Reading Mater et Magistra, Part I

Reading Mater et Magistra, Part I August 16, 2020

With this post, my ruminations on Catholic social teaching continue.  Last week, my reading group moved on to the first post WW II encyclical, Mater et Magistra, by Pope St. John XXIII.   You can find links to the discussion of Quadragesimo Anno here, and to the discussion of Rerun Novarum here.

Mater et Magistra, published in May 1961, came at a significant moment in the life of the Church.  The war and its aftermath had had a substantial, even traumatic, impact on the Church and theologians, especially European theologians, had begun to respond in reflective and innovative ways.  The anti-colonial movements in Africa and Asia had begun to bring the Church in the Third World out of the realm of (white) missionary experience and make them independent partners in the universal church.   Half of Europe, including the Catholic countries of Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Romania, were controlled by the Soviet Union, and the Cold War was ever on the verge of heating up.  (The Bay of Pigs had happened only the month before; the Cuban missile crisis was two years in the future.)   John XXIII had called the Second Vatican Council two years previously and preparations for the opening session (a year in the future) were underway.

The encyclical, though looking back 70 years to Rerum Novarum and 40 years to Quadragesimo Anno, is very much grounded in the moment in which it was written, and looks to the future in ways that the previous encyclicals did not.  It seems to me that in tone as well as in content, it was beginning to manifest what would later be called the “Spirit” of Vatican II.   This term, however, has become such a bugaboo among some conservative Catholics that I do not want to dwell on it–I would rather focus on the text itself, and on comparisons with RN and QA.

The text opens by naming its audience, modifying slightly the opening of QA, which in turn had added significantly to that of RN.  Rerum Novarum was addressed to “Venerable Brethren the Patriarchs, Primates, Archbishops, Bishops, and  other Ordinaries having Peace and in Communion with the Apostolic See“; QA had added at the end “and likewise to all the Faithful of the Catholic World.”  MM modified this last clause to read “and to the Clergy and Faithful of the entire Catholic World” (emphasis added).  This is, I think, a small but significant change.  The clergy had figured in both RN and QA as agents of implementing Catholic social teaching, but they were addressed at one remove, through their bishops.  Here we see Pope John XXIII speaking directly to them.  And the addition of the word “entire” subtly emphasizes that the Church is universal, and concerned with more than just Europe (and North America). 

In our discussion we read paragraphs 1-70, which are an overview of Catholic social teaching in RN and QA, plus some comments on a radio address by Pius XII in 1941. (This not a text I have ever heard of.  It is available in Italian here  (p. 196), and in Italian, Spanish and Portuguese here.   An English translation of uncertain provenance can be found here.)  One thing that struck me as I was reading this was a new style of writing and argumentation which I described, for want of a better term, as a new historicism.  The previous encyclicals had adopted an ahistorical, universalist tone.  Indeed, one of my criticisms of RN was that it treated “capitalism” as it existed in the late 19th century as having always existed, and gives no thought to how it came about.  QA did better in this regard: it talked about the “spread” of capitalism (cf. 103-104), acknowledging the changing circumstances.  MM, however, goes much further, trying to put both RN and QA into historical context, and give some indication of the problems which the previous encyclicals were responding to.  (See paragraphs 11-15 on RN and par. 35-36 for QA).  And then it goes further, trying to analyze the present situation and showing how it fits into the previous teaching.  (See  par. 51 et seq.)

We considered a number of sources for this change.  Two changes in Catholic theology came up.  First, there was the shift from deductive to inductive reasoning in theology, which in itself was a move away from logical reasoning about universal truths to an appreciation of the ways in which human questions are grounded in experience.  (We got off onto a interesting tangent about whether this had any connection with Jesuit casuistry.  I don’t know enough about the history of theology to judge this question.)  The second was the Ressourcement movement, which, among other things, placed an emphasis on returning to original sources to understand the historical context in which Catholic teaching evolved.  Finally, one member wanted to link it to the  See-Judge-Act method of reasoning.   It was created by Cardinal Joseph Cardijn, a Belgian cardinal who, as an advisor to John XXIII, played a role in the writing of MM.   The basic idea is that in order to apply universal Catholic ideals, one must first see the existing, concrete reality, judge it in light of Catholic teaching, and then act (or propose action) to address the situation at hand.

Our discussion then turned to the reinterpretation of RN and QA, or perhaps more precisely, to the application of their principles to the current situation.  One shift was a change in the understanding of the role of the state.  RN had an uncertain understanding of the state, as the old order was either gone or dying, and nothing had emerged to replace it.  Leo XIII explicitly would not judge specific forms of government, saying all that obeyed the natural law and God’s will were acceptable.  QA seemed quite favorable in parts to an authoritarian vision of the state, something that we discussed as we debated whether Pius XI found fascism, or at least a version of fascism that respected the Catholic Church, seductive alternative compared to liberal democracy or communism/socialism.   In MM, there remains a deep appreciation for the positive role of the state:

As for the State, its whole raison d’etre is the realization of the common good in the temporal order. (par. 20)

At the same time, however, there is a deeper realization that there must be limits on the state.  Though fascism is never explicitly mentioned in the text, and communism is only mentioned once (par. 34), the recent history of the one and the then present existence of the other may have helped temper any enthusiasm for government over-reach or “clerico-fascism“.  (I also wonder, in passing, whether fascism is not mentioned because Catholic Spain was still controlled by the (quasi)-fascist regime of Francisco Franco, and the still influential Church in Spain was not yet ready to divorce itself from him.  My controversial April Fool’s day post on Franco may be relevant here.)

The state may only act in the “temporal order” as quoted above; it has no place making demands on the transcendent nature of man.  This shows up in the renewed critique of socialism (par. 34), which is indicted for its materialism, which eliminates any spiritual dimension to individuals or society.   But even in the temporal order, the state must be restrained:

But however extensive and far-reaching the influence of the State on the economy may be, it must never be exerted to the extent of depriving the individual citizen of his freedom of action. It must rather augment his freedom while effectively guaranteeing the protection of his essential personal rights. (par. 55)

This can be read as a critique of the Soviet bloc, but it must also be seen as critique of the capitalist west.  Consider this expansion of ideas from QA:

As a consequence, even the public authority was becoming the tool of plutocracy, which was thus gaining a stranglehold on the entire world. (par. 36)

I note in passing that the concept of the “plutocracy” appears twice in the text (see also par. 111); it comes from a radio address of Pius XII in 1944. (Available in Spanish and Italian here.)  This is the first time the encyclicals we have read that a specific name or ideology other than liberalism, is associated to what I previously termed “real existing capitalism.”    One member of our group suggested that the above limitation of the state to the temporal order, and the restrictions on “depriving the individual citizen of his freedom of action” opened the door to the Church being more open to pluralistic, secular states:  if the state was only concerned with the temporal order, then “all men of good will” (cf. par. 25) could be expected to cooperate in achieving the common good.

Another critique of the state comes in the critical references to “national prestige”:

[Pius XI] taught what the supreme criterion in economic matters ought not to be. It must not be the special interests of individuals or groups, nor unregulated competition, economic despotism, national prestige or imperialism, nor any other aim of this sort. (par. 38, emphasis added)

And in other countries a notable percentage of income is absorbed in building up an ill-conceived national prestige, and vast sums are spent on armaments. (par. 69, emphasis added)

The state is a positive good in many settings, but it is a means to an end (the common good) and not an end in itself.  In addition, there is an open critique of imperialism, and a positive acknowledgement of the end of colonialism (see par. 49), which together provide another critique of the nation states (particularly European ones, though Japanese imperialism cannot be overlooked) of the 19th and 20th centuries.

At this point I turned the discussion to an important section of the encyclical:  par.  59-67, which is about “the social process.”  Though I read through this section twice, fairly carefully, its meaning completely eluded me.  Therefore, I am grateful to my reading group for walking me through it and helping me see how critical this discussion is.  In it, we see an example of what I termed the historicism of the encyclical.  Here, John XXIII is examining the ways in which advancing technology is changing social relationships and changing the dynamics of interactions between the individual and society, and between intermediate social groups and the state.  Radio had been prevalent for a generation, TV was becoming more common, and air travel and the automobile, along with expanding rail networks, had made world-wide travel both quick and affordable.

Things that at one time were strictly the concern of the individual and the family now had broader social implications, and these in turn often involved the intervention of the state or the creation of intermediate associations.  A good example from the modern age is the question of childcare–once the exclusive concern of the family, we now see the creation of a public/private system of childcare, and the question of whether the state should mandate paid paternity leave or subsidize childcare.

Similarly, authority no longer reaches its apex at the nation-state:  there must be organizations and juridicial structures that address the web of inter-connections between the states.   As John XXIII noted earlier,

There is, moreover, an ever-extending network of societies and organizations which set their sights beyond the aims and interests of individual countries and concentrate on the economic, social, cultural and political welfare of all nations throughout the world. (par. 49)

The United Nations and the many associated organizations had come into being since the end of World War II. The European Economic Community, precursor to the supra-national European Union, had been formed by the treaty of Rome in 1957.   From the perspective of European history, which had seen France and Germany fight three major wars in the previous 90 years,  this structure marked a substantial change from the past.

This section acknowledges these changes, and is quite hopeful about them, seeing in them the potential for the “organic reconstruction of society” (par. 67) which the final section of QA was devoted to; now there is the possibility for “everyone to participate in human events the world over” (par. 61)  and to cooperate for building up the common good both locally and globally.   This optimism marks a significant change in tone from the previous two encyclicals, which were much more defensive, and from an earlier Catholic distancing from the world as a “veil of tears.”   It is, in some ways, reminiscent of the optimism of the Kennedy administration in the United States, when despite the challenges facing the US, both domestically and abroad, there was a feeling that great things could be done.  Though it is easy to be cynical, especially in light of the Vietnam war and other grave mistakes made by the US in the decades since, one must remember that the American space program, the war on poverty, and much of the Civil Rights legislation were under-girded by this optimism.

At the same time, however, this section is cautionary, in that the growing web of social interactions has led to the state becoming more and more embedded in them:

This development in the social life of man is at once a symptom and a cause of the growing intervention of the State, even in matters which are of intimate concern to the individual, hence of great importance and not devoid of risk. (par. 60)

The risk is that the state will arrogate to itself more power than is right or necessary.  The following paragraph summarizes the threats:

At the same time, however, this … brings with it a multiplicity of restrictive laws and regulations in many departments of human life. As a consequence, it narrows the sphere of a person’s freedom of action. The means often used, the methods followed, the atmosphere created, all conspire to make it difficult for a person to think independently of outside influences, to act on his own initiative, exercise his responsibility and express and fulfill his own personality. (par. 62)

While it is easy to read this as a critique of the totalitarian dimensions of the Soviet bloc, we also need to bear in mind that capitalism, as said earlier, was in a situation in which the state “was becoming a tool of plutocracy” and was being used to shape the limits of free expression.  As Noam Chomsky put it in his trenchant critique of Western liberal democracies:

The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum – even encourage the more critical and dissident views. That gives people the sense that there’s free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate. (The Common Good, 1998.)

Nevertheless, despite these grounds for caution, the optimism of this encyclical, grounded in the Christian hope of the resurrection (cf. par. 180), shines through.

Browse Our Archives