‘Fashioned by God’: The Family in ‘Populorum Progressio,’ 50 Years Later


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Nearly all of Blessed Pope Paul VI’s treatment of the family in his 1967 social encyclical Populorum Progessio (The Development of Peoples) is contained in Paragraph 36:

Man is not really himself, however, except within the framework of society, and there the family plays the basic and most important role. The family’s influence may have been excessive at some periods of history and in some places, to the extent that it was exercised to the detriment of the fundamental rights of the individual. Yet time-honored social frameworks, proper to the developing nations, are still necessary for a while, even as their excessive strictures are gradually relaxed. The natural family, stable and monogamous — as fashioned by God (37) and sanctified by Christianity — “in which different generations live together, helping each other to acquire greater wisdom and to harmonize personal rights with other social needs, is the basis of society” (38).

When Populorum Progressio was issued, the world’s collective hair was (rightly) on fire regarding dramatic poverty in the least-developed nations, rampant materialism in the first world and the gaps between the “haves” and the “have-nots.” It was not yet on fire about family fragility. Consequently, the encyclical treats the subject of the “family” in one brief section, but without integrating it into the general theme of the document.


Poverty and the Sexual Revolution

In this way, the document misses what some academicians were already observing: connections between poverty and family dissolution, or poverty and the sexual revolution.

Read, for example, Walter Lippmann’s 1929 work A Preface to Morals, or Pitirim Sorokin’s (founder of Harvard University’s Department of Sociology) 1956 book The American Sex Revolution. By 1967, there wasn’t a great deal of data documenting these connections, but neither was it nonexistent.

Consider Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s world-famous 1965 report on the state of the black family in the United States; it expressed concern that even robust and well-intentioned efforts to lift these families out of poverty would be stymied by a high number of nonmarital households.

Today, by contrast, not a week goes by that some economist or sociologist does not issue a study detailing how and why and how much nonmarital parenting and divorce are linked with on-average diminished outcomes for children, across households of every race and ethnic background.

Rather, in 1967, the Holy Father felt so secure about the inevitability of the marital family that he simply defended it as “the natural family,” “fashioned by God,” “sanctified by Christianity,” and conducive to intergenerational harmony and achieving a balance between individual and social rights. This security is also reflected in the document’s feeling free to criticize families’ tendencies toward “excessive strictures” harming the “fundamental rights of the individual,” highlighting in particular the situation in developing nations.


The Balanced Ideal

The distance between 1967 and today, where the family is concerned, is obviously vast.

Today, Pope Francis speaks regularly about excessive individualism in the family context, not only in the larger society. He continually reminds the world about the need for stronger familial commitment and connections. He speaks about the importance of valuing extended families, including especially grandparents.

In other words, the Church’s emphasis is upon the loss of family connections, not their potentially overweening character. Clearly, it is possible for families to stifle individual flourishing as well as to support it. The “trick” is to achieve the balanced ideal — what Populorum Progressio calls a harmony between “personal rights [and] other social needs.”

In 1967, the Church felt the need to put a little stress on individual rights. Today, it correctly perceives the need to stress the family’s need for cohesion.

Interestingly, however, neither in 1967 nor today — in Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love), for example — has the Church spoken extensively about the fact that, in addition to their material deprivation, poorer people are increasingly deprived of marriage, family stability and marital childbearing. This is true not only in the United States, but also increasingly in Europe and South America.

The “unbearable lightness of sex” — brought about by the separation of sex from even the idea of children, and thus from marriage — took its toll more powerfully upon the poor. In these communities, there are fewer men whom women are willing to marry, due to poverty and crime. Women are less likely realistically to hope for the kind of job or higher degree that could inspire them to postpone childbearing. But women there, like the vast majority of women in any community, want children all the same, and will have them, even if marriage is unavailable.

It wasn’t until Pope Paul’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae (The Regulation of Birth) that the Church focused its attention on how the rise of individualism and the splitting off of sex-from-children-from-marriage could undermine marriage.

Populorum Progressio realized that “authentic human development” was facing an uphill climb against materialism, technocracy and economic gaps. It didn’t yet grasp what an uphill climb authentic development was facing, thanks to the sexual revolution, with its disproportionate impact upon the poor.


Helen Alvaré, J.D., is a professor of law at the Scalia Law School,

George Mason University, and the founder of Women Speak for Themselves.