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From Paul VI to Francis: Politics, Justice and Discernment 1971-2021

Ildefonso Camacho, SJ - La Civiltà Cattolica - Fri, May 27th 2022


Two social documents of the Church turned 50 in 2021: Paul VI’s apostolic letter Octogesima Adveniens (OA) and the document Justice in the World (JW) from the World Synod of Bishops.[1] While both deserve to be remembered for their intrinsic value, we do so especially in relation to Pope Francis and his notable theological-moral contributions.

The context in 1971

Vatican Council II had recently concluded. Paul VI had taken up his mission as pope with a commitment to put into effect the Council’s proposals in the wake of the inspiration that John XXIII had given to the Council under the heading of “aggiornamento,” aimed at  making the Church more focused on its mission.

The Church of the 1960s faced two great challenges: “modernity,” which called into question the place it had hitherto occupied in society; and “world poverty,” which was all the more intolerable given those years were marked by a great economic recovery. The latter was caught up  with the vain expectations of development that had arisen in many peoples after the processes of decolonization.

The challenge of modernity was particularly worrying in the West, which was more advanced in economic terms. The two conciliar constitutions on the Church – Lumen Gentium and Gaudium et Spes – laid the foundations for a new way for the Church to position herself in society, accepting the principles of a secular society and the non-confessional state. This issue had complicated the Church’s relations with civil society over the previous two centuries, which were full of radical positions  on both sides. Octogesima Adveniens[2] was an indisputable step forward because, from an ideological and political point of view,  it opened up new horizons for the presence of Christians in pluralist societies. 

At the Council the challenge of poverty had not attracted specific attention, and the bishops of what was then called the “Third World” were aware of this. Paul VI filled that gap as early as 1967 with his encyclical on development Populorum Progressio (PP), which overcame the tendency of previous documents of social doctrine to focus mainly on the problems of industrialized societies and on the confrontation between capitalism and socialist collectivism, inaugurating a new line of official social teaching. A year later the Medellín conference would take place with the aim of applying the teachings of the Council to the reality of Latin America, torn by so many inequalities and injustices. Then the synod of 1971 – the second of the ordinary synods convened after the restoration of the synodal institution by Paul VI[3] – aimed to answer that question, raising the Medellín reflection to the focus of the universal Church.

‘Octogesima Adveniens’: the Church, politics and discernment

The 80th anniversary of Rerum Novarum, which OA commemorated, allowed Paul VI to move on to a very different terrain from that which in 1891 had been the setting for Leo XIII’s encyclical. The Pope dealt in an innovative way with the reality of politics and the presence of Christians in the world. He continued on the path traced by Vatican II and its orientations on the autonomy of temporal realities. The humanistic qualities of Montini, his sensitivity to the modern world and his perception of the need to build bridges to dialogue with it, enriched the approach.

Octogesima Adveniens starts from the pluralism that, characterizing modern societies, imposes a rethinking of the place that the Church must occupy in them. This pluralism consists in the coexistence of various “ideologies” that are defined as “ultimate convictions about the nature, origin and end of man and society” (OA 25). Democracy is presented as the most appropriate institution for organizing this pluralistic society, responding to the twofold “aspiration to equality [… and] to participation” (OA 22), which is one of its typical features. For Paul VI, the key to democracy consists in organizing coexistence on the basis of a power legitimated to establish a project of society, but without imposing its own ideology.

This difficult balance of a state that knows how to remain within its own sphere of competence without encroaching on the personal beliefs of its citizens opens up space for the interaction of groups with different visions of life (different ideologies), including those of a religious nature. Social pluralism admits worldviews that could be secular or religious. This complex reality must find ways of establishing a stable coexistence in which people of different convictions can develop in mutual respect. Genuine democracy has its roots here.

Undoubtedly, for many centuries and in a large part of the world, the Church had adhered to a different model. This was a confessional model in which she enjoyed a recognized authority as a reference point for the moral life of individuals and for the organization of society. However, for modern society this model had become inadmissible. The resulting conflict marked the Church’s difficult relations with the modern world, at least from the 18th century onwards. The Council, however, not only agreed that the claims of other times were no longer tenable, but also addressed the consequences, with a certain audacity and hope, attempting to answer the questions as to how  the Church could carry out her evangelizing mission in this new scenario.   She cannot renounce this mission, but she can certainly rethink the way in which she carries it out. This was the great task that the Council assumed, although it did not fulfill it in its entirety. Octogesima Adveniens takes a notable step forward on the basis of this more positive and less distrustful view of politics and democracy.

This opens up a crucial question: What role can Christians play, not so much in this new society, but more specifically in the construction of this democracy? Until then the Church had declared that the Christian faith was incompatible with liberalism and with socialism (especially in its Marxist version). To cite the two most relevant examples, Leo XIII had distanced himself from liberalism, and Pius XI had done the same with respect to socialism and communism. Catholics, therefore, were left with only two options: the more  radical was not to participate in political life; the other was to construct a specific space derived from their own tradition. This was the line taken by the Christian Democrats, who went through very different moments, in some of which they had to reckon with serious criticism from the ecclesiastical hierarchy.

In what direction does the proposal of Octogesima Adveniens move? Without denying the incompatibility on the ideological level (cf. OA 26), it opens a new door: the distinction between “ideologies” and “historical movements” (cf. OA 30). The former constitute closed and immutable visions; the latter spring from those ideologies, but with a flexibility that comes from the fact that they must adapt to the conditions of the moment and the circumstances in which they operate. It is precisely these particular conditions that Catholics are required to consider in order to discern the degree of commitment they can assume in each situation. Paul VI analyzes in depth the reasons why Marxist and liberal ideology are incompatible with the faith (cf. OA 26), and then examines the historical socialist (cf. OA 31) and liberal movements (cf. OA 35), calling for “careful discernment.” He is more cautious about historical Marxist movements, though he never goes so far as to rule out all forms of collaboration (cf. OA 32-34).

Let us dwell now on the term “discernment,” which appears here for the first time in a document of the Church’s social magisterium. It is used not only in the passage we have quoted, with the implication that it does not exclude on principle everything that suggests an affinity with liberalism or socialism. Its importance already appears in the introduction to OA, where Paul VI affirms that, faced with such diverse situations in the world, it is difficult for the Church “to pronounce a single word and propose a solution of universal value” (OA 4). Consequently, he refers the analysis of actual situations to the Christian communities in the light of the Gospel and of the “social teaching of the Church” – Paul VI avoids using the more classical term of “social doctrine” here – and therefore asks them to discern “the choices and the commitments which it is appropriate to make ” (ibid.).

This call to discernment has a profound meaning that must not be overlooked. It expresses the confidence that Christians can assume their responsibilities, rather than limiting themselves to putting into practice precise and binding norms. The Church’s authority does not lose its own function, but Octogesima Adveniens mitigates the excessive doctrinal emphasis of the past with a more pastoral vision, which is manifested in exhorting communities to this work of discernment.

There is more. This perspective enriches the social doctrine of the Church, because it does not reduce it to a doctrinal body elaborated by authority but opens it up to a more participatory vision of the Church. We do not think we are mistaken if in this changed attitude we see  traces of the ecclesiology of the people of God consecrated by the Council,  an ecclesiology that underlines the mission of all the members of the Church, before distinctions are made between the functions within it.

An updated and optimistic vision of politics, new ways for the political commitment of Catholics, the challenge of a more participatory model of the Church, increased confidence in the maturity of the faith of believers: these are four far-reaching contributions for which we must be grateful to Paul VI in this Letter which, while not assuming the status of an encyclical, was able to develop the great insights of Vatican II.

The 1971 Synod: Justice and the Mission of the Church

Octogesima Adveniens was published on March 14, 1971. A few months later, on September 30, the world synod was inaugurated.[4] It put on the table two very different themes of undoubted relevance in those years, the ministerial priesthood and justice in the world. Both had been suggested by the previous synod, that of 1969. We will not go into the reasons for the choice of the first theme here. The second theme responded to the desire of the Churches of the South, which spoke out on behalf of so many peoples who were discouraged in the phase of expansion following the Second World War, having hoped to finally embark on a journey of authentic development. That aspiration was turning into frustration. Moreover, there was a growing awareness of the injustices that that new world order was generating: economic development was not reaching everyone as it should have, but was becoming increasingly concentrated, creating great inequalities. In short, it seemed that the development of some meant the underdevelopment of others.

In the synodal debates the fathers expressed three desires: 1) that the prophetic spirit of the Church be manifested; 2) that the witness of justice that she was called to give be identified; 3) that the Church’s role in this field be deepened. The synod concluded with the approval of a document which had to be completed with a certain haste because the study of the other theme (the priesthood) had taken longer than expected.[5]

After the synod hall had been overwhelmed by an avalanche of appeals, the criterion of concentrating only on injustices of an international nature was adopted to regulate the debates. This was enough for the Synod Fathers to hear clearly “the loud cry of those who suffer violence and are oppressed by unjust systems and mechanisms” and to realize that “the Church’s vocation was to be present in the heart of the world, preaching good news to the poor, liberation to the oppressed and joy to the afflicted” (JW 5, Introduction).

Reading these sentences already makes us perceive a different style with respect to the other official documents of the Church dedicated to social themes. The same prophetic tone can be seen in what, in our opinion, is the most important statement of the whole text, that referring to the mission of the Church: “Action for justice and participation in the transformation of the world appear clearly to us as a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the Gospel, that is, of the mission of the Church for the redemption and liberation of the human race from every oppressive situation” (JW 6).

The definition of action for justice as a “constitutive dimension” of the Church’s mission has no precedent in other texts of this kind. Some of the synod fathers were favorably surprised, others were perplexed. In fact, it gave rise to a wide-ranging discussion on the meaning of the adjective “constitutive.” However many other nuances there may be, one undeniable feature of this term is that there is no authentic and complete evangelization without a commitment to justice.[6]

This passage, as we have already pointed out with regard to the OA, should be read in the light of the ecclesiology of Vatican II, according to which the mission is the task of the whole Church and not only of ordained ministers (as in practice this was very often taken for granted). In this way the value of a Church that intervenes in the struggle for justice in the world is better understood. In the name of this believers will meet with other citizens and groups and will find themselves confronted with ideologies that are not always in harmony with Christianity.

The need to ground this affirmation – central to the document – leads to a synthetic but dense biblical reflection inspired by a formulation that also deserves to be recalled: “The present situation of the world, seen in the light of faith, calls us to return to the very essence of the Christian message, creating in us an intimate awareness of its true meaning and urgent needs” (JW II, 35). This is an interesting perspective. In fact, it is acknowledged that it is contact with reality that helps us to discover the true meaning of the Christian message and thus stands as an inexhaustible source for the mission of the Church.

The document also specifies which part of the mission falls to the whole Church, and which to its particular members. It is not the responsibility of the Church, “as a religious and hierarchical community,” to offer actual solutions, but rather to take the side of defending and promoting the dignity and fundamental rights of the person. In fact, injustice always involves a violation of these rights. It is the members of the Church, “as members of civil society,” who have “the right and the duty to pursue, like other citizens, the common good” (JW II, 38). They must do so not only as citizens, but also as those responsible for the mission of the Church.

What we have said already shows the importance of this document. Two other elements are worth recalling in particular. In the first place, we note the insistence on the witness of the Church, which is envisaged as following at least two directions: through the commitment to give it as an action that concerns many of its members, and also through respect for rights within the Church (JW III). Secondly, in the text we find a statement on the right to development that appears original and new. This right is defined as the “dynamic mutual interpenetration of all those fundamental human rights on which the aspirations of individuals and nations are based” (JW 15). Fifteen years later, in 1986, it became the subject of a solemn declaration by the UN General Assembly.[7] It is worth remembering that Paul VI, in the encyclical Populorum Progressio, had already defined authentic development as “the passage, for each and for all, from less human conditions to more human conditions” (PP 20).

1971 to 2021

Fifty years have passed since the publication of those two documents. In these pages we have highlighted how much both enriched the social tradition of the Church. But were these advances then effectively sustained in subsequent documents? The answer is undoubtedly positive: they were received, but not with the force that might have been expected.

In the first place, the statements of the synodal document soon gave rise to theoretical doubts and practical difficulties: Was there not a risk of reducing the Church’s mission to the promotion of justice in this world? Had not the behavior of groups and people close to the revolutionary movements already gone too far? It is not surprising that in such tumultuous years such problems could arise. But, looking at them now, we can say that in them was manifested the vitality of the Church, which does not always have the appropriate practical answers from the first moment.

These difficulties, however, led Paul VI to decide that the theme of the following synod would be evangelization. It was intended to make the evangelizing mission the framework in which the commitment to a more just world should be placed. The synod debates of 1974 and the document that Paul VI published in 1975, Evangelii Nuntiandi (EN), involved both a clear reaffirmation of the evangelizing mission as a characteristic of the Church[8] and a clarification of the relationship between the promotion of human welfare and Christian salvation.

From the very beginning of his pontificate, John Paul II manifested an accentuated concern for the doctrinal dimension, which emerged in his social documents. In them he referred above all to the traditional conflict between capitalism and collectivism, which was already present in the pontifical texts of his immediate predecessors. This is clearly seen in two of his great social encyclicals, Laborem Exercens and Centesimus Annus, but it is also implicit in the one he dedicated to the development of peoples, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis.

In Benedict XVI the doctrinal, specifically theological, contribution again prevails. No other pope has been  on a par with him in knowing how to seek the roots of the Church’s social thinking in the great truths of faith in God  and the human person. It is enough to consider the insights present in his social encyclical, Caritas in Veritate. Joseph Ratzinger’s status as a great theologian remains present in the magisterium of Benedict XVI and inspires his main writings.

After these two pontificates centered mainly on the doctrinal dimension, that is, on the truth that comes from God and that must illuminate every human reality, in Pope Francis the pastoral perspective reappears. His writings resonate with the vision Vatican II had promoted with its “pastoral constitution,” a term that had aroused not a few criticisms. Simplifying – perhaps to excess – we could say that John Paul II and Benedict XVI were more attentive to the what, while Francis looks rather towards the how; and that while the first two pontiffs followed a more deductive method, the current pope uses a more inductive one.[9]

In the most relevant texts of John Paul II and Benedict XVI there is little presence of the two 1971 documents we are examining. We can say the same about the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, which was commissioned by John Paul II and completed only after his death, and in which his social thinking is reflected.

With Francis things are different: the echo of the 1971 synod resonates in the apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (EG),[10] which is considered the programmatic document of his pontificate; and the proposal of Octogesima Adveniens is taken up again in the encyclical Amoris Laetitia (AL),[11] although this document deals with a very different theme from the one on which OA is focused.

Francis: from the 1971 Synod to ‘Evangelii Gaudium’

The close relationship of the Church’s mission to the promotion of the person and the transformation of society occupies a prominent place in the apostolic exhortation that Francis published as a follow-up to the synod on “New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith,” convened and celebrated under Pope Benedict XVI. This new text shows an undoubted similarity not only with the 1971 synodal document, but also with the apostolic exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi, which followed the 1975 synod. The similarity does not stop at the title: Evangelii Gaudium quotes Paul VI’s exhortation a good 13 times. It does so in very different passages, and this leads us to believe that it inspires the entire message of Pope Francis. Among the quotations, worth highlighting is the one included in Chapter IV, “The Social Dimension of Evangelization.”

It is true that John Paul II had promoted the program of the new evangelization, but in it the main emphasis was placed on the “new.” The synod convoked by Benedict XVI was also dedicated to the new evangelization. But neither in the first nor in the second case do we find the link between evangelization and the social dimension, which Francis now highlights. At the beginning of chapter IV, Evangelii Gaudium declares that “to evangelize is to make present in the world the Kingdom of God” (EG 176). After recalling Evangelii Nuntiandi, he emphasizes that if the social dimension “is not properly explicated, there is always the risk of disfiguring the authentic and integral meaning of the evangelizing mission” (ibid.).[12] Francis intends to dwell on two aspects of this dimension that seem particularly urgent to him: the social inclusion of the poor, and peace and social dialogue (cf. EG 185).

The Church’s commitment to the inclusion of the poor takes on greater significance if one puts it in relation to the denunciation, made in Chapter II (“Amid the Crisis of Communal Commitment”), of an “economy of exclusion,” which not only exploits and oppresses, but also excludes (cf. EG 53). This contrast makes clear what challenge the Church faces today: in a world that excludes, the inclusion of the poor belongs to the core of her mission. The mission proper to the laity is “the transformation of various earthly realities so that all human activity may be transformed by the Gospel,” so that “no one may feel exempt from concern for the poor and for social justice” (EG 201). This does not only require welfare programs, which will always provide contingent responses, but it implies “resolving the structural causes of poverty” (EG 202).

The cry of the peoples, which found such an echo in the Synod Fathers of 1971, now resounds in the pages of Evangelii Gaudium and urges the Church and all her members to commitment, to  bring into play an essential aspect of their identity and their mission.

Francis: from ‘Octogesima Adveniens’ to ‘Amoris Laetitia’

Evangelii Gaudium mentions discernment in several passages as a method for finding real forms of commitment in the various environments where believers live,[13] but it is in Amoris Laetitia that it takes on an essential role. It is true that Octogesima Adveniens and Amoris Laetitia deal with themes that have nothing to do with each other, but recourse to discernment cannot go unnoticed, since it is promoted as a key to dealing with the Christian life, valid in situations as diverse as political commitment and matrimonial problems.

Amoris Laetitia is, first of all, a hymn to love, to human love and love lived in the perspective of faith. However, this sublime horizon cannot ignore the human reality into which it is called to project itself. This obliges Francis to face problems that are vital for the Church today, such as those arising from the canonically irregular situation of so many couples. We cannot go into the details of such situations here;  it is instead the perspective adopted by Francis that deserves our attention. It appears clearly in the penultimate chapter of AL, whose title masterfully expresses the proposal it contains,  “Accompanying, Discerning and Integrating Weakness.” In short, in order to deal with the complexity of real situations, universal norms are not enough – they do not lose their value – but discernment is necessary (cf. AL 304-306). Discernment means “working in depth,” searching for what the merciful God expects from a real person in a real life situation.

Francis is aware of opening a window. an action which many in the Church will look at with distrust. For this reason he invokes doctrinal elements of tradition that have been too much forgotten by an excessively law-oriented praxis. He recalls the “law of gradualness” that, with regard to marriage, had already been formulated by John Paul II (cf. AL 295); he takes up the doctrine of St. Thomas, who distinguished between general principles and the indeterminacy that arises when one applies them to particular cases (cf. AL 304); he also cites the statements of the International Theological Commission on Natural Law (cf. AL 305) and so on.

The pope is aware that he is not formulating a new doctrine, but he is also aware that he is renewing his way of approaching human reality, which is fragile and vulnerable. As Fr. Bartholomew Sorge has stated, “the real novelty of Pope Francis’ pontificate [lies] not in the break with the previous magisterium of the Church, but in its further deepening, in the light of God’s realism.”[14]

Conclusion: continuity and progress

The novelty of the two documents whose 50th anniversary we have celebrated should not be underestimated. They embody and translate the great insights of the Second Vatican Council, thanks to the commitment made by Paul VI to put into practice what was established there. The encyclical Octogesima Adveniens and the synodal document on justice have enriched the understanding of the Church’s mission in areas hitherto little explored, such as the political participation of Christians and the struggle for justice.

Fifty years later, new opportunities arise to go further. Pope Francis has picked up the baton of that post-conciliar reality, seeking, with his personal sensitivity and his Latin American and Jesuit formation, updated responses to that reality, which by now is no longer that of 1971. Thus he has confirmed the fact that the social doctrine of the Church is not a closed doctrinal body, but a process always nourished by faith when it is questioned by reality.

We could also affirm that Francis has “pushed ahead” the  always unfinished task of social doctrine, accentuating three aspects: 1) he has tied it closely to the proclamation of the Gospel of the kingdom of God; 2) he has made it more practical that is to say more focused on a reality that is plural and diverse (because “reality is more important than the idea”); 3) he has shaped it to adopt a constant attitude of research and discernment (because “time is superior to space”). The encyclicals Laudato Si’ and Fratelli Tutti abundantly confirm this impulse given by the Argentinean pope.[15]

DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 6, no.2 art. 12, 0222: 10.32009/22072446.0222.12

[1].    In presenting these two texts I will essentially follow my book, Doctrina social de la Iglesia. Una aproximación histórica, Madrid, Ediciones Paulinas, 1998, 397-457.

[2].    Cf. Octogesima Adveniens, Apostolic Letter of His Holiness Pope Paul VI to Cardinal Maurice Roy, President of the Council for the Laity and of the Commission Iustitia et Pax, on the occasion of the eightieth anniversary of the encyclical Rerum Novarum.

[3].    The Synod of Bishops was instituted on September 15, 1965, by Paul VI’s motu proprio Apostolica Sollicitudo. It responded to the request that many council fathers had formulated in the council hall, citing the experience of the early Church, as well as the desire to collaborate more closely with the pope in the pastoral care of the universal Church.

[4].    Cf. World Synod of Bishops, Justice in the World (JW), on the New Responsibilities of the Church in the Field of Justice (September 30 – November 6, 1971).

[5].    That was the last synod to approve a document. From then on, in fact, the choice was made to hand over the conclusions of the assembly to the pope, so that he, taking the necessary time, could work up a document. In the following synods this method has lessened the pressure on the synodal work and made the dialogue among the participants more relaxed.

[6]. The interpretation of the meaning of this phrase must also take into account the ambiguity of the Latin expression, which lacks the article (dimensio constitutiva). It seems more correct to speak of “a constitutive dimension,” as the texts in the various languages do: the indefinite article appears in the French version (une dimension constitutive), which was the original text, as well as in the Spanish version (una dimensión constitutiva) and in the English version (a constitutive dimension). The Italian one omits the article “la” (“as constitutive dimension”), but its absence is equivalent to “una”.

[7].    “The right to development is an inalienable human right by virtue of which every human person and all peoples are entitled to participate in, contribute to and benefit from economic, social, cultural and political development, in which all human rights and fundamental freedoms can be fully realized” (“Declaration on the Right to Development”, resolution 41/128 adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 4, 1986, art. 1).

[8].    The expression is incisive: “To evangelize, in fact, is the grace and vocation proper to the Church, her deepest identity. She exists in order to evangelize” (EN 14)

[9]  .  Cf. M. Czerny – C. Barone, Fraternità segno dei tempi. Il magistero sociale di papa Francesco, Vatican City, Libr. Ed. Vaticana, 2021, 53-76.

[10].   Cf. Francis, Apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium on the Proclamation of the Gospel in Today’s World, November 24, 2013.

[11].   Cf. Id., Apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia on Love in the Family, March 19, 2016.

[12].   Cf. I. Camacho, “La moral social en ‘Evangelii gaudium’”, in Corintios XIII, No. 149, 2014, 111-135; L. Lorenzetti, “La dimensione sociale dell’evangelizzazione”, in Rivista di teologia morale 46 (2014) 31-37; G. Villagrán, “La dimensión social de ‘Evangelii Gaudium’”, in Proyección 61 (2014) 177-194.

[13].   Cf. A. Villas Boas, “A dimensão social da evangelização na ‘Evangelii gaudium’ e o discernimento da caridade”, in Revista de Cultura Teológica, No. 84, 2014, 13-25.

[14].   B. Sorge, “A proposito di alcune critiche recenti a papa Francesco”, in Aggiornamenti Sociali 67 (2016) 756.

[15].   Cf. C. Theobald, “L’enseignement social de l’Église selon le pape François”, in B. Heriard Dubreuil (ed), La pensée sociale du pape François, Paris – Namur, Lessius, 2016, 11-29.

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