The Holy See
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Rome, 16-18 May 2011



Your Eminences, My Lord Archbishops and Bishops, Distinguished Invited Guests, my dear Brothers and Sisters, I greet you all very warmly in the name of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace; and, on its behalf, I welcome you all heartily to this International Congress with which the Dicastery of Justice and Peace wishes to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the great encyclical of Pope John XXIII, Mater et Magistra.

Mater et Magistra, is great not only because it is bigger than all preceding social encyclicals, being longer than Quadragesimo Anno of Pope Pius XI and almost twice the length of Rerum Novarum of Pope Leo XIII. It is great especially for the way it consolidates (develops further) the base of the Catholic Social Teaching.

The opening line of the encyclical reads as follows: “The Catholic Church has been established by Jesus Christ as Mother and Teacher of all nations, so that all who…… come to her loving embrace, may find salvation as well as the fullness of a more excellent life”.

The name of the encyclical (Mater et magistra), which is derived from its beginning sentence, as the case is in all papal documents, and which identifies the Church as “mater et magistra”, echoes a very popular symbolization of the place and the role of Jerusalem in the life of God’s people in the Old Testament. With an observable frequency, the prophets of the Old Testament described Jerusalem, whose temple housed the Word of God, as a mother and a place of learning. Instruction would go out from her, and nations would come to her to be taught the ways of God (cfr. Is.2:2ff.). Accordingly, the prophets who witnessed Israel go into exile presented Jerusalem as a disconsolate mother who attributed her children’s fate to their abandonment of wisdom (Baruch 3:12-13). Thus Jerusalem would exhort her children as follows: “Learn where there is wisdom, where there is strength, where there is understanding: so that you may at the same time discern where there is length of days and life, where there is light for the eyes and peace” (Baruch 3:14).

In his encyclical, Mater et magistra, Pope John XXIII roots the presence of the Church in society (world) in this biblical role and imagery of Jerusalem and claims for her the identity and role of “mother (mater)” and teacher (teacher). The social teaching of Pope John XXIII in his encyclical is set within this rich biblical imagery of the Church: a mother and teacher like Jerusalem of old, to also offer salvation and the fullness of a more excellent life. [1]

Established as a mother and teacher by Jesus Christ, who himself “came that they may life and have it abundantly” (Jn.10:10), the Church which bestows salvation and the fullness of a more excellent life on all who come to her embrace become an extension of Jesus and carries on his evangelizing mission. The social teaching of the Church shares in this evangelizing mission of the Church, and is itself evangelizing.

Thus, seventy years after Rerum Novarum of Pope Leo XIII had expressed the deep concern of the Church for the “social question” of the 19th century as a “worker/labour question”, Pope John XXIII dealt with a predominantly technical/technological era of the 20th century. There was a prodigious growth and development in science and technology, represented by space conquest. There was a phenomenal growth in economy after the years of depression. There was political emancipation and the granting of independence to colonized countries. The euphoria of independence was stalked by the spectre of an emerging thirdworldism, while in the developed countries the state regularly intervened to redistribute produced wealth and social services.

In this changed situation, Pope John XXIII sought to help discern and orientate the legacy of the social teaching of the church. Thus Mater et Magistra further developed the strong base of Catholic Social Teaching, emphasizing the role of the person, the social dimension of property and thus suggesting that workers should own shares of the enterprise that employs them, supporting democratic participation, and calling for careful use of the power of science and technology. Pope John XXIII, moving in the ante-chamber of the 2nd Vatican Council, would make references to Natural Law, but without its static assumptions. He would emphasize socialization as increase in the network of relations (connecting individuals to each other), within which Justice (used without the adjective social) was a paramount virtue. Indeed, the Pope believed that new wealth could be created, and that it was the first task of justice to generate new wealth and not just distribute what is available equitably.

By way of rounding up these random observations about the first social encyclical of Pope John XXIII, we may also note how the encyclical warned against neo-colonialism, and the political dominance of the poor by the rich. We may note the encyclical’s great interest in agricultural development, the introduction of agricultural technology and concern for proper price management. The market value of goods must lead to a just wage for the farmers. And it is noteworthy, how Pope John XXIII’s encyclical engendered a new wave of ecumenical cooperation in social issues.

Your Eminences, Your Excellencies, my Brothers and Sisters, we began these random observations on Mater et Magistra noting that it further developed the strong base of Catholic Social Teaching, established unarguably by Pope Leo XIII with his epoch-making encyclical Rerum Novarum. Thus, on the hundredth anniversary of that pioneer social teaching of Pope Leo XIII, Pope John Paul II repeated the homage, which Pope Pius XI paid to his venerable predecessor, Pope Leo XIII (I wish first and foremost to satisfy the debt of gratitude which the whole Church owes to this great pope and his immortal document ..... Quadagesimo Anno) and added: “I also mean to show that the vital energies rising from that root have not been spent with the passing of the years, but rather have increased even more” (Centesimus Annus §1).

Indeed, the vital energies rising from the root of Rerum Novarum did, in a changed historical-social setting, inspire Mater et Magistra of Pope John XXIII, and they have continued to inspire, in changing situations, the social encyclicals and initiatives in the Church to date. They have reflected the shining of the unchanging light of the Gospel and its values (charity of Christ) on the ever-changing and emerging situations of our world.

Our gathering in congress these few days to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Mater et Magistra belongs to this continuum of the growth and increase of the vital energies rising from the root of the Church’s social doctrine. It is up to us to make sure that these vital energies continue to grow and be fruitful. And this encourages us to take up the vital energies of the Church’s social teaching (Leo XIII's teaching) again in an up-dated way and with the original spirit which first animated it.


Day 1: The New Evangelization of the Social Order: The Church’s Social Teaching

Day 2: Man and his environment, Justice and Politics

Day 3: Social Doctrine of Church in practice: Best Practices

For all these then, I wish to commend this congress, its progress and speakers, indeed, every part of it, to God’s guidance and inspiration. May God grant us all sympathetic listening hearts; and may He grant success to the works of our minds and hearts.


Card. Peter Kodwo A. Turkson
(President: PCJP)

[1] Cfr. Pope Benedict XVI’s homily in Carpineto Romano, Leo XIII's birthplace. On that occasion, the Holy Father pointed out that «Pope Pecci’s deep religious feeling shone out through his words and actions and was also reflected in his Magisterium». This came from knowing that he was «called to pass on to the People of God “wisdom” not abstract truths; in other words a message that combines faith and life, truth and practical reality» (September 5, 2010).