(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

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...

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(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

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.