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Mater et Magistra


An encyclical letter dealing with Christian teaching on modern social questions, addressed by John XXIII on May 15, 1961, to all members of the hierarchy, clergy, and laity of the entire Catholic world. Although not officially published until July of the same year, it was dated May 15, to commemorate the 70th anniversary of rerum novarum. It may be noted that the later and in some ways more famous encyclical Pacem in terris (April 11 1963) was addressed not only to Catholics but to "all men of good will."

The intent of the pope was made clear in the title of Mater et Magistra, "On Recent Developments of the Social Question in the Light of Christian Teaching." Like Leo XIII, John began by emphasizing that the Church is not only a teacher of what is right and wrong, but that she is also a mother who gives herself freely, especially for the "lowly and oppressed." The first section reviews the social conditions and the underlying false social philosophy that induced Leo to write his "complete synthesis of social principles," also referred to as a "compendium of Catholic social and economic teaching" and as the "Magna Charta of social and economic reconstruction." Special consideration is given to Leo's teaching on the social role of the Church, the dignity of the worker and his work, the social aspects of the institution of private property, the rights and obligations of governments to intervene in social questions, the right of workers to form their own associations, and the importance of human solidarity and Christian brotherhood. Pius XI's quadragesimo anno (April 15, 1931) and Pius XII's radio broadcast La solennità (June 1, 1941) are discussed for their clarification of Leo's thought and their own unique contributions to the growing body of Catholic social thought.

The second section of Mater et Magistra analyzes certain major areas of Leo's teaching, in particular, the principle of subsidiarity; the importance of cooperation as a basic social and economic principle; the increased dependence of the individual on social groups; the necessity of maximizing the freedom of individuals and the lesser social groups; the demands of the common good; factors determining just wages; reconciliation of modern industrial and technological progress with the needs of all segments of the population; and, finally, questions of private property and public ownership. In this section John first applied the teaching of his predecessors to modern problems and, second, evinced a very real awareness of the importance of the community as an entity and of the interdependence of all men and of all nations.

The third section is the most original part of the document. It explores the problems of predominantly agricultural economies, especially in depressed areas of the world; calls for more vigorous action by public authorities to promote the interest of farmers and farm workers in every possible way, and stresses that the problems of depressed areas are the responsibility of the whole community, of nations, and especially of wealthier nations. Where there is imbalance between population and natural resources, Christian principles demand that the more fortunate nations take action to correct the situation by such measures as emergency aid and scientific, technical, and financial assistance. The autonomy of the receiving nations should be regarded as sacred, and the giving nations should not use the aid they render to develop a new form of colonialism.

The fourth and final section recalls the importance of truth, justice, and love in rebuilding a sound social order. The importance of the Church's social teachings is stressed with the injunction that these principles must not only be taught in all schools, especially seminaries, but that they must be implemented particularly through a vigorous lay apostolate. Furthermore, Catholics are asked not to hesitate to cooperate with people of other faiths in the tremendous task of humanizing and Christianizing modern civilization.

Bibliography: Official Latin text in Acta Apostolicae Sedis 53 (1961) 40164. English translation in d.j. o'brien and t.a. shannon, eds., Catholic Social Thought: The Documentary Heritage (Maryknoll, NY, 1992) 84128. j. n. moody and j.g. lawler, The Challenge of Mater et Magistra (New York, 1963). j.f. cronin, Christianity and Social Progress: A Commentary on Mater et Magistra (Baltimore, 1965). j. y. calvez, The Social Thought of John XXIII: Mater Et Magistra (Chicago, 1964). d. j. o'brien, "A Century of Catholic Social Teaching: Contexts and Comments" in j. coleman, One Hundred Years of Catholic Social Thought (Maryknoll, NY, 1991) 1324.

[t. j. harte]

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