Mater et Magistra – On Christianity & Social Progress

Context

Pope John XXIII issued Mater et Magistra in 1961. It is also known by the English title On Christianity and Social Progress. It celebrates the seventieth anniversary of Rerum Novarum.

In the post World War II period international relationships were growing, technology was advancing rapidly, and the world was becoming more interdependent. John XXIII saw poverty and inequality as international questions requiring the solidarity of the whole human family.

Major Issues

John XXIII responded to rapid social change and growing inequality by advocating a stronger role for the State, which he stressed should always act according to the principle of subsidiarity (n 53). He was particularly concerned about rural workers(n 144 – 156), and relationships between richer and poorer countries (n 157 – 177). In both cases he advocated assistance and solidarity. He believed that the State needed to intervene to ensure fairness and address inequality.

John XXIII expanded Catholic Social Teaching’s understanding of the principle of the common good from the national to the global level (n 80).

Methodology

The method of Mater et Magistra is deductive, starting from general principles and applying them to concrete cases. John XXIII says that Catholics need not only to know, but also to apply the church’s social teaching: “… social norms of whatever kind are not only to be explained but also applied. This is especially true of the Church’s teaching on social matters …” (n 226).

On the other hand, John XXIII also advocates the see, judge, act method. He saw it as a practical suggestion, suitable particularly for young people (n 236 – 7). This method appears to be more inductive because it begins with the consideration of specific cases. However, in this context, John XXIII clearly expects that the judgment or reasoning of the second stage would be received by the laity from papal teaching rather than proceeding from consideration of specific cases to make general conclusions.

Contribution to Catholic Social Teaching

Mater et Magistra marks the beginning of a transition in the ethical methodology of Catholic Social Teaching towards a more inductive approach. It also marks the beginning of the internationalisation of the teachings. Its definition of the global common good remains influential today.

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