sections just referenced, you might want to look at ##29-32 on the question of revolution or reform: see 5.3.6.  There certainly can be confrontation and social conflict that do not seek revolution, and it is such forms which Dorr primarily has in mind.

What about in relation to CST overall, in light of what the module has so far covered?

To what extent does the issue of whether a confrontational or a consensus approach to social change is appropriate depend on context?


We shall see in Unit 6 that John Paul II developed CST on solidarity in a way that can be read as a response to this line of critique.

2. Poor people themselves are the main agents of their own development

That first concern raises this question: to the extent that adversarial confrontation of injustice is necessary, who should actually to do the confronting?  In other words, who are the agents of the required social change, the agents of development?

PP gives two kinds of answer.  On one hand, everyone is responsible: “every man is called upon to develop himself, for every life is a vocation”, and “all peoples [are] to become the artisans of their destiny” (##15, 65).  “In countries undergoing development no less than in others, lay people should take up as their own proper task the renewal of the temporal order” (#81).  As Dorr interprets this aspect of what PP says, “it is not possible to develop people; development is something people have to do for themselves”.5

On the other hand, it is political and economic elites who are responsible.  The whole of Part II of the encyclical describes obligations of “better-off nations” (#44). It gives special mention to “experts… sent in larger and larger numbers on development missions by institutions” (#71).  The concluding paragraphs appeal especially to people in positions of power and influence, such as delegates to international organizations, political leaders and people of learning.

Of course, these two kinds of answer are not mutually exclusive.  In Dorr’s reading of PP, however, it is the second that has greater prominence: it appears overall “that the more important agents of change are those who already have wealth, power, or influence”.6. Dorr then links this with his first concern, about confrontation:

There is a close connection between the model of change one is using and the kind of agents to whom one assigns a major role in transforming the structures of society.  Since Pope Paul envisages change as coming mainly through consensus, it is understandable that he gives special importance to those who now hold economic and political power…

In sharp contrast to this approach is the view of those who believe that some degree of confrontation will probably be required in order to bring about radical change…  For them, the major agents of social change are more likely to be people at or near the bottom of society.   But if the poor are to exercise real power they have to become aware of the possibilities open to them; and they need to harness their anger and become organised.  In this task they can be greatly facilitated by Church leaders and others who are prepared to forego their privileges positions and make a real option for, and with, the poor. There is no indication that Pope Paul was thinking along these lines when he wrote Populorum Progressio.7



Given that PP gives both those kinds of answer to the question of who is primarily responsible for bringing about development, do you think Dorr is right to read the text as giving greater weight to the role of political and economic elites?

Is your own experience more of poverty or of affluence?  Reflect on the idea Dorr presents that the primary agents of overcoming poverty are not such elites but the poor themselves, acting together.  What points would you make in favour of and against this idea?


3. The concept of ‘development’ itself needs to be rejected.

Around the time PP was published, a vigorous critique of use of the term ‘development’ was emerging on the political left.  The main point in this was that ‘development’ was connected inevitably with what was measurable as economic growth and an essentially capitalist vision, such as found in Rostow’s theory (see 5.3.3).  In this view, PP manifested what was dubbed ‘developmentalism’ – a naïve stance in which moderate critique of capitalism could be nothing more than a cover for it.

Even though PP presented a profound critique of such views of development, the fact that, as one commentator puts it, “it accepted the term and did not propose a clear practical alternative… made it susceptible to criticism for falling into a soft kind of developmentalism”.8



Fundamentally, this line of critique is that the term ‘development’ is irredeemable – because it cannot be separated from a capitalist position that must be rejected.

What do you think about the idea that some words are unusable because of stances they are associated with?  Do you think this could be true of ‘development’?


These three lines of critique of PP from the ‘left’ came to be expressed in the movement within the Catholic Church called liberation theology that emerged in the late 1960s.  We shall study this in detail in the next unit.

Critique of Populorum Progressio from the ‘right’

For many decades, the Wall Street Journal has been a leading voice for free-market capitalism, both in the United States and internationally.  Immediately after PP was issued, the Wall Street Journal published an editorial about it.  This focused on PP’s critique of “a type of capitalism” (#26) and its advocacy of state direction of development initiatives (#33).

Here is part of the editorial:

Pope Paul’s encyclical lends the mantle of religion to certain ideas which are profoundly secular in origin, and advocates programs of a type now undergoing widespread reappraisal by their one-time secular sponsors. True, ancient Christian morality enjoins the wealthy person to share with the destitute. And perhaps to some extent that injunction may survive the analogy between bread for the poor and steel mills for India. Even this slender moral ground, though, seems a secondary basis for the Pope’s recommendations for more open-handed foreign aid and trade concessions to under developed nations. The more fundamental basis seems to be an entirely worldly analysis of what ails these nations. What chiefly ails them, the letter appears to argue, is a system “which considers profit as the key motive for economic progress, competition as the supreme law of economics, and private ownership of the means of production as an absolute right that has no limits and carries no corresponding social obligation…  A type of capitalism has been the source of excessive suffering, injustices and fratricidal conflicts whose effects still persist.” [#26]  Part of the proposed remedy is more generosity by prosperous nations. But also within all nations, rich or poor, “it pertains to the public authorities to choose, even to lay down the objectives to be pursued, as the ends to be achieved, and the means for attaining these.” [#33] The trouble with making religious tenets of this warmed-over Marxism is that it is highly unlikely to help the bulk of poor nations. Ruling elites in the vast majority of ex-colonial nations have already indulged themselves in precisely the kind of state direction the Pope now seems to recommend. Their nations suffer not from an excess of capitalism, but from a paucity of it. Profit, free competition and private ownership, to be sure, are capable of abuse. Certainly they are not sacred in themselves. But experience shows that they are the most efficient methods of creating abundance for all: they are the tools which most prosperous nations have used to eliminate want. Until the leaders of underdeveloped nations recognize as much, more advanced nations can do little to help.9



Newspaper editorials are often written as powerful polemic.  Trying to see past the polemic, what do you think of the substance of this critique?  Is the editorial fair to PP?


Here are two strong points in the editorial; you might come up with different ones.

1. Ever since Rerum Novarum, CST had not been good at speaking positively about business and enterprise, and this was still the case in PP.  I noted earlier that when PP criticises a “type of capitalism”, it is not at all negative about private business as such, but only about its distortion by economic liberalism (5.3.5). But PP does not overtly make a positive such assessment, even if the affirmation of industry in #25 may be read as going some way towards that.  It does not celebrate explicitly the benefits which businesses can bring to people. Therefore, it is not surprising if those who see themselves as advocates for business see only the negative critique.

2. When PP affirms that the state should have a directive role in development programmes (#33, as quoted in the Wall Street Journal), it shows little awareness of how often such programmes go terribly wrong, through inefficiency, incompetence and corruption.  That this is the case may be much clearer now than in the immediate post-colonial era of the 1960s, and the editorial does not directly refer to corruption (which of course afflicts both public and private sectors).10. Nevertheless, the absence of reference in PP to such problems suggests some naivety about state-directed initiatives.

In contrast, here are two weaknesses in the editorial’s critique of PP.

1. CST had always been strongly anti-Marxist (as earlier units have shown) and PP did not change that. Therefore the claim that what PP advocated is “warmed-over Marxism” is empty rhetoric.  It likely reflected a tendency in Cold War political debate to polarize economic options between laissez-faire capitalism and socialist state ownership/control: anything that was not plainly the former must be the latter.  (The same tendency probably contributed to the critique from the left of the concept of ‘development’, noted above.)

2. The editorial in effect attributes a statist view to PP, but in doing so it misrepresents PP and also CST in general, in two ways. First, it quotes PP selectively, thereby distorting it: the sentence after the one it quotes reflects CST’s constant affirmation of the importance of non-state action: “But let [the public authorities] take care to associate private initiative and intermediary bodies with” state projects (#33).

Second, the editorial appears not to recognize that CST clearly affirms both the principle of subsidiarity and that the state has a directive role (see Unit 3, especially 3.3.1 and 3.3.3). The former means that CST’s stance is explicitly non-statist, while the latter means that it sees the state as having a limited but vital role in direction to the common good – CST does not share economic liberalism’s presumption that state action per se is undesirable. By misunderstanding CST, therefore, the editorial does not do justice to PP.

In the decades after PP, the kind of pro-capitalist critique of CST that the Wall Street Journal editorial represented was developed much more fully by a number of Catholic writers, most influentially Michael Novak.  We shall study Novak’s work also in Unit 6.

These lines of critique of PP from ‘left’ and ‘right’ can be seen as setting the agenda for debate about CST on international development right through to Benedict XVI’s Caritas in Veritate of 2009 and Francis’s papacy.  This is the agenda we shall follow in the next unit.

To conclude this screen, here is one (sympathetic) commentator’s overall assessment of PP, written in the early 2000s:

[Populorum Progressio] certainly constitutes one of the more original, extensive and influential applications of Catholic social teaching ever achieved.  The legacy continues to influence Christians throughout the world, especially in the least developed nations.  Issues that arise in PP, such as the need for equity in trade relations between rich and poor nations… and the social purpose of property, are as crucial today in the age of globalization as they were when Pope Paul first articulated them.  As such this encyclical represents a significant milestone in the ongoing elaboration of Catholic social teaching.11




End of 5.4.1

Go to 5.4.2 Sword of the Spirit, CIIR, and Progressio  

Module B outline

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  1. Dorr, Option for the Poor (ref. in 5.2.9), p. 196 

  2. Dorr, Option for the Poor, p. 196 

  3. Dorr, Option for the Poor, pp. 196-197, quoting PP #64 and referencing #79 

  4. Dorr, Option for the Poor, p. 197 

  5. Dorr, Option for the Poor, p. 198 

  6. Dorr, Option for the Poor, p. 199 

  7. Dorr, Option for the Poor, pp. 199-200 

  8. Allan Figueroa Deck, ‘Commentary on Populorum Progressio’ (ref. in 5.3.4), p. 309 

  9. Wall Street Journal, 30th March 1967, p. 14 

  10. For a short discussion that shows there is now more awareness than fifty years ago of the impact of corruption (in particular) in holding back development, see ‘The rationale for fighting corruption’, published by the CleanGovBiz Initiative of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), 2012, accessible (20 Jul. 2016) at https://www.oecd.org/cleangovbiz/49693613.pdf

  11. Deck, ‘Commentary on Populorum Progressio’, p. 310. 

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