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Last Updated on August 5, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 862

This encyclical deals with Christianity and social progress. The Church is a Mother and Teacher of mankind, Pope John XXIII says, rather than an enforcer of orthodoxy. Although the Church's first concern is the soul, it also concerns itself with the body. The Church's practice of charity reflects Christ's command to love others. John praises Rerum Novarum and its efforts to Christianize the working classes and have the Chruch become a champion and defender of the oppressed.

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The conditions of the free market are held to result in extreme inequality and injury of the morality, health, and faith of the lower classes, including disruption of family life by unemployment. The indignation of the working classes led to their support for theories whose implementation would result in even worse conditions.

Pope Leo XIII, in his work Rerum Novarum, offered complete social teaching in his synthesis of Christianity and the defense of the earthly interests of the poor. There is no solution without Christ and his Church, he argued. They offer the economic and social foundations for the "reconstruction of human society." Remuneration for work cannot depend on the voluntary agreement between the employer and employed in a free market; it must depend on laws of "justice and equity" (which are not defined).

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Private property is a natural right that the state should not suppress, Pope John argues, but it also entails social obligations. The state is obligated to work for the betterment of the working man. The state must regulate labor conditions. Workers should be unhindered in their free association with other workers (e.g., unions, collective bargaining). Employers and workers should regulate their relations based on human solidarity and Christian brotherhood, rather than by the free market or the Marxist creed of class warfare.

The encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, by Pius XI, which John briefly summarizes in this work, argues that the wage system is not inherently unjust but is often implemented in unjust ways. It argues that employees should share in ownership or profits (but does not address sharing business risk and capital). Wages should take into account the individual, the family, and needs of the community, as well as the financial condition of the business. Pius XI emphasized the incompatibility of Christianity with communism or even moderate socialism because they impose "too severe a restraint on human liberty." However, the plutocracy had resulted in extreme inequality. The solution is economic relations based on social justice (a concept left undefined) and charity. The Church has the competence to instruct in such reforms. The natural right of private property should not stand in the way of goods flowing to all alike according to justice and charity (again left undefined). If the common good demands it, the state can intervene in the case of those that can't work or refuse to work. The right of migration is supported.

Economic, technological, and social progress is uneven among nations. Personal initiative and state intervention both have their place and must work in harmony, John argues. Organizations of civil society are positive, as long as they do not too greatly restrict individual liberty. Inequality and excessive spending on armaments and national prestige are problems. Wages cannot be left up to the market. The prior argument for a "just wage" is reiterated. Economic progress should lead to social progress for everyone. Profit sharing and ownership for workers in profitable firms is reiterated (without addressing risk sharing and capital investment). Concern for the common good should guide sectoral and class balancing inside nations and between them and impact dividends to investors.

John continues to argue for business and workers' rights. Small businesses can often provide more rewarding work than large enterprises and should be fostered by the state. Workers should have a greater say in the firm and should be praised for their contributions. Abolishing property rights limits individual initiative and should be avoided. Property rights are essential to the freedom of the individual, but they should not inhibit the goal of more widely shared ownership. State ownership should not increase to the point where it reduces the common good. Public infrastructure development in rural areas is suggested. Farmers need credit, insurance, fair taxation and price guarantees (not necessarily by public authorities). The latest agricultural advances should be promoted.

Justice and equity demand that the state intervene to "eliminate or reduce" differences in compensation between industries for the common good (how to do this without addressing differential costs and risks and without blunting incentives is not addressed). Rich nations should help poor ones and give scientific, technological, and financial aid without trying to gain political leverage. Sectoral balance between industry, agriculture, and services is emphasized. Economic values must not supersede civilizational values, and the Church must play a role in ensuring this. Human population and the environment must be balanced. International cooperation is required. Technological and material advance will not meet man's spiritual needs. The sacredness of the individual is the basis of the Church's social teaching, and its social teaching must be spread. In this way, the spirit of man will not be devalued by science and materialism. It is our Christian duty to do this, John concludes.


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Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1495

First published: 1961 (English translation, 1961)

Edition(s) used: Mater et Magistra, Encyclical Letter of His Holiness Pope John XXIII; Christianity and Social Progress, edited by William Joseph Gibbons. Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist Press, 1961

Genre(s): Nonfiction

Subgenre(s): Encyclical

Core issue(s): Capitalism; charity; freedom and free will; justice; poverty; social action


In his encyclical Mater et Magistra, John XXIII declares that the Catholic Church is “Mother and Teacher of all Nations,” responsible for the care and guidance of God’s people. Just as Christ was concerned for both the spiritual and physical needs of people, so too is the Church.

John identifies Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum (1891; English translation, 1891) as the first major compendium of Catholic social teachings, noting how it opened new avenues for the Church’s social mission. He summarizes the encyclical, its circumstances, and impact. Four key points are the dignity of work, just wages, the right to private property, and the importance of the family. John then discusses Quadragesimo Anno (1931; English translation, 1931), which Pope Pius XI issued to clarify some points of Rerum Novarum and address the circumstances of his day. Pius XII provided an update in a radio address on May 15, 1941.

Twenty years later, John XXIII finds that conditions have improved the dignity and security of the working classes. Nations have adopted many forms of economic regulation and redistribution, but these improvements are not evenly spread across all segments of the economy. Despite this progress, millions of people around the world live in abject poverty, while a few live in extreme luxury. A nation’s greatness should not be measured by the size of its military or gross national product but on the redistribution of its prosperity. Both communist and capitalist economies are based on a self-destructive competition. In contrast, John calls for all societies to adopt a spirit of Christian brotherhood and cooperation.

John XXIII emphasizes subsidiarity, a belief that higher-level organizations should do only what cannot be accomplished at lower levels of society. Even though technology allows governments to have wider spheres of influence, the state must keep a balance between human rights and human liberty. One counterbalance to government power is the ability of individuals to form private associations to promote various causes.

John notes that there is nothing wrong with state ownership of productive goods, so long as it is guided by the concept of subsidiarity. Government officials should be appointed for their virtue and held to strict checks and balances. However, individuals and private groups are always better than governments at promoting spiritual goods.

The purpose of work is the fulfillment of the human person, John says. Work itself is more important than the profits earned, and there is no purpose in work that degrades the human person. Workers must not be treated like machines; management should listen to their input. They must be taught culture, religion, and morality. Companies can help build justice by paying fairer wages and giving their employees more authority, employing as many people as possible, and reducing class distinctions among their workers. Even the dividends paid to shareholders can work to balance out the economy.

The agricultural segment does not advance in pace with industry and service. John calls on agricultural workers to keep up to date with technology and efficiency. To do this, they need proper educational and economic support from society. He calls on governments to improve public works in rural areas. He asks for proportional taxes, special credit programs, insurance programs, and price protection to help farmers. Agriculture is family centered, provides for humanity’s most basic needs, and involves direct participation with God’s creation. It incorporates many scientific disciplines. Farming cooperatives and support organizations help farmers keep up with the latest knowledge and technology.

John asserts that population density and distribution of natural resources would not be problems if societies were willing to share their abundance with others. However, it is far more important to help impoverished nations develop and sustain their own economies. More developed nations must not use this aid or education as a tool for colonialism. Local cultures must be safeguarded. Economic and scientific progress must never come at the cost of human dignity or spiritual growth.

The pope argues that the various political ideologies in the world fail to achieve a proper social order because they fail to include God’s role in society. When there is no transcendent morality, “justice” comes to mean whatever the speaker wants. Yet, many people in advanced societies are beginning to see the emptiness of a secular lifestyle. Related to this is modern disregard for the Sabbath, as human dignity demands a day for rest and prayer.

John observes that God has provided humanity with seemingly limitless resources and the mental capacity to use them. The real problem of poverty has to do the failure of people to live in solidarity. People’s dominion over nature does not entitle them to abuse natural resources indiscriminately.

John establishes a hierarchy for Catholic social principles: the sanctity of life and dignity of the person, then mutual cooperation and brotherhood, and the importance of the family. He then lists three steps for addressing social problems: analysis of the situation, judgment according to moral principles, and practical application. Catholics of goodwill may disagree about the practical application, but they must do so respectfully. Arguments about what is theoretically best should never get in the way of what is possible.

John closes with the assertion that putting God’s law first will not prevent, but enhance, human progress. It is impossible for those driven by the love of Christ to fail in charity to others.

Christian Themes

Because Catholic bishops are his main audience, John takes many Catholic principles for granted. For example, he declares that the Church is the “Mother and Teacher” of the entire world, and that he, as pope, is spiritual father to all people, not just Catholics. These ideas would be developed in later documents of Vatican II, including Lumen Gentium (1964; English translation, 1964) and Gaudium et Spes (1965; English translation, 1965).

The main themes are the principles of Catholic social teachings: human dignity, subsidiarity, and solidarity. Catholic social teachings are based on the idea that the human individual is made in the “image and likeness of God.” A good government secures human dignity by balancing individual liberty (subsidiarity) with the common good (solidarity). Under the concept of subsidarity, the government is to do only what lower level groups cannot. Therefore, the most important and active social group is the family, and giving too much power to the government endangers individual liberty. However, too much emphasis on property and liberty means that some individuals or groups deprive others of basic rights. John sees the main problem of modern societies as the competitive spirit as manifested in class warfare, corporate competition, and national rivalries. He calls people to trust one another and work together for the “common good.” This is the principle of “solidarity,” or “Christian brotherhood.”

The Gospel is clear that people should use their gifts, whether spiritual, material, physical or intellectual, for the good of others. John emphasizes the importance of charity, as opposed to modern hedonism. He touches briefly on the question of environmental stewardship, noting that, while natural resources are virtually unlimited, it is wrong to abuse or simply destroy those resources.

The Church favors smaller social groups, such as families, small businesses, and farms. Therefore, John approves of modern grassroots organizations. Likewise, he calls for workers and managers to be given ownership stakes in their companies, something realized by contemporary profit-sharing and stock options. John also discusses Catholic morality in regard to marriage and family. He shows how Catholic teachings on divorce, artificial birth control, and parental rights are necessarily elements in both principles, subsidiarity and solidarity.

John talks about the importance of God in public life. He contends that morality is impossible without God, so that a religious component in education is necessary to protect human dignity. As his title would indicate, the teaching role of the Church in general and Christian laity in particular is emphasized throughout the document.

Sources for Further Study

  • Cronin, John Francis. Christianity and Social Progress: A Commentary on “Mater et Magistra.” Baltimore: Helicon, 1965. A collection of articles that first appeared in Our Sunday Visitor and examined the pope’s encyclical.
  • Masse, Benjamin L., ed. The Church and Social Progress: Background Readings for Pope John’s “Mater et Magistra.” Milwaukee, Wis.: Bruce, 1966. A collection of articles on the Church’s social teachings.
  • Moody, Joseph N., and George Lawler, eds. The Challenge of “Mater et Magistra.” New York: Herder and Herder, 1963. An anthology of articles by Catholic social thinkers responding to the encyclical’s call for social reforms.
  • Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. Washington, D.C.: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2005. A recent document summarizing Catholic social teachings, drawing from a variety of official documents, including Mater et Magistra.

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