Did a pope’s letter change Canada's church?

By  Joe Gunn, Catholic Register Special
  • October 26, 2007
{mosimage}What is 1967 best remembered for in Canada? If you are of a certain age, you might recall Expo ’67 and Canada’s Centennial celebrations. Growing up in Toronto, the key event of my schoolboy’s life that year revolved around that last time the Leafs managed to win the Stanley Cup. I recall Mom constantly praying the rosary so that those “St. Mike’s Boys” (Red Kelly, Frank Mahovlich, Davie Keon, etc.) would win.

But across Canada this year, many Catholics are celebrating because a Pope released an encyclical letter 40 years ago.

Pope Paul VI’s Populorum Progressio inspired the Canadian bishops who were already in the process of establishing the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace. Much has been accomplished since 1967: Development and Peace has provided $460 million to finance 15,000 projects in 28 countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America, with $92 million of this amount allocated in emergency aid. The bishops also wisely mandated Development and Peace to educate Canadians as to the root causes of poverty, and to “renew the spirit of Lent.”

So how has this letter from a pope changed the history of the church in Canada?

In the first 70 years of modern Catholic social thought there were only two social encyclicals,  Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum (1891) which dealt with the European working class, and 1931’s Quadragesimo Anno, written by Pius XI in the throes of the Great Depression.

But an explosion of Catholic social thought resulted in six major documents being released in the decade beginning with 1961. John XXIII began the 1960s by praising modernization, rather than fearing it. Until the 1960s and the aggiornamento, or catching up which was such a theme of Vatican II, Catholic social thought focused on the North Atlantic region, the nations that first experienced the Industrial Revolution. This would change for good in 1967.

The 1960s were the cradle era of development economics known as “modernization theories.” Economists saw “developmentalism” as a way to pull the newly emerging countries of the South from post-war colonialism’s “underdevelopment.” The United Nations declared the 1960s as the First Development Decade, and then Canadian prime minister Lester B. Pearson helped to propose the Colombo Plan (1969), calling for the rich countries to devote 0.7 per cent of their gross national product to foreign aid. (Today Canada still only provides a miserly 0.34 per cent, down from 0.50 per cent in the Brian Mulroney years.)

Unfortunately, Western-style development paradigms were cloaked in anti-communism. Government aid was seen as a way to keep the South “in our camp” and to punish those who chose any other economic path. Catholic non-governmental organizations were asked to play a different role, responding to the peoples’ real needs.

What was the specific contribution of Populorum Progressio?

The first remarkable thing about Populorum Progressio was that this letter was not only for bishops, or even specifically Catholics, but was addressed to “Christians and all men (sic) of good will.” It was the first encyclical entirely devoted to international development, thus conferring extreme importance on this issue for the Catholic Church. It begins by stating, “Today the principal fact that we must all recognize is that the social question has become worldwide.”

Chapter 4 is famously entitled, “Development is the new name for peace.” Here the church exhorted rich nations to share with the developing peoples (which may be less than an entirely adequate prescription for social change.) “We ask our Catholic sons who belong to the more favoured nations, to bring their talents and give their active participation to organizations. . . which are willing to overcome the difficulties of the developing nations.”

What was the development the Pope advocated? It was “personal and communal,” and “a transition from less human conditions (of living) toward more human conditions,” i.e., not necessarily the right to have more, as much as to be more. Paul proposed “integral development.”

As usual with church statements, it was at its best when denouncing injustice. “:it is unfortunate that:a system has been constructed which considers profit as the key motive for economic progress, competition as the supreme law of economics, and private ownership of the means of production as an absolute right that has no limits and carries no corresponding social obligation.” This unchecked liberalism leads to dictatorship rightly denounced by Pius XI as producing “the international imperialism of money. One cannot condemn such abuses too strongly:”

One observation has always amazed me: Paul VI may have admitted the possibility of using violence. Even though the encyclical repeatedly called for harmonization and dialogue between classes, he did admit the possibility of even violent conflict, although with strong reservations. “We know that a revolutionary uprising — save where there is manifest, long-standing tyranny which would do great damage to the common good of the country — produces new injustices:” In 1979, I heard the Nicaraguan bishops call for active opposition to the Somoza dictatorship during the popular uprisings of 1979.

An anniversary is a time to remember our commitments, celebrate our lives together, and renew our decision to make choices for life. In 2007, some parishes and dioceses could do more to promote the ideal of an authentic Catholic commitment to development, especially through Development and Peace’s educational campaigns such as the Fall Action campaign. These activities create momentum for beneficial change in the global South, and challenge Canada’s public policies (as well as our own lifestyles). Thank God for Development and Peace as a privileged avenue for Canadian Catholics to put social teaching into action. Will our Christian communities maintain the fervour we expressed in 1967?

(Gunn is co-ordinator of the Office of Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation, Congregation of Notre Dame - Visitation Province. He lives in Ottawa.)

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