"In what ways did Pope Paul VI develop or depart from earlier Catholic social thought?"


In this essay I will discuss the major documents produced during the pontificate of Paul VI relating to Social Justice. This includes those issued under Paul's name 'Populorum Progressio' (1967), 'Octogesima Adveniens' (1971) and 'Evangelii Nuntiandi' (1975); but also 'Justice in the World', the statement of the 1971 synod of bishops which was endorsed by Paul.

The most significant features of 'Populorum Progressio' - the understanding of 'human development' that is presented and in the global perspective taken in identifying and addressing injustice in the world is discussed. The significant acknowledgement that a resort to violence to resist oppression may be justified in some circumstances is also noted.

The call for Christians to become active in social and political life in 'Octogesima Adveniens' reflects a shift in emphasis from economic reform to political reform as the means to address social injustice. The recognition of the right of local churches to formulate a gospel response to the particular situations they face is identified as a key development presented in this document.

The significance of the naming of action on behalf of justice as a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the gospel in 'Justice in the World' is discussed leading to the further development of that theme in 'Evangelii Nuntiandi'. The mission of the church is here described as the bringing about of the kingdom of God; a task accomplished by both word and witness and which requires the engagement of the Church with economic, political and cultural aspects of life.


The publication of Pope Leo XIII's encyclical 'Rerum Novarum' in 1891 was the most important and authoritative statement on 'social justice' made by the Church up to that time. Over the next seventy years, successors of Leo, especially Pius XI and John XXIII, re-affirmed and developed this teaching through major encyclicals such as 'Quadragesimo Anno' (1931), 'Mater et Magistra' (1961) and 'Pacem et Terris' (1963). The publication of the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World ('Gaudium et Spes') issued under the auspices of the assembled bishops of the world at the Second Vatican Council in 1965, continued this process of development. At the same time it "represented the culmination of the changes begun with 'Mater et Magistra' and set new directions for Catholic social thought" [1]

Elected as Pope during the Second Vatican Council, Paul VI continued the development of Catholic Social teaching through three pieces of writing; 'Populorum Progressio' (1967), 'Octogesima Adveniens' (1971) and 'Evangelii Nuntiandi' (1975). Statements issued by the synods of bishops can also be seen as a contribution of Paul to the development of the church's teaching given that he convened the synods as a means of implementing the call of the Council, and given that any statement issued by the synod required papal approval. Thus the 1971 statement 'Justice in the World' described as "one of the most important statements on social justice ever issued by Rome", [2] should also be included in any discussion of Paul's contribution to the body of the church's social teaching.

Far from presenting a "coherent body of unified teaching", papal statements on social questions (and indeed on any question) must be seen in their historical context."Each encyclical was the product of different minds, responded to different institutional realities and periods of history, expressed quite different worldviews and philosophical understandings" [3] In the writings of Paul it is possible to identify some major developments and departures from earlier Catholic social thought.

Two significant developments can be identified in 'Populorum Progressio'. These are its understanding of 'human development' and its adopting of a broader international perspective rather than the predominantly national and euro-centric focus that had characterised earlier church statements.

In 'Mater et Magistra' John XXIII had argued that the underlying cause of poverty and hunger in the world was the 'under-development' of poor countries, and that the solution was to be found in the provision of Western investment and aid. [4] This theme was continued in 'Gaudium et Spes', but here, although development was still understood primarily in economic terms, it was also recognized that development was linked to other values such as freedom, dignity and participation. [5]

In contrast, Paul VI in 'Populorum Progressio' did not commence with the generally accepted assumptions about development and then seek to correct and modify them, as the Council Fathers had done. Instead Paul's starting point was based on a radically different understanding of what was meant by development. For Paul, drawing upon the humanist and personalist philosophies that had shaped his view of the world, authentic human development meant "the transition from less human conditions to those which are more human." [6] Development was therefore not just about economic or material progress but also about the development of the whole person. Hence economic development cannot be separated from cultural, psychological, political, ecological and religious development. [7] Paul identifies examples of what he means by less human conditions - material or moral poverty, oppressive social structures and exploitation of workers - and also identifies the corresponding 'more human' conditions which include escape from destitution, elimination of social evils, the widening of knowledge and the attainment of culture. He goes on to list respect for the dignity of others, orientation towards a spirit of poverty and simple lifestyle, co-operation for the common good, and a will to peace as being further examples of 'more human' conditions together with faith and a due acknowledgement of the rightful place of God in human affairs. By including these additional examples, Paul presents an understanding of self-fulfilment that is neither selfish nor achieved at the expense of others, and in which he asserts, lies the path to peace. [8]

Earlier encyclicals such as 'Rerum Novarum' and 'Quadragessimo Anno' were primarily concerned with the establishment of a just order within the state, and the relationship between rich and poor individuals and classes within society. In 'Populorum Progressio' however Paul directs his attention to the establishment of a just world order, and addresses the relationship between nations. In this he also seeks to identify the underlying causes for the gross inequality in living standards between rich and poor nations. Here the evil legacy of past colonialism, the emergence of new forms of colonialism and the imbalance of power between nations leading to unfair trade rules, are particularly singled out for criticism.[9]

Paul is unequivocal in his condemnation of many aspects of capitalism including an overemphasis on the values of profit and competition and the unrestricted right to private property, [10] In this he is echoing the condemnations of the evils of liberal capitalism made by his predecessors. Unlike Pius XI in 'Quadragesimo Anno' however, Paul is reluctant to go into detail as to how the international economic order should operate. Nevertheless it is clear that he favours economic planning on a global scale, and the ultimate establishment of a world authority "capable of acting effectively in the juridical and political sectors" [11]

There is another area of significant departure from previous catholic social teaching that ought be mentioned. In speaking of whole peoples living in a state of great oppression, Paul acknowledges that the temptation to resort to violence can be very strong. He then states that "a revolutionary uprising save where there is manifest long standing tyranny which would do great damage to fundamental personal rights and dangerous harm to the good of the country - produces new injustices" [12] Despite going on to repeat the church's traditional condemnation of violence, in the passage quoted there is the clear implication that violence may be justified in extreme circumstances. This position contrasts markedly with those taken by Leo XIII and Pius XI, intent as they were on preserving the harmony of the social order.

Despite the above statement, it must be said that Paul does not see violent confrontation as the way to bring about a more just world. Rather he favours a consensus approach based on dialogue and rational argument, and assuming a fundamental goodwill and commitment to justice on the part of those in positions of leadership. Indeed whilst acknowledging that individuals and peoples should have prime responsibility for their own development, Paul seems to envisage that in practice it is those who hold positions of power and influence in the world who are the ones who will bring about change. [13]

Four years after 'Populorum Progressio', and timed to coincide with the eightieth anniversary of 'Rerum Novarum', Paul again addressed the issue of social justice with his Apostolic Letter 'Octogesima Adveniens'. The issuing of this letter so soon after 'Populorum Progressio' continued the papal tradition of regularly returning to the social justice theme on major anniversaries of the publication of 'Rerum Novarum', but it also reflected the concern for social justice that had characterised Paul's life. [14] It also responded to new issues and developments that had emerged both in the church and the world, particularly in Latin America.

In 1968 the bishops of Latin America assembled at Medellin, Colombia for a conference that was to have profound consequences for the both the local and the universal church. Building on the themes set out in 'Gaudium et Spes' and 'Populorum Progressio', the documents issued from Medellin denounced structural injustice, firmly placed the church on the side of the poor and committed the church to work to empower the poor in their struggle for liberation. [15] For many, the statements issued at Medellin were alarming. They were seen as being dangerously close to Marxism and there were calls for correction from the church's supreme authority. 'Octogesima Adveniens' can therefore be seen, at least in part, as a response to the controversy arising from Medellin.

One of the most significant features of "Octogesima Adveniens" was its shift in focus from economic reform to political reform as the means to address social injustice. The theme of development that had been the major focus of "Populorum Progressio", whilst not rejected, was downplayed. Many aspects of western style development were criticized, eg urbanization, consumerism; and for the first time in a papal document the future capacity of the earth to support its population was questioned, and there was call for a renewed sense of responsibility for the environment. [16] In the face of new problems and ongoing injustices still to be found everywhere in the world, Christians were called to take action to "infuse a Christian spirit into the mentality, customs, laws and structures of the community in which they live". [17] Whilst Paul was reluctant to use the term 'liberation' for fear it could be interpreted as endorsing violent revolution; "Octogesima Adveniens" was seen as giving a cautious endorsement to the approach taken by the bishops at Medellin. [18]

In "Octogesima Adveniens" Paul also stressed the importance of ideas about the nature, origin, purpose of human society and the human person and the role of cultural and religious groupings in promoting such ideas. He rejected both Marxist and liberal ideologies as being incompatible with the Christian understanding of the human person, a stance consistent with that taken by his predecessors. [19] Nevertheless whilst still remaining deeply suspicious of socialism Paul made a significant concession. A significant part of the document is given over to a description of the historical development of socialism and its various forms. As Hebblethwaite points out "Octogesima Adveniens" is "the first document in Catholic social teaching to be discriminating about 'socialism'". [20]

Perhaps the most significant feature of "Octogesima Adveniens" however is in its acknowledgement of the right of local churches to formulate a gospel response to the particular situations they face. There is no longer a single, universal answer to problems to be handed down from Rome.
"It is up to the Christian Communities to analyze with objectivity the situation which is proper to their own country, to shed on it the light of the gospel's unalterable words and to draw principles of reflection, norms of judgement and directives for action from the social teaching of the Church." [21]

It is thus acknowledged that it is possible for Christians to arrive at differing responses due not only to their personal discernments but also due to the diversity of situations arising from differences of region, culture and socio-political systems. Although Paul again does not take up the specific issue of confrontation, it follows that the consensus model he proposes which may be suitable for Europe does not necessarily have to be the model used elsewhere. In other places it may be more appropriate for the poor to confront the rich more directly. [22]

A few months after the publication of "Octogesima Adveniens" in 1971 the bishops of the world assembled in Rome and subsequently issued the statement "Justice in the World". The document is significant both for its content and for the manner of its composition. Significant input was provided not only from the Latin American bishops with their recent experience of Medellin, but also from the Pontifical Commission for Justice and Peace, a body that had been established by Paul in 1967. The document again emphasised structural injustice as being a legacy of colonialism, but did so more strongly than Paul had done in "Populorum Progressio" [23] The document is also highly critical of many forms of 'development' which had not only failed to eliminate social evils such as hunger and poverty, but had often given rise to new forms of exploitation, whilst at the same time proving ultimately to be environmentally unsustainable. [24] The bishops instead spoke of 'liberation through development' and identified the concentration of power and wealth in the hands of a few, with the consequent marginalisation of the majority, as being at the core of the problem of structural injustice. [25] Whilst not directly addressing the issue of confrontation, the document does speak of the importance of educating for justice as a means of empowerment in order to bring about change. [26] It also recognizes the importance of the practice of justice within the church itself noting "that anyone who ventures to speak to people about justice must first be just in their eyes." [27]

Finally, mention needs be made of what was to prove perhaps the most controversial statement in the whole document: "Action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world fully appear to us as a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the gospel" [28] The statement is significant for the importance it places on the church's work for justice. If the statement is accepted, the church cannot confine itself to 'spiritual' or 'religious' matters, but is bound by its very nature to involve itself in political activity in order to bring about a more just society - a particularly challenging concept for many in the church.

A further contribution of Paul to the development of Catholic Social teaching can be found in his Apostolic Exhortation "Evangelii Nuntiandi" published in 1975. The document had its origins in the 1974 synod of bishops, an event that for the first time saw a significant contribution from African bishops and which as a result added both breadth and depth to the scope of its considerations. The synod concluded without agreeing on the text of a final statement and it was left to Paul to draw together the deliberations of the synod in "a work of discernment and synthesis" [29] covering a broad range of issues.

A key feature of the document is in the primacy it gives to the mission of Jesus (and consequently of the church) - the establishment of the Kingdom of God. "Christ first of all proclaims a kingdom, the Kingdom of God, and this is so important that everything else becomes 'the rest' which is 'given in addition'. Only the Kingdom therefore is absolute and it makes everything else relative"[30]

If then the church is about building the kingdom, then of necessity it follows that it must be involved in working to create a world free from oppression and injustice. [31]

Paul stresses the importance of witness as well as words in the task of evangelization [32] - the proclamation of the good news of salvation "which is liberation from everything that oppresses man..." [33] The term 'liberation' appears extensively throughout the document and by its use Paul was attempting to bridge the division that had arisen within the church over 'liberation theology'. Whilst giving broad support to the direction taken by the Latin American church he wished to make clear that the church�s mission could not be reduced to just the political or economic sphere, and that the church was not about a particular political or social program, but was rather presenting an integrated vision of what it means to be human. [34]

Again, like his predecessors, Paul argues that individual conversion of heart is essential, since structural change cannot occur without it. [35] However he also provides an original insight when he speaks of the role of the church being to permeate human cultures and transform them with the message of the gospel. [36] This is more than changing personal attitudes, values and beliefs, and not just about changing political and economic structures, but it also includes the collective patterns of thought, feelings and values. [37] It is yet another final example of Paul's unique and immensely important contribution to the development Catholic social thought during the fifteen years of his pontificate.


[1] David J. O'Brien, & Thomas A. Shannon, (eds)
Catholic Social Thought - The Documentary Heritage
(New York: Orbis Books, 1992) p165

[2] D. Dorr,
Option for the Poor - A Hundred Years of Vatican Social Teaching
(Blackburn: Collins Dove, 1992) p 228

[3] J Coleman SJ,
"Development of Church Social Teaching" in "Origins"
June 4, 1981 Vol.11: No. 3, p 37

[4] Mater et Magistra163-165 in Catholic Social Thought - The Documentary Heritage
David J. O�Brien, & Thomas A. Shannon, (eds)
(New York: Orbis Books, 1992)

[5] Dorr, Option for the Poor, p171

[6] Populorum Progressio 20 in Catholic Social Thought � The Documentary Heritage
David J. O'Brien, & Thomas A. Shannon, (eds)
(New York: Orbis Books, 1992)

[7] Dorr, Option for the Poor, p180-181

[8] Populorum Progressio 21,76

[9] Populorum Progressio 7-9; 52; 56-58

[10] Populorum Progressio 26

[11] Populorum Progressio 50-52; 64; 78

[12] Populorum Progressio 31

[13] Dorr, Option for the Poor, pp196-199

[14] R. MacGregor Hastie,
Pope Paul VI
(London: Frederick Muller Limited, 1964) p 9

[15] Dorr, Option for the Poor, pp 206-210

[16] Octogesima Adveniens 21 in Catholic Social Thought � The Documentary Heritage
David J. O'Brien, & Thomas A. Shannon, (eds)
(New York: Orbis Books, 1992)

[17] Octogesima Adveniens 48

[18] Dorr, Option for the Poor, pp 212-213

[19] Dorr, Option for the Poor, pp 216-217

[20] P. Hebblethwaite,
Paul VI - The First Modern Pope
(London: Harper Collins 1993) p 578
Octogesima Adveniens 26-34

[21] Octogesima Adveniens 4

[22] Dorr, Option for the Poor, pp 225

[23] Justice in the World in Catholic Social Thought - The Documentary Heritage
David J. O'Brien, & Thomas A. Shannon, (eds)
(New York: Orbis Books, 1992) p 290;
Dorr, Option for the Poor, p 229

[24] Justice in the World, O'Brien & Shannon pp 289-290;
Dorr, Option for the Poor, pp 229-232

[25] Justice in the World, O'Brien & Shannon pp 290-291;
Dorr, Option for the Poor, p 233

[26] Justice in the World, O'Brien & Shannon p 296;
Dorr, Option for the Poor, p 234

[27] Justice in the World, O'Brien & Shannon p 295

[28] Justice in the World, O'Brien & Shannon p 289

[29] Hebblethwaite, Paul VI - The First Modern Pope, p 651

[30] Evangelii Nuntiandi 8

[31] Dorr, Option for the Poor, p 242

[32] Evangelii Nuntiandi 21, 22

[33] Evangelii Nuntiandi, 9

[34] Dorr, Option for the Poor, pp 245-250

[35] Evangelii Nuntiandi, 36

[36] Evangelii Nuntiandi 20

[37] Dorr, Option for the Poor, p 252-253


Clancy John G
Apostle for Our Time - Pope Paul VI
London: The Catholic Book Club, 1963

Coleman, John SJ,
"Development of Church Social Teaching" "Origins"
June 4, 1981 Vol.11: No. 3

Dorr, Donal.
Option for the Poor - A Hundred Years of Vatican Social Teaching
Blackburn: Collins Dove 1992. Revised edition.

Duncan, Bruce.
The Church's Social Teaching - from Rerum Novarum to 1931
Blackburn: Collins Dove, 1991.

Hebblethwaite, Peter
Paul VI - The First Modern Pope
London: Harper Collins 1993

MacGregor Hastie, Roy
Pope Paul VI
London: Frederick Muller Limited, 1964

O'Brien, David J & Shannon, Thomas A. (eds)
"Catholic Social Thought - The Documentary Heritage"
New York: Orbis Books, 1992.

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