Academic journal article Theological Studies

What Ever Happened to 'Octogesima Adveniens?' (Papal Letter)

Academic journal article Theological Studies

What Ever Happened to 'Octogesima Adveniens?' (Papal Letter)

Article excerpt

Octogesima Adveniens, Paul VI's letter in 1971 to Maurice Cardinal Roy,(1) marked the eightieth anniversary of Rerum novarum. The letter, in particular its paragraph 4, was heralded as a central expression of a historically conscious methodology in magisterial teaching. Paul VI there highlighted the historically constituted nature of the social teaching of the Church, the role of the local community, and the difficulty as well as the undesirability of a single universal papal message or solution to problems. What has happened to this articulation of a historically conscious methodology in the last 20 years? One response to this question can be uncovered by tracing how and in which contexts this significant paragraph has been used in the encyclical teachings of John Paul II.

Although the historically constituted nature of the social teachings of the magisterium has already been documented,(2) one must remember first, that the works prior to Paul VI and Vatican Council II were not as devoid of historically conscious methodologies as some would like to believe,(3) and second, that Gaudium et spes and the writings of Paul VI were not as historically conscious as proponents would like to maintain.(4) Documentation has demonstrated, however, that the encyclical writings of John Paul II intentionally stray from the earlier emerging articulation of a historically conscious methodology(5) in preference for a transcendental(6) or Thomistic(7) personalism as the basis of universal and absolute norms transcending all historical contingency. This prior documentation provides a context for continuing theological reflection on the role of local Christian communities(8) as well as on the desirability of a single universal teaching.(9) There is a prevailing sense that the intentional straying from historically conscious methodology has left its impact in these areas as well.

In light of the above, this article proposes to examine John Paul II's use of Octogesima adveniens, in particular no. 4. We will begin with an examination of Octogesima adveniens in its historical and Catholic social-teaching context to determine its significance as an expression of a historically conscious methodology. Then we will examine how and in what contexts Octogesima adveniens no. 4 is quoted in the writings of John Paul II. Finally, we will draw some conclusions about John Paul II's use of the passage and spell out some implications for Catholic social thought.

It is our contention that John Paul II stresses the continuity of Catholic social doctrine back to the gospel itself in a kind of unbroken chain. This continuity is seen by the pope as resting in its fundamental inspiration; in its principles of reflection, criteria of judgment, and basic directives for action; and in its link with the gospel. This approach is a departure from Octogesima adveniens, which held that Catholic social teachings had been worked out in history, i.e., that Catholic social teachings are historically constituted, that the local Christian community contributed to the development of Catholic social teachings, and that a single universal message is not the papal mission.


Octogesima adveniens was not written in a historical vacuum nor in discontinuity from Catholic social teachings of the previous decade. Rather the letter continued themes found in Gaudium et spes and Mater et magistra and responded to the historical context in which it was written.

To mark the eightieth anniversary of Rerum novarum, Paul VI did not write an encyclical letter, but rather an apostolic letter to Maurice Cardinal Roy, who was president of the Pontifical Commission Justitia et Pax. In fact, the last encyclical letter of his pontificate, Humane vitae, was written three years prior to this letter and ten years before his death. The move away from the encyclical as a literary form already suggests Paul VI's awareness of the importance of human experience or a historically conscious methodology. …

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