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Spring Books

Troubling tension brings drama to history of social ethics

By Charles E. Curran
Georgetown University Press, 256 pages, $49.95


One hears it stated that Catholic ethics is more perplexing and the disputes more intractable in the area of personal morality than in the area of social ethics. Many commentators, Charles Curran among them, have noted that Catholicism’s natural law heritage yields troubling conclusions when its teleological and biological aspects are directed, for example, to sexual morality.

While all would certainly not agree that the natural law has ambiguous value as a moral guide, no one would doubt that Catholic ethics in personal matters has been the locus of contentious differences among varying foundational principles and, to say the least, varying ethicists.

On the other hand, it has been just as noteworthy that Catholic social teaching, to use an ironic metaphor, has not proven to be a field of battle, by and large, for rival ethical warriors. In fact, it has been lauded by virtually all commentators, despite methodological differences, as a singular achievement, both in crafting a unique and, to many, inspiring economic and political vision as well as an impressive and consistent set of moral principles.

Curran’s latest volume disturbs the tranquility of those who think the only disputes in social teaching are polite disagreements over the interpretation of principles held in mutual regard. His volume, though in many ways complementary and written in the style of one who knows and loves the church, uncovers a fundamental discord in the development of the social doctrine since the first papal encyclical directed at specifically social matters was drafted by Leo XIII in 1891.

Once again, as with personal moral issues, the roots of the disharmony lie within the natural law, specifically the neo-scholastic interpretation of it made normative for the church in Leo’s pontificate. Curran demonstrates that the hierarchical schema of scholastic thought, in which the church as a supernatural entity stands morally above the natural human sphere, dominated official Catholic pronouncements until the Vatican Council of the mid 1960s.

It was there that a more democratic, dialogical model focused on the subject and a more collegial appreciation of the church’s role within national and world affairs was unveiled.

The appearance of the new theological, ethical, and ecclesial understanding did not replace the old model, however. The two now exist, as the text painstakingly reveals, in a troubling tension, one taking precedence over the other in various key documents. One of the results is that Catholic teaching, while continually employing age-old, and still timely, concepts such as living wage, common good and the sacredness of the person, is left without consistent methodological direction.

The other result, equally troubling, Curran contends, is that documents since Vatican II often reveal a papal sleight of hand, or an unwritten subtext in which fundamental disagreements are hidden between the lines, or craftily reconfigured in the effort to present a consistent teaching. Thus the pontiff or synod can claim that their predecessors, no matter how wrong they may have been, are always held “in happy memory.”

One of the satisfying aspects of the book is the insight into some of the conflicts and compromises that accompanied the creation of several of the tradition’s most memorable and important documents. Curran reveals, for example, how the differences between Marie-Dominique Chenu, the French Dominican theologian, and Pope John Paul II were played out in the pages of Solicitudo Rei Socialis. Chenu had claimed that the “social doctrine” of the church, viewed by him as a deductive and rigid misappropriation of Aquinas, had come to an end with the liberal reforms of the Vatican Council. John Paul then, in silent chastisement, made it a point to mention that very term in the encyclical and underscore its continuing relevance.

Similar insights bring energy and a sense of drama to the construction of key texts. They also accentuate the importance of what Curran is attempting to do in focusing not so much on what the church teaches as on the competing methodological frameworks that shape the style, interpretation and direction of the teaching.

Despite the overall value of this volume, it is not without noticeable flaws. For one who takes such pains to magnify the historical and contingent dimension of ethics and ethicists, Curran apparently assumes everyone knows his “take” on things as he formally reveals nothing of his own methodological prejudice until the very end of the book.

The reader is advised, particularly if not familiar with the author’s previous publications, to begin with the afterword. There the logic that guides the manuscript is presented. It is an unfortunate placement.

Much of the first half of the work is punctuated with a running and highly critical commentary on neo-scholasticism generally (authoritarian, paternalistic and so on), and Leo XIII particularly. The sniping is continuous and distracting to the overall project of systematic analysis.

Had Curran made his point in the beginning concerning the split between natural law and the post-conciliar relation-responsibility model, the reader could have been spared the repetitive needling of neo-scholasticism that mars the flow and readability of what is an important volume, but could otherwise have been a far better one.

Andrew Skotnicki is a Carmelite priest and professor of Catholic social ethics at St. Patrick’s Seminary, Menlo Park, Calif.

National Catholic Reporter, February 1, 2002