Integral human development: A short history

Author: John T. McGreevy

Louis-Joseph Lebret, a French Dominican priest
Louis-Joseph Lebret, a French Dominican priest

Sometimes documents and phrases need to find their moment. When the Declaration of Independence was published in 1776, it made few ripples. Copies were lost; drafts misplaced. Its most famous sentence only became its most famous sentence in the 1850s and 1860s. Then Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass and others insisted that the United States honor the promise of all men being “created equal” that Lincoln at Gettysburg identified as the declaration’s core theme. He claimed the founders had agreed with him “four score and seven years ago.”[1]

Could we tell a similar story about the phrase “integral human development”? It’s the animating idea of the Keough School of Global Affairs. We assume that Catholics interested in social questions have always cared about development issues.

This isn’t so. Rerum Novarum (1891), the foundational document of modern Catholic social thought, argues for a just wage. It is not about alleviating the gap between poor and rich countries. Before World War II, European and North American Catholic intellectuals, if they discussed economic growth at all, warned against the ways in which it might disrupt social hierarchies. Growth meant small businesses bought out by corporations, family farms swallowed by large landowners or families torn apart by a desire for unnecessary luxuries, including mothers working outside the home when such income was not strictly necessary. The Irish Constitution of 1937, written with a strong Catholic lens, at once insisted that private property be “regulated by the principles of social justice” and regretted that some women felt economic pressure to take on paid labor “to the neglect of their duties inside the home.”[2] Redistribution, not growth, seemed the most equitable solution to the global depression.

The onset of the Cold War after 1945 shifted this calculus. The United States and the Soviet Union now competed for influence across the world. For American development experts, poverty became the gateway drug to the false promise of communism; this fear launched hundreds of programs in Latin America, Southeast Asia, and Africa. The goal everywhere was economic growth. A prominent American economist, Walter Rostow made his career (including major positions in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations) by outlining stages of development and how the United States could hasten a country’s evolution from “backwardness” to “maturity.”[3]

Most Catholic development projects in these early years could be categorized under education and health. Bishops in the tiny West African country of Guinea, for example, requested (and received) from the French government over seventy million francs in the single year of 1954 to build schools. [4] The British government funded schools staffed by Irish and Canadian missionaries in Nigeria and an estimated thirty thousand Catholic teachers worked for the Nigerian bishops by the 1960s. [5] In Ghana, American nuns serving as missionary nurses helped establish the country’s modern medical system.[6]

Catholics and global development

Catholics then joined the development conversation. Historian Giuliana Chamedes has recently reminded us that the most important theoretician was Louis-Joseph Lebret, a French Dominican priest. Lebret began his work in Brittany in the 1930s, competing with communists for the allegiance of fishermen and dockworkers. [7] He shared with American development experts a strong anti-communism. He shared with Latin American economists a determination to avoid dependency and exploitation. His contribution was to move away from a single-minded focus on economic growth toward a wider view, one that acknowledged “the human need for transcendence.” Development meant not just “having more” but “being more.” Indeed, Lebret saw the United States as a “neo-imperialist” power that had become “hated almost everywhere.” Along with other French Catholic intellectuals, Lebret put the term tiers monde, or “third world” into circulation to suggest a constellation of nations independent of either the Soviet or American blocs.[8]

Lebret hopscotched from Lebanon to South Vietnam to Uruguay to the United Nations to Rome, but his influence was greatest in West Africa and Brazil. Working for Senegal’s Catholic president, Léopold Senghor, Lebret served as a cabinet minister after independence.[9] In Brazil, Lebret established a satellite version of his development organization in Sao Paulo and lectured there frequently.[10]

Together with the British economist Barbara Ward, and inspired by the new focus on the poor evident at the Second Vatican Council, Lebret helped draft Populorum Progressio, Paul VI’s 1967 social encyclical, the document that first put the phrase “integral human development” into widespread circulation. Development “cannot be restricted to economic growth alone,” Paul VI explained. “To be authentic, it must be well rounded; it must foster the development of each man and of the whole man.” He stressed the importance of “integral human development” and described free trade and “a type of capitalism” in bleak terms:

These concepts present profit as the chief spur to economic progress, free competition as the guiding norm of economics, and private ownership of the means of production as an absolute right, having no limits nor concomitant social obligations.[11]

The document was received rapturously in Latin America where it informed the development of liberation theology. It was welcomed among left-leaning Christian Democrats in Europe.  

The Wall Street Journal dismissed the encyclical as “warmed over Marxism.” And after an initial burst of enthusiasm, both the idea of integral human development and the phrase went into eclipse. We can see this with Ngram data which tracks the number of times a phrase appears in the vast corpus of texts scanned by Google. Use of the term “integral human development” soars in the 1970s and then levels off in the early 1980s. The pattern in French for “développement humain intégral” is identical.

“Pope Francis is the foremost champion of the term integral human development.”

We are just now getting a handle on the intellectual history of the era between roughly 1970 and 2010 but its dominant theme may well be the forceful reemergence, even triumph, of free market ideas. Three years after Paul VI released Populorum Progressio, the American economist Milton Friedman flatly insisted that the sole duty of corporations was to enhance profits for their shareholders. Wealth, he told his many readers, depended on free trade and unimpeded markets.

Friedman proved more influential than Paul VI. Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in their different ways attempted to limit the growth of social welfare states. Access to global markets, far more than development programs, brought hundreds of millions of people out of poverty in East Asia especially, but also in Latin America. The same reliance on markets eventually heightened inequality to dangerous levels not only within wealthy nations such as the United States but also between sub-Saharan Africa and wealthy regions such as Western Europe and North America.

The climate moment

So what created the second “integral human development” moment? (Use of the phrase has exploded since roughly 2010 according to the same Ngram data). Put simply: climate change. Growing inequality set the stage, but the ecological crisis, certainly within Catholic circles but also beyond, prompted new examinations of how growth might be managed, or even tamed. The adjective “integral” now seems crucial. As Pope Francis put it, we must connect the “the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.”[12]

Francis is the foremost champion of the term integral human development—even naming a Vatican dicastery with the phrase—and he has also become the world’s leading environmentalist. His critics, as did Paul VI’s in the late 1960s, accuse him of ignoring the capacity of markets to bring some of the world’s most impoverished people into a virtuous circle of trade and growth. They dislike Francis’s disparaging use of the term “neoliberalism,” a term Francis adopted well before it became fashionable.[13]

Looking ahead

The trick will be to avoid the traps that snared integral human development’s first advocates fifty years ago. Catholic intellectuals, certainly, but left-leaning intellectuals more generally, were caught off guard by renewed interest in markets as a mechanism for organizing societies in the 1970s and 1980s. They failed to explain why rapid economic growth and prosperity emerged in, say, South Korea, as opposed to Benin.

Advocates of integral human development should aim to do better this second time around. Paul VI’s cautions about a focus on growth and profit alone now seem prescient, far more compelling than Friedman’s narrow obsessions. (That corporations of all types now enumerate social goals suggests how far we have moved from Friedman’s model.) What Paul VI and his allies struggled to do was to sustain their core insight about development while integrating new evidence about the importance of markets and exchange.

Perhaps the idea of integral human development is now better positioned. Much of the world, not just Pope Francis, desires “the green and the social [to] go hand in hand.”[14] Activists from many backgrounds hope to marry development and sustainability. Fifty years from now let’s hope that this second wave of interest in integral human development has proved not only more durable on Ngram charts but more influential in creating a just world.

John T. McGreevy is the Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame. He served as dean of Notre Dame’s College of Arts and Letters from 2008 to 2018.


[1] David Armitage, The Declaration of Independence: A Global History (Cambridge 2007), 92-102.

[2] The Constitution of Ireland (1937), Article 43.

[3] Nils Gilman, Mandarins of the Future: Modernization Theory in Cold War America (Baltimore 2003), 190-197.

[4] Elizabeth Foster, African Catholic: Decolonization and the Transformation of the Church (Cambridge 2019), 48-50.

[5] Paul Gifford, Christianity, Development and Modernity in Africa (New York 2013), 86; Adrian Hastings, The Church in Africa, 1450-1950 (Oxford 1994), 562.

[6] Barbra Mann Wall, Into Africa: A Transnational History of Catholic Medical Missions and Social Change (New Brunswick 2015), 37.

[7] Denis Pelletier, Économie et Humanisme: De L'Utopie Communautaire au Combat Pour Le Tiers-Monde 1941-1966 (Paris, 1996).

[8] Quotations and analysis in Giuliana Chamedes, “The Catholic Origins of Economic Development After World War II,” French Politics, Culture and Society 33 (2015), 56-73.

[9] Elizabeth Foster, African Catholic: Decolonization and the Transformation of the Church (Cambridge 2019), 214.

[10] Pelletier, Economie et Humanisme 156-162, 297-310.

[11] Populorum Progressio (1967), §14.

[12] Laudato Si’ (2015), §49.

[13] Daniel Rodgers, “The Uses and Abuses of Neoliberalism,” Dissent (Winter 2018)

[14] Amitav Ghosh, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (Chicago 2016), 150-159; Bill McKibben, “Pope Francis: The Cry of the Earth” New York Review of Books (June 18, 2015); Pope Francis, Let us Dream: The Path to a Better Future (New York 2020), 32.