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!

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

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