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. 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 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.