In 1961, Pope John XXIII issued Mater et Magistra (Mother and Teacher), a social encyclical which, among other things, condemned the creeping materialism of Catholics as an obstacle to carrying out the Church's social teaching. Pope John taught that the Church's social teaching is not an optional part of Catholic belief; the Church's authoritative social teaching must be believed by all Catholics.
Later that year, the pope was challenged by William F. Buckley Jr., a U.S. Catholic defender of the capitalist system. Buckley saw socialism written all over the new encyclical and he pronounced that he could be a faithful Catholic without agreeing with the Church's social teaching. The Church, he maintained, had no right to make judgments about the values of American capitalism. Buckley then uttered his own view of the Church, "Mater, si! Magistra, no!"
It is a matter of some significance that the plague of dissent from Church moral teaching began here -- with Buckley's battle cry of defiance of papal teaching on economics -- and not seven years later, as is commonly thought, when Pope Paul VI reaffirmed the Church's longstanding opposition to artificial birth control.
Dissent is a capitalist disease, a disease which has crippled the Church's effectiveness in challenging the overconsumption and gross imbalance in wealth which are defining characteristics of the late 20th century world. It has served the interests of American capitalism enormously to have widespread dissent against the Church's moral and social teaching.
The universal moral norms which the Church has always proclaimed are the only solid basis for a new vision of social reality. If the teaching of those norms is undermined by Catholics whose only belief is "The Church has no right to tell me what to do" then the pillaging of the earth in the interest of higher profits is much more likely to go unrestrained.
In the belly of the beast lived a woman with a clear understanding of this. Dorothy Day was likely the greatest American social activist of the century. She lived with and for the poor and she advocated pacifism and a communitarian lifestyle.
Day was a dissident in regards to her society, but not in regards to the Church. "When it comes to the Catholic Church, I go to the right as far as I can go. But when it comes to labour, pacifism, and civil rights then I go as far as I can to the left," she once said.
When young men and women in her Catholic Worker movement began living together, she threw them out. When others in the movement defended birth control, she replied, "Here we are as pacifists, seemingly on the side of life, and so many in the peace movement (are) denying life."
Day understood the unity of Catholic belief. If we are to work for peace and justice, we cannot do it without hypocrisy unless we accept the whole range of other Church teachings, she reasoned. We cannot expect to have social justice without universal moral norms. Those norms are the basis for both justice and personal holiness. To oppose the Church's authority in proclaiming moral norms is to oppose social justice.
Day knew that because the Church is our mother, she is also our most important teacher. She gives us new life and she shows us the appropriate ways of living that life in its fullness. The Creed, sacraments, personal prayer and right morality are all part of the same fabric. Knitted together, they provide the cloak of holiness and justice.
Unfortunately, many of us are like Buckley -- we want the warm fuzzies of having a mother in the Church but we don't want the Church to have anything to say about how we think or act. We maintain in effect that one need not obey the teaching of the Church if one has reasons, satisfactory to oneself, for ignoring that teaching. In this view, the Church is just another human organization with no divine mandate. One may as well join a service club as belong to the Church.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church gives us a radically different view. It describes the moral life not as doing what we feel is right, but as "spiritual worship" (no. 2031). The Church's moral and social teaching is its way of guiding us to give that worship to God who has already given us everything. "From the Church (the baptized Christian) learns the example of holiness" (no. 2030).
This example of holiness is not just something to be followed by a spiritual elite, but by all Christians. We are all called to intimate union with Christ.
The Church's defence of natural law is an essential part of its prophetic ministry. The word "prophetic" is often used loosely these days to refer to those who disagree with the Church's teaching. But in the life and writings of Dorothy Day, we find an example of a true prophet -- a person who saw the Church as "the pillar and bulwark of the truth" (1 Timothy 3:15) and who knew that adhering to its teaching is the only way forward for us, both as individuals and as a society.
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