6.3.3 SRS, chapter IV: ‘Authentic human development’

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Unit 6 Contents



It is in chapter IV that we start to see the way in which SRS can be read as a response to the radical challenge represented by liberation theology.  Recall that the concept of development itself was one target of the liberationist critique (see 6.2.4). The claim was that this very term is inseparable from a narrowly economic and essentially capitalist position.  While SRS does not accept this fully, it articulates a sharp critique of the concept (##27-28).

Unit 5 noted that the dominant model of development in the 1960s was one of economic modernization, as represented by Rostow’s ‘stages of growth’ theory.  Through to the 1980s and beyond, this kind of approach had continued to be hugely influential and was widely taught in economics courses across the Western world. Rostow had argued that, for all societies, development involved passing through five stages, from ‘traditional society’ to industrialized ‘mass consumption’ society (5.3.3).

It is just this kind of model that Pope John Paul seems to have in his sights early in chapter IV, as he critiques views based on a “naïve mechanistic optimism” that see development as “automatic and… limitless” (#27).  He says that the economic concept of development “has entered into crisis”, as more people understand that “the mere accumulation of goods and services… is not enough for the realization of human happiness” (#28).

In a contrast that has rhetorical echoes of Marxism, he then speaks, on one hand, of the “miseries of underdevelopment” and, on the other, of “superdevelopment” and its associated “so-called civilization of ‘consumption’ or ‘consumerism’” (#28).  After a few paragraphs he sums up:

[A]lthough development has a necessary economic dimension, since it must supply the greatest possible number of the world’s inhabitants with an availability of goods essential for them “to be”, it is not limited to that dimension. If it is limited to this, then it turns against those whom it is meant to benefit. (#28)

Now read the first part of chapter IV.


Reading (2pp)

Solicitudo Rei Socialis, chapter IV (excerpt 1): ##27-28




Clearly, Pope John Paul does not follow those liberationists who wanted to repudiate the term ‘development’.

Nevertheless, his critique is sharp.  On a scale of 1 to 10, how strong or severe would you say his critique of a narrowly economic conception of development is?


After that critical discussion, John Paul goes on to outline a Christian theological view of development.  Specifically, he takes the conception presented in PP and locates this in the context of the overall Christian narrative of creation and redemption that we find in Scripture.


John Paul locates PP’s understanding of development in relation to the biblical conception of human beings as made in the image of God and, as such, entrusted to exercise ‘dominion’ in God’s creation (#29-30).  This role is symbolized by the responsibility “to cultivate the garden” (Gen. 2:15), and it entails “a special task to be accomplished”, namely, to bring out the potential that God has given in creation (#30).

John Paul’s principal point is that ‘development’ is a contemporary term to refer to what that role requires:

The story of the human race described by Sacred Scripture is, even after the fall into sin, a story of constant achievements, which, although always called into question and threatened by sin, are nonetheless repeated, increased and extended in response to the divine vocation given from the beginning to man and to woman (cf. Gen 1:26-28) and inscribed in the image which they received…  [T]oday’s ‘development’ is to be seen as a moment in [that] story. (#30)

Here he is touching on themes that were prominent in his earlier encyclical Laborem Exercens.  However, the main topic of that, human work, is mentioned only briefly in SRS: “[I]n… Laborem Exercens I referred to the human vocation to work… [because] it is always humanity who is the protagonist of development” (#30).1

This is surprising. When we looked at the Vatican’s second ‘Instruction’ on liberation theology (published less than two years before SRS), we saw that this had connected the issues of work and development in a fertile way (see 6.2.8).  SRS does not draw on or develop that.

The potential for doing so is great.  John Paul II had argued in LE that it is primarily through the many forms of work that people do – whether in the home or in the public, private or ‘third’ sector – that we bring out the potential in creation and so fulfil the role of dominion.  This is our God-given vocation, therefore, and our work is determinative of whether there really is development.


Reading (2pp)

Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, chapter IV (excerpt 2): ##29-30

(The link takes you to the start of chap. IV, as also in the next two readings.)




Does it seem surprising to you that SRS does not here (or later) make these connections between human work and development more fully?


When pointing out that we can distinguish the first trajectory of CST documents, Rerum Novarum to Centesimus Annus, from the second one begun by PP, I raised the question of whether the material in these two trajectories is as integrated as it could be (6.1.1).  The fact that SRS mentions human work only so briefly suggests that, here at least, they are not.  In this respect, SRS could be seen as a missed opportunity.


John Paul goes on to locate ‘development’ in relation to the Christian gospel of redemption.  At a number of earlier points, we have given attention to what Christianity means by ‘the gospel’, focusing especially on the language that Jesus used of the coming of God’s reign or kingdom. (See 1.2.2, and recently 6.1.3 and 6.2.7.)

Here in SRS John Paul emphasises two things.  The authentic development of persons finds its goal or fulfilment in what the gospel promises.  At the same time, that promise is of a redemption and reconciliation that goes entirely beyond what ‘development’ can bring about; it “infinitely surpasses what progress could achieve” (#31).

Surprisingly perhaps, given that the subject matter here is central to Christian faith, this section of chapter IV is less clearly written and harder to understand than the encyclical up to this point – or so it seems to me.  If you read it, you can form your own view.


Optional reading (2pp)

Solicitudo Rei Socialis, chapter IV (excerpt 3): ##31-32


While this part of SRS may be less accessible than the rest, it is worth noting that Pope Benedict XVI returned very directly to its subject matter in the next encyclical in the PP/SRS trajectory of documents, Caritas in Veritate of 2009.  We shall come to this later in Unit 6.

If you do read that passage, it can be helpful to bring to mind a distinction we noted when we looked at the meaning of ‘the common good’ (in Unit 1).  Catholic teaching recognizes that there is both a historical or temporal common good and a transcendent common good – see the later part of 1.3.3.  The first is the goal of society in this life, whereas the second is promised by God for eternity.  This contrast is similar to one here in SRS between, on one hand, earthly human development and, on the other hand, final redemption and reconciliation.  The former can foreshadow the latter, even though the latter goes radically beyond it.

This connection with the common good is apt for another reason: John Paul emphasises strongly that commitment to development is not something for individuals to make alone but has to be collaborative.  In this context he says that the Catholic Church is “completely willing” to work ecumenically in this area, i.e., with “other Churches and Ecclesial Communities”.  “[J]ust as we Catholics invite our Christian brethren to share in our initiatives, so too we declare that we are ready to collaborate in theirs” (#32).

The final part of SRS chapter IV does two things.  First, it spells out ways in which development must “respect and promote human rights, personal and social, economic and political, including the rights of nations and of peoples” (#33, italics added).  As you know, especially from our examination in Unit 3 of how CST sees the role of government, CST articulated a strong commitment to human rights in the 1960s, especially in Pacem in Terris.  This was firmly established by the time SRS was written in the 1980s and therefore the emphasis that John Paul places on this is not surprising.

Second, in a parallel way as in relation to human rights, SRS spells out that development must be integrated with ecological protection – it must “respect… the beings which constitute the natural world” (#33).  In contrast with the preceding section on human rights, here John Paul II was, in a very specific way, breaking new ground in CST.

A leading writer on Christianity and ecology, Celia Deane-Drummond, has brought out this point in a helpful way.  She recognizes that what John Paul says here fits within the wider perspective presented by chapter IV, of humans as made in the image of God and granted dominion in creation.  She points out that, in this perspective, for people to live well as those who are in God’s image inherently requires exercising ecological responsibility.  This is (in part) “the very means through which humans… express the image of God”.2 To fall short in this respect would be to fail to exercise dominion and, therefore, to be human.

As you read #34, you can assess whether the above paragraph expresses what it says accurately.


Reading (3pp)

Solicitudo Rei Socialis, chapter IV (excerpt 4): ##33-34




This chapter says (within the part given as an ‘optional reading’) that one of the concrete implications of authentic human development is that churches may have an obligation to sell “superfluous church ornaments and costly furnishings [used] for divine worship… in order to provide food, drink, clothing or shelter for those who lack these things” (#31)?

What do you think about this?  Should churches do this?

To give an example from Brazil, Cardinal Arns, Archbishop of São Paulo from 1970 to 1998, sold the archbishop’s place and used the proceeds to build 1200 multi-use buildings across the large diocese, “part-church, part-community facilities”.3





End of 6.3.3

Go to 6.3.4 ‘Structures of sin’: background

Module B outline

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  1. The translation here is gender-inclusive, unlike that in the next reading.  The Latin text of SRS uses homo, a main meaning of which is ‘human being’, in contrast to the meanings of vir, man, and mulier, woman.  (There are not two distinct words in English with meanings that correspond to those of homo and vir in Latin.)  

  2. Celia Deane-Drummond, ‘Joining in the Dance: Catholic Social Teaching and Ecology’, New Blackfriars, Vol. 93, Issue 1043 (Mar. 2012), pp. 193-212, at p. 199; italics original 

  3. Obituary of Paulo Evaristo Arns, The Tablet, 7 January 2017, p. 34