“Whatever Happened to Octogesima adveniens?” was the engaging title of an article published in 1995 by the revered journal Theological Studies. It was written by Mary Elsbernd, OSF, then the director of Loyola University Chicago’s Institute of Pastoral Studies. The Latin phrase in the article’s title refers to a 1971 apostolic letter of Pope Paul VI, published to mark the 80th anniversary of Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum, the foundational document of modern Catholic social teaching.
Elsbernd – a beloved teacher and mentor of many students of theology who died of cancer in 2010 – points out in her article that some of the ideas in Octogesima adveniens (OA) marked a new turn in Catholic social teaching, as well as in the magisterium’s awareness of its own nature. The document marked a notable shift of attention in papal social teaching to the role of politics in the search for social justice. Just four years earlier, Pope Paul’s encyclical Populorum Progressio had highlighted human development as a key factor. But in the interim, the Medellin meeting of the Latin American bishops’ conference — with an opening address delivered in person by the Pope — had drawn much attention to the need for liberation from unjust political structures, and OA reflected that.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of OA came in a passage offered near the beginning of the document, in section 4. Making reference to the “wide diversity among the situations in which Christians – willingly or unwillingly – find themselves according to regions, socio-political systems and cultures,” the Pope then writes:
In the face of such widely varying situations it is difficult for us 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. It is up to the Christian communities to analyze with objectivity the situation which is proper to their own country, to shed on it the light of the Gospel’s unalterable words and to draw principles of reflection, norms of judgment and directives for action from the social teaching of the Church. This social teaching has been worked out in the course of history and notably, in this industrial era, since the historic date of the message of Pope Leo XIII on “the condition of the workers”, and it is an honor and joy for us to celebrate today the anniversary of that message. It is up to these Christian communities, with the help of the Holy Spirit, in communion with the bishops who hold responsibility and in dialogue with other Christian brethren and all men of goodwill, to discern the options and commitments which are called for in order to bring about the social, political and economic changes seen in many cases to be urgently needed.
For the head of an institution that understands itself as bearing a message that is universal and timeless, this is a remarkable admission. We need only compare Paul’s words to those of Pope Pius XI forty years earlier. Making reference in his encyclical Quadragesimo Anno to the publication of Leo XIII’s earlier Rerum Novarum, Pope Pius wrote:
[W]hile the question at issue [the rights of workers] was being argued this way and that, nor always with calmness, all eyes as often before turned to the Chair of Peter, to that sacred depository of all truth whence words of salvation pour forth to all the world. And to the feet of Christ’s Vicar on earth were flocking in unaccustomed numbers, men well versed in social questions, employers, and workers themselves, begging him with one voice to point out, finally, the safe road to them.
The wise Pontiff … decided, in virtue of the Divine Teaching Office entrusted to him, to address not only the whole Church of Christ but all mankind. (QA 7-8)
Pope Paul’s new approach is a reflection of the growing awareness in 1971 of the historically contingent nature of our understanding of persons and of human society. It also reflects Paul’s trust in the moral competence of local Christian communities and the working of the Holy Spirit within and among them.
We should acknowledge that despite what might seem to be the implication of the title of Elsbernd’s article, OA was not completely ignored or forgotten. Some important elements that were novel in OA have been carried on and developed in important ways subsequent teaching. Perhaps most importantly, the document included the first reference in papal social teaching to the preferential option for the poor, which has since become a fundamental building block of Catholic social teaching. It was also the first to mention our exploitation of the environment. Still, it seems safe to say – whether you say it with regret or satisfaction – that the decentralizing principle of OA 4 was not among what was carried forward from OA in ecclesial life and doctrine.
Elsbernd noted in her article that Pope John Paul II had, by the time of her 1995 writing, never cited OA 4 a single time in his 17 years as pope. I think it’s safe to presume that this remained true through the remaining ten years of his pontificate and that the passage received no further attention from Pope Benedict XVI as well. This need not be taken as a criticism; it is certainly a reflection of the fact that these two popes were attentive throughout their pontificates to emphasizing the universal validity and importance of Catholic doctrine – and that includes for them Catholic social teaching, which had an important place in the teaching of both pontificates.
Now comes Evangelii Gaudium (EG), Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation “On the Proclamation of the Gospel in Today’s World,” released in November 2013. In section 184 of the document, Pope Francis introduces two major sections, one on the inclusion of the poor in society and the other on peace and social dialogue. He notes that his intention is not to examine the whole gamut of the world’s social problems in detail and recommends the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church for our reading. Then Francis writes:
Furthermore, neither the Pope nor the Church have a monopoly on the interpretation of social realities or the proposal of solutions to contemporary problems. Here I can repeat the insightful observation of Pope Paul VI: “In the face of such widely varying situations, it is difficult for us to utter a unified message and to put forward a solution which has universal validity. This is not our ambition, nor is it our mission. It is up to the Christian communities to analyze with objectivity the situation which is proper to their own country.”
And there it is, in the quotation: OA 4. When I read the passage, I thought immediately of that memorable question posed by Elsbernd in the title of her Theological Studies article, and I found myself scribbling in the margin of my copy, Octogesima Adveniens is back.
Among the (ever-growing) list of “firsts” ascribed to Pope Francis, we can add: first Pope to quote section 4 of OA in a papal document. (Not as sexy, I’ll grant you, as first Pope to be named Esquire magazine’s Best Dressed Man of the Year. But interesting at the very least.)
What significance might be given to the appearance of the passage? That it suggests a renewed regard for, deference to, and trust in local churches and the work of the Spirit among them finds copious support elsewhere in Francis’s document. I am reminded of some observations I have mentioned previously on this blog.
First, the frequency with which we find citations in EG of documents produced by national or regional episcopal conferences around the world is remarkable. There are 14 citations of documents by the Latin American bishops conference, perhaps not so surprising given the Pope’s own background. But there are also two citations of documents of the USCCB; two of documents by the bishops of France; and one each of documents by the bishops of Brazil, the Philippines, The Congo, and India. (There is also one citation of a work published by Italian Catholic Action.) Surely no other papal document ever is anywhere near as attentive to these sources as EG.
Second, we might further take note that EG includes frequent citations of the post-synodal papal documents that resulted from Vatican-sponsored regional synods held in recent decades, mostly under the leadership of Pope John Paul II: six citations of Ecclesia in Asia (1999), three of Ecclesia in Oceania (2001), two of Ecclesia in Africa (1995), one of Ecclesia in America (1999), and one of Ecclesia in Medio Oriente (2012).
All of this is a clear sign of Francis’s respect for and attentiveness to the work of these regional bodies of bishops. It can also be taken as a concrete expression of his interest in promoting “a sound ‘decentralization’” of the Church (EG 16) and his criticism of its “excessive centralization” (EG 32). (Giving credit where it’s due, we must also acknowledge the regard for local churches expressed in the decision to call the important regional synods in the first place.)
I know these are themes that many “liberals” will praise and many “conservatives” will prefer to overlook, if not be troubled by. My intention here is not to tell you which response should be yours (if either), but only to point out an interesting new development in the papal magisterium … and to suggest that Mary Elsbernd surely is smiling.