Mater et Magistra

The best known and most influential social/economic encyclical of our time is undoubtedly Rerum Novarum by Pope Leo XIII. And quite deservedly so. But I became aware only recently that Rerum Novarum has two sequels: Quadragesimo Anno by Pope Pius XI, and Mater et Magistra by Pope John XXIII. The latter encyclical, which reformulates and expands upon the doctrines of Rerum and Quadragesimo, ought to be dusted off and studied much more than it is. Here are some excerpts:

17. You know well enough, Venerable Brethren, the basic economic and social principles for the reconstruction of human society enunciated so clearly and authoritatively by this great Pope.

18. They concern first of all the question of work, which must be regarded not merely as a commodity, but as a specifically human activity. In the majority of cases a man’s work is his sole means of livelihood. Its remuneration, therefore, cannot be made to depend on the state of the market. It must be determined by the laws of justice and equity. Any other procedure would be a clear violation of justice, even supposing the contract of work to have been freely entered into by both parties.

19. Secondly, private ownership of property, including that of productive goods, is a natural right which the State cannot suppress. But it naturally entails a social obligation as well. It is a right which must be exercised not only for one’s own personal benefit but also for the benefit of others.

20. As for the State, its whole raison d’etre is the realization of the common good in the temporal order. It cannot, therefore, hold aloof from economic matters. On the contrary, it must do all in its power to promote the production of a sufficient supply of material goods, “the use of which is necessary for the practice of virtue.”[7] It has also the duty to protect the rights of all its people, and particularly of its weaker members, the workers, women and children. It can never be right for the State to shirk its obligation of working actively for the betterment of the condition of the workingman.

21. It is furthermore the duty of the State to ensure that terms of employment are regulated in accordance with justice and equity, and to safeguard the human dignity of workers by making sure that they are not required to work in an environment which may prove harmful to their material and spiritual interests. It was for this reason that the Leonine encyclical enunciated those general principles of rightness and equity which have been assimilated into the social legislation of many a modern State, and which, as Pope Pius XI declared in the encyclical Quadragesimo Anno,[8] have made no small contribution to the rise and development of that new branch of jurisprudence called labor law.

22. Pope Leo XIII also defended the worker’s natural right to enter into association with his fellows. Such associations may consist either of workers alone or of workers and employers, and should be structured in a way best calculated to safeguard the workers’ legitimate professional interest. And it is the natural right of the workers to work without hindrance, freely, and on their own initiative within these associations for the achievement of these ends.

23. Finally, both workers and employers should regulate their mutual relations in accordance with the principle of human solidarity and Christian brotherhood. Unrestricted competition in the liberal sense, and the Marxist creed of class warfare, are clearly contrary to Christian teaching and the nature of man.

24. These, Venerable Brethren, are the basic principles upon which a genuine social and economic order must be built.


27. Forty years after the appearance of this magnificent summary of Christian social principles, Our Predecessor, Pius XI, published his own encyclical, Quadragesimo Anno.[10]

31. As for the wage system, while rejecting the view that it is unjust of its very nature, he condemned the inhuman and unjust way in which is it so often implemented, and specified the terms and conditions to be observed if justice and equity are not to be violated.

32. In this connection, as Our Predecessor clearly points out, it is advisable in the present circumstances that the wage-contract be somewhat modified by applying to it elements taken from the contract of partnership, so that “wage-earners and other employees participate in the ownership or the management, or in some way share in the profits.”[11]

33. Of special doctrinal and practical importance is his affirmation that “if the social and individual character of work be overlooked, it can be neither justly valued nor equitably recompensed.”[12] In determining wages, therefore, justice demands that account be taken not only of the needs of the individual workers and their families, but also of the financial state of the business concern for which they work and of “the economic welfare of the whole people.”[13]


71. We therefore consider it Our duty to reaffirm that the remuneration of work is not something that can be left to the laws of the marketplace; nor should it be a decision left to the will of the more powerful. It must be determined in accordance with justice and equity; which means that workers must be paid a wage which allows them to live a truly human life and to fulfill their family obligations in a worthy manner. Other factors too enter into the assessment of a just wage: namely, the effective contribution which each individual makes to the economic effort, the financial state of the company for which he works, the requirements of the general good of the particular country — having regard especially to the repercussions on the overall employment of the working force in the country as a whole — and finally the requirements of the common good of the universal family of nations of every kind, both large and small.


76. We should recall here the principle enunciated by Pius XI in Quadragesimo Anno: “It is entirely false to ascribe to the property alone or to the work alone whatever has been obtained through the combined effort of both, and it is wholly unjust for either, denying the efficacy of the other, to arrogate to itself whatever has been produced.”[28]

77. Experience suggests many ways in which the demands of justice can be satisfied. Not to mention other ways, it is especially desirable today that workers gradually come to share in the ownership of their company, by ways and in the manner that seem most suitable. For today, even more than in the time of Our Predecessor, “every effort must be made that at least in future a just share only of the fruits of production be permitted to accumulate in the hands of the wealthy, and that an ample sufficiency be supplied to the workers.”[29]

78. But a further point needs emphasizing: Any adjustment between wages and profits must take into account the demands of the common good of the particular country and of the whole human family.

79. What are these demands? On the national level they include: employment of the greatest possible number of workers; care lest privileged classes arise, even among the workers; maintenance of equilibrium between wages and prices; the need to make goods and services accessible to the greatest number; elimination, or at least the restriction, of inequalities in the various branches of the economy — that is, between agriculture, industry and services; creation of a there should be the possibility of moderating the contract of work by one of partnership.”[30]

85. Hence the craftsman’s business and that of the family farm, as well as the co-operative enterprise which aims at the completion and perfection of both these concerns — all these are to be safeguarded and encouraged in harmony with the common good and technical progress.


137. Given the special nature of agricultural produce, modern economists must devise a suitable means of price protection. Ideally, such price protection should be enforced by the interested parties themselves, though supervision by the public authority cannot be altogether dispensed with.

138. On this subject it must not be forgotten that the price of agricultural produce represents, for the most part, the reward of the farmer’s labor rather than a return on invested capital.

139. Hence, in Quadragesimo Anno Pope Pius XI rightly observed that “a proper proportion between different wages is also a matter of importance.” He continued: “And intimately connected with this is a proper proportion between the prices charged for the products of the various economic groups, agricultural, industrial, and so forth.”[39]

140. While it is true that farm produce is mainly intended for the satisfaction of man’s primary needs, and the price should therefore be within the means of all consumers, this cannot be used as an argument for keeping a section of the population — farm workers — in a permanent state of economic and social inferiority, depriving them of the wherewithal for a decent standard of living. This would be diametrically opposed to the common good.


149. In the work on the farm the human personality finds every incentive for self-expression, self-development and spiritual growth. It is a work, therefore, which should be thought of as a vocation, a God-given mission, an answer to God’s call to actuate His providential, saving plan in history. It should be thought of, finally, as a noble task, undertaken with a view to raising oneself and others to a higher degree of civilization.


161. Justice and humanity demand that those countries which produce consumer goods, especially farm products, in excess of their own needs should come to the assistance of those other countries where large sections of the population are suffering from want and hunger. It is nothing less than an outrage to justice and humanity to destroy or to squander goods that other people need for their very lives.

162. We are, of course, well aware that overproduction, especially in agriculture, can cause economic harm to a certain section of the population. But it does not follow that one is thereby exonerated from extending emergency aid to those who need it. On the contrary, everything must be done to minimize the ill effects of overproduction, and to spread the burden equitably over the entire population.

163. Of itself, however, emergency aid will not go far in relieving want and famine when these are caused — as they so often are — by the primitive state of a nation’s economy. The only permanent remedy for this is to make use of every possible means of providing these citizens with the scientific, technical and professional training they need, and to put at their disposal the necessary capital for speeding up their economic development with the help of modern methods.


249. To safeguard man’s dignity as a creature of God endowed with a soul in the image and likeness of God, the Church has always demanded a diligent observance of the third Commandment: “Remember that thou keep holy the sabbath day.”[52] God certainly has the right and power to command man to devote one day a week to his duty of worshipping the eternal Majesty. Free from mundane cares, he should lift up his mind to the things of heaven, and look into the depths of his conscience, to see how he stands with God in respect of those necessary and inviolable relationships which must exist between the creature and his Creator.

250. In addition, man has a right to rest a while from, work, and indeed a need to do so if he is to renew his bodily strength and to refresh his spirit by suitable recreation. He has also to think of his family, the unity of which depends so much on frequent contact and the peaceful living together of all its members.

251. Thus, religion and moral and physical well-being are one in demanding this periodic rest, and for many centuries now the Church has set aside Sunday as a special day of rest for the faithful, on which they participate in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the memorial and application of Christ’s redemptive work for souls.

252. Heavy in heart, We cannot but deplore the growing tendency in certain quarters to disregard this sacred law, if not to reject it outright. This attitude must inevitably impair the bodily and spiritual health of the workers, whose welfare We have so much at heart.

253. In the name of God, therefore, and for the sake of the material and spiritual interests of men, We call upon all, public authorities, employers and workers, to observe the precepts of God and His Church and to remember their grave responsibilities before God and society.


11 thoughts on “Mater et Magistra

  1. Ha ha!
    I did not know this either, til I started correcting papers for MODG. My education has gone through the roof since I started being a TA for 10-12th graders!
    But this year I am letting my brain rot, so that my hands can work a little faster around the house. God has definitely been leaving hints, so that is what I shall do.
    I wish there were a pill we could feed people that would insert these encyclicals into certain brains without the effort of convincing them to read it. I often wish that about books.


  2. Annaberri: Let me know if you discover any of those pills, I’ll take a few myself!

    Francis: I like Dr. Woods a lot. He’s a fine Catholic and has produced some excellent work. The linked article makes some good points with respect to economic law and the need for the Church to recognize this reality. However, I disagree with his reading of the popes. The popes are not saying that economic law does not exist or that it can be safely ignored: they are saying that the free market is not synonymous with economic justice; that “economic law” is not sufficient for the creation of a just society. The popes clearly concede that the market places limits on corrective measures that might be implemented by non-market agents (e.g. the state). But those limits are not straightjackets: there is much that might be done within those parameters to correct injustices.

    The popes absolutely insist that a “market” wage is not the same thing as a just wage. The market does not magically confer real value or create real justice. The outrageousness of modern executive salaries, among other things, serve to prove the point. There is something wrong with a company that pays its executives $100MM per year and its service clerks $10.00 per hour.

    Dr. Woods is essentially arguing that the popes are outside their competence when it comes to economic matters, and that we should ignore Catholic social teaching from Rerum Novarum forward. That just doesn’t fly with me. It strikes me as recklessly indifferent to the Magisterium – an attitude that easily lends itself to contempt. Economics cannot be treated as an isolated discipline independent from the constraints of Christian morality. The Church, as Pope John XXIII insists, is the Mother and Teacher of mankind. We ignore her teaching at our own great peril.


  3. If you really get bitten by the Quadrigessimo bug, let me know. I found a book-length commentary on the encyclical written in the 30s. While I haven’t done more than skim it so far (or, as I like to put it, Dale’s Candystore) it is really interesting. The author says that Pope Pius XI was trying to address a number of different issues and find the Catholic way through the competing economic systems. Which, at the time, included fascism as well as capitalism and communism.

    Alas, it’s in deep storage, along with the majority of my books, but it wouldn’t be too hard to find the next time I visit my parents.


  4. Oops. Some of my thought processes got short circuited. I had a line about the used bookstore I bought the book from which I edited out (hence the candystore reference). Currently, it looks like I have a stream of consciousness which has burst the floodgates.

    More coffee, I suppose.


  5. Thank you, Mr. Abeln. I’m looking forward to Benedict XVI’s social encyclical. This passage from Centesimus seems relevent to Zippy’s discussion:

    “Here we find a new limit on the market: there are collective and qualitative needs which cannot be satisfied by market mechanisms. There are important human needs which escape its logic. There are goods which by their very nature cannot and must not be bought or sold. Certainly the mechanisms of the market offer secure advantages: they help to utilize resources better; they promote the exchange of products; above all they give central place to the person’s desires and preferences, which, in a contract, meet the desires and preferences of another person. Nevertheless, these mechanisms carry the risk of an ‘idolatry’ of the market, an idolatry which ignores the existence of goods which by their nature are not and cannot be mere commodities.”


  6. Dale, I appreciate the offer. Sounds like a book I’d love to read. As much I’d like to have the book I’d really hate for you not to have it. It’s probably rare and out of print. Some Catholic publisher ought to put it out there again …. nah.

    P.S. I chewed on that candystore reference for a minute before reading your follow up comment. I thought you might have been blogging from TSO’s place.


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