Fifty years ago, Pope Paul VI released an encyclical that changed the world. Not Humanae Vitae, whose 50th anniversary falls next year, but Populorum Progressio (“On the Development of Peoples”). This 12,000-word letter has arguably inspired more people to dedicate their lives to the poor than any other text in the modern era.

Paul VI released the encyclical, his fifth, on Easter Sunday. The timing was significant. As Archbishop Diarmuid Martin has pointed out, the pope wanted to stress that “his message was one of hope, of a hope which can only spring from a belief and an understanding of the message of Jesus, the one who gave himself so that all could have life and have it to the full”. In other words, Pope Paul was not simply offering another utopian, this-worldly vision to a century ravaged by Nazism and communism.

Despite being written in the royal “we”, Populorum Progressio has an urgent, personal tone. It identifies the division between rich and poor as one of world’s great scandals and calls for unrelenting efforts to lift millions out of poverty. As the first social encyclical after the Second Vatican Council, it attempts to translate the Council Fathers’ vision of a new relationship between the Church and the world into practical reality. Released on March 26, 1967, the encyclical unleashed unprecedented international works of charity. It guided the early work of Cafod, the official aid agency of the Bishops of England and Wales, and the Catholic Institute for International Relations, which renamed itself Progressio in tribute in 2004.

The encyclical has its critics, of course. The American theologian George Weigel has argued that in the long line of papal social teaching that begins with Rerum Novarum in 1891, “Populorum Progressio is manifestly the odd duck.” Indeed, it is “barely recognisable as in continuity with the framework for Catholic social thought”. Weigel and others believe that the encyclical promotes then fashionable but now discredited economic theories. It scorns “liberal” capitalism, doubts that free trade can help to overcome poverty, implicitly encourages protectionism and places tremendous faith in the efficacy of overseas aid. Fifty years on, there is plenty of evidence that capitalism, rather than state intervention, has helped to lift hundreds of millions out of poverty.

In the end what matters most is the pope’s overall vision rather than his specific prescriptions. His great insight was that authentic development – Man’s “transition from less than human conditions to truly human ones” – is not simply a matter of economics and technology. It must also safeguard human dignity, build community and promote “the higher values of love and friendship, of prayer and contemplation”.

Paul VI’s appeal has not gone unheard: Populorum Progressio is a rare example of an encyclical that continues to be discussed (if not actually read) half a century after it was published. While it is plainly a product of the late 1960s, it transcends its times and continues to motivate those who strive to make the world a more hospitable place.

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