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Spring Books

Church is an agent for progress


Being Catholic, says theologian Fr. Charles Curran, is all about trying to change the world, about becoming a “transformative agent.”

“The danger, always,” he said, on the eve of the publication of his latest book, Catholic Social Teaching 1891-Present: A Historical, Theological and Ethical Analysis (Georgetown University Press), “is that as American Catholics we’ll instead give in to the individualistic culture and status quo.”

Catholicism’s bulwark against giving in, Curran argues, is Catholic social teaching -- the key papal and episcopal documents since Rerum Novarum, Leo XIII’s clarion 1891 encyclical on the condition of the working class. However, said Curran, Catholics not only have guidelines, but a guide: Pope John Paul II.

Curran has been a theology professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas since he left The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., in 1988.

“There’s no doubt that some people outside the Catholic church do pay attention to the social teaching,” said Curran, “as when you have [Professor Samuel P.] Huntington of Harvard writing, ‘Who would have believed in 1950 that the greatest force for democracy in the world would have been the Catholic church?’ ”

Curran believes, as does Huntington, that John Paul, “as a transnational actor, has done more for democracy in the developing world, and behind the Iron Curtain, than any other force.”

Curran makes this distinction, however. His book, he said, “shows the tremendous historical development that has occurred in Catholic social thought.” But it is a development, he continued, that has not similarly occurred “in other areas of Catholic teaching, such as sexual morality.” The latter issue has particular relevance for Curran, who was deprived of his right to teach Catholic theology because, the Vatican ruled, Curran’s opinions on Catholic sexual morality -- specifically on the use of artificial birth control in marriage -- ran counter to church teaching.

Explaining the potential impact of Catholic social teaching, he said, “I always go for the idea of a big church. We definitely need the kinds of prophetic witness the radical Catholics bring out. But it is the mainstream church that works to try to change the social structure. In the process, you have to live with compromises. No doubt about it.

“We are in a country,” Curran said, “where there’s heavy individualism. This is the native, inbred individualism that fosters the total free market economy. Catholic teaching stands for a much more communitarian understanding of life and people’s need. We have a teaching, a ritual and a lifestyle that talks communitarian all the time.” Even lackluster Catholic parishes, he said, have social outreach programs, and even social justice or urban ministries -- a marked change from a half-century ago.

Curran’s encapsulation of the key documents from his book offers the following:

  • Rerum Novarum (“The Condition of Labor”), Leo XIII, 1891: “It put the church on the side of the worker; significant in this country, even though the church lost the worker in Europe.”
  • Quadragesimo Anno (“After Forty Years”), Pius XI, 1931: “Developed the theme -- strongly opposed individualism and looked for a more corporatist or solidaristic understanding of society.”
  • Mater et Magistra (“Christianity and Social Progress”), John XXIII, 1961: “Often not given sufficient credit for opening up the teaching beyond the primary issues of labor and the economy. Emphasized the principles of socialization and the need for growing government intervention (much to the chagrin of William F. Buckley, editor of National Review.)”
  • Pacem in Terris (“Peace on Earth”), John XXIII, 1963: “Stressed the need for dialogue, and how that affects the whole church. It was the beginning of the end of the Cold War. You could talk about the differences between ideologies and movements, and that it might be helpful to sit down and talk to people.”
  • Gaudium et Spes (the “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World”), Second Vatican Council, 1965: “Tried to correct the split between faith and daily life that too often characterized Catholic practice. Faith, the gospel and Jesus Christ should have some effect in our daily lives.”
  • Dignitatis Humanae (Declaration on Religious Freedom), Second Vatican Council, 1965: “Major issue -- religious liberty. The church had been strongly opposed to it all its life … and finally brought in change. My criticism there is that we were unwilling to recognize that in the past the church was wrong. We developed this historical hermeneutic that says that what we said in the 19th century was true, and that what we said in the 20th century, that was its opposite, also was true. That we were never wrong.”
  • Populorum Progressio (“On the Development of Peoples”), Paul VI, 1967: “The first great recognition of the international dimension of things. Development is a new name for peace.”
  • Octogesima Adveniens (“A Call to Action on the Eightieth Anniversary of Rerum Novarum”), Paul VI, 1967: “In my judgment, probably the most significant of all the documents, with regard to its methodology, its more inductive approach, its giving much greater significance to the local church, and the very fact that it ends with a call to action. The historical development was that the laity is not there just to carry out the practical teaching of the bishops. But that the people get involved themselves, and sometimes teach the bishops what’s going on.”
  • Justitia in Mundo (“Justice in the World”), Roman Synod, 1971: “Action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world is a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the gospel and the mission of the church for the salvation of humankind. This is so important because it says that without social mission you don’t have church. You can have the best preaching, the best liturgy, the best religious education, but if you don’t have social justice as a mission, you don’t have church.”
  • Evangelii Nuntiandi (“Evangelization in the Modern World”), Paul VI, 1975: “An attempt to bring social justice closer to the whole notion of evangelization. The mission of the church in evangelizing is to live and promote the gospel.”
  • Laborum Exercens (“On Human Work”), John Paul II, 1981: “Many good things, especially the emphasis on the subjective and the person -- that who does it is much more important than what is done. An important development. This pope has taken the freedom of the person and really run with it. In terms of democracy, in terms of economic rights, etc. Unfortunately, John Paul runs away from the much more inductive approach and historical consciousness of Octogesima Adveniens. John Paul would never say what Paul VI said, that ‘It is neither our ambition nor our mission to come out with a universal teaching, rather it is up to the local churches themselves on the basis of their own understanding.’ He has moved away from a more historically conscious methodology.”
  • Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (“On Social Concern”), John Paul II, 1987: “Heavy emphasis on the fact the capitalist and socialist world were responsible for the problems of the Third World.”
  • Centesimus Annus (“100th anniversary of Rerum Novarum”), John Paul II, 1991: “There’s no doubt he’s willing to accept the free market economy provided there are limitations on it in terms, again, of the more communitarian dimension.”

Curran also includes two U.S. Catholics bishops’ pastoral letters, The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response (1983), and Economic Justice for All (1986).

These documents, said Curran, “develop the basic anthropology -- the human person as sacred and social -- that transcends times and cultures. The bishops then use this anthropology to criticize the one-sided individualism so prevalent in our society.

“We have learned,” he said, because of this teaching, “that economic prosperity is not the only good thing in life. The human relationships, human values are out there. And they matter even more.”

Arthur Jones is NCR’s editor-at-large.

National Catholic Reporter, February 1, 2002