Deep into this highly valuable collection of essays, the moral theologian Martin Schlag notes the distinction drawn by Gustavo Gutiérrez between local churches that mirror their surrounding communities (iglesia-reflejo) and local churches that bring something new to the world (iglesia-fuente). For all its erudition, this collection reflects the ecclesial and political circumstances of its making. Call it scholarship-reflejo rather than fuente. But what a mirror! Not least among its virtues, it throws into stark relief the state of the Church in the United States and Europe.
Catholic social teaching (CST—where the “T” may also stand for thought or tradition) is often contrasted favorably with Catholic moral teaching, which has traditionally been focused on the permissibility of individual acts and is commonly identified with the magisterium’s condemnation of such practices as abortion, contraception, and euthanasia. The editors reject what E. Christian Brugger calls this “spurious conceptual bifurcation” and submit instead that the “exceptionless negative norms” of Catholic moral teaching and the positive principles of CST should be seen “as two sides...of the same moral concern” for integral human fulfillment. Gerard V. Bradley characterizes CST simply as “that part of the Good News that is about justice and genuine human flourishing in society.” Brugger and Bradley present their book, accordingly, as “a corrective to an ideologically lopsided body of literature” that dissents from Catholic moral teaching while celebrating CST as supposedly the best-kept secret of the Church.
Given the ideological impetus of their project, it is not surprising that some of the chapters are marred by swipes, barbs, and other irritable mental gestures directed toward Pope Francis, liberation theology, “Teilhardist” progressives, and lay ecclesial ministers, especially when they are women. There is some genuflecting toward Pope John Paul II as “the saintly pope”; by contrast, Daniel Mahoney’s chapter on Pope Francis’s social teaching is downright condescending. In a characteristic sentence, Mahoney reports that “I am troubled by Pope Francis’s increasing tendency to conflate Catholic wisdom with a left-leaning secular humanitarianism.”
On the whole, though, the essays are very impressive. (Mahoney’s, too, raises important questions about the role of markets in dealing with poverty and climate change.) The two chapters on the historical background of CST—one by John Finnis on Aquinas and the other by Thomas Behr on CST’s nineteenth-century context—are themselves nearly worth the book’s exorbitant price. They are followed by seven chapters of close readings of “the documentary tradition” from Leo XIII to Francis, eleven chapters investigating diverse themes of CST, and three chapters consisting of “evaluative and critical reflections.” The last of those chapters, “A Radical Critique of Catholic Social Teaching,” is also by Finnis, an Australian-born moral philosopher and legal scholar who now teaches at Notre Dame.
In his instructive chapter on CST and finance, Robert Kennedy notes that CST has been “shaped and elicited by challenges of the day,” with the result that it is “topical and not at all a systematic, comprehensive reflection on principles.” Building on the chapters devoted to close readings of major CST documents, the chapters on themes piece together oft-cited principles of CST like the common good; the so-called universal destination of the goods of creation (glossed by V. Bradley Lewis as “things are for people”); subsidiarity; and the preferential option for the poor. Catherine Ruth Pakaluk makes a compelling case that “socialism and communism are the founding heresies” of CST, to which it developed in reaction. Lewis underscores the classic conservative worry shaping early CST that “the reduction in the pluralism of institutions and communities in modern society...has left the individual face to face with the state.” Maria Catherine Cahill argues, along similar lines, that the main point of the principle of subsidiarity “is to say that associations exist independently of the state and prior to the state,” which should recognize a substantial measure of associational freedom “out of respect for [associations’] prior claims to self-government.” Martin Schlag’s chapter on the preferential option for the poor examines the influence of liberation theology and the closely related “theology of the people” on CST, leading, through the papacy of Paul VI, to Francis’s understanding of the poor as “teachers of what Christ wants the Church to know here and now.” Reflecting the classically conservative dimension of CST, Christopher Wolfe cautions that “the emphasis in modern CST on expanding powers of government to meet...obligations required by the common good has not been matched by a corresponding concern for institutional limits.”
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