Reading Mater et Magistra, Part IV

Reading Mater et Magistra, Part IV September 13, 2020

This post is my final set of comments on Pope John XXIII’s encyclical, Mater et Magistra.   Previous posts are at Part I, Part II and Part III.   After a break, my reading group is going to start reading his next social encyclical, Pacem in Terris.

In our last session we discussed paragraphs 185-264, the end of the document.  But our discussion took us much further afield and much of our discussion was retrospective–an attempt to really understand what Catholic social teaching is (or was, at this point in its development, now 60 years ago.)

The first section, par. 185-199, are concerned with population growth, a problem which was beginning to attract more attention.  Erlich’s The Population Bomb was not published until 1968, but it was preceded by other works, both scholarly and popular.  I was somewhat hoping for a discussion on this section, because I have blogged about overpopulation in the past (see here and here) and it is a topic I have mean to revisit for years–note that one of these posts was optimistically labeled “Part I.”

But instead, we turned to a broader discussion of science and technology, which plays a significant role in the encyclical.  In previous sessions we had discussed the optimistic, at times utopian ways in which the encyclical approached the modern world.   In reading this last part of the encyclical, another member of the group and I were both struck by a couple passages that I described as “techno-optimism”:  the belief that humanity can solve many of its problems by the application of new scientific and technological ideas:

Besides, the resources which God in His goodness and wisdom has implanted in Nature are well-nigh inexhaustible, and He has at the same time given man the intelligence to discover ways and means of exploiting these resources for his own advantage and his own livelihood. Hence, the real solution of the problem is…[to be found] in a renewed scientific and technical effort on man’s part to deepen and extend his dominion over Nature. The progress of science and technology that has already been achieved opens up almost limitless horizons in this held. (par. 189)

This passage, which is at the heart of the section on population increase, is an almost stereotyped example of techno-optimism.  On rereading the text I found this passage curious, since elsewhere John XXIII takes a somewhat dimmer, or at least more guarded, view of technology and the ways in which it has impacted the world.  Thus, we have the assertion that

It has been claimed that in an era of scientific and technical triumphs such as ours man can well afford to rely on his own powers, and construct a very good civilization without God. But the truth is that these very advances in science and technology frequently involve the whole human race in such difficulties as can only be solved in the light of a sincere faith in God, the Creator and Ruler of man and his world. (par. 209)

I find it curious that here, and in subsequent writings of Catholic thinkers, faith in technological progress to solve all problems, where otherwise treated more skeptically, is often invoked uncritically when discussing population issues.   This, however, is a problem to explore in another post.

I would also note, in passing, the first sentence of the passage quoted above, with its belief in the limitless nature of natural resources.  The environmental movement was only just starting–the transformative book Silent Spring would be published in 1962–so this is understandable.  A massive development in the Church’s understanding of its relationship to the natural world is just beginning, reaching new heights only in the past decade with the publication of Laudato Si.

In a somewhat different vein, par. 200-202, on the need for and benefits of international cooperation, frames it in terms of the “progress of science and technology“; the underlying premise is that scientific and technological solutions to “major problems” will be found if only nations cooperate in their search for them.  However, I think that these and other passages must be interpreted by the understanding that science is a means, not an end, as was spelled out earlier:

Scientific and technical progress, economic development and the betterment of living conditions, are certainly valuable elements in a civilization. But we must realize that they are essentially instrumental in character. They are not supreme values in themselves. (par. 175)

Our discussion then turned to the final section of the text, on rebuilding the social order, which starts at par. 212, though the discussions of the moral order in the preceding paragraphs (203-211) are certainly relevant.   The need to interject Catholic social teaching is paramount because people cannot agree on a definition of justice, and so turn to the primitive belief that “might makes right.”  (par. 205-206)    Catholic social teaching provides a sure foundation for “social reconstruction”  (par. 220), and it is the duty of Catholics to carry out this reconstruction as best they can.   Or, as the encyclical frames the question at the beginning of this section:

After all this scientific and technical progress, and even because of it, the problem remains: how to build up a new order of society based on a more balanced human relationship between political communities on a national and international level? (par. 212)

As I was reading these passages I was very much reminded of the mission that the Catholic Worker movement sets for itself:  “To build a new world in the shell of the old.” (See the Easy Essays of Peter Maurin for this idea.)

We were all struck by the forceful way in which the encyclical asserted that Catholic social teaching is an integral part of the Catholic faith, and must be lived out by the lay faithful:

The permanent validity of the Catholic Church’s social teaching admits of no doubt. (par. 218)

We must reaffirm most strongly that this Catholic social doctrine is an integral part of the Christian conception of life. (par. 222)

No Christian education can be considered complete unless it covers every kind of obligation. It must therefore aim at implanting and fostering among the faithful an awareness of their duty to carry on their economic and social activities in a Christian manner. (par. 228)

I pointed out that in saying these things, in calling attention to those schools and seminaries where it is taught, and expressing a desire that it become part of parish and lay apostolate formation (par. 223), John XXIII is obliquely omitting that it was not treated as central to Catholic faith.  In my own experience, I came on Catholic social teaching relatively late, and primarily through my own reading, with some guidance from a couple knowledgeable priests (both University chaplains).   And a member of our group, an adult convert, noted (somewhat in dismay) that he had made it through a very long and detailed RCIA program without ever hearing about Catholic social teaching.  He certainly never got the idea that it was central to our Catholic identity.   He now works in evangelization, and he frequently comes to the point that our social teaching can serve as a bridge to bringing people to the faith, as living it shows that we “walk the walk.”  This reinforces in a positive way a point the encyclical makes about the failure to live out our social teaching:

They [the Catholic laity] must remember, too, that if in the transaction of their temporal affairs they take no account of those social principles which the Church teaches, and which We now confirm, then they fail in their obligations and may easily violate the rights of others. They may even go so far as to bring discredit on the Church’s teaching, lending substance to the opinion that, in spite of its intrinsic value, it is in fact powerless to direct men’s lives. (par. 241)

Later on, John XXIII makes this connection explicit.  After recalling the parable of the true vine, he writes

Thus is man’s work exalted and ennobled—so highly exalted that it leads to his own personal perfection of soul, and helps to extend to others the fruits of Redemption, all over the world. It becomes a means whereby the Christian way of life can leaven this civilization in which we live and work—leaven it with the ferment of the Gospel. (par. 259)

During this discussion I had an insight that I am still trying to really understand.  I have long regarded Catholic social teaching as very important and an integral part of being Catholic.  But there was a certain degree of bifurcation in my thinking–one must have a rich and active prayer and sacramental life, and one must engage in building up the world–rebuilding the social order, as the encyclical puts it.  But these two things as a practical matter seemed distinct.  But now I am beginning to see (or see more clearly) just how intertwined they are: living out the precepts of Catholic social teaching is an integral part of the work of our salvation, and part of the universal call to holiness.  We cannot call ourselves faithful Catholics if we ignore or downplay Catholic social teaching.  But at the same time when we live out Catholic social teaching, we must be grounded in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and everything we do must be ordered towards the ultimate goal of proclaiming the crucified Lord.  I am reminded of Paul’s injunction in his letter to the Philippians:

Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose. (Phil. 2:12-13)

This passage immediately follows St. Paul’s hymn of the incarnation in 2:1-11, and the word “therefore” grounds this in an incarnational theology:  we must do this in response to Christ, who became a man for our salvation.  Having been created men and women, in the image and likeness of God, we too must engage in this work for the salvation of all, a salvation whose end is Heaven, but which must begin here and now on earth.   As the encyclical puts it (in a passage that came up in our discussion below about the principles of Catholic social justice), we must not “lose sight of the true hierarchy of values,” as true faith makes “him a better man, both in the natural and the supernatural order.” (par. 245)

Returning to the discussion, we spent a long time thinking through what Catholic social teaching really is.  It is concerned with justice:  what is justice?  We discussed this question previously, when reading QA, but again the principles were quickly summarized:  contractual justice, distributive justice, restorative justice.  (I referred us back to par. 83, where the whole extent of what is justice is seen by defining what is an injustice.)  A key take-away from this is the understanding that justice is relational:  a just society is one in which people are living in right relationship with God and with one another.  In reading the final part of the encyclical, this idea comes up again and again and is well summarized as follows:

Let men make all the technical and economic progress they can, there will be no peace nor justice in the world until they return to a sense of their dignity as creatures and sons of God, who is the first and final cause of all created being. Separated from God a man is but a monster, in himself and toward others; for the right ordering of human society presupposes the right ordering of man’s conscience with God, who is Himself the source of all justice, truth and love. (par. 215)

Catholic social teaching shows us how to act justly by showing us how to live in right relationship with our fellow men and women (cf. par. 228-232).

We then tried to summarize the key principles of Catholic social teaching, as enumerated in the encyclicals we have read to date:  what does living in right relationship entail?   The fundamental principle is enunciated in MM that just personal and social relationships must be based on the fundamental dignity of the human person:

This teaching rests on one basic principle: individual human beings are the foundation, the cause and the end of every social institution. That is necessarily so, for men are by nature social beings. This fact must be recognized, as also the fact that they are raised in the plan of Providence to an order of reality which is above nature…On this basic principle, which guarantees the sacred dignity of the individual, the Church constructs her social teaching. (par. 219-220)

What flows from this principle?  Too much for us to easily summarize.  We hit on a few:  the right of free association and the right of workers to form unions; the principle of subsidiarity and the necessity of intermediate social institutions between the individual and the state; the necessity for a social and economic order that places the good of persons as the most important goal, and results in a fair distribution of the world’s resources; government that sees its role as maintaining and promoting the common good, while respecting the rights of individuals, their personal freedoms, and their ability to meaningfully participate and make decisions.  Looking ahead, we saw the call for a preferential option for the poor, which would be one of the major contributions of liberation theology to Catholic social teaching.

We touched on a few other, related point, such as the theology of work which appears in par. 254-257 and is clearly related to my own insight about integrating Catholic social teaching into the call to holiness.   What you do in the world has transcendent value and can be a source of our sanctification.  Pope John Paul II will expand on these ideas, devoting an entire encyclical to work, Laborem Exercens.

I want to close this rumination, since the importance of relationship to Catholic social teaching figured so prominently, with a quote from the epilogue to Dorothy Day’s autobiography, The Long Loneliness quoted here).  Many years ago, when I was deep into studying the Catholic Worker movement, I wrote instructions with my will that this passage be read at my funeral:

The most significant thing about The Catholic Worker is poverty, some say.  The most significant thing is community, others say. We are not alone anymore.  But the final word is love.  At times it has been, in the words of Father Zossima, a harsh and dreadful thing, and our very faith in love has been tried through fire.  We cannot love God unless we love each other, and to love we must know each other. We know him in the breaking of bread, and we are not alone any more. Heaven is a banquet and life is a banquet, too, even with a crust, where there is companionship.  We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community.

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