Church is an agent for progress
By ARTHUR JONES
Being Catholic, says theologian Fr.
Charles Curran, is all about trying to change the world, about becoming a
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 well instead give in to the
individualistic culture and status quo.
Catholicisms bulwark against giving in, Curran argues, is
Catholic social teaching -- the key papal and episcopal documents since
Rerum Novarum, Leo XIIIs 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.
Theres 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,
Currans 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
theres 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 peoples 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
Currans 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
- 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
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 whats going
- 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 dont have
church. You can have the best preaching, the best liturgy, the best religious
education, but if you dont have social justice as a mission, you
dont 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
- Centesimus Annus (100th anniversary of Rerum
Novarum), John Paul II, 1991: Theres no doubt hes
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: Gods 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 NCRs editor-at-large.
National Catholic Reporter, February 1,