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The problem of the relationship between human development and Christian salvation is of considerable significance everywhere. This is especially evident since the Second Vatican Council, where the Church paid uncommon attention to issues of an appropriate world order within the context of Christian responsibility. Within Latin America and elsewhere, it was different types of liberation theology that increasingly won attention. The International Theological Commission, in its annual meeting, 4-9 October 1976, occupied itself less with individual treatises and individual tendencies, [and] more with basic issues touching the relationship between human development and Christian salvation.

The pages that follow should be regarded as an imperfect abridgment of the principal results. This final report takes account of the difficulties inherent in the issues studied and the current status of theological discussion and research. The theological tendencies in question are many and varied, subject to enormous changes; there is constant self-correction; they are intimately linked with social and economic conditions and the political situation in the world and in different geographical areas. Nor should we overlook the disputes that such theological treatises have occasioned on many sides, because theology risks being translated into politics and hurting the genuine unity of the Church. Given this state of affairs, the International Theological Commission wants to address itself to the discussion for a specific purpose: to search out the potential and the risk in such tendencies.

Karl Lehmann
Chairman of the Subcommittee



The Second Vatican Council reminded the Church of its ceaseless duty to “scrutinize the signs of the times and to interpret them in the light of the Gospel”.1 A special incentive to carry out this injunction was provided by the documents emanating from the Second General Assembly of the Latin American Episcopal Conference (CELAM) held in 1968 in Medellin, Colombia: the Church hears the outcries of poor peoples and makes itself the interpreter of their oppressive conditions. The Church’s worldwide solicitude in response to the challenge hurled by oppression and hunger is shown not only by papal documents—Mater et magistra, Pacem in terris, Populomm progressio, Octogesima adveniens—but also by documents of the Synod of Bishops held in Rome in 1971 (Justice in the World) and in 1974. Pope Paul VI once again highlighted the Church’s urgent duty in this regard with his apostolic exhortation of 8 December 1975, Evangelization in Today’s World.2

These circumstances must be taken into account if the theological treatises on these issues are to be understood. Although they have a scholarly face, their primary source is not theoretical, scientific effort. They are not presented in the first instance as a “written” theology; they struggle to preserve close contact with the day-to-day existence of overburdened men and women and with the concrete injunction to action that challenges the Church in this factual situation. They intend to give public expression to the cries of our poor, anguished brothers and sisters—specifically, to hunger, disease, unjust profit, exile, oppression. Add to this the inhuman living conditions of all those who own only what they wear, sleep at night in the streets, live and die there, [and] lack basic medical care. For Christians enlightened by the Gospel, these “signs of the times” are an exceptionally sharp stimulus to bend every effort, in the name of Christian faith, to free their brothers and sisters from inhuman living conditions. This attention to the needy and this affinity with all the oppressed are singularly expressed and exemplified by the biblical words “justice”, “liberation”, “hope”, “peace”.

This witness to solicitude for the poor, a witness supported by the Gospel of Jesus Christ,3 is something of a ceaseless spiritual leaven in all the pertinent theological treatises; it obviously inspires their theological reflections and political options. A spiritual experience arouses innate forces whereby the pressures of Christian love are transformed into commands effective for action by means of human reflection and scientific analysis.

Both elements, a basic spiritual experience and theological and scientific reflection, are mutually complementary and consequently fashion a vital unity. But we must be careful not to confound the two elements. No one, therefore, should condemn these various theological systems if he or she is not listening at the same time to the cries of the poor and seeking more acceptable ways to respond. On the other hand, we must ask whether the types of theological reflection currently in vogue are, in their actual methodology, the only way of responding appropriately to yearnings for a more human world of brothers and sisters. The point is, every theology has service for its function, and so must at times undergo needed changes and corrections, if these help it to achieve its primary commission more effectively.


The theological treatises of which we have spoken stem from conditions in which men are oppressed, are slavishly subject to others in economic, social, and political life and yearn for freedom. This existential human story is not accepted as an unchangeable destiny; it is understood as a “creative” process that looks to a larger freedom in all sectors of life and ultimately to the fashioning of a “new man”. To change inhuman conditions is seen as a divine demand, as God s will: Jesus Christ, who by his redemptive action freed men from sin in all its forms, offers a new basis for human brotherhood and sisterhood.

This way of thinking, which is the springboard for the theological treatises of which we are speaking, gives them a special form that is in a sense new. God reveals his mysterious plan in actual events; and the more intimately the Christian enters into concrete situations and the historical progression of events, the more appropriately he responds to God’s word. In consequence, the Christian recognizes the profound unity that links the divine history of salvation accomplished through Jesus Christ to efforts undertaken for the welfare and rights of men and women.

Although secular history and salvation history should not be regarded as simply identical, still the relationship between the two is to be conceived in the first instance as a unity. Their distinction may not be extended to a dualism in which history and salvation would be represented as indifferent one to the other. In fact, human activity acquires an entirely new value in history, a theological value, in that it builds up a more human society; for the construction of a just society is, in a sense, the inauguration of God s Kingdom in anticipation.4 Therefore Christian faith is understood principally as a historical praxis whereby sociopolitical conditions are changed and renewed.

This way of thinking contains many elements of great value, for it is indeed true that Christians should have a richer understanding of the total unity that their calling to salvation involves.5 Nor can we doubt that faith, in its scriptural sense, can be fructified and perfected only by deeds. Moreover, the Second Vatican Council reminds us6 that the Holy Spirit is active in world history; even outside the visible Church the preludes to faith, that is, the truths and rules of right reason about God and the common good, which are a kind of foundation for the Christian religion, are found to some extent.7

Nevertheless, in some theological movements these elemental data are interpreted in a one-sided fashion that is open to objection. The unity that links world history and salvation history may not be so conceived that it tends to consolidate the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which as a supernatural mystery is altogether unique and beyond human intelligence,8 with secular history. Nor can it mean that the boundaries between Church and world are utterly effaced.

In a similar vein, the world in its historical existence is indeed the place where God’s saving plan is unfolding—but not in such a way that the force and dynamism of God’s word consist totally in its function of stimulating social and political change. And so faith s praxis is not reducible to changing the conditions of human society; for besides laying injustice bare, faith’s praxis includes such things as conscience formation, change in mental attitude, adoration of the true God and of our Savior Jesus Christ in distinction from all forms of idolatry. Consequently, “faith as praxis” should not be interpreted in such a way that one’s involvement in politics embraces and governs all human efforts and actions totally and “radically”. Two points call for clarification here:

1. Political controversy, which is customarily linked with confrontation, should not be carried to the point where it obscures or obliterates peace and reconciliation as the objective and fruit of Christian activity, and what takes priority is an increase of antagonism and the onset of violence.

2. It must remain beyond dispute that for the Christian politics is not the final ground that gives ultimate meaning to all of life; it is not an absolute in the Christian eon; and so its nature is to be an instrument, a servant. Overlook this, and human freedom is threatened by movements that promote dictatorial control. Although theology is oriented in part toward praxis, its more prominent function is to seek understanding of God’s word; for whatever engages it, theology must be able to distance itself from a concrete situation, which is almost always attended by various pressures and compulsions to action. It is from the principles of Catholic teaching on faith and morals that we can derive the light to make correct judgments about what has to be done to acquire eternal salvation without risk of losing the freedom of Gods children. Only in this way is theology tied to truth; only in this way can it preserve the sovereign authority of God’s word and the altogether unique character of that word. And so we have to take special care not to fall into a unidimensional vision of Christianity that would adversely affect Christology and ecclesiology, our view of salvation and of Christian existence, even theology’s proper function.

Prophetic charges of injustice and urgent appeals to make common cause with the poor have to do with situations that are highly complex in nature, have roots in history, and depend on social and political realities. Even a prophetic judgment on the circumstances of a time calls for assured reasons or criteria. That is why the different theological treatments of liberation must deal simultaneously with theories that come from the social sciences, which study objectively what the “outcry of the people” expresses.

Theology, however, cannot deduce concrete political norms sheerly from theological principles, and so the theologian cannot settle profound sociological issues by theology’s specific resources. Theological treatises that strive to build a more human society must take into account the risks that the use of sociological theories involves. In every instance these theories must be tested for their degree of certitude, inasmuch as they are often no more than conjectures and not infrequently harbor explicit or implicit ideological elements that rest on debatable philosophical assumptions or on an erroneous anthropology. This is true, for instance, of significant segments of analyses inspired by Marxism and Leninism. Anyone who employs such theories and analyses should be aware that these do not achieve a greater degree of truth simply because theology introduces them into its expositions. In fact, theology ought to recognize the pluralism that exists in scientific interpretations of society and realize that it cannot be fettered to any concrete sociological analysis.


Since the theological treatises we have been discussing often appeal to Sacred Scripture, we should take care to uncover what the Old and New Testaments have to say about the relationship between salvation and human welfare, between salvation and human rights. Obviously, our reflections here must be incomplete. On the other hand, we must avoid the anachronism that would read contemporary ideas back into the Bible.

Old Testament

To determine the relationship between divine salvation and human development, practically everyone now cites the Exodus story The reason is, the exodus from Egypt9 is actually a salvation event of capital importance in the Old Testament: liberation from foreign tyranny and from works forced by public powers. Nevertheless, “liberation” in the Old Testament is not totally situated in the removal from Egypt and the return from exile; for the liberation is oriented to the Covenant worship solemnized on Mount Sinai,10 and apart from that orientation it loses its specific meaning. The Psalms themselves, when they deal with need and protest, with aid and thanks, reveal forms of prayer that express salvation and “liberation”.11 There distress is identified not only with social affliction but also with hostility, injustice, [and] blameworthy fault, as well as with that to which this leads: the threat that is death and the void death represents. Less significance, therefore, is placed on felt needs in individual instances; more important is the convincing experience that only God can bring deliverance and salvation.

Consequently, one should not speak of Old Testament salvation in its relation to human rights and welfare without simultaneously revealing the complete theological argumentation: it is not man but Yahweh who effects change. Besides, as long as the exodus lasted, in the desert, it was especially for the spiritual liberation and purification of his people that God provided.

A moving instance of an effort inspired by God’s revelation to improve conditions of human living is the rebuke to the social order sounded by the prophets, especially in Amos.12 Later prophets take up and enlarge the theme initiated by Amos, as when they cry “woe” on those who own large estates.13 In powerful language Hosea censures the absence of human solidarity.14 Isaiah explicitly includes widows and orphans among those who must be protected.15 He threatens that the Lord will take away from Jerusalem “the powerful and the strong”, that is, the more potent leaders in the society;16 he complains about possessions accumulating in the hands of a few17 or, more broadly, about the oppression of the poor by the rich.18 But he is clearly far from calling for revolt against the oppressors, even though this theme is discoverable in Old Testament writings.19 Presentiment of impending disaster keeps a program for a more equitable society from making its appearance.20 The prophets believe that there are many different ways of succoring society in its needs. But instead of an optimism supposedly supported by a theology of history, they show a large measure of scepticism on man’s ability to actually fashion a different world.

Such a change must be preceded by a way of acting that is proper to interior conversion and justice. “Cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, assist the oppressed, defend the fatherless, plead for the widow.”21 It is God who must give men and women the power to bring about a greater degree of justice in the social sphere: in the last analysis Yahweh alone can efficaciously provide for human rights and welfare, especially of the oppressed.22 God works salvation beyond the good or evil designs of men.

In this connection, the prophets do recognize something akin to the “corrupt system”. As they see it, however, we may not reduce everything to the point where evil is only a sign and effect of society’s unjust structures or where we could hope to correct abuses simply by abolishing possessions. Over and above this, we must keep in mind the personal element, which determines the process of “liberation” for the Old Testament. This is particularly exemplified and confirmed by the principle of individual responsibility.23

Some significant passages of the Old Testament disclose partial visions of a new society, no longer arranged along the lines of pervasive contemporary structures.24 Many Psalms speak expressly of God as liberator of the oppressed and defender of the poor.25 While freeing the people of Israel from oppression, God demands of them that they remove all human oppression.26 Gods lordship, once it comes, will eliminate all tyranny of man over man.

In the Old Testament, however, this hope is long not distinguished with sufficient clarity from concrete history and does not bear on realities that transcend that history. Even down to our own time, a fair number of ideologies of a “secularized” salvation look for these promises of God to be realized within the limits of history, and simply in consequence of man’s activity; but this, we have seen, the Old Testament rejects. Lastly, we should recall that in the apocalyptic passages of the later Old Testament the hope of a life after this life and the theology of history commend in remarkable fashion man’s experienced weakness and God’s omnipotence.

New Testament

The New Testament takes up significant elements of the Old27 or presupposes them.28 As the discourse on the Beatitudes shows strikingly,29 the Old Testament insistence on conversion and renewal of the human spirit is intensified, and in the New Testament these demands can be quite effectively realized by the power of the Holy Spirit. Still the impression remains—and it has been stated time and again—that the New Testament is not primarily concerned about the social sphere and human togetherness.

Possibly the unique newness of the Christian message initially tempered concern for questions that involved worldly duties. The personal love of the incarnate God for his new people was so transcendently important that questions prompted by temporal existence could not take priority (recall only the expectation of God’s Kingdom). With the spotlight on the mystery of our suffering and risen Lord, sheerly human needs could assume less urgency The political situation of the Roman Empire prevented Christians from turning their minds freely and extensively to the world.

However, this is not the place to explain in detail how Jesus’ good news and New Testament ethics imparted many directive norms and patterns of human conduct that were capable of inspiring a “social critique”. Enough that we think of the command to love neighbor and enemy,30 of the exhortatory and threatening words to the wealthy and the glutted,31 of the obligation to care for the poor and the weak32 and the admonition to all to help others,33 of avoiding the temptation to exercise control over others34—on the ground that all human beings are brothers and sisters.35

Moreover, the New Testament discloses in the faithful a disposition to welcome “institutional” forms of Christian charity Examples are the contributions taken up for Jerusalem36 and the arrangement for the ministries of “diaconate” and charitable aid.37 But it is clear that such “institutional” helps, at least in the beginning, were restricted to the ambit of the Christian communities and were quite undeveloped.

The New Testament also attaches great significance to the element of liberation, but we must be uncommonly careful to uncover its genuine sense. Saint Paul’s words about the new freedom are closely linked to his message on justification, and so liberation as such is not a theme severed from his other themes. The salvific work of Jesus Christ opened even the inner chambers of the human heart, so it is easy to be mistaken about what constitutes true denial of human freedom, true slavery. The announcing of justification shows with consummate clarity that the human person is prey to evil powers.

Authentic, complete liberty is impossible without the primary liberation38 from death and perishability (sarx), from the power of sin and from the law (note also the “elements of the world”). “It is with this freedom that Christ has set us free.”39

Liberation from these powers, however, brings a fresh freedom, in consequence of which we can, in the spirit of Jesus Christ, be effective in love so as to serve our brothers and sisters.40 Here surely we have a foreshadowing of what God will himself accomplish as his gift to the just when he judges the whole story of humankind. The justice of God, through the Spirit and by his power, bestows a liberating action that enables us to work what is good, an action that finds its perfection through love.

And so, when the New Testament speaks of “the liberation that brings freedom”,41 the freedom that is grace, moral stimulus, and eschatological promise, these utterances are inserted into the proclamation of justification. Only if they rest on this foundation do they acquire their full force and power. Only if we bring our reflections to these depths can we understand and actualize the stimulus the New Testament offers Christians for liberating activity.

In the light of the New Testament, society is not genuinely changed unless men and women are reconciled with God and with one another. Only if men and women become a new creation by conversion and justice can the style of human living be adequately and steadily improved. Human rights and welfare, therefore, human liberation, are not situated in the category of “having” but primarily within the boundaries that comprise “being”—including, of course, the implications that flow there from for shaping all the situations of human living.


God as Liberator and Man’s Liberating Action

It has been noted that not all the Old Testament affirmations on liberation can be extended in every respect to the New Testament situation. The revelation given us in Christ divides the uninterrupted process of salvation history into two periods: promise and fulfillment. But both Testaments are at one in the conviction that God alone, precisely as supreme and utterly free Lord, administers human welfare; only he is properly liberator. This becomes clear, however, only when the needs of men and women are not reduced simply to their economic and material problems, only when we grasp the complete spectrum of their risk-laden, corrupt situation. Still, the unshakable proposition “God alone really frees” should not be interpreted as a kind of myth (as if we were talking about a Deus ex machina); such a myth can only increase the indolence, inactivity, and apathy of those in straitened circumstances. Genuine faith does not condone inhuman living conditions, does not countenance them. God does not come to us in the violent hurricane of a revolution, but by his grace he strengthens the mind and heart of man and woman so that they sharpen their conscience and, led by a living faith, build a more just world. To achieve this, however, the whole person must be freed from all the powers of evil. That is why an effectual change of mind and heart (metanoia) and a renewal of love for God and neighbor bring about actual liberation. But full liberation, according to Christian belief, is not accomplished in the course of earthly events, in history. For history leads to a “new earth” and to the “city of God”; consequently, until this fulfillment is realized, every liberating activity has a transitory character—and at the Last Judgment it will have to undergo its own ultimate testing.42

The relevance of our reflections, however, should not be restricted to spiritual reformation or incitement to assist individuals; for there is a kind of “injustice that assumes institutional shape”, and as long as this obtains, the situation itself calls for a greater degree of justice and demands reforming. Our contemporaries are no longer convinced that social structures have been predetermined by nature and therefore are “willed by God” or that they have their origin in anonymous evolutionary laws. Consequently, the Christian must ceaselessly point out that the institutions of society originate also in the conscience of society, and that men and women have a moral responsibility for these institutions.

We may argue how legitimate it is to speak of “institutional sin” or of “sinful structures”, since the Bible speaks of sin in the first instance in terms of an explicit, personal decision that stems from human freedom. But it is unquestionable that by the power of sin injury and injustice can penetrate social and political institutions. That is why, as we have pointed out, even situations and structures that are unjust have to be reformed.

Here we have a new consciousness, for in the past these responsibilities could not be perceived as distinctly as they are now. From this perspective justice means a basic reverence for the equal dignity of all men and women; it means that radical human rights develop in gratifying fashion and are protected;43 it means an assured equity in the distribution of those goods that are especially needful for human living.44

Concrete Relationship between Human Development and Divine Salvation

Reflection on the relationship between the salvation that God effects and the liberating action of man reveals the need to determine with greater exactness the relationship between human development and divine salvation, between the building up of the world and eschatological fulfillment. As is clear from the proofs we have adduced, human activity and Christian hope may be neither utterly divorced—on one side the world of earth exclusively, on the other a life to come utterly severed from the world—nor seen in terms of an “evolutionary optimism”, as if God’s lordship and mans progressive construction of the world were one and the same thing.

Even the pastoral constitution Gaudium et spes makes a distinction between the growth of God’s Kingdom and human progress as between the work of divinization and the work of humanization, or as between the order of divine grace and the order of human activity.45 Indeed it speaks first of the affinity between the two: the service of men and women on earth “makes ready the material of heaven’s Kingdom”.46 The good fruits of our diligent activity—cleansed, however, of all sordidness, lit up and transfigured—we shall discover afresh in the Kingdom of God, so that it is not only love that will remain47 but love’s labor as well.48 Eschatological hope, therefore, ought to find its expression even in the structures of secular life.49 That is why the Council speaks not only of this worlds passing away but of its transformation as well.50 The earthly city and the heavenly city ought to penetrate each other, under faith s guidance, with due respect for their distinction and their harmonious union.51 These ideas are summed up in the decree Apostolicam actuositatem on the apostolate of the laity: “Christ’s redemptive work, while of its nature directed to the salvation of men, involves also the renewal of the whole temporal order. The Church has for mission, therefore, not only to bring to men the message of Christ and his grace but also to saturate and perfect the temporal sphere with the spirit of the Gospel.... The two spheres [spiritual and temporal], distinct though they are, are so linked in the single plan of God that he himself purposes in Christ to take up the whole world again into a new creation, initially here on earth, completely on the Last Day.”52

These passages persuade us that the vindication of justice and participation in the process of transforming the world should be regarded “as a constitutive element of the preaching of the Gospel”.53 The words “constitutive element” (ratio constitutiva) are still the subject of controversy If we look at their strict meaning, it seems more accurate to interpret them as meaning an integral part, not an essential part.54 Besides, the texts cited from the Second Vatican Council have commonly been explained as favoring a harmony between eschatological salvation and the human effort to build a better world. It is useful, therefore, while maintaining unyieldingly the unity that links the two, to spell out again, with even sharper clarity, the distinction between them.

The very resistance of earthly situations to positive change for the better, the power of sin and some ambiguous effects of human progress55 teach us to recognize with even greater clarity within the very unity of salvation history an abiding difference between the Kingdom of God and human development, as well as the mystery of the Cross, without which no activity becomes genuinely salvific.56 But if, while preserving the unity, it is the difference that is highlighted, this does not introduce a so-called dualism. In fact, this more penetrating vision helps us to carry out the task of promoting human welfare and justice with a greater measure of endurance, steadfastness, and confidence; it can also keep us from being thrown into confusion if our efforts prove ineffective.

This unifying connection and this difference in the relationship between human development and Christian salvation in their existential shape indeed demand further serious research, and this surely has a high priority among the tasks of today’s theology But the basic character of that unity cannot be overturned, for it is rooted at reality’s very core.

On the one hand, existential history is in a way the locus where the world is so deeply transformed that it reaches as far as the mystery of God, and that is why love and its fruits abide. It is ultimately for this reason that there can be a link between salvation and human welfare, between salvation and human rights. But they are not linked to perfection, because the eschatological fulfillment “takes away” existential history.

On the other hand, the Kingdom of God “directs” history and utterly transcends all the possibilities of earthly fulfillment; it presents itself, therefore, as the action of God. This involves a certain break with that world, no matter what perfection we recognize therein. This discontinuity in our individual stories we experience as death, but the same discontinuity precisely as “transformation” touches the whole of history: it is the worlds “destruction”.

In our pilgrim state this “dialectic”, which finds expression in these two irreducible principles, cannot be dissolved and ought not be removed. In particular, however, the eschatological fulfillment for which we still yearn (the “eschatological reserve”) is the reason why the relationship between God s Kingdom and history cannot be described as either a monism or a dualism, and so from the very nature of this relationship we have to hold its definition in abeyance.

In any event, the relationship between the message of eschatological salvation and the shaping of historical time to come cannot be established univocally, by walking a single line, eyes fixed on harmony alone or difference alone. Perhaps this is what the words in Luke mean: “The Kingdom of God is not coming with outward show; nor will they say ‘Lo, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ For behold, the Kingdom of God is in the midst of you.”57 The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World suggests another consequence of this basic relationship between history and salvation: “We do not know when the earth and humanity are to be consummated, nor do we know how the universe is to be transformed.”58

Here surely lies the formal solution to our problem—a solution commended by the principal acts of revelation. In the concrete working out of this relationship, however, we can discover many ways of realizing it, ways that have different, distinct shapes. The correct choice of means appropriate to this solution in various periods of history and, for example, in areas that belong to the First, Second, and Third Worlds will call for different procedures. What is effective in sections of Europe and North America that have a highly developed industrial economy does not have the same significance on continents and in areas of the world where most of the people are hungry And still, however considerable the differences, we may not infringe on the above-mentioned basic relationship between human development and Christian salvation.

In this matter we have unambiguous criteria at hand. The basic relationship is deranged, for example, if the practice of social and political liberation has such priority that divine worship, prayer, the Eucharist and other sacraments, individual ethics and all questions about the final destiny of man and woman (death and eternal life), and the exhausting struggle within history against the powers of darkness59 take second place. On the other hand, in situations of poverty and injustice those truths of the Faith must be proclaimed and practiced in such a way as not to corroborate a frequent reproach: the Church disguises human distress, does no more than lull the poor in their very afflictions. Offering authentic relief is something totally different from raising hopes futilely comforting, hopes that only blunt the feeling of anguish.

Relationship between Human Development and Salvation in the Church’s Commission

To commend the significance of the Church for the world is also to stress pungently that the community that is Church is always concretely circumstanced and that in these circumstances political options have already been taken. The Church, though a special kind of community, must always remember that its life is ceaselessly lived on a stage where candidates for power compete with one another, where power is exercised in concrete ways, where power is linked to ideologies.

The Church “is not bound exclusively and inseparably to any race or nation, to any one particular way of life, to any customary pattern of living old or new”.60 In virtue of its origin, supernatural character, religious mission, and eschatological hope, it cannot be confounded with any sociopolitical system or linked with it by necessary, unbreakable ties.

If the Church must be careful not to be entrapped by the power seekers, no more ought it surrender to sheer neutrality or unsympathetic detachment and retire to a purely nonpolitical role. It is a fact that in many parts of today’s world the Church is so dreadfully restricted that its witness to faith is invited in other forms, forms no less prophetic; primary among these are suffering in the footsteps of our Lord and silence by coercion.

The Church cannot allow itself the cunning stratagems that characterize politics, but it must take care to anticipate the political consequences of its actions and its omissions. It can share in the blame when it does not denounce the situation of the poor and the oppressed, of those who suffer injustice—much more if it covers such a situation over and leaves it unchanged.

And so the Church, on the model of the Old Testament prophets, should sharpen its conscience, so as to lay a critique on the social order under the guidance of faith. A strong kinship with the poor (“poor” in its largest sense, i.e., those who are afflicted by any serious spiritual, psychological, or material wants) and effective assistance to them have been from olden times among the principal functions of the Church and all its members. In our day, however, this task has become the preeminent witness to a living faith; for many outside the Church, it is an inestimable criterion of the Church’s credibility.

To build up and shape the social and political order is a task committed in a special way to the laity61 But the Church as a whole—represented particularly by the ministerial functions of the supreme Pontiff, bishops, priests, and deacons—may not keep silent in conditions where human dignity and elementary human rights are crushed. This granted, the whole Church is under obligation to express its convictions quickly and courageously.

But in many individual circumstances it is possible for Christians to opt freely among different paths that lead to the one same goal.62 In consequence, Christians cannot utterly avoid controversy on social and political issues. “Where Christians exercise different options and on the face of it are apparently in disagreement, the Church asks that they try to understand one another’s positions and reasons with kindliness and appreciation.”63 Without concealing his or her own convictions, each should try by persuasion and encouragement to contribute to the realization of the common objective. Where opinions differ, therefore, Christians may never forget this maxim of Vatican II: “The bonds that unite the faithful are more powerful than anything that divides them.”64

Nevertheless, the Church’s unity is seriously imperiled if the differences that exist between social “classes” are taken up into a systematic “class struggle”. Where you have those “class” differences, you can hardly avoid conflict. Christians are recognized in the first instance by the way they try to solve such tensions: they do not persuade the masses to destroy violence by counterviolence; rather, they try to effect change by, e.g., shaping the consciences of men and women, entering into discussion, [and] initiating and supporting nonviolent action.65 Nor may the Christian bypass the primary end: reconciliation.

We must also guard against the danger that social and political hostilities might supersede all else, so that, e.g., Christians of divergent positions no longer celebrate the Eucharist together or shut one another out of their Eucharist. The point is, political options may not become so contentious as to damage the universality of the Christian message of salvation. This message is to be carried to all, even the rich and the oppressors; for the Church ought not exclude any human person from its love.

The Church should constantly remind men and women that politics does not have a kind of absolute value and should be increasingly concerned to strip politics of such value. An exclusive political option, intolerant of any other option, becomes despotic and subverts the very nature of politics. It is the Church’s obligation—a duty it cannot forego—to oppose the dictatorial claims of a state that would maintain that all the dimensions of human living fall under its sole control.

It is true that in such circumstances the Church at times finds it difficult or impossible to manifest its mind in the public forum. Still, it does its duty surpassingly well if, in imitation of its Lord, it responds to such situations by courageous protest, by silent suffering, even by martyrdom in its various shapes. But even in such extreme situations the Christian liberation that leads to freedom cannot be totally fettered. This is our sovereign comfort; here is the high point of our confidence.


In dealing with these questions, we become strikingly aware of the diverse situations that confront the local Churches within the Church Catholic; and this diversity is a cause for concern. Social, cultural, and political differences can at times weigh upon us with such increasing heaviness that our common unity in faith, the centrality of faith, seems no longer capable of overcoming our tensions and our rendings.

In our discussions we too were able to observe with some clarity the varying situations in which different people live. Now, no one in the Church speaks simply for himself or herself, and so all of us should listen to the cries of our brothers and sisters, all those all over the world who are treated with injustice, are oppressed by tribulations, suffer from poverty, are distressed by hunger. Here too we can learn from one another, so as to keep ourselves from repeating afresh the mistaken solutions that have plagued the history of the Church and of human societies (e.g., when politics is divinized).

In this effort it is the Spirit of Christ that links us all. In this connection, the Church’s unity and catholicity amid the variety of her peoples and of human cultures are simultaneously a gift to us and a claim on us. What has been laboriously achieved, however, must not be facilely jeopardized. This is particularly the case with all issues touching the relationship between human development and Christian salvation.

* This document was approved by the Commission “in forma specified”.


1 GS 4.

2 Cf. nos. 30-38.

3 Cf. Lk 4:18ff.

4 Reference is made at times to GS 39.

5 Cf. GS 10, 11, 57, 59, 61; AG 8; PP 15-16.

6 Cf. GS 22, 26, 38, 41, 57; DH 12.

7 Cf. First Vatican Council, dogmatic constitution Dei Filius (DS 3005).

8 Cf. ibid.

9 Cf. Ex 1-24.

10 Cf. Ex 24.

11 Cf., e.g., Ps 18.

12 Amos 2:6f.; 3:10; 5:11; 6:4ff.; 8:4ff.

13 Cf. Is 5:8f.; Mic 2.

14 Hos 4:1f.; 6:4, 6; 10:12.

15 Is 1:17, 23; 10:1f.

16 Cf. Is 3:1ff; 1:21ff; 10:1ff.

17 Cf. Is 5:8.

18 Cf. Is 1:21ff; 3:14f.

19 Cf. Judg 9:22f.; 1 Kings 12.

20 Note a beginning in Joel 3: 1f.

21 Is 1:16f.

22 Cf. Is 1:24ff.; Ex 3:7-9; Ps 103:6; 72:12ff.; Deut 10:17ff.

23 Cf. Ezek 18; Jer 31:29ff.

24 Cf., e.g., Is 55:3-5; Ex 34:40-48; Jer 31:31ff.

25 Cf. Ps 9, 10, 40, 72, 76, 146; Jud 9:11.

26 Cf. Ex 22:10; Lev 19:13, 18, 33; Deut 10:18; 24:14; Ps 82:2-4.

27 Cf., e.g., Is 61:1f., as cited in Lk 4:16ff.

28 Cf. Mk 12:29ff. and Lev 19:18.

29 Cf. [Mt] 5:1—7:29, esp. 5:3-12.

30 Cf. Lk 6:35f.; Mt 25:31-46.

31 E.g., Lk 6:24ff.; Mt 6:24; 1 Cor 11:20ff.; Lk 12:16ff.; Jas 2:1ff.; 5:1ff.

32 Cf. Lk 6:20; 1 Cor 12:22ff.

33 Mk 10:21; Lk 12:33.

34 Cf. Mk 10:42-45; Mt 20:25-28; Lk 22:25-27.

35 Cf. Mt 23:8; 25:41ff.

36 Cf. 2 Cor 8:1ff.

37 Cf. 1 Cor 12:28; 15:15; Rom 12:7; 16:1; Phil 1:1; 1 Tim 3:8, 12.

38 Cf. Rom 5-7.

39 Gal 5:1.

40 Cf. Gal 5:6, 13.

41 Cf. Gal 5:1.

42 Cf. Mt 25.

43 Cf. Schema Pontificiae Commissionis a Iustitia et Pace, The Church and Human Rights (Vatican City, 1975).

44 Cf. PP 21.

45 Cf. GS 36, 38, 39, 40, 42, 43, 58; AA 7.

46 Cf GS 38.

47 Cf. 1 Cor 13:8.

48 Cf. GS 39.

49 Cf. LG 35.

50 Cf GS 38, 39.

51 Cf. LG 36.

52 AA 5; cf. 7 also.

53 Cf. 1971 Synod of Bishops, De iustitia in mundo (Vatican Press, 1971), introduction, p. 5.

54 This is the interpretation that was given by the Synod of 1974. [English translator’s note: This footnote, translated here from the French version, does not appear in the Latin text sent to the members of the International Theological Commission on 30 June 1977 for final approval.]

55 Cf AA 7 for greater detail.

56 Cf. GS 22, 78.

57 Lk 17:20f.

58 GS 39.

59 Cf. GS 13b.

60 GS 58; cf. LG 9; GS 42.

61 Cf. AA 7; LG 31, 37; GS 43.

62 Cf., at greater length, GS 43.

63 Paul VI, apostolic letter Octogesima adveniens, 50.

64 GS 92.

65Obviously, we cannot give more extended treatment here to additional issues that concern recourse to force and violence.