SAINT PAUL VI (3) – Encyclical Letter Populorum Progressio


The role of the Social Doctrine of the Church is to shed the light of the Gospel with the help of reason on the relevant social problems of the times. The huge chasm between rich and poor countries, or between developed and underdeveloped countries was a big problem in the second half of the twentieth century. Pope Paul VI addressed the problem in his pace-setting Encyclical Populorum Progressio (PP), On the Development of Peoples, which was issued on March 26, 1967, two years after Vatican II. The encyclical is addressed not only to Catholics, but to all peoples: “to all men of good will.”

Populorum Progressio is undoubtedly an innovative and radical social encyclical. Compared with other papal encyclical, PP is a short one – written in 87 numbers. It is divided in two parts. Part One is entitled For Man’s Complete Development, and sub-divided in three sections: first section, on the reality of the problem; second, on the Church and development, and third, on the action to be undertaken towards solving the problem. Part Two is entitled The Development of the Human Race in the Spirit of Solidarity, and subdivided in four sections: first section, on aid for the weak; second, on equity in trade relations; third, on universal charity, and fourth, on development as the new name for peace.

We shall present and comment briefly this remarkable social encyclical in two pieces. First article: some facts directly connected with the problem of development, and description and dimensions of human development. Second article:  action for, and continuing relevance of PP.


The scandalous division between developed and underdeveloped countries cries to heaven. Many people live in subhuman conditions. Countless men and women are ravished by hunger, and countless number of children are undernourished.  In our world of plenty, there is still the crippling presence of hunger, misery, illiteracy, lack of participation, moral underdevelopment. There are, indeed, “excessive economic, social and cultural inequalities among peoples” (PP, 76). Furthermore, there are conflicts of cultures, civilizations and generations, discrimination, violence, dictatorships, insurrection, and terrorism. There is neo-colonialism. And there is lack of solidarity. Pope Paul VI tells us that the main problem of the world is not economic, but social:  “lack of brotherhood among individuals and peoples” (PP, 66). Instead of a disinterested, friendly and peaceful collaboration among peoples for the responsible development of humanity, there is at times “a dangerous and futile rivalry of powers” (PP, 84). 

In Populorum Progressio, Pope Paul VI denounces this unjust situation, and those mainly responsible for it: all individuals and peoples are asked by the Pope to work for authentic development, to struggle together progressively against underdevelopment, and to work for positive change and reforms.


The Church is not a politician, or a political party, or an economic or technical expert. Her role is different: to offer a global vision of the human person and of development for all, and to serve individuals and peoples.

Economic development is an essential part of development. It is not the supreme dimension. If prioritized over other dimensions, economic development may lead to greed, avarice and stifling materialism. Similarly, modern technology. Paul VI writes: “Economy and technology have no meaning except from man whom they should serve” (PP, 34). For this reason, Pope Paul VI denounces some evils of capitalism and also of collectivism. Liberal capitalism, which is individualistic, is too focused not on the human person but on profit and competition. On the other hand, non-personalist collectivism (communism and some kinds of socialism) is usually opposed to personal freedom and the exercise of fundamental rights of the human person. 

Development is not only economic, but also social development. Economic development, however, is subordinated to social development. The promotion of culture and the respect for cultures is part of social development. The human person has material and spiritual needs: bread and education.


Proper economic and social development is human development, which is complete and integral development that promotes “the good of every man and of the whole of man” (PP, 14). This development is “for each and all the transition from less human conditions to those which are more human” (PP, 20, 21).  Human development is a dynamic ascending process of personal and social transformation: from the least human conditions of material and moral misery to the highest human conditions: the faith and the love of God that make us his children and brothers and sisters of one another.

Integral human development – economic and social – is grounded on a true conception of the human person as an individual and as a social being: one who self-governs himself and lives in solidarity with others. The social doctrine of the Church admits ethical pluralism but cannot accept materialistic and atheistic philosophies, which do not respect human dignity, freedom and the religious orientation of life to its final end. It favors “complete humanism,” which is personalist and transcendental – open to others and to the Absolute. Complete development is only possible “when man meets man, nation meet nation, as brothers and sisters, as children of God” (PP, 43). Hence, “nationalism and racism” are obstacles to authentic development, which is guided by social justice and universal charity.

Each human being is mainly responsible for his or her own development. This responsibility entails becoming more what one is: an autonomous individual, a free and responsible human person, a social being, and a spiritual being. The human person is “responsible for his fulfilment as he is for his salvation” (PP, 15).  In his pursuit of personal development, the individual person needs to be helped by the family and the community. The Pope affirms: “Basic education is the primary object of any plan of development” (PP, 35).   Good education is a necessary means towards personal and social development. This education helps all develop authentic values and virtues, particularly, justice, truth, freedom and friendship, prayer and contemplation. 

Full development includes necessarily working for the development of others – of all peoples. As individual development is centered on the individual person, the development of a nation focuses on the citizens of this nation: they are mainly responsible for their own “betterment,” and should be permitted “to become artisans of their own destiny,” not in isolation but linked to others: “It is obvious that individual countries cannot rightly seek their own interests and develop themselves in isolation from the rest, for the prosperity and development of one country follows partly in the train of the prosperity and progress of all the rest and partly produces that prosperity and progress (John XXIII, Pacem in Terris, 131). 

Moreover, integral human development contributes greatly to local, national, regional and global peace. While underdevelopment puts peace at risk, “development is the new name for peace” (PP, 87). Peace is possible through justice, truth, and solidarity, but not through revolutionary uprising, except when longstanding tyranny is a greater evil (PP, 21).  Peace, however, is not just the absence of war, but it is built every day “in the pursuit of an order intended by God, which implies a more perfect justice among men” (PP. 76).   If you want peace,” Pope Paul VI said,  work for justice.”

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