Christian living today
In our continuing series Mildren Nevile looks at papal teaching on development
FOLLOWING the impetus created by Vatican II in regard to the church's role in national and international life, particularly by the document on
The Church in the Modern World, in 1967 Pope Paul VI published the encyclical Populorum Progressio, or The Development of Peoples.
This encyclical was concerned with relations between rich and poor countries and with issues of international justice. It was a call to rich countries and rich people to take their responsibilities seriously; to come to the aid of the millions of people who were struggling for a better life, many of them in newly independent excolonial countries.
The encyclical came at exactly the right moment. It was a time of high expectations in international affairs. The worst of the cold war seemed to be over. The Freedom from Hunger Campaign had made people aware, as never before, of the extent of hunger in the world and of the possibilities and potentiality for overcoming it. The sixties were named by the United Nations as the First Development Decade.
Pope Paul VI had actively supported the work of the United Nations and its major international agencies such as the FAO which had launched Freedom from Hunger.
Catholics were eager to find ways of responding to the international needs of which they had recently been made aware. The wider public too was open to listening to the church in a new way.
Populorum Progressio spoke about the imbalance of wealth and power between rich and poor countries and of how justice was not possible when inequalities were so great.
It was critical of the post-war economic system which, it showed, did little to improve the economics of poorer nations and frequently resulted in poor nations becoming poorer still.
The Pope pointed out that development was not simply a question of economies and economics. For development to succeed, it must be fully integrated with and relate to all aspects of life and society. All areas of human aspirations and need should be met by true development. "The ultimate goal of development," stated the encyclical, "is full bodied humanism".
The teaching of Populorum Progressio is still a great challenge to all who are concerned with development, particularly because so much of what is termed "development" is actually destructive of local economies, ecologies and cultures, and is little more than economic exploitation.
The Pope placed the responsibility for what needed
to be done fairly and squarely on the shoulders of lay people, who have the duty, he said, "of using their own initiative and taking action in this area without waiting passively for directives and precepts from others".
Sadly, in spite of a massive and generous response on the part of individuals, churches and voluntary agencies, and in spite of huge government investments in overseas countries, the hopes of 20 years ago have not been realised. The mood of high optimism which prevailed at the end of the 1960s has given way to frustration, despondency, and even to a sense of profound hopelessness.
For many third world countries the situation is very bleak. At home poverty is on the increase and the gap between the rich and the poor has grown substantially. In most subSaharan countries the situation is actually worse than it was 20 years ago. More people are poorer in real terms. Many of these countries are up to their necks in debt. Whole nations are in hock to Western banks, which may allow them sufficient credit to survive but not enough with which to liberate themselves from continuing dependency.
In 1988, after world-wide consultation with the church in different parts of the world, including the church in England and Wales, Pope John Paul II published another encyclical on development, Solicitudo Rei Socialis. This was to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of Populorum Progressio.
In it the Pope comments on the disappointments and the failures of the last 20 years for which, he says, both developed and developing countries must take responsibility. He insists, that when global interdependence is separated from ethical requirements, the consequences for the weakest are disastrous. This is shown all too clearly in the increasing poverty in countries, such as Britain, which are rich.
For the first time the Pope lays stress on the fact of sinful structures, and the international mechanisms (of trade and finance) which function almost automatically and work in favour of those who are already rich.
But, he says, development is not development at all unless all nations participate in it and benefit from it. He talks, in contrast, of "superdevelopment", the excess of materialism which frustrates and strangles human aspirations and the true development of peoples. True development is not the acquisition of an excess of goods by some at the expense of the others. On the contrary, it is the struggle to participate in the creation, to overcome sin and to fulfill the divine plan for humanity.
The Pope says that our present situation is a world subjected to the structures of sin. That unless we recognise sin and name it, we cannot understand reality.
This is strong stuff indeed and Solicitudo Rei Socialis goes way beyond Populorum Progressio in suggesting what christians and the church must do about it.
First of all the Pope states clearly. that the church is called to stand with the poor, because "in the poor it is the Lord himself who comes to challenge us". (Matt 25). He then goes on to say that this option for the poor is a world-wide obligation in reality. Political decisions and individual life styles must be influenced by this reality. Obligations to the poor take precedence over the rights of private property.
Instead of calling for charity the Pope now calls for solidarity with the poor, as "solidarity is what the world needs and obedience to our faith demands". It is not enough any longer to appeal to the rich and powerful to change their attitudes, though this is still required. But our concern must be to endorse and act in solidarity with the attempts of poor people themselves to struggle for what legitimately is theirs.
This is an important and sobering change of emphasis in papal teaching. It is addressed to all, even to those of us who feel we have no power and are not, therefore, to blame for the many injustices in society. For the Pope says that indifference, apathy, despair, passivity, cowardice, inertia, indecision and neglect, are just as sinful as the pursuit of power and profit!
Indeed, the overwhelming message of these two encyclicals on development, is that we must allow ourselves to mind, to get involved, to act. First through compassion and acts of charity — alms giving, personal kindliness and neighbourliness — and secondly, through solidarity with the actions of the disposessed to claim their rights. Once again the church is calling on women and men of faith to side politically with the poor and to understand afresh Our Lord's own teaching that in the person of the poor "it is the Lord himself who comes to challenge us".
Mildred Nevile is a former general secretary of CIIR.