5.2.6 MM chapter II: The revival of civil society

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Unit 5 Contents



In studying some of chapter I of MM, we have noted the way that it reiterates principles of CST found in Rerum Novarum and Quadragesimo Anno and we have explored the meaning of two of these, solidarity and social justice.  At the end of chapter I, John XXIII says that his purpose is “not merely to commemorate” RN, but also to “make more specific the teaching of Our predecessors, and to determine clearly the mind of the Church on the new and important problems of the day” (#50). This is what the rest of the encyclical aims to do.

In the few paragraphs before this, he outlines very briefly some features of the social context into which he is speaking in 1961.  It will be useful here to read these paragraphs, as they are in the background to what he says in Chapter II.


Reading (2pp)

Mater et Magistra, ##46-50




Together these paragraphs give a snapshot of the state of the world at the start of the 1960s.  What words would you use to describe the overall impression that they present?


MM was, as you know, the first of Pope John XXIII’s two social encyclicals.  Many commentators have pointed out that both MM and Pacem in Terris, along with other statements by John, convey a positive and optimistic tone and attitude.1. He is not primarily in the business of condemning new social developments.  On the contrary, most of those he refers to in these paragraphs he assesses positively.  At the same time, he names developments that can lead to disparity between communities and countries (#48).

Recognizing the positive tenor of John’s writings can help to illuminate the readings to come.

We now turn to chapter II.  (Note that the heading of chapter II, ‘The Teaching of Rerum Novarum’, is surprising and hardly helpful.  John has just told us that he is moving on from a focus on previous encyclicals.  The ‘official’ Latin text of MM has no chapter headings, so those in the English translation should be seen as only guides, whether helpful or misleading, to what is in the text.  Moreover, what lies in the background to what John now goes on to say is QA rather than RN, as we shall see.)

In the next reading, John’s topic is the relationship between citizens’ private initiatives, civil society bodies, and the state.  He begins by briefly emphasizing the primary importance of “personal initiative” (#51).  He then discusses the role of the state, both reiterating the principle of subsidiarity and recognizing the state’s growing role (##52-58).  He then gives attention to civil society, in the sense of this term introduced in Unit 3 (3.2.3) (##59-67).2. Here his focus is on “the introduction of many and varied forms of associations in the lives and activities of citizens” (#59), the “numerous intermediary bodies and corporate enterprises” which must “loyally collaborate in pursuit of their own specific interests and those of the common good” (#65).


Reading (4pp – done)

Mater et Magistra, ##51-67


In the part of this reading that is mainly about civil society bodies (##59-67), John XXIII’s assessment seems in one way rather different from that of Pius XI in QA 30 years earlier.  Recall from Unit 3 that, when introducing the principle of subsidiarity, Pius XI lamented a serious decline in civil society: “the overthrow and near extinction of that rich social life which was once highly developed through associations of various kinds…”, in place of which “there remain virtually only individuals and the State” (QA, #78, quoted in 3.2.3).

In MM, John XXIII seems to have the opposite perspective:

[O]ne of the principal characteristics… of our age is an increase in social relationships, in those mutual ties, that is, which grow daily more numerous and which have led to the introduction of many and varied forms of associations in the lives and activities of citizens, and to their acceptance within our legal framework.  (#59)

In recent times, this tendency has given rise to the formation everywhere of both national and international movements, associations and institutions with economic, cultural, social, sporting, recreational, professional and political ends. (#60)

It is these “numerous intermediary bodies and corporate enterprises… [that] are, so to say, the main vehicle of this social growth” (#65).



Does this seem to you to be a tension between QA and MM, as I suggest?

If so, can you think of any reasons which might help to explain this?


The reasons for this apparent tension are not self-evident: there is little in the text of MM that sheds light on it.  One thing that makes it especially surprising, at first sight, is that Nell-Breuning, the principal drafter of QA (as mentioned earlier, 5.2.2), was probably involved also in the writing of this specific part of MM.3

However, perhaps the fact that Nell-Breuning was involved in preparing both encyclicals gives us a clue.  It means that we may reasonably assume that this part of MM was written with awareness of what QA had said on the same topic, and therefore that they are not simply contradictory.  How might we then account for the different perspectives?  One fairly obvious factor suggests itself: the social context in 1960 that MM ##59-67 describes was very different from that in 1930.

QA was written against the background of the rise of a totalitarian Communist state in Russia and of Fascism in Italy, and, in Western economies, the Great Crash of 1929 and the Depression that followed.   Together Communism, Fascism and capitalism must have looked like harbingers of an end to civilized society.

In great contrast, MM was written at a moment of what must have seemed both triumph and hope.  Especially in Europe, there had been astonishing reconstruction after World War Two. Western Europe – the crucible of so many wars – was at peace and forging a new unity in the European Economic Community (now the European Union).  In the text of MM itself, John XXIII had already referred to developments in technology (#47), better economic and social conditions (#48), and the “attainment of political independence by the peoples of Asia and Africa” (#49).

Whereas human society seemed severely threatened in 1930 – as World War Two proved that it was – in 1960 it appeared to be in renaissance.  Relative to 1930, civil society activities and bodies no doubt were multiplying and growing, both in Western countries and in newly post-colonial nations, even if not in Communist states.  In this section of MM, John XXIII was describing a world that was very different from that of 30 years previously.

Apart from this, we might see the analysis in ##59-67 as reflecting John XXIII’s generally positive and optimistic way of seeing the world – which was itself characteristic of the early 1960s.

When both QA and MM are properly read in context, the apparent tension between them diminishes.



To what extent do you find that attending to the contrasting contexts of these two statements gives a convincing account of why they seem to contradict?

Do you agree that this at least illustrates the importance of reading texts with an awareness of their social, economic and political context?

How might the text of MM itself have been different in order to make it easier to understand?




End of 5.2.6

Go to 5.2.7 MM chap. II: The controversy about ‘socialization’   


Module B outline


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  1. See e.g. Marvin L. Mich, ‘Commentary on Mater et magistra’, in Kenneth B. Himes, Lisa Sowle Cahill, et al (eds), Modern Catholic Social Teaching: Commentaries and Interpretations  (Georgetown University Press, 2004), pp. 191-216, at p. 197. 

  2. The term was not in common currency in that sense at that time and the text of MM does not use it. 

  3. Unlike the rest of MM, which was initially written in Italian, the section that became ##59-67 “was originally written in German, probably by two Jesuit economists, Oswald von Nell-Breuning… and Gustav Gundlach”, Mich, ‘Commentary on Mater et magistra’, p. 195.