5.3.6 PP I.3 b. Urgent challenges in realizing development (##29-41)

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Unit 5 Contents




In the next few paragraphs of PP, Pope Paul addresses another difficult practical question that oppressed and suffering peoples can find themselves facing: should change be sought through reform or through revolution, and, if the latter, can the use of violent means ever be right?

This had been a very live issue during the years before PP was written.  This was partly because it had arisen sharply in relation to whether colonial peoples should ever fight to gain independence. India’s independence leader, Mahatma Ghandi, had argued that the answer is no – and demonstrated the immense power of non-violent action.  (We shall give more attention to Ghandi in Unit 7.)  It was also partly because of struggles in certain already independent countries against oppressive governments, notably against the racist Apartheid regime in South Africa.  The main anti-Apartheid organization, the African National Congress – whose most prominent leader was Nelson Mandela – had concluded in 1961 that armed struggle was justified.  Public debate about this continued throughout the 1960s.


Reading (1p)

Populorum Progressio, Part I, chap. 3, second extract: ##29-32


While emphasising the urgency of overcoming suffering and injustice (#29-30), Pope Paul warns starkly against revolution on the ground that it is very likely to make things worse.  Yet at the same time he states that there can be circumstances in which revolutionary regime-change can be justified (#31).



What is your reaction to #31?

Does what Pope Paul says seem contradictory?

Or do you think it makes good sense, even though it might be very challenging to work out how to ‘apply’ it in real circumstances?

Pope Paul says that the circumstances in which revolution can be right are when there is “manifest, longstanding tyranny”.

We became familiar with the word ‘tyranny’ in Unit 4.  Do you recall its exact meaning?


In fact Pope Paul’s statement here that there can be exceptional circumstances in which a people may overthrow a tyrannous regime was not remotely new in Catholic thought.  This is even though the Catholic Church had become so strongly defined as anti-revolutionary during the preceding two centuries, by its opposition both to the French Revolution and then to Marxist, class-based revolutionary ideology.

The key is the meaning of ‘tyranny’.  As Unit 4 brought out, this word refers to the monarchical form of government – i.e. government by one person – when this has been perverted.  You will recall the fundamental distinction between ‘good government’, which is for the sake of the whole community, and ‘bad’ government’, when power is used only in the interest of the ruler(s) and their cronies or clients. (See 4.2.2.)

Strictly speaking, a tyranny exists when a monarchical ruler uses power entirely in his or her own private interests.  However the word has come to be applied more broadly to governments of any form which have become completely corrupted in that way.  Rule by a president or a group of army officers, for example, can be called tyrannous.

Going right back to the medieval period, the Catholic Church has held that when there really is tyranny, there is not legitimate rule at all: the tyrant has become merely a private person, a criminal.  A tyrant, or a tyrannous group of rulers, has abandoned the task of ruling for the good of the community, and therefore given up what entitles them to be seen as having political authority.  It is this kind of state of affairs which Pope Paul means by “manifest, longstanding tyranny”, and Catholic teaching has long held that in such circumstances it is legitimate, as a last resort, for people to act to depose their so-called ruler.  When this occurs they are not actually overturning a legitimate government, but are acting against a private criminal.

To state the obvious, it can in practice be extremely difficult to judge whether conditions in a country have become so oppressive and destructive that they amount to a tyranny which people may rightly try to overthrow.  But people in such circumstances do have to make that judgment.

This issue really arises in the context of ‘just war’ thinking, which addresses when, if ever, it can be right to use military force.  This will be a main focus of Unit 7, and we shall return there to the question of whether there can be justified revolution.

But in relation to responding to poverty as such, Paul VI’s statement is clear: violence is a temptation, one to be resisted.  It will only produce greater misery.



To what extent does the brief explanation above make good sense of #31?

What questions about it remain in your mind?

If you have fairly good knowledge of any of the following countries, do you think that in any of them a revolutionary uprising against the ruler has been justified at any point in the last decade (or longer)?











In relation to development, this question of whether revolution might be justified was raised especially about Latin American countries in the 1960s and 1970s.  Most of them then had dictatorial governments and were characterized by vast inequalities and terrible poverty.  PP #31 helped to generate a fierce debate in the years after its publication in, and about, Latin America: did the extent of injustice there justify resorting to armed uprising against governments?  This issue will come up further not only in Unit 7 but also in the context of study of liberation theology in Unit 6.

We shall now turn to the remaining two short sections of PP Part I.

The end of the last reading said that all must contribute to the urgent task of overcoming injustice, “particularly those who can do most by reason of their education, their office, or their authority” (#32).  PP goes on immediately to make the point that individual initiative is not enough and that government action is necessary if development is to take place.  It is clear that when Pope Paul refers to “organized programmes” (in ##33-34) he is talking about state action, as he quotes Mater et Magistra’s description of the state’s responsibility for “directing, stimulating, co-ordinating, supplying and integrating” (MM, #53, quoted above in 5.2.8). Such programmes must, however, be carried out in association with “private initiative and intermediary bodies” (#33), in order to safeguard freedom and fundamental human rights.


Reading (2pp)

Populorum Progressio, Part I, chap. 3, third extract: ##33-35


This reading also emphasizes that such government action must be driven, not by narrowly economic or technocratic objectives, but by an integral vision of humanity:

Such programs should reduce inequalities, fight discriminations, free man from various types of servitude and enable him to be the instrument of his own material betterment, of his moral progress and of his spiritual growth.

In this vision, education, and especially literacy, is of fundamental importance (#35).

This reiteration of the encyclical’s vision of development gives a cue for the last section of Part I. This discusses the vital place of family life, professional associations, and cultural traditions.  The last of these in particular can “embody truly human values” (#40) but can be severely threatened by pursuit of “temporal prosperity” alone (#41).  You will recall that MM had included similar points, warning against cultural imperialism (##169-176; cf. 5.2.9 Response to Exercise).

Note that #37 includes a strikingly plain statement that, given rapid population growth, it is an obligation of parents to “decide on the number of their children”.


Reading (2pp)

Populorum Progressio, Part I, chap. 3, fourth extract: ##36-41


On the last screen I said that chapter 3 of PP Part I, headed “Action to be Taken”, addresses practical and pressing questions about how to make a reality of integral human development.  As a reminder, some of the chapter’s leading points are the following:

*  The right to private property is subordinate to the truth that “God intended the earth and everything in it for the use of all human beings and peoples”, and land reform can be needed (##22-24, quoting 22).

*  Industry is highly important but is distorted by economic liberalism (##25-26).

*  Work is inherently a good for persons and workers’ dignity must be recognized (##27-28).

*  Change should take place through reform, not revolution (unless there is “manifest, longstanding tyranny”) (##29-32).

*  Government programmes are necessary for development, in association with private enterprises and other non-state groups  (##33-35).

*  Family life and indigenous cultural traditions are highly important (##36-41).



Do you find that this chapter present convincingly what integral human development means in practice?  Or do its various points seem weak or relatively disconnected?




I suggested when we started reading Part I that its three chapters can be seen as following the ‘see, judge, act’ structure.  Having now read it, how do you assess this speculative idea?




End of 5.3.6

Go to 5.3.7   Part II: ‘Towards the Solidary Development of Humanity’


Module B outline

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