Michael Sean Winters, blogging for the National Catholic Reporter, has written a lengthy piece asserting that Paul Ryan’s “dissent” from “Catholic Social Teaching” makes him a not very good Catholic and a “dangerous” choice for vice president.
Others are far more qualified than I to discuss Catholic social teaching and Ryan’s understanding of it (see, e.g., Michael Novak, “Jesuits Rebuke Ryan,” and George Weigel, “Ryan vs. Georgetown”). But Mr. Winters begins his piece with an account of William F. Buckley Jr.’s “dissent” from Catholic social teaching, and that account is wrong in nearly every particular. That, I am qualified to discuss, as the co-author of a biography of Buckley and co-editor of a major anthology of his work.
It is true, as Mr. Winters says, that Buckley “published a critique” of Blessed Pope John XXIII’s encyclical Mater et Magistra. But the critique was not entitled “Going the rounds in conservative circles: ‘Mater, sí, Magistra, no.’” That line appeared as the final zinger in a short, staff-written column called “For the Record” (and by the way, it reads “Going the rounds in Catholic conservative circles . . .”). Buckley’s critique had appeared, as an unsigned editorial paragraph, in the previous issue of National Review (July 29, 1961), and its gravamen was that the encyclical simply failed, in applying Catholic social teaching to the postwar world, to take adequate account of facts such as “the continuing and demonic successes of the Communists,” “the extraordinary material well-being that such free economic systems as Japan’s, West Germany’s, and our own are generating,” and “the dehumanization, under technology-cum-statism, of the individual’s role in life.” Buckley amplified his points two issues later in a signed editorial entitled “The Strange Behavior of America.” This editorial includes the line, splendidly apposite to the attacks on Paul Ryan, “There is room for disagreement as to whether a particular social measure is dehumanizing in its tendency: Catholics can disagree on the matter.”
Back to “Mater, sí”: The phrase did come, as Mr. Winters says, from Garry Wills, but what does it mean to describe him as “not yet converted”? From what to what? From conservatism to radicalism? Because when it comes to religion, Mr. Wills (as he would later write in Bare Ruined Choirs) is a cradle Catholic, and he remains a Catholic to this day.
Finally, Mr. Winters describes the “Mater, sí” incident as “the first significant instance of public dissent from the magisterium of the Church by an American public intellectual.” Well, I believe Buckley would have been considered a “public intellectual” when he first publicly criticized an encyclical, nine years earlier. He wrote, in The Catholic World (August 1952): “Thus, while, as I state, I cannot believe the Holy Father could approve of the march of our government down a road that weakens the prestige of religion, the institution of the family, the institution of private property, and the principle of subsidiarity, I readily admit that I am confused by some of the statements that appear in the social encyclicals. And to the extent that I am, I suppose I am open to Father Fullman’s censure. For example, I am filled with horror at the possible interpretations of Pius XII’s statement (from Summi Pontificatus), ‘Hence, it is the noble prerogative and function of the State so to control, aid and direct the private and individual activities of national life that they converge harmoniously toward the common good.’”
Six years after Mater et Magistra, Buckley wrote another passage that bears directly on l’affaire Ryan: “Pope Paul VI has released an unfortunate encyclical (Populorum Progressio), particularly unfortunate because its naïveté in economic and other secular matters drowns out passages of eloquence which, had they gone unencumbered by confused and confusing ideological detritus, might have served to remind the responsible community of the inspiring ardor of the pope’s passion for human reconciliation and the exercise of charity on a universal scale. . . .
“It all reminds one of St. Thomas Aquinas’s warning that, outside the field of morals and doctrine, the Church is quite capable of erring, ‘propter falsos testes’—on account of bad information. Those who have worked hardest and most productively for the diminution of human misery and know that the preconditions are (1) political stability and (2) economic freedom will be disappointed not by the goals, exquisitely described by the pope, but by the suggested means, illusory and self-defeating, which if followed would have the contrary effect to that desired by this intense and holy man.”