John XXIII: Mater et Magistra

A Summary Article by Gerald Darring

Pope John XXIII situated his encyclical within the tradition of social documents that included Leo XIII's Rerum Novarum, Pius XI's Quadragesimo Anno, and Pius XII's radio broadcast of Pentecost, 1941.

He says that Rerum Novarum can be regarded as a summary of Catholic social teaching (a. 15). Its major points include the following: work is more than a mere commodity, and therefore wages should be based on principles of justice (a. 18); private property is a natural right possessed by all, but with a social aspect (a. 19); the government should be actively involved in economic matters, including the rights of workers (a. 20); workers have the right to organize (a. 22); unregulated competition and the class struggle should give way to solidarity and brotherhood (a. 23).

John then points out that Quadragesimo Anno reaffirmed and updated Leo's encyclical. Its major points include the following: work agreements should include partnership arrangements (a. 32); wages should be based on the needs of the worker and his family, the condition of the business, and the public good (a. 33); the views of communists and Christians are radically opposed, and Catholics cannot approve of even moderate socialism (a. 34); economic power has been substituted for the free marketplace (a. 35-36); economic life cannot be based on self-interest, unregulated competition, the power of the wealthy, or national vainglory (a. 38); there should be established a national and international order inspired by social justice (a. 40).

Pope Pius XII's radio broadcast in honor of the fiftieth anniversary of Rerum Novarum focused, John indicates, on three interdependent issues: the use of material goods, labor, and the family. Its major points include the following: the right to use material goods to satisfy basic human needs has priority over all other economic rights, including the right to private property (a. 43); labor matters should be regulated by the parties concerned and only by the government as a last resort (a. 44); families must have the necessary material goods and the freedom to migrate (a. 45).

Pope John calls attention to significant changes since 1941: scientific and technological (atomic energy, synthetic products, automation, mass communication and transportation, space exploration; a. 47); social (social security systems, worker awareness, educational improvements, increased affluence and mobility, growing imbalances among sectors of society and regions of the world; a. 48); and political (citizen participation, decolonization of Asia and Africa, widespread democratization; a. 49). In the light of this changed world, John XXIII sets out to say some new things about the old topics raised in the previous documents.

Private initiative should receive first place in economic affairs (a. 51), and political tyranny and economic stagnation prevail wherever private initiative is lacking (a. 57). All individuals have the right and duty to provide the necessities of life for themselves and their dependents (a. 55). Individuals should be considered and treated as persons and they should be encouraged to participate in the affairs of the community (a. 65).

Government intervention should encourage, stimulate, regulate, supplement, and complement (a. 53). The absence of appropriate state intervention leads to social disorders and exploitation of the weak (a. 58). Public authorities should understand the common good as embracing the sum total of those conditions of social living, whereby people are enabled more fully to achieve their perfection (a. 65), and so they should work to reduce imbalances in society, to keep economic fluctuations within bounds, and to avoid mass unemployment (a. 54). Public authorities should not restrict the freedom of private citizens (a. 55).

Private citizens and public authorities should work together in economic affairs (a. 56). A proper balance should be kept between the freedom of individual citizens and the regulating activity of the government (a. 66).

John spoke of the contemporary phenomenon of "a multiplication of social relationships" (called "socialization" in all of the translations, a. 59). He saw this socialization as both a symptom and a cause of growing public intervention in aspects of personal life (a. 60). The advantages of increased socialization are found in the areas of basic human necessities, health services, education, housing, labor, recreation, and mass communication (a. 61). The disadvantage is found in the restriction of opportunities for individual freedom of action (a. 62).

Wages. Pope John asserts that the basis for judging economic prosperity is not how much the country produces but how well the goods of society are distributed among the populace (a. 74). It is unacceptable, he says, for the wealth and conspicuous consumption of a few to stand out in open contrast with the extreme need of the majority (a. 69). The normal means for proper distribution of wealth is remuneration for work, and the problem is that too many workers are earning too little (a. 68) while others have huge incomes from performing less important and less useful tasks (a. 70).

A just wage structure cannot be left entirely to unregulated competition or the arbitrary will of the more powerful. A just wage is one that makes possible a decent human life and the care of one's dependents. Individuals should be paid according to the contribution they make to the economic effort, and their wages and salaries should conform to the economic condition of the enterprise and the need for the community to provide jobs to as many as possible (a. 71). Where possible, workers should be given a share in the ownership of the enterprise (a. 75).

Managers, owners, and stockholders should receive earnings in light of the demands of the common good. Pope John lists these demands as follows:

on the national level,
-- the provision of employment for as many as possible,
-- the prevention of privileged groups among workers,
-- the maintenance of a balance between wages and prices,
-- universal accessibility to goods and services for a better life,
-- the elimination or reduction of inequalities among agriculture, industry, and services,
-- the balancing of increases in output with advances in services,
-- the adjustment of the means of production to technological progress,
-- and concern for future generations (a. 79);

on the international level,
-- the removal of bad faith from the competitive striving of peoples to increase output,
-- the fostering of harmony and cooperation in economic affairs,
-- and effective aid for the economically underdeveloped nations (a. 80).

Just wage principles are universal in nature, but they require concrete application in light of the resources at hand (a. 72).

Worker organizations. An economic order is unjust, the pope asserts, if it compromises the human dignity of workers, weakens their sense of responsibility, or removes their freedom of action. Developing this principle, he advocates the promotion of artisan enterprises and cooperative associations (a. 85-90), the participation of workers in the decision-making processes of the company (a. 92), and an active role for unions in the political life of the country (a. 97-99).

Private and public property. Like his predecessors, Leo XIII and Pius XI, John XXIII defends the right to private property as permanently valid, based on the priority of the person over society and the right to individual freedom of action (a. 109). But he deals with private property within what he recognizes to be a changed context: ownership and management have often become separated (a. 104); property is no longer the universal guarantor of security (a. 105); the earning of income has become for many more important than the owning of property (a. 106). Because of this changed context, the pope sees fit to stress the importance of the distribution of ownership among the greatest number of citizens (a. 113-115); the responsibilities attached to ownership of property (a. 119-120); and especially, the increasing role of government ownership of property, which, he points out, is lawful as long as it does not infringe too far upon the right of individuals to own property (a. 116-118).

After addressing the topics that had been taken up by his predecessors, John XXIII now turns his attention to a series of new topics.

Agriculture. In order to prevent productive imbalances between agriculture, industry, and the services; and in order to equalize the standards of living in city and country; and in order to increase farmers' self-esteem, Pope John lists approaches which he thinks society must take (a. 125):
-- Rural dwellers must receive all essential public services (a. 127);
-- Farmers should be enabled to increase output through an orderly introduction of new technology (a. 128-30);
-- The government should tax farmers in accordance with their peculiar circumstances (a. 132-33);
-- Farmers should have available to them: capital at reasonable rates of interest (a. 134); social security and insurance (a. 135-36); price protection (a. 137-40); the means to strengthen farm income (a. 141);
-- Farming should be organized appropriately, and especially in support of the family farm (a. 142-43).

In working for these improvements, the principal agents should be the farmers themselves (a. 144), who should organize mutual-aid societies and professional associations (a. 146).

Government should work to bolster less economically developed areas of the country (a. 150), making sure that people feel responsible for their own progress (a. 151) and promoting private enterprise (a. 152).

International concerns. John challenges the world to come to grips with the dire poverty and hunger in countries that are in progress of development (a. 157) as well as with the wasting and destruction of surplus goods while masses of people experience want and hunger (a. 161). He locates the main causes of poverty and hunger in the primitive states of some economies (a. 163), but at the same time he asserts that we all share responsibility for the fact that populations are undernourished (a. 158).

His proposals for dealing with these problems include emergency assistance with surplus food (a. 161-62) and scientific, technical, and financial cooperation (a. 163). He warns, however, that all aid to developing countries should reflect respect for the individual characteristics and cultural traditions of those countries (a. 169-70) and that such aid should not be given to serve political aims (a. 171-72) or with domination in mind (a. 173).

Population increase and economic development. The pope addresses the view of some that procreation needs to be kept within limits or else greater economic imbalances will occur (a. 186) and a serious crisis will develop (a. 187). He dismisses their arguments as inconclusive and controversial (a. 188), and he professes confidence in God, who has provided nature with almost inexhaustible productive capacity, and in science and technology, which give almost limitless promise for the future (a. 189). He warns against using methods and means contrary to human dignity (a. 191, 199), and he encourages respect for the laws of life (a. 193-95).

In working to solve these and other problems, countries have become more independent and should cooperate more closely (a. 200-202), but instead they distrust and stand in fear of one another (a. 203). The reason for this is a failure to acknowledge the moral order (a. 205-06) and God as the foundation of the moral order (a. 207-11).

Pope John concludes his encyclical with some thoughts on Catholic social teaching, which he says is valid for all time (a. 218). It is based on the principle that individuals are the foundation, cause, and end of all social institutions (a. 219), and it cannot be separated from the church's traditional teaching regarding human life (a. 222). He encourages increased attention to the social teaching of the church among clergy and laity (a. 223-25) and application of this teaching in economic and social affairs (a. 226-32). He warns against the obstacles to such application: self-interest, a materialistic philosophy of life, and the difficulty of discerning the demands of justice in given situations (a. 229). He suggests that people apply the social teaching of the church using the method of: observe, judge, act (a. 236), and he tells them not to get bogged down in useless controversies (a. 238).