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Toward a Social Theology for the Americas

Those interested in several of the threads below on Catholics in public life, social justice, abortion, etc. might be interested in the announcement of a conference to be held in Chicago in October on "Building a Social Theology for the Americas." Information at:

About the Author

Rev. Joseph A. Komonchak, professor emeritus of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of New York.



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While it sounds like a good idea, I would hope that US policies on immigration would be left out of it, because I believe the church should not be dictating policies on immigration.

Good to see my graduate school (DePaul & the Vincentians) getting back to doing what Vincent dePaul would have done - dialoguing and reaching out to those in power and those in need to address injustice.The church MUST play a role in clearly articulating a Catholic and Christian response to the social needs of the Americas. You can not separate your faith, beliefs, foundations from the actions and votes you make.On the other hand, the church must respect the separation of church and state and lay out social principles, highlight suggested actions, etc. without endorsing any one party, political action, etc.This might also help folks clarify positions in their own minds in terms of which party or candidate may best address the needs of the future.

Well said, Bill, especially the last paragraph. Too often the church has expressed sympathies for one side at the expense of the other. The immigration problem is one with two sides and I believe it should be recognized by the church as such.

One of the best statements I've seen about the intersection of social justice and religion is from Rev. Jim Wallis in his book "God's Politics":"God is not partisan: God is not a Republican or a Democrat. When either party tries to politicize God, or co-opt religious communities for their political agendas, they make a terrible mistake. The best contribution of religion is precisely not to be ideologically predictable nor loyally partisan. Both parties, and the nation, must let the prophetic voice of religion be heard. Faith must be free to challenge both right and left from a consistent moral ground."Words to live by?

Yes. It reminds me of the moral dilemma, as some saw it, of the president going to the opening ceremonies of the Olympics.Of course he had to go to show his respect for the huge role that China is playing on the world stage, but his presence is not an endorsement for the lack of freedoms in their country. This is not a partisan decision, only good sense.

What is the term "social theology" supposed to connote? I've heard "political theology" and "social ethics," but this one is new to me.

v8-7=08 "...the church must respect the separation of church and state and lay out social principles, highlight suggested actions, etc"Bill --I agree with what you say, but it seems to me that official Church's habit of just "laying out" Church teachings is the main reason why the Church's teachings are not taken as seriously as they might be. The official Church -- the popes, bishops and curia -- simply "lay out" their ethical principles and they don't explicitly give officially recognized *reasons* for reaching those ethical principles. Consequently, the usual response to the official Church's pronouncements is "Don't tell me what to do!" (When the Vatican promulgated its new list of sins, David Letterman one evening replied angrily to the new list in those exact words: "Don't tell me what to do!".) No ethical principles are self-evident except "Do good and avoid evil". They must be supported with evidence and argument. If only the Vatican would return to time-honored scholastic method of debate -- present your opponents' arguments, then present your own, then show *explicitly* just where your opponents went wrong. Of course, the Church The Vatican might even learn that it has been wrong about some things. As it stands, I think that the exact issues are still so murky that finding clear answers will be tedious in the extreme. But unless and until a strong consensus is reached about both the facts and what the facts imply, there will be no poliltical resolutions -- and without such clarity why should any position be adopted? Sadly I think it's quite possible that the Vatican itself realizes that it doesn't *have* any persuasive arguments about the abortion issues -- if it had persuasive arguments (I mean sound ones with clearly true premises and valid conclusions), surely it would have articulated them officially by now. One thing I've always found admirable about Roe v. Wade is that at least the justices admitted that given the evidence and arguments presented to the Court, they were not able to reach a conclusion on just when a person is present in the womb. Interestingly, this implies that the ultimate issue (was Roe's fetus a person?) has not yet been decided. One might hope that eventually it might be decided, making it possible not to overthrow Roe, but to complete the legal process of making a determination. But such a determination seems a long, long way off to me because the philosophers on all sides are not getting into the nitty-gritty of these extraordinarily complex ethical questions. The philosophers are not helping the Court (nor Congress), and social justice will not be done until the ethical principles and the evidence is in place.

Ann - self disclosure: I have a bias that agrees with your last few paragraphs. It is my hope that Vatican III will resolve the current "bottleneck" around the church's view on natural law, sex, and morality.My comments stem from Fr. K's posting of this conference on social issues that would go well beyond "pelvic issues." Actually, in the 1970's, the USCCB published two excellent documents on Just War and Poverty that included action plans, political recommendations, etc. without becoming partisan or endorsing any one specific political party. those documents impacted public policy, began congressional debates around START, Reagan's negotiations with Gorbachev, ending nuclear testing, reducing offensive weapons in Europe, and reducing the overall number of atomic warheads. In terms of poverty, it had a dramatic effect on dealing with poverty in Appalachia (a forgotten part of the US in the 1970's) and led to various outreach efforts, groups, communities (but not as partisan as the faith initiatives of the current administration).You are correct, I believe, that the current USCCB is either fearful or still reeling from the sexual abuse scandal and have not been able to find the will, energy, or consensus to address other current public issues. Even immigration is not a unified USCCB approach - individual bishops have to persuade Congress and the American people. That is one issue where the bishops have produced a document where the ethical principles and evidence are there but there is no unified action plan.

"it seems to me that official Churchs habit of just laying out Church teachings is the main reason why the Churchs teachings are not taken as seriously as they might be. The official Church the popes, bishops and curia simply lay out their ethical principles and they dont explicitly give officially recognized *reasons* for reaching those ethical principles. ... No ethical principles are self-evident except Do good and avoid evil. They must be supported with evidence and argument. If only the Vatican would return to time-honored scholastic method of debate present your opponents arguments, then present your own, then show *explicitly* just where your opponents went wrong. Of course, the Church The Vatican might even learn that it has been wrong about some things. ... Sadly I think its quite possible that the Vatican itself realizes that it doesnt *have* any persuasive arguments about the abortion issues if it had persuasive arguments (I mean sound ones with clearly true premises and valid conclusions), surely it would have articulated them officially by now. "Ann, I'm sorry, but I really don't agree with your premise. While perhaps not everything that is issued from all levels of the Vatican is voluminously documented (cf. Humanae Vitae, and the kinda-recent letter prohibiting men with "deep-seated homosexual tendencies" from being seminarians), it's nevertheless true that a lot of what comes from the Vatican is meticulously argued.Specifically on the topic of abortion, surely Evangelium Vitae is a salient example.I think a big part of the disconnect is that what informs Vatican reasoning, i.e. its own intellectual tradition, is quite frequently NOT the basis for defining hot-button issues in the secular arena in the United States. Which means that a concerned Catholic citizen often needs to be engaging in two different types of "conversations" at the same time.

The sexual abuse scandal did untold damage to the church which is deep. I find myself bristling when I read in my church bulletin about going to Virtus training for religious ed teachers and others. I think that the virtus training should have been given to the priests and bishops having the problems, and not foisted on the lay people. It's a miracle that more people did not leave the church because of the scandals and it has set us back on social issues.

Hi, Denise, I've been through the Virtus training, and its purpose is to help persons spot and responsibly respond to deviant behavior in other adults, whether priests, bishops, deacons or another layperson. It wasn't the most enjoyable thing I've ever done, and some of it was upsetting, but I did learn a lot, and do feel I'm better equipped to spot problems.

Agree with both of your comments. Here is a link to a recent presentation (it is long but insightful) about this whole question: Shortcut to: is: The Common Good and Issues in US Politics by David Hollenbach, SJ, Boston College.Note sections 15, 16, 21, 27, 28, & 29. His point supports your stance....the US bishops are not consistent; have a "bad" habit of declaring open questions/issues as "instrinsically evil" causing folks to just stop listening; and even in their recent Faithful Citizenship document appearing szichophrenic - "consider all issues but really abortion is THE issue even more so than just war?, immigration?, etc.

Sounds like an important conference to me. I am not quite sure if some of the posters here are objecting to it or not. While the church should not favor any party, it should talk about any justice issue, including immigration. Unless, I missed it I did not see abortion listed as a topic. That would be a good thing if true.

"Even immigration is not a unified USCCB approach - individual bishops have to persuade Congress and the American people"Bill deH.--In my opinion it is the function of the bishops -- and all other qualified religious leaders -- to present the *principles* of social ethics as best they perceive them. It is not their function to say how those principles must be applied in any given political context, though, of course, they have the right to their own opinions, and the more learned their opinions are the more valuable they are. In the matter of abortion -- which is the ultimate right because all other human rights are dependent it -- the bishops must define what a human person is, how we can tell one when we find one (this with help from current science), and what a person's rights are in different ethical contexts. (Yes, our right to life can change. Even JP II taught that in some circumstances we can fforfeit our right to life, and in the case of a just war we can even be required to give it up.)Jim P. --I do not agree that Evangelium Vitae spells out meticulous (i.e., complete arguments about the evils of abortion. I mean it does not go back to metaphysical, psychological and other scientific foundational principles, plus general ethical principles which are necessary to really *prove* what is right or wrong. Where in that encyclical does it answer the question: what is a human person? Where does it answer this: how can we tell a person when we find one? Until those are explicitly answered the official Church has not given us meticulous arguments defending it's conclusions. You cannot form a conclusion about a person without knowing exactly what a person is. You cannot form a conclusion specifically about abortion unless you can tell a person from a non-person. You cannot establish that some non-persons have person's right-to-life without giving *reasons* for that position and defending it against counter-arguments.I've been looking for such official arguments for years. If you can cite explicitly where to find them I will be very much obliged.As to the Church's coming from "its own intellectual tradition", in my opinion it has largely abandoned the great medieval tradition when it turned away from Aquinas et al and largely abandoned the meticulous sort of reasoning from evidence that was typical of the medievals. Yes, the medievals can be boring. But they are much more likely to get down to *foundational* principles than contemporary Catholice ethcians are. Yes, much of Evangelium Vitae is great -- begins from principles which aree themselves unsubstantiated. Indeed, in my opinion, Vatican II's "ressourcement" (i.e., going back to the very early fathers -- and their relative lack of meticulous reasoning) has been a disaster for the Church's ethical teachings. The early fathers did not know nearly as much about human nature as we do now (just look at the obvious one -- what they thought about women), nor did they have the scientific knowledge which provides strong evidence of just when the person begins.Yes, VII did some grand things, but not for Catholic ethics.Denise --I agree about the current bishops. Most of them seem to have a deeply-rooted inability to criticize both their own behavior and their own thinking.

Oops -- "Yes, much of Evangelium Vitae is great begins from principles which aree themselves unsubstantiated" should have said "Yes, much of Evangelium Vitae is great BUT it begins from principles which aree themselves unsubstantiated.

Here's a question for social theo;logy: how much do the principles the Church enunciates apply within the XChurch itself?Clearly this issue has aroused a number of folks already in the sex abuse issue bith to Bishop accountability and due process for clergy. It also aroused folk in the CDF processes for review of theologians.In today's NY Times Religion notes, the conflict between SEIU and the Sisters of St. Joseph Healthcare over unionization is (sadly) discussed.It strikes me that whatever principles the Church enunciates, even if viwed through some contextual prism, need to be exemplified and modeled by leadership at all levels if they are to be broadly credible.

OK, Ann - now I have a homework assignment, i.e. re-read Evangelium Vitae. Thanks a lot. :-)I'd say that metaphysics and psychology aren't the core areas of expertise for bishops, although obviously they should be in conversation with those who do specialize in those areas - hopefully a conversation that is to the benefit of both parties.

Bill De Hass, thanks very much for the reference to the Hollenbach piece.

:OK, Ann - now I have a homework assignment, i.e. re-read Evangelium Vitae. Thanks a lot. :-)"You're welcome, Jim. Hee hee :-)And now I thank you for asking a fundamental question about an eons-old problem in the Church: the relationship between the teaching office of the bishops and the expertise of the theologians (who in turn are sometimes necessarily dependent on other disciplines, especially psychology and biology).One of the great merits of Vatican II is, I think, that it did address the question, saying, that the theologians do have a charism in the Church. However, that calling is not spelled out, but it desperately needs articiulation. Because the bishops are recognized there as being dependent on the theologians, it seems to me that there should be some sub-structure within the Church composed of theologians and they should be recognized as having both the duty and the right to teach the bishops, (Yes, that's exactly what their main charism is -- teaching the bishops) what their best opinions are.) And there should be a mechanism for the theologians to call the bishops to task when the bishops ignore what they have to say. Not to mention legal redress for theologians who are mistreated by bishops.Ideally, of course, all bishops would be splendid theoloogians themselves. But it appears that all Rome appoints these days are men who are against contraception and women priests, and who are good at carryying out charitable works. It might be argued that latter function is just as important as the teaching function, but as I remember the VII documents they sat that the main function of a bishop is to be a teacher. Again, thanks for asking the sort of fundamental question that I think we tend to avoid these days.

Good point, Ann/Seems the fast track to epicopacy involves a JCD (hardly theology) and concern for "order" -read loyalty to the current line, as you state.Returnming to Bill's cite of Hollenbach, this runs against both the need to bring the pastoral to bear on issues and also discourages real engagement.I might not agree with your comment on charitable works.My impression of most of the hierarchy in the US is they perceive themselves as PRINCES of the Church as opposed to princes of the CHURCH.David had a really interesting thread at Pontifications about Cardinal Sean O"Malley and how his simple lifestyle carries enormous power.I tend to think most bishops are more like "MansionMurphy" in their lifestyles.Fundraising seems to be more importan tthan works of charity - though there's obviously an interconnect, a lot more openness and accountability would help to see how close they are.

Good insights. Allow me to add some thoughts:a) have been tracking Rocco Palmo's Whispers in the Loggia and the impact of Pietro Sambi on episcopal appointments in the US under B16.......not sure a trend can be identified but the JPII litmus test seems to have changed so that more pastoral and experienced men are being appointed. Yes, you are correct....most still have been educated in Rome; have canon law degrees; need to be bi or trilingual but there seems to be improvement in this area....very few bishops currently choose to live like Sean O'Malley;b) Vatican II pastoral documents actually outline and define the relationship between magesterium, theologians, and the church (people of God). Each complements the other; all are called to speak faithfully from the heart even in dissent. The bishop is the authentic teacher (I would not like them to be seen as the theologian e.g. Francis George or Charles Chaput....that is not their role). On the other hand, theologians have been silenced, treated without due process, even the US theological association has retreated by suggesting a different approach to the USCCB. Try reading the seond volume of Hans King's autobiography or the process used against Leonardo Boff, Ivan Illich, Gustavo Guitierrez. Interesting fact - after the European 1968 unrest, Concilium split in two and Communio started as an oppositional view and many colleagues made a choice to stay as theologians or be elevated into the hierarcy e.g. bishops were Ratzinger, Kasper, aligned with the hierarchy. Others - Rahner, Schillebeeckx, Conger, Kung, Boff, Curran went through a "trial."c) it would be helpful to again see the USCCB and significant bishops/cardinals have theologians that the worked with; in a way, a faithful opposition so that all views can be researched before a pronouncement that just says "intrinsically evil or disordered."

" The bishop is the authentic teacher (I would not like them to be seen as the theologian e.g. Francis George or Charles Chaput.that is not their role)."Bill -- Why do you think this? It seems to me that the theologian charism is implicit in the teaching charism of a bishop. Further, a holy, well-intentioned bishop who doesn't know enough theology (or other disciplines) necessary to deal with the serious problems in his jurisdiction can do harm, even great harm. And surely there have been great theologian-bishops, e.g., our own Benedict. I suppose I'm asking for bishops who are highly educated in what they need to be educated in *as* bishops, which includes the original topic of this thread, social theology. Don't ask me what I mean by "social theology" -- it's a killer to try to define. But I'm sure there must be some such thing among the vague ideas rattling about my mind, Whatever it is, I suspect it's vastly complex.

Allow me to make some distinctions:a) agree - bishops should have theological knowledge and use it. But there charism is to be a pastoral teacher which requires a myriad of skills;b) theology has many different ares of expertise e.g. ecclessiology, scripture, morals, church history, liturgy, sacramental, etc. Being a theologian in any one of these areas is a full time job;c) to do historical-critical theology requires a foundation of objectivity that most bishops are not able to do. Remember, bishops swear loyalty to the pope (unfortunately); this automatically makes it difficult for a bishop to be a fully objective theologian (do you sometimes wonder why bishops only write books when they retire) or my favorite quote: "When you are made a bishop, they remove your backbone!"d) you cite B16 as a theologian/episcopal example - agree with that but from a negative slant. B16's theology, like anyone's theology, comes from a particular, biased (in a good sense), starting point (Augustinian). There are many other theological approaches that are just as valid and at times may be more appropriate. Papal pronouncements become orthodoxy which is not necessarily either the whole truth - popes have supported slavery, copernican science, divine right of kings, outlawed usury, etc. or even an attempt to be the whole truth;e) finally, would support changes so that the curia does not do theology; are not cardinals with life long appointments; believe that bishops conferences with "periti" can best do theology that translates to pastoral letters and encyclicals'f) social theology - simply, the predilection for the poor (St. Vincent dePaul). does not ordain any one political system, party, culture, economic theory, even religion. It means listening, reasoning, and planning to address the world's social ills so the dignity of every person is best addressed. (Read some of the documents out of the World Churches (Hans Kung) and their effort to have one world human ethics.

Bill DeH. --I agree with everything you say through c), and your idea to restrict curial personnel to non-theologians is a great one :-) About "pastoral teachers" -- it seems to me that bishops are analogous to medical doctors. Just as doctors need to know both the science of medicine (or at least the fundamentals) plus the art of applying such knowledge to individual, contingent circumstances, so bishops also need the discipline of theology plus the *art * of applying pastoral principles to concrete circumstances. Is there such a thing as "the pastoral art"? If there isn't, there needs to be. I've read only a bit of Benedict's theology, but he appeals to me very, very much -- I mean his discussions of faith, hope, the Church and who Jesus is. Great teacher, for me, anyway. His more specific teachings, well . . . True, no one ever says the whole of Christian truth. An artist friend told me he came to realize that he could not possibly say all there is to say of Jesus in just one portrait and that he had to quit trying to do so. No portrait can say everything about anyone.About "social theology" again --I suspect there can't be a social theology in the sense of a discipline that necessarily covers all circumstances. There is only a *theological art* which understands how to deal with people in contingent circumstances and how to apply general theological principles to those circumstances. This especially would include knowing the limitations of what can be accomplished in given circumstances with given limited resources, not to mention given, limited human beings. Such an intellectual virtue would help, as you put it, in "listening, reasoning, and planning to address the worlds social ills so the dignity of every person is best addressed".However, such an intellectual virtue -- the pastoral art -- would also teach us, I fear, that sometimes the dignity of every person cannot be equally addressed. I read that Obama used to stress in his classes that a particular law which is good for most people would necessarily also not be good for others and, he taught, we must face that fact. I think we all have to recognize the limits of all human projects. The world canl never be wholly just without miraculous intervention , and we must be willing to accept the distressing fact that at times the common good must take precedence over our very real individual rights. (Whatever "the common good" means.)(Again, I'm sorry for rattling on so lonh, but the topic is super-complex.)

Agree with your well written analysis. Your image of a bishop acting like a primary care physician is a good one; just remeber that we also need specialists (e.g. theologians). Supporting and complementary roles are best and yes, it is an art! In terms of the common good, public laws, etc. agree with Obama's comment but I also think he would state that we must continue to define the common good, work towards its achievement knowing that (like the Church - "already but not yet") we are not a city on the hill but a nation seeking the dignity of all knowing that the human condition creates quite a challenge.

One remark concerning Ann Olivier's Aug. 8, 7:10 pm comments.Ann says: "Vatican II's "ressourcement" (i. e., going back to the early fathers and their relative lack of meticulous reasoning) has been a disaster for the Church's ethical teachings." I amno expert, but I've learned from Congar (see for example his "The Meaning of Tradition") that the Fathers' works of of endurhig importance for full appreciation of Catholic thought. If I recall correctly, Aquinas showed respect for what he knew of them. As an aside, "meticulous reasoning" about only a part of the tradition will yield results concerning that part, but it does not guarantee anything about the other parts of the tradition. By the way, if Congar is correct, the term"Fathers of the Church" has a pretty precise meaning and extension. According to him, these fathers play a distinctive role in tradition, one for which there is no substitute.

Have been reviewing and trying to find my notes from various sources about Vatican II and the way it ended. If my memory serves me, Paul VI decided not to have any agenda or pastoral documents that addressed moral issues. The initial committees began the work but he felt that it would prolong an already difficult 4 year period.That is why he appointed a special papal commission to deal with contraception.So, I am not sure that I would say that Vatican II was "a disaster for the Church's ethical teachings".....the disaster occurred when Paul VI overturned his commission's recommendation; was unable to give a logical explanation for this; and gave in to a paralysis of fear about "undoing prior Popes' and their statements" if Vatican II had not already led the way on that. Paul VI never produced another encyclical or discourse in his remaining 10 years of the papacy.

Bernard, Bill DeH., and JAK: Bernard --The influence of the Fathers on Aquinas is pervasive, and I certainly am not one to questioon their value. What I object to is the down-grading of one theological method (logic) relative to others (intuition, metaphor, whatever). I've seen it noted more than once that the early Fathers are quoted all over the VII documents, but there are relatively few references to Thomas, who in prior generations was all over official magisterial statements. Perhaps, being a pastoral council, the bishops weren't interested in arguments, and the simpler intuitive approach to theologt was more to be expected. Still, .Thomas is notably absent from the party. I think the question remains: what is the role of logic in theology? True, logic will tell us only so much. But it's still the best method of self-criticism known to man. Maybe Fr. K. could tell us more about the Council bishops' attitudes towards the old and new. Also, was Maritain involved in any of the discussions back-stage? I've read that Paul VI called him "my personal philosopher", though by the 60's Maritain himself was becoming theologically conservative in some ways. Bill DeH. --My criticism of the Council relative to ethics is that I think that it did not have an adequate appreciation for the value of logician-theologians like Aquinas. Too bad VII didn't have that old warhorse of a Thomist Jacques Maritain as a peritus. He was against the Church's contraception teachings as far back as the 1930s, though he never dared say so publicly for fear of being labeled a heretic. See the Commonweal article about his correspondence with Louis Journet, "Silent Dissenters", CMWL May 18, 2001 by Bernard Doering. I couldn't access it in the CMWL archives under either the title or the author, but you can find it at: often wonder what Church history would have been had Maritain's brand of Thomism been appreciated in the mid-60s. I should note that his brand of Thomism was not the old so-called Thomism of the manuals. He actually read, understood, and was willing to differ with the Master.

Perhaps the biggest mistake throughout Catholic history was/is to canonize either the Fathers of the church or Thomas. At one point (some still do) saints were quoted as infallible. The Fathers of the church relied very strongly on the "pagan" Cicero.All of the above have made mistakes. Some very serious as was Augustine's use of the State to force "heretics" to join the church. This was a most injudicious way to function as a church and this terrible practice has been repeated disastrously throughout the centuries.

To respond: there were a number of periti present who were trained as Thomistic theologians but had evolved from his Middle Age positions using modern historical-critical methodology and 20th century exegesis e.g. Karl Rahner, Edward Schillebeeckx, Yves Congar, even Hans Kung. Go through any of the first ten years of Concilium and most published documents and theologians found there were grounded in neo-Thomistic thought. But, they, like Maritian had evolved.

Bill DeH. --I fear I haven't made my main point about Vat II very clearly. I'm not a theoloogian and can't judge their relative merits. My point was about the different *methods* of theologizing of the medievals and the contemporaries. Both, I think, should be welcome. What upsets me, however, is the loss of the scholastic method -- the systematic criticism of one's own and other argumentation. And this, I fear, is felt in some of the current sexual teachings of the Church.In fact, I have never claimed to be a Thomist myselff, even though I have tremendous respect for what Thomas and the other scholastics achieved. I fear that much of value has been lost by simply ignoring them and their primary method - logic. For instance, the arguments I've seen against abortion by contemporary Catholic ethicians don't seem to even know what the nature of a *proof* is. But maybe I've read the wrong contemporaries. And their arguments anti-contraception are no better.

In our diocesan paper out last wek, our Bishop(Michael Shehan) announced he's bringing the JustFaith program to the dioces through its social justice office. No mention by our pastor in announcements or the bulletin.Reminded me of "our Hearts ArE Burning." Little support locally for a braod effort.So I return to this conference - what will it produce? Papers? Recommendations?Who will follow up? At What level?

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