pOPE PAUL'S apostolic letter "Octogesima
Adveniens" has come at a particularly opportune moment for people in Britain. Christian Aid Week had already drawn our attention to certain problems which we are now invited by the Pope to ponder in their historical and universal context.
The historical context is of special interest in view of the far reaching social changes of the last century. The Holy See has not merely kept abreast of such changes but has been, to a significant extent, their origin and inspiration, Pius XI himself in Quadragesimo Anno commented that "with Leo's Encyclical pointing the way and furnishing the light, a true Catholic social science has arisen." This has enabled Christians to make their own, very distinctive, contribution to the cause of justice in a world threatened, in Leo's day, with the rise of Communism; in Pius XI's day, with the rise of Fascism and Nazism; and, in John XXIII's and Pope Paul's day, with the rise of an insidious form of materialism and apparent indifference to human suffering.
To look back on these periods helps to allay the stipposition that Popes John and Paul, though admittedly venturesome, have in fact been "revolutionary" in their social thinking.
Leo XIII, for example, was faced with a vociferously anti-clerical France as well as the Kulturkampf of Bismarck's Germany. Italy, at the same time, was still smouldering with hostility against the Church, whose principal temporal possessions she had so recently acquired.
Rerum Novarum,' however, whose "Approaching Eightieth" anniversary Pope Paul was commemorating by the title of his own letter, was Leo's most famous pronouncement. Popularly known as a discussion "Of the Condition of the Working Classes," it was the great Leonine response to Marx's Das Kapital. It was also a complete answer to communism in general, with which at that time, socialism was barely distinguishable.
By the 1930's, on the other hand, Pius XI was concerned with the dangers of dictatorship not "of the proletariat" but of a very different kind. In Non Abbiamo Bisogno he said that "no Catholic could be a genuine Fascist;" in Mit brennender Sorge, he condemned "the whole Nazi conception of life as utterly and, necessarily, anti-Christian."
Pope Paul, while no less vigorously attacking modern evils, has also made a notable distinction between what is unacceptable in "socialism" (and even Marxism) and what is positive and ideological. We have come a long way, in other words, from the days of Leo's immediate predecessor Pius IX, who felt bound, in his day, to denounce, in the Syllabus of Errors, the proposition that "The Roman Pontiff can, and ought to, reconcile himself and come to terms with progress, liberalism and modern civilisation. '
The Popes, in other words, have been concerned to meet the separate challenge of each age with objective norms whose quotation out of context is dangerously misleading. Future commentators may wish to take issue with the present Pope on individual phrases. A very deep concern, however, for the poor people of the world will surely be the greatest single legacy of the "pilgrim Pope."