6.1.1 A new trajectory in CST: Populorum Progressio to Caritas in Veritate

Unit 6 Contents



Populorum Progressio (PP) was a pivotally important encyclical, marking a new beginning in CST.  Stating at the outset that the ‘social question’ had become worldwide (#3), it was the first document devoted to addressing “the development of peoples” (as its title is translated).  To begin this unit, we briefly recap what it says.

Development cannot be limited to mere economic growth. In order to be authentic, it must be complete: integral, that is, it has to promote the good of every [person] and of the whole [person]. (PP, 14)

In the post-WW2 decades, applying the term ‘development’ to whole countries was a new idea.   Donal Dorr says,

During the 1950s, the new idea of economic development brought about an enormous change in the thinking of government leaders [and many others].  Essentially this… was the widespread acceptance of the belief that each individual country, and the world as a whole, can ‘grow’ out of poverty.1

From early on, the concept of ‘development’ was subject to controversy.  One reason for this is that it can suggest that all countries should pursue a goal that Western ones have set, and in this way can seem to be a form of neo-colonialism.  Another is that it risks assuming that the goal itself is to be like Western countries.

By the early 1960s, the dominant approach to development was represented by W.W. Rostow’s theory of ‘stages of growth’.  He argued that, for all societies, development involved passing through five stages, from ‘traditional society’ characterized by subsistence agriculture, to industrialized ‘mass consumption’ society.  Rostow was characteristic of most contemporary contributors to discussion about development: they spoke about it almost exclusively in economic terms.  This was true not only of those who held a broadly liberal capitalist position (such as Rostow) but also of their Marxist critics.

The view of development that CST articulated from the mid-1960s self-consciously opposed a narrowly economic approach.  It did this through the concept of ‘integral’ or ‘authentic’ human development.

This use of the term ‘integral’, which has the connotation of ‘complete’ or ‘whole’ in the French in which this approach was first articulated, has a twofold significance (PP, ##14-17). First, development must be integral for each person: it must be for them as whole people, in all the dimensions of their humanness, not for individuals reduced to economic agents. Second, development must integrate all people: it must bring them together, generating a common good that excludes no-one.

In PP, advocacy of integral human development was combined with a strong emphasis on solidarity.  This concept had emerged earlier in CST, as a way of describing the kind of relationships necessary to achieve the common good (see 5.2.2).  Liberal capitalism holds that enabling individuals to compete in markets is enough to bring prosperity, whereas Marxism thinks that conflict between economic classes is inevitable until a communist revolution will bring in social ownership.  In CST, solidarity stands against both of these and insists that we have to act with commitment for one another, and so for the common good, if this is actually to come to exist.

Hence the “solidary development of humanity” (as PP puts it) requires among other things that affluent countries are committed (i) to diverse forms of aid to poor countries, (ii) to justice in international trade rules, and (iii), more generally, to true fraternity, even love, among nations.  (These three points reflect the three chapters in Part II of PP; cf. ##43-44.)



In light of your own reading of PP, is that a good summary of its fundamental stance?  Is there anything else that really needs to be in a short summary?


PP’s importance is reflected in the fact that, like Rerum Novarum, it has had follow-up documents commemorating anniversaries of its publication. These are Solicitudo Rei Socialis (SRS) in 1987 and Caritas in Veritate (CV) in 2009.  (The latter’s publication was delayed to enable it to respond to the financial crisis of 2007-08.)  Given this, we can recognize two distinct trajectories in the main documents of CST:

First trajectory: Rerum Novarum, 1891, to Centesimus Annus, 1991

Second trajectory: Populorum Progressio, 1967, to (so far) Caritas in Veritate, 2009



In passing, can you name the other CST documents that commemorated Rerum Novarum – in 1931, 1961, 1971 and 1981?

What other major CST statements are there which do not fit in either of those two trajectories?


The documents from Rerum Novarum to Centesimus Annus addressed what has often been referred to simply as “the social question”, although a more exact label is “the worker question” (as is sometimes used).  The latter reflects Rerum Novarum’s own statement that it addressed “the condition of the working classes” and sought “to define the relative rights and mutual duties… of capital and of labour” (#2).

While the subject of PP, SRS and CV is the development of peoples, the worker question still comes up at points in them (e.g. in PP ##27-28; see 5.3.5).  However, as we go on to study SRS and CV in this unit, we shall assess whether the material in these two trajectories of CST is as integrated as it needs to be.

While we are thinking about different trajectories in CST, I note that a third can be identified too.  Most obviously, the documents that brought about the ‘Catholic human rights revolution’  do not fit into either of the first two trajectories, that is, Pacem in Terris (1963) and those issued by Vatican II, Gaudium et Spes and Dignitatis Humanae (both 1965), and can be seen as beginning another.  When studying that ‘revolution’ in Unit 3 and Unit 4, we saw that John Paul II’s later Evangelium Vitae develops CST on democracy in a crucial way: this cannot rest on relativism but needs to recognise the inherent connection between freedom and truth.  Evangelium Vitae, published on the thirtieth anniversary of those Vatican II documents, can be seen as in this third trajectory of CST.  On their fiftieth anniversary in 2015, Pope Francis issued Laudato Si’, and in Unit 8 we shall assess whether this can be too.

Structure of Unit 6

When we looked at critical reactions to PP near the end of Unit 5 (5.4.1), I presented them in terms of the ‘left’/’right’ political spectrum and said we would come back to this here.  Unit 6 as a whole builds on the brief outlines given there.

Distinguishing political (and economic) positions as ‘left’ and ‘right’ is only shorthand and certainly cannot capture all the factors that differentiate them.  But it can be useful.



In so far as you have sense of what the ‘left’/’right’ spectrum means, where would you place your own views on it?


This distinction was first used in France at the time of the French Revolution.  In the National Assembly, supporters of the Revolution sat on the President’s left and opponents of it sat on his right.  This origin gives a key to how the terminology can be helpful, in this way:

*  People on the left seek change, whether political or economic.  The more to the left they are, the more radical the change they want, to the point of advocating revolution: a total change in the system.

*  People on the right are broadly supportive of existing institutions and practices, even if they recognise that reform is sometimes needed.   That is, they are conservative.  The more to the right they are, the more they want to defend things as they are now are or even favour changing them back to how they used to be – this position is called ‘reactionary’.

Understood like this, in terms of beliefs about change, the left/right spectrum has long distinguished peoples’ views on capitalism. Those on the left are critical of capitalism and favour change away from it, usually to a socialist economy.  People on the right are generally content with capitalism, and, even if they have criticisms of capitalism as it exists, they tend to support reform that would make capitalism work better.

In summary, the left/right political spectrum makes sense in terms of stances on (i) political change and (ii) capitalism.



Even if the terminology of political ‘left’ and ‘right’ is useful in that way, can you think of any significant problems with it?


Here is a short video that examines the left/right distinction and points to various respects in which it is not adequate to capture all political differences.


Optional video (8 mins)

Youtube video by bloggers peer:

‘What do “left” and “right” wing mean?’


While Unit 5 outlined critiques of PP as coming from the ‘left’ and ‘right’, this unit will not use this terminology (except, occasionally, as the shorthand it is).  Its main weakness is this: it implies that all political positions can be placed along a single spectrum, even though some that may appear roughly half way between left and right may also be very different from each other.  A single line between left and right cannot represent the real range of stances.  This is a significant point for CST because, as this module has shown at various points (especially in 2.4.6 and 3.4.2),

*  post-Vatican II CST does not hold to the essentially conservative position of generally opposing social change, and is also highly critical of liberal capitalism – so it is not simply on the ‘right’;

*  CST has never endorsed socialism – so it is not on the ‘left’, at least as this is usually understood;

*  it is also is profoundly different from versions of political and social liberalism in the ‘centre’, because it sees human wellbeing, not primarily in terms of individuals’ unfettered free choices, but in terms of the common good.

Unit 6 will examine two, more-or-less opposite, challenges to CST.  Both relate to international development but their analyses go wider than this.  I shall refer to them as ‘radical’ and ‘neo-conservative’, although they can be also seen as in terms of ‘left’ and ‘right’.  Here is a brief introduction to them.

1.  Not long after the publication of PP in 1967, the overall stance of CST became subject to a critical but constructive analysis by many Catholics in Latin America (and later elsewhere) who argued that, in order to overcome poverty and injustice, the Church needed to back far more radical change, including away from capitalism. That analysis and the movement it generated was called liberation theology.  The result was a huge debate within the Catholic Church; this was especially in the 1970s and 1980s but has continued until today.

In the first half of Unit 6, we study liberation theology and the responses to it we find in several Vatican documents, including in John Paul II’s Solicitudo Rei Socialis.

2.  From around 1980, some prominent Catholics who identified as ‘neo-conservative’ extended that debate, contending that neither CST nor liberation theology really understood capitalism or its benefits.  They argued constructively that CST needed to recognize the benefits of free enterprise and to defend capitalism, along with both “the moral culture… on which its existence depends [and] a democratic polity committed… to limited government”.2 This quotation comes from the leading figure in this movement, Michael Novak, who called his stance “democratic capitalism”.

In the (shorter) second half of Unit 6, we shall study this Catholic neo-conservatism and the ways in which Centesimus Annus and especially Caritas in Veritate can be interpreted as responding to it.

That gives the structure for this unit.

All this will help to develop our understanding of how CST should be seen in relation to liberalism, conservatism and socialism.  In the context of units 5 and 6, it will enable us to see more fully where CST on international development stands relative to some other main approaches.

Learning Outcomes for Unit 6

By the end of this unit, you should be able,

*  to summarize liberation theology’s main elements

*  to explain Solicitudo Rei Socialis’s teaching about ‘structures of sin’ and solidarity, and in particular how this can be seen as responding to liberation theology

*  to summarize the main points in the neoconservative challenge to CST and liberation theology

*  to explain the ways in which the teaching of Centesimus Annus and Caritas in Veritate can be seen as responding to neoconservative defence of capitalism

*  to discuss critically CST about international development with reference to both liberation theology and neoconservatism.

We shall return to these at the end of the unit.




End of 6.1.1

Go to 6.1.2 What is poverty?

Module B outline

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  1. Donal Dorr, Option for the Poor: A Hundred Years of Catholic Social Teaching (Revised edition, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1992) p. 179 (this quotation is also in 5.2.9). 

  2. Michael Novak, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism (Lanham, MD: Madison Books, 1992 [first published by Simon & Schuster, 1982]), p. 56