It’s been over 50 years since the conservative American magazine National Review, under the leadership of Catholic William Buckley, published its now famous “Mater si, Magistra no” in response to Pope John XXIII’s just-published encyclical, Mater et Magistra. Good Pope John had, for the first time in that 1961 encyclical, moved the Church a few steps away from the socially-politically conservative institutions and ideas with which it had generally aligned itself until then and placed it more clearly on the side of policies and reforms that favored the poor. He voiced strong support for government involvement in issues like unemployment, and he called for respect for the right of workers to just wages and to a share in the wealth generated by the corporations that employed them.
National Review, committed to a very different gospel, was having none of it. Playing on the encyclical’s Latin title, which literally means “Mother and Teacher,” the journal observed wryly: “Going the rounds in Catholic conservative circles: ‘Mater si, Magistra no.'”
National Review‘s faith commitments have not changed much since then, and so it’s not surprising that Pope Francis’s Evangelii Gaudium might not sit well with the folks there. This time it’s Catholic writer Samuel Gregg (author of the book Tea Party Catholic, which gets a mention in this post of mine) who gets to offer, so to speak, today’s “Mater so, Magistra no,” albeit at greater length. Gregg finds the document’s positions on economic morality “less than convincing” and “hard to defend,” lacking “any consciousness” of the world’s economies.
Far more encouraging, and more truly Catholic, is the response we find today at the First Things blog. There Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry makes no bones about the fact that he would fall squarely in the National Review school of economics, which inclines him and those who think like him to “either plug our ears and ignore” what the Pope has to say on these matters “or else confidently and even irreverently dismiss it.” And yet, he insists, these are inadequate responses:
For if we are faithful Catholics, we do believe in the Spirit-led authority of the magisterium. Now this is usually the point when all of us suddenly become canon lawyers and note that the Church’s social doctrine is not endowed with ex cathedra infallibility and Catholics are allowed to dissent—and may even have a duty to do so. Sure. But is this most Gospel-driven way to relate to our “Mother and Teacher”?
To be a Christian is to be willing to be challenged, all the time, and to have the humility to let yourself be challenged—including, for Catholics, by the Church.
I’m tempted to quote Gobry at greater length, because it’s an excellent piece (though of course, it earns him a thrashing from FT readers in the comment box). But you can get the entire thing here.
As Pope John’s half-century old encyclical illustrates, the church has long been voicing the convictions about economic morality that Francis features in Evangelii Gaudium. But Francis is doing it in such plainly understandable words, and not hesitating to, in a sense, name names (calling out, for instance, the “trickle-down theories” of economics that are nearly sacrosanct to American conservatives), that he confronts American Catholics with a question that is hard to ignore any longer: to which do I give my allegiance — my Catholicism or my capitalism?
And that’s a question by which just about every American Catholic — not just National Review subscribers — will inevitably be challenged.