Thursday, February 28, 2008

Mater sí, Magistra no

The most famous piece William F. Buckley, Jr. never wrote.

In the May 2000 issue of Eutopia is a letter to the editor from Father Raymond F. Collins on an earlier article, The Splendor of Truth: Terminator of Proportionalism? by James C. Kruggel. Father Collins asserted,
Kruggel has failed to note the emergence of a distinctly American form of proportionalism that might appropriately be described as capitalist proportionalism. William F. Buckley's seminal essay, "Mater si; magister, non," [sic] has apparently provided the manifesto for this new kind of proportionalism.

Mr. Kruggel's reply included this.
Fr. Collins suggests that journalist William F. Buckley's discussions of Mater et Magistra in National Review shortly after the encyclical's 1961 publication are "the manifesto of capitalist proportionalism." Was Buckley guilty of the bald rejection of Church economic teaching that Collins suggests? An examination of the related National Review articles indicates not. Because of the seriousness of Collins' charge, and because of the fame of the exchange which Buckley and the more politically liberal Jesuit editors of America magazine had over the encyclical, it is worth taking some space to set the record straight.

On July 29, 1961, a short notice in an NR weekly events column observed: "whatever the final effect (of the encyclical), it must strike many as a venture in triviality coming at this time in history" when communism was rising with its dehumanizing usurpation of the economy, and free market economies in the US, Japan, and Europe were booming. Two weeks later, a single line in NR's gossip column quipped: "Going the rounds in Catholic conservative circles: Mater sí, Magistra, no." (Contrary to Fr. Collins'assertion, Buckley wrote no essay with this title, seminal or otherwise). America subsequently condemned NR for these remarks, on grounds that it was presumptuous and disrespectful to even appear to criticize an encyclical. However, as Buckley noted in the August 26 NR, "National Review has made no substantive criticism of Mater et Magistra. It merely pointed out that "coming at this particular time in history, parts of it may be considered as trivial." He also noted correctly that the encyclical, like other social encyclicals, lays out broad principles and does not prescribe specific votes on US federal entitlement or welfare programs. "There is room for disagreement as to whether a particular social measure is dehumanizing in its tendency; Catholics can disagree on this matter."

On September 23, Buckley published in NR a letter he had written to America editor Fr. Thurston Davis, SJ, which Davis had refused to publish. The Mater si quote, Buckley explained, spoken "by a Catholic scholar in Virginia, was flippancy pure and simple. I take no objection to your denouncing the flippancy as having been in imperfect taste: I am quite prepared to subject myself to the criticism of my elders on such matters."

Buckley continued, "Do (the editors of America) sincerely believe that I have decided to reject the depositum fidei because along came an encyclical whose rhetorical emphases disappointed me? Proceed, if you like, publicly to despair over our insouciance or frivolity but to edge us into infidelity is more than uncharitable; it is irrational, and in the true sense, scandalous." He further notes a 1958 America judgment that NR promotes a society "in which individuals of every rank would be equally and absolutely free to rummage in garbage pails for their dinner and to use park benches for their bedding."

Buckley's writings throughout the exchange do not support this harsh caricature; indeed, they suggest that the caricature might even be a libelous one. Buckley evinces poise, charity, sincere concern for the orthodoxy of the faith, and a strong grasp of, and belief in, the Church's social teachings. Whatever one's political or economic leanings, America's criticisms of Buckley in the matter were misinformed and caricaturish.

May he rest in peace.

P.S. Five Minutes With the Pope by William F. Buckley, Jr., America, September 19, 1987

(via Jim Keane, S.J. at In All Things)

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