Critical Comments Selected by Gerald Darring

Tablet (22 May 1971) 490. We make our own this statement from a leader in the Madrid paper ABC: “Paul VI solves few things in the pages of this letter. He restricts himself to giving light to his readers and leaving them then with their free conscience. When it comes to action the word conscience leads us to another point. Here we are confronted with a radically modern text. Those leaders who knew everything and offered their subjects nothing more than predigested sustenance, have disappeared into history. The new man likes to have company on the road but he does not like to be directed, still less driven. Pope Paul VI accepts the way of dialogue and does so without renouncing his function as a guide to the Church…. He talks, converses, gives opinions, points out new aspects of problems, and then retires–leaving the responsibility to the Christian community when it comes to practical options.”

America (29 May 1971) 554. “The tone is deliberately modest and often personal, in contrast to the ponderously solemn style that characterized to some degree even the encyclicals of John XXIII…. At a number of points, again departing in some measure from the abstract language of earlier documents, the letter speaks in concrete terms…. (It speaks) in detail and with obvious sophistication about the challenging phenomenon of urbanization in both industrialized and developing nations…. (the Pope) insists that local or regional Christian communities as such must undertake the task of applying broad norms and principles to the conditions of different locales…. Finally, though the letter sounds a note of firm realism throughout, its spirit remains unflinchingly positive and hopeful.”

Commonweal (11 June 1971) 300. “What remains to be seen is how seriously the world will take the papal message. When Rerum Novarum was issued, the ruling classes were incredibly smug, brushing off all warnings about their folly in ignoring the explosive discontent that was beneath the surface. Today a comparable discontent is endemic throughout much of the world. As in the days of Leo, the call of Pope Paul is to action, and the question it poses is clear: will the rich nations and individuals really work to shape the world anew along human lines, or will they simply wait, as previous rulers did, for a violent explosion to blow them into the discard of history?”

Month (July 1971) 6-7. “Although the document takes the whole world as its theme, it does not attempt to provide universal answers. The Pope is clearly aware of the diversity of situations and solutions to be found in various parts of the world, and in face of them admits that it is difficult ‘to utter a unified message and to put forward a solution which has universal validity. Such is not our ambition, nor is it our mission.’ Like his preference for an apostolic letter rather than an encyclical, which may also indicate that encyclicals in future will only be issued in the name of the whole College of Bishops, this guarded response perhaps marks a shift away from social doctrine to social teaching: a more flexible commentary and guidance to meet questions of the hour.”

George Higgins. Catholic Mind (November 1971) 60-61. “What distinguishes Pope Paul’s Apostolic Letter from earlier social encyclicals is the relative newness of many of the problems it takes up for discussion…. The ‘new’ social problems which Pope Paul has singled out for special attention fall under ten separate headings: urbanization, Christians in the city, youth and role of women, workers, victims of changes, discrimination, right to emigrate, creating employment, media of social communication, the environment. The Holy Father does not pretend that his treatment of any of these problem areas is exhaustive. His only purpose was to bring them to the attention of his readers and, hopefully, to start them thinking about alternate ways and means of solving them in the light of the gospel message and of human values.”

Richard A. McCormick, S.J. “Notes on Moral Theology.” Theological Studies (April-September 1972) . “This rather widely overlooked document deserves a place among the great papal statements on social questions. It forces us to ask several questions. What is the exact character of a Christian’s involvement qua Christian in social and political life? What is the social mission of the institutional Church qua Church?”

David Hollenbach. Claims in Conflict (1979) 83-84. “The tone of Octogesima Adveniens is much less definitive and final than any previous papal document. But all is not left open to debate. The norm of personal dignity remains central. Octogesima Adveniens is even optimistic that the present pluralism may bring about a rediscovery of the central foundation of all obligations by the contenders in the conflict of interpretations. Paul VI sees this relativization of ideologies as a possible indication of a new openness to the ‘concrete transcendence’ of Christianity. This concrete transcendence is precisely the dignity of the human person: fully rooted in social and historical conditions, yet always surpassing and judging them.”

Marie-Dominique Chenu. “The Church’s ‘Social Doctrine'” (1980) 73. “Eighty years after Rerum Novarum, Paul VI made a declaration which was overtly in a direct line of social teaching but which in reality reversed the method hitherto used in this teaching: it is no longer a case of ‘social doctrine’ taught with a view to application to changing situations, but of these situations themselves becoming the theological ‘loci’ of the discernment to be effected through a reading of the signs of the times. The method is no longer deductive but inductive.”

Gregory Baum. Catholics and Canadian Socialism (1980) 212-13. “In his 1971 letter Octogesima Adveniens, Pope Paul VI recognized that many Catholics have become enormously attracted to socialist movements, that they find in these movements ideals and aspirations they share precisely as Christian believers, and that they see in these movements the current of history in which they want to play an active part. Pope Paul recalled that discernment was needed in this. Not all socialist movements are acceptable. The pope argued that Catholics are not able to participate in socialist movements that are wedded to a total philosophy, to a complete world picture–the various Marxist orthodoxies would belong to this category–because Christians receive their total world picture from Jesus Christ. Still, Octogesima Adveniens rehabilitated the word ‘socialism’ in Catholic parlance. Robert McAfee Brown, the well-known Protestant theologian, called this change of position from Pius XI to Paul VI ‘the Catholic journey’ to the Left.”

Christine E. Gudorf. Catholic Social Teaching on Liberation Themes (1981) 93. “The language of … Octogesima Adveniens signals a shift in papal thinking. No longer did Paul refer to obedience to the decisions of the hierarchy as the required action, or stress applying principles from the social teaching to concrete situations. Instead he spoke of Christian communities coming to decision (in communion with the bishops and the paraclete), and of the need to analyze the concrete situation objectively. This, especially, is a far cry from previous teaching, which called more for obedience than analysis and judgment.”

Donal Dorr. Option for the Poor (1983) 164. “One of the more significant features of Octogesima Adveniens is that the major issues with which it deals are not purely economic ones. The focus has shifted from economics to politics.”

Denis Maugenest, S.J. “The Encyclical Laborem Exercens: Its Context and Originality.” Lumen Vitae 41 (No. 2, 1986) 227-28. Vatican II was a turning point in Catholic social teaching. “Clearly the perspective is different. Paul VI consecrated that irreversible turning-point by publishing Octogesima Adveniens not in the traditional encyclical form, but as a letter to Cardinal Roy, in which he confessed that it had become very difficult to generalize and to propose universal solutions. Moreover, his letter, which is very open to the political realities of society, urges the local communities to suggest principles of research and to be attentive to the new problems arising. Here there is an openness and a fresh outlook on society.”

Manuel Velasquez. “Questions of Special Urgency”: The Church in the Modern World Two Decades After Vatican II. Judith A. Dwyer, S.S.J., ed. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 1986, p. 190. “In a startling reversal of previous papal teaching (particularly Quadragesimo Anno), Paul VI declared that Catholicism and socialism were not opposed! Distinguishing between socialism that is based on a worldview that denies God and socialism that remains open to the reality of God, the encyclical acknowledged the possibility of a Christian socialism (no. 31). More radically, the encyclical also distinguished various kinds of Marxism: Marxism as a materialist philosophy of history, Marxism as a political regime, and Marxism as a kind of social analysis. This last kind of Marxism, although fraught with risk, is nevertheless not condemned as antithetical to Christianity (nos. 32-42).”


Back to: Octogesima Adveniens (Eightieth Anniversary)