Mother and Teacher


Published August 30, 2022

First Things

A few thoughts for the ongoing synodal process. 

My faith as an adult was perfected by good Christian men; in my case, good Catholic men. But it was planted, fed, and—when necessary—pruned, by women: my wife, and in my earliest years, my mother. This is a common tale in my generation, the boomers; maybe also in every generation. Men are made “better men” by other, better men. But the construction project is usually started and moved along by women. My mother and I talked. She listened. And she listened not just to my words, but alertly, with her eyes and other senses. She knew me far better than I knew myself. And she never merely listened. She listened with my possibilities and weaknesses thoroughly (if lovingly) documented and well in mind. She lived her primary maternal task accordingly: teaching, shaping, and guiding me on a path to the mature Christian life she knew to be true from experience. 

Put simply: She “accompanied” me in the direction and toward the goal she clearly intended in advance. Only the pace and occasional detours varied.

As a father, I later learned what she knew all along: Olympian directives from Mt. Piety typically get filed in a child’s memory hole. And yet the work of forming a young person in virtue remains. As an adult, I watched how it’s done. My wife, a far shrewder and more patient tactician than I, taught in the trenches of Catholic schools for 40 years. And she was spectacular at it. She taught religion and math to incipient teens, a tribe dimly related to the Goths. Across one wall of her classroom in foot-tall letters ran the banner, “To Jesus through math,” and she proceeded to lead them there, year after year, with steady pace, appealing grace, and GPS precision. She treated each of her young people as individuals. But the final destination was always explicitly clear: informing and forming all of them with what she already knew and they needed to know, both in math and in faith, for their own best outcomes—in school and in life.

So what’s the point of this warm bath in nostalgia?

Just this: John XXIII titled his great 1961 encyclical on social progress Mater et Magistra, not Mater et Auscultator; “mother and teacher,” not “mother and listener.” His reasons seem clear in the opening lines:

Mother and Teacher of all nations—such is the Catholic Church in the mind of her Founder, Jesus Christ; to hold the world in an embrace of love, that men, in every age, should find in her their own completeness in a higher order of living, and their ultimate salvation. She is “the pillar and ground of the truth.” To her was entrusted by her holy Founder the twofold task of giving life to her children and of teaching them and guiding them—both as individuals and as nations—with maternal care. Great is their dignity, a dignity which she has always guarded most zealously and held in the highest esteem. 

No ambiguity, no lack of confidence, marks those words. And they stand in contrast to the curiously, almost intentionally unclear atmosphere in some quarters of the Church over the last half dozen years. Good leaders do, of course, listen to their people. In the Church, as in any family, they have the duty to know, respect, and love the persons in their care. But they’re leaders and guides, not followers or mere presiders. Their task is to teach the full Catholic faith, including the hard and unpopular parts, in the spirit of those opening words from John XXIII’s great encyclical.  

This makes the situation in Germany all the more instructive. Nothing evangelical or missionary animates the German synodal path. Its leaders are not like Luther; they’re far closer to contemporary secular culture. And its derailment into a kind of Reformation Redux—a Reformation this time that amounts to a surrender of distinctive Christian identity and beliefs—is a lesson and a warning to the whole synodal effort. It also raises unpleasant questions about why Rome seemed so slow to intervene, at least publicly, for so long.

One of the most negative trends in the Church since Vatican II is a fixation on process over permanence; a distaste for allegedly “legalistic” doctrine and excessive clarity. Such trends reflect internal theological conflicts, triggered by the council, that have never really ended. This helps to explain the hostility, implicit in many of this pontificate’s counselors and supporters, toward the legacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI—especially as found in encyclicals like Veritatis Splendor and Fides et Ratio. It also gives context to some thoroughly bad recent work by the Pontifical Academy for Life, the target this time being Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae. One needn’t be neurotic to wonder if the academy is simply doing the early spadework for a collective “discernment” on sexual intimacy and contraception at the 2023 synod. Such things have been known to happen.

Popular participation in the synodal process here in the United States and in various other countries has been modest. This needn’t invalidate its positive value or its results. But a life-giving outcome will occur if and only if the process, through its conclusion and “synthesis,” is ruled by honesty, thoroughness, and a freedom from manipulation to produce predetermined ends. Again, such things—including interference with outcomes, as noted by Pope Francis himself in comments here—have been known to happen. The difficult conditions now developing for the Church were foreseen with great accuracy by a young Joseph Ratzinger as early as 1969.  Whatever its strengths, a synod on synodality is unlikely to forestall them; it also carries a measure of risk at least equal to its promise.

In the end, a good mother listens, and listens well. That’s an obligation of love. Her other obligation, equally demanded by love, is to teach her children what they need to hear, not necessarily what they want to hear—forming them fully and faithfully in the truth, and without convenient adjustments or ambiguities.  

The Church is mater et magistra. She is the teacher, not the pupil. 

And we who call ourselves Christians have the right not just to speak, but the obligation, first and more deeply, to listen.

Francis X. Maier is a senior fellow in Catholic studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.


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