Pope John XXIIIOne of the most relevant and challenging papal documents in modern history – written by one of the most relevant and challenging popes in modern history – recently celebrated its golden anniversary.

The encyclical letter “Mater et Magistra” (“Christianity and Social Progress”) was written by Pope John XXIII during the beginning of the turbulent 1960’s. The cold war was hot. And countless poor – in the United States and throughout the world – were being ignored.

Into this arena stepped “Good Pope John” who was considered by many to be a grandfatherly figure, who would not rock the boat. Wrong!

Blessed John XXIII was prophetic and courageous. He challenged the economic status quo. He condemned the severe gap between the rich and poor.  He rocked the boat!

Coming in between his announcement that he was going to convene the 21st ecumenical council (Vatican II) and the writing of his other groundbreaking encyclical “Pacem in Terris” (“Peace on Earth”), “Mater et Magistra” was, and continues to be, a very relevant masterpiece of Catholic social teaching. In fact, its wisdom is needed more now than ever.

Today, the income gap between the rich and poor is even greater than it was 50 years ago when the encyclical was written. According to Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel laureate in economics, the richest 1 percent of Americans control 40 percent of the nation’s wealth. And nearly a quarter of the country’s income goes to the top 1percent every year.

And to that unjust fact of economic life, the Tea Party, neoconservatives and “free market” proponents heartlessly push for policies and budgets that greatly reduce government’s economic role in helping the poor and middle class, while insisting on huge tax cuts for the wealthy, and an astronomical military budget.

Well that’s not what Blessed John XXIII taught in Mater et Magistra. He wrote, “Necessity and justice require that wealth produced be distributed equitably among all citizens of the commonwealth.”

Deeply concerned about the economic imbalances of his day, he insisted that government do more, not less, in correcting these imbalances. He wrote, “Consequently, it is requested again and again of public authorities responsible for the common good, that they intervene in a wide variety of economic affairs, and that, in a more extensive and organized way than heretofore, they adapt institutions, tasks, means, and procedures to this end.”

Regarding government’s essential role in meeting the needs of those in rural areas, Blessed John XXIII wrote, “… It is necessary that everyone, and especially public authorities, strive to effect improvements in rural areas … for example: highway construction … marketing facilities, pure drinking water, housing, medical services. …”

On the international level, Good Pope John wrote, “We all share responsibility for the fact that populations are undernourished. ” But without extensive government involvement, populations will continue to be undernourished. And yet, according to Bread for the World, in 2010 the U.S. gave only 0.6 percent of its federal budget to global poverty-focused assistance. Here Blessed John XXIII insisted that “nations that enjoy a sufficiency and abundance of everything may not overlook the plight of other nations whose citizens … are all but overcome by poverty and hunger. …”

Blessed John XXIII’s Mater et Magistra set the social justice bar quite high. Will we strive to jump over it? Or just continue to lower it?

Tony Magliano is a columnist whose work appears in diocesan papers throughout the United States. If your diocesan paper does not carry his column, we encourage you to call them and request that they do.

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