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Spring Books

Social teaching is church secret

By Thomas Bokenkotter
Doubleday (Image Books), 424 pages, $15.95

By Marvin L. Krier Mich
Twenty-Third Publications, 475 pages, $29.25 (paperback)


Both of these new volumes represent significant contributions to our understanding of the modern Catholic quest for social justice. They complement each other well.

Thomas Bokenkotter’s Church and Revolution traces the development of Catholic social consciousness during the past two centuries through portrayals of 16 historical figures who made a difference in this area. The list is quite varied. Included are the Catholic liberals in France (Lamennais, Montalembert and Lacordaire) who ultimately failed in their efforts to implant a social vision in Catholicism in light of the French Revolution, and others more complicated in their perspectives: Daniel O’Connell and Michael Collins of Ireland, Dom Luigi Sturzo of Italy, Dorothy Day of the United States, Jacques Maritain of France, Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador and President Lech Walesa of Poland.

Finally, we find Cardinal Henry Edward Manning and Msgr. Umberto Benigni. Both were strongly conservative theologically. Benigni was, in fact, a sworn opponent of the Catholic liberals. Both, however, urged support of the workers as the proper Catholic response to Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors, which in their judgment had rightly condemned capitalism’s destruction of the protection workers had enjoyed under the medieval guild system.

The individual essays are written in a captivating style likely to hold the attention both of students and the general reader. Although rooted in sound scholarship, Bokenkotter’s volume will find its niche primarily as a text for college/seminary courses and as an intriguing read for the serious member of the church.

It has been frequently said that Catholic social teaching is the best kept secret in the church. Church and Revolution certainly will greatly help contemporary Catholics in penetrating that veil of secrecy.

I find only one significant drawback to Bokenkotter’s volume, but it is a serious one. In the introduction, he states that he is trying to tell the history of social Catholicism through an account of the lives of those Catholics he considers “prime movers in raising Catholic social consciousness.” But he fails to include Msgr. John A. Ryan, and in so doing he omits a central chapter in the development of social Catholicism’s integration into American Catholicism’s consciousness after Rerum Novarum.

Persistent efforts

This happened in large part through the persistent efforts of Ryan, who worked for several decades in the National Catholic Welfare Conference. His contributions not only to Catholicism but to the nation through his creation of an interreligious coalition in support of the New Deal were immense.

The oversight deprives the reader of an important understanding of how American Catholicism assimilated the American Revolution in ways that are strikingly distinct when compared with Catholicism’s struggle with liberalism in Europe. Ryan was able to incorporate the values of Rerum Novarum and Quadragesimo Anno into the American social system of his time far more successfully than his counterparts in Europe. These two encyclicals succeeded in America whereas they failed in Europe -- with the result that the European working class became largely and permanently alienated from the church.

Surely Ryan deserves a place at the table of prime movers.

Catholic Social Teaching and Movements has a focus similar to Bokenkotter’s book. He and Krier Mich are soul brothers in their conviction that the full story of Catholic social teachings cannot be told through the official texts alone but only by including the influential figures and movements that made those teachings come alive. For Krier Mich this is especially important because he believes that many of the important developments were generated from below rather than from the Catholic establishment, which sometimes tried to thwart such grassroots movements.

In several places Krier Mich directly connects a text with a movement. The clearest example is the link he posits between the thrust of Populorum Progressio and the emergence of the farm workers movement led by Cesar Chavez.

Yet he also underlines an important contrast. Even Populorum Progressio, arguably the most radical of papal social encyclicals, takes a “top down” approach that tries to raise consciousness among the current leaders in society. Chavez, Krier Mich emphasizes, understood that such an approach would prove insufficient. If church teaching were to succeed, organizing at the grassroots was indispensable.

The failure to pay attention to the need for empowerment is, for Krier Mich, perhaps the weakest dimension of Catholic social teaching. Among the initiatives of Catholic institutions, only the Catholic Campaign for Human Development among Catholic institution initiatives has exhibited any serious awareness of this need.

Attitudes toward racism

Krier Mich is to be commended for some of his inclusions. He devotes significant space to the achievements of John A. Ryan. He also devotes an extended section to Catholic attitudes toward racism, which few other volumes of this kind do.

Catholic Social Teaching and Movements grew out of 16 years of teaching experience at St. Bernard’s Institute in Rochester, N.Y. I would strongly recommend it as a classroom text.

But, like Church and Revolution, it has at least one major limitation. Just as I find it difficult to fathom why Bokenkotter failed to include Ryan, so I cannot comprehend -- especially in a volume intended as a basic text in social ministry courses -- why Krier Mich has virtually excluded reference to the social encyclicals of John Paul II, especially John Paul II’s views on capitalism, which have been in considerable dispute in Catholic circles. The only reference to Centesimus Annus, for example, comes in the section on ethics and ecology. Anyone selecting the volume as a basic text will need to make up for this serious lacuna with other readings.

Both these volumes in the end force us to reflect further on several key issues. Why do many Catholics who promote social consciousness in the church eventually fall into disillusionment or become marginalized and even forced to move beyond the parameters of Catholicism? What is the value of the official texts in light of this reality?

Finally, both these volumes’ bottom line seems to be that institutional Catholicism has proved far better at identifying and criticizing social inequalities than at presenting concrete, effective solutions. Does such a position have to remain a constant in Catholicism? Or might it be possible for the church to become a positive source of global social transformation? And can the church ever commit itself in a comprehensive way to the empowerment of people as grassroots leaders, in the way Cesar Chavez insisted was critical for genuine social change?

Servite Fr. John T. Pawlikowski is professor of social ethics at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. He has been active in many social justice organizations and is the coeditor of and a contributor to The Ecological Challenge: Ethical, Liturgical, and Spiritual Responses.

National Catholic Reporter, February 5, 1999