You Can Look It Up

"So, does the Catholic Church think that capitalism is a good idea or not?” It’s a question law students often raise in my course on Catholic social thought (CST) and our legal system. Why, they wonder, does the church support free-market capitalism on the one hand, and condemn the uneven distribution of wealth it creates on the other? John Paul II’s encyclical on justice and the economy, Centesimus annus (1991), itself doesn’t answer the question. So I try to fill in some of the gaps by assembling snippets from the ongoing debate that would succinctly present the economic and theological issues at stake.

I am a lawyer, not a theologian, so I have been somewhat daunted by the enormous task of plowing through the theological, philosophical, and historical background required to help my students answer such questions. I need help.

Enter the editors of Modern Catholic Social Teaching. In assembling this extraordinarily ambitious reference work, they have done a great service to professors and students alike. Many Catholic academics intuit the potential for a rich dialogue between CST and their particular disciplines, but have been without concise, accurate analyses to help them make the connections. Modern Catholic Social Teaching will go a long way toward filling this gap.

One of the volume’s greatest strengths is that just about every author captures the background that informed the development of the teachings covered. Between the bookends of Michael Shuck’s account of CST from 1740 to 1890 and Todd Whitmore’s snapshot of the Catholic peace movement, most essays at least touch on how CST documents took shape against the backdrop of social movements and “prophetic shock minority groups,” as Charles Curran calls them. This approach not only makes for interesting and lively reading, but also grounds the analyses in a rich cultural context.

A weakness of the book involves the question of John Paul II’s legacy. For example, the editors’ concern that “no one papal voice dominate” led to the exclusion of Evangelium vitae, an encyclical packed with classic CST on some of the most important social issues of our time. In several essays peppered with implicit or explicit digs at the late pope, one can see that John Paul’s prominent personality preoccupies the contributors.

Consider John R. Donahue’s assessment of CST’s shift toward a grounding in Scripture more than natural law. On one hand, he can’t but acknowledge John Paul’s frequent use of Scripture in his social encyclicals. Then, after an insightful synthesis of biblical themes relevant to CST, Donahue’s analysis is overtaken by complaints about John Paul’s tendencies toward a “new dogmatism” and his appointment of bishops who care little for social justice. Ultimately, his essay leaves unanswered the core question of whether John Paul II’s use of Scripture contributes to the hoped-for engagement of biblical studies with CST.

A similar discomfort with John Paul II’s pontificate may also account for the fact that the book ignores the Compendium on the Social Doctrine of the Church, published by the Pontifical Council for Peace and Justice and available in English in November 2004. If the editing process was too far along to incorporate this reference, a note to that effect in the introduction could have helped orient readers to an additional resource.

Some authors critique the Catechism’s treatment of CST as too limited; it might have been more appropriate to engage the Compendium on these points. The Compendium might also have provided broader support for several of the thematic discussions. For example, David Hollenbach’s discussion of the trinitarian theological ground of human sociality—a relatively new approach to social ethics—might have benefited from examining the Compendium’s extensive discussion of this point. Similarly, Patricia Lamoureux’s note that solidarity is the “deep theory” of recent CST would have found additional support in the Compendium.

For the most part, these oversights are minor distractions in an otherwise evenhanded presentation. Occasionally, though, the distraction becomes a distortion. After her otherwise brilliant analysis of Dignitatis humanae, Leslie Griffin launches into a scathing critique of what she calls John Paul II’s “error has no rights” pontificate. Griffin sees Dominus Iesus (2000), the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s instruction on the evangelizing mission of the church, as the centerpiece of John Paul’s II’s papacy, thus overshadowing Dignitatis humanae’s hopes for ecumenism and its warnings against proselytism. Certainly Dominus Iesus represents one end of the lively tension between an evangelizing “witness” to the truth and a respectful interfaith dialogue, but it is hardly the whole story. Griffin could have benefited from more conversation with David Hollenbach, who (writing on the same themes about the same time period) concluded that during the pontificate of John Paul II, “dialogue with other religions in the pursuit of human solidarity and justice has entered the mainstream of Catholic life and thought.” Likewise, she might have drawn different conclusions had she also discussed how John Paul’s teaching and example were received “on the ground” in the social movements working in ecumenical and interreligious dialogue.

Several authors note what Christine Firer Hinze describes as the “Rorschach test” quality of modern social encyclicals: sympathetic readers tend to see the principles they support, while critics perceive the ideas they oppose. If we hope to move beyond this tendency—or at least to appreciate the extent to which CST elides “neat ideological categories”—we must find a way to develop productive conversations about CST that reach across political and ideological lines.

To assemble a group of scholars who represent, as Kenneth Himes puts it, “the broad spectrum of progressive Catholicism,” and who aim to treat “other strands” with “respect and fairness” is a good start. Still, as polarization in the U.S. church increases, we urgently need to create lines of communication between scholars across the political divide. We must open ourselves to one another’s critiques, so that together we can delve into what CST has to offer our society.

Modern Catholic Social Teaching is a valuable contribution to the literature. For the next step, U.S. scholars may want to consider the advantages of reflecting more fully on CST within the context of global diversity. Both our transnational church and our globalizing world require the richness and complexity of a broader exchange. As we work through the tensions inherent in any such discussion, we have much to gain by letting our questions and analyses be shaped, in the words of Himes, by “the eye-opening diversity of experience present within the universal church.”

Published in the 2005-10-21 issue: 

Amy Uelmen is director of the Fordham University School of Law Institute on Religion, Law, and Lawyer’s Work.

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