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Editorial follow-up: from the archives

On Friday we posted our latest editorial -- a comment on the Obama-at-Notre-Dame dustup -- and alerted blog readers here. Commenter Alan Mitchell and others were curious to know what The Commonweal had to say about Buckley and Mater et magistra back in 1961. Now that I'm back in the office, with our archived issues at hand, I can fill you in.I haven't found any direct remarks about America, the Jesuits, or the denunciation of Buckley. [Scratch that! Chris Cimorelli found something I missed. See below.] But the editors did weigh in on the National Review's comments and competence in the August 25, 1961 issue. I think this may be taking us farther away from the limited sense in which the situations are analogous, but it's still an interesting topic, independent of our present editorial. So here's an excerpt from "'A Venture in Triviality,'" from 1961:

As we see it, there is one real merit in the editorial position the National Review has taken on the new encyclical: it is straightforward. As such, we consider it a clear improvement over what is often standard practice in Catholic conservative circles: to claim theoretical acceptance of the social thought expressed in papal encyclicals while denying its applicability in almost every specific situation. But this is about the only merit we can see in the National Review's position.

For Catholics, the whole question of the precise authority to be given to the papal encyclicals is a complicated one. Certainly these documents should not be used as clubs with which to beat those who dissent on this or that particular prudential judgment. At the same time, there is another and perhaps greater danger, one which is well illustrated in a "joke" about "Mother and Teacher" which the National Review prints in its issue for August 12: "Going the rounds in Catholic conservative circles," the National Review reports, is this: "Mater si, Magistra no." This is a clver enough line, and it is clearly intended as a shorthand comment. Nonetheless, its implications are disturbing, and for Catholics who are seriously interested in making their views on temporal questions conform with their religious convictions, we think the attitude reflected in the joke will not do.

Then the editors quote from their own response to Mater, "The New Encyclical," July 28, 1961:

In their treatment of the encyclical, all the newspaper stories we have seen so far have stressed the fact that the pope was not speaking ex cathedra--that the encyclical does not define a doctrine of faith or morals that binds Catholics under pain of sin. In one sense this caution is a healthy sign, for there has been in some circles too much tendency to create a "Catholic party line" on social questions involving a great measure of prudential judgment; at the same time, however, it should be noted that this approach could be pushed too far. The new social encyclical represents a solemn application of traditional Catholic principles to the problems of our day, and this by the successor of St. Peter; it therefore has to be regarded with the utmost gravity. No one, certainly, should take the statement that Mater et magistra is not ex cathedra to mean that the principles it enunciates can be lightly dismissed or easily evaded.

So, the editors concluded,

For our part, we are ready to stand on that statement. Whatever jokes are "going the rounds in Catholic conservative circles," the Church is Mother, yes, and Teacher, too.

UPDATE: The plot thickens. An editorial called "God and the Cold War," from September 8, 1961, begins:

In recent weeks National Review and its editor, William Buckley, have been berated in solemn, not to say portentous, tones, in a number of publications, for editorial statements about Mater et magistra. To one critic Mr. Buckley pointed out indignantly and accurately that the editorial judgment of the magazine represented not his view alone but that of the editorial board, which was made up of Catholics, Protestants and Jews. His acceptance of the encyclical, he suggested, was not in question, nor was his loyalty to the Church. The only legitimate target for criticism was the professional competence of the editorial board in dealing with the relation between Catholicism and socio-political matters, and this the magazine was prepared to defend.

Part of that defense, apparently, was the publication of an article called "Can a Catholic be Liberal?" in the National Review. It was directly a criticism of an article by a Jesuit priest that was published in America, and more broadly an examination of "the 'submission of many American Catholic writers, clerical and lay, and such representative magazines as America and Commonweal, to the secular imperatives of the Liberal Line.'" And so the rest of this editorial in The Commonweal is a critical response to that "unbelievably misguided" article. I think I had better stop following the story there -- otherwise I could spend all day reading back issues, and we do have future issues to think about!

About the Author

Mollie Wilson O'Reilly is an editor at large and columnist at Commonweal.



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Very interesting. The issues and controversies and splits from those days seem kinda contemporary, don't they? Where is the disciplined and uniform and monolithic pre-VII American Catholic Church I've always heard about? Another illusion shattered ...

My remembrances of college days(pre V2) were lively political discussion with a lot more civility than today(talk radio has destroyed that), little use for debate technique talking points, popularized by outr wonderful think tanlks and reinforced by political "analysis" being folks on two sides of an isuue yelling at each other.Happy memories of Bill Buckley and Jimmy Wechsler debatin gat Hunter college -the debate continuin gafter at some nice neighborhood oasis. (The standard joke on National Review then was "A Journal of fact and opinion - yeah, mostly opinion.)But those were also days when developing maature catholics meantt eaching people to be informed, think, ask questions and stop pigeon-holing one another with simple lables.

"But those were also days when developing maature catholics meantt eaching people to be informed, think, ask questions and stop pigeon-holing one another with simple lables."Still a worthy goal for all of us!

Thanks, Mollie, for going to all that trouble. You need not spend another minute on it. I am confused by the first two paragraphs. Are they both from pieces written in 1961? Was there a joke about Mother Theresa in the National Review in August, 1961?Regarding the rest of what you found, I do not think it sheds much light on why the most recent editorial on Obama and ND started out with the example of the America and Buckley. As I posted on the other thread, I do not see its relevance, and I find it to distract from the editorial's main point. Apparently Rita Ferrone fails to see its relevance as well.

Mater si.. magistra no ... might really be the origin of 'cafeteria catholic'? ...who would have thunk it given the last few years of posts? Garry Wills not Buckley is said to be the source of the line.... and who would have thunk that!

I also recall that back in the time leading up to Vatican Two, we were moving away from the apologetics that would "refute" "enemies" who criticized the official line.It strikes me that the old ways have returned, especially among those seeking a "smaller, purer" Church. It also strikes me that the Buckley issue was raised in the same context -as a kind of debate issue against those who support the Obama at ND point of view. but then again, we see lots of that kind of debate approach in the world of Catholoc blogdom these days -yea, even here.

Sorry, one last note: take a look at Msgr. Harry Byrne's latest pot on the Obama invitation and "extremist" abortion opponents (his words.)Of course, he harkens back to not only pre- bu tdurin gand well post Vatican 2 and has much to offer in terms of perspective.

"As such, we consider it a clear improvement over what is often standard practice in Catholic conservative circles: to claim theoretical acceptance of the social thought expressed in papal encyclicals while denying its applicability in almost every specific situation."Timeless and priceless.

Sorry for last post :should read "pre, during and post Vatican 2."

I agree its an interesting topic. Ironies abound.The 1961 Commonweal editorial states the Church is Mother, yes, and Teacher, too. But the magazines current position (and that of the Notre Dame administration) appears to be much closer to the Buckley/Wills formulation, Mater, Si; Magistra, No!Garry Wills (in Bare Ruined Choirs) pointed out that in the 1961 dispute even such unlikely defenders of papal prerogative as Gore Vidal and Jack Paar reproved Buckley for insufficient loyalty to his own church.It would be interesting to learn what Wills' opinion about the current controversy. I suspect he may be one of the few to maintain a consistent position.

Patrick Molloy,How can you write that with a straight computer. Er.... People have reiterated here that this is not an issue in Europe where the French Premier is even given honors by the pope while he is profoundly pro choice. This brouhaha is simply the arm of the Republican party, the American bishops, trying to rebound from a devastating defeat in the elections. This is devastation for them too. Unfortunately, the depths of their partisanship and devastation is yet to come.

Bill Mazzella,I fear you are in danger of falling into papolatry.

Interesting to cite Garry Wills here . . . apparently the line came from him in the first place! Anything you wrote during your tenure that you regret?Buckley: I had belated second thoughts about the wisdom of republishing a quip of Garry Wills's in my "For the Record" column. It was the phrase: "Mater si, Magistra no," in response to a papal encyclical that got us into lots and lots of trouble with the liberal Catholic press over lots and lots of years.

Msgr Byrne's commentary is found at, APRIL 5, 2009EXTREMISTS ATTACK NOTRE DAME!

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