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Issue Date:  February 10, 2006

By Richard W. Gillett
Pilgrim Press, 240 pages, $26
Work, property, capitalism and the church


One often hears the lament that the great history of Catholic social teaching is among the best-kept secrets of even the progressive Catholic community. The Rev. Richard Gillett, a retired Episcopal priest, takes on that challenge as it applies across the whole denominational spectrum of the entire Christian tradition.

This remarkably readable overview of church history and economic theory gives our own evolving Christian social tradition, interpreted at its best, an opening to evaluate all economic theory and practice, up to and including the new global transformation of the last two or three decades. In that process, we are encouraged to engage in reclaiming the lost and neglected ground of our very own history and theology, one firmly rooted in the Bible.

After an overview of the New Globalization, Rev. Gillett structures his synthesis of church and economy around three themes: work and its evolution; changing concepts of poverty through the ages; and the whole notion of economy or oikonomia, the Global Household. He then sketches some substantive conclusions on making connections to the global economic order in public policy choices, on energizing the local church to action projects with global implications, and on the relationship between theologizing and organizing in reclaiming our religious heritage.

The engagement of the church in issues of work and poverty is traced from the early church, through the medieval period and then the Reformation, up to our current crisis of global capitalism. Special emphasis is placed on the medieval insistence that providing material relief to the poor is an act of justice rather than of charity. This came from the widely accepted medieval understanding of property, in which canonists and theologians spoke of a “community of property.”

This concept, with roots in natural law, prevents private property from having absolute rights, and it supported the medieval church when it claimed that the care and protection of the poor in society were within the purview of ecclesiastical authority, and thus regulated by ecclesiastical law. In fact, church historians in recent decades have found that Gratian’s Code of Canon Law in 1140, as it pertains to decrees on poverty, contains an enormous collection of what today would be called case study law on property and the rights of the poor.

This medieval unitary vision came to an end in the 16th century with the fragmentation of the Protestant Reformation, the sharply expanded economic life of mercantile Europe, and the rise of capitalism. It remained submerged until it began to reappear in England in the mid-19th century, with the influential work of the Anglican F.D. Maurice. Maurice’s view of our Global Household -- the oikonomia --and the right of the church to address it was rooted in his incarnational theology that asserted that everything that affects the world, every human activity, must become important for the Christian. Early in the last century, the social gospel movement in the United States emerged as a powerful voice in response to the oppression of the industrial revolution and as an influential seed for the reforms of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Progressive Era.

Rev. Gillett highlights the milestone papal encyclicals Rerum Novarum and Quadragesimo Anno in the Catholic church’s rediscovery of the social gospel in its fullness. He traces a vital exchange of vision and experience as the churches tried to engage with the industrial workplace in the mid-20th century, especially in France, Britain and the United States. It began with priests working in Paris factories in 1944 and Cardinal Emmanuel Suhard’s famous pastoral letter of 1947 establishing the Mission de Paris, challenging priests and members of local congregations to link their spirituality and life with that of the workers. In England, Anglican priest Ted Wickham, deeply inspired by the French example, established in 1944 an “Industrial Mission” in Sheffield, in the heart of industrial England. Adapting Rev. Wickham’s model, Episcopal priests Hugh White and Scott Paradise began the Detroit Industrial Mission in 1956, an ecumenical venture that also sparked a pioneering Presbyterian industrial team ministry. In the 1960s Industrial Missions were flourishing in about a dozen cities in the Midwest, Northeast and South.

By the mid-1970s almost all of the Industrial Mission network had closed. The goal of integrating parish churches and clergy with the life of industry and a mutual exploration of the values of the industrial world remained unmet. But much had been learned in this whole long journey of the past 40 years, both here and in Europe. Rev. Gillett sums up by marveling at “the extraordinary reach of consciousness that the Catholic priests in Paris showed in perceiving that the industrial world of work was a place of profound social alienation.” And further, “we also have to marvel that a prelate with the rank of cardinal commissioned these clergy and sent them into the factories with his blessing.”

In creating fresh ways to connect new global realities with our religious tradition, Rev. Gillett shines a special light on the successes of international debt cancellation and the Jubilee 2000 movement. The world debt issue has broadened church awareness that global corporate and financial power in the 21st century is exactly that: global. He sees particular hope in how an international coalition of Jubilee churches working at the local level were able to lobby effectively with national and international economic institutions by developing strong grass-roots forces who could talk persuasively to elected representatives.

Rev. Gillett confesses, rather disarmingly, that he is only a reader of church history and an incorrigible news junkie on significant stories about economics and globalization, hoping that he “will encourage people to feel that no elevated academic credentials are necessary as a prerequisite for the serious understanding of our social history as Christians.” He concludes with the belief that in response to the challenge of the new global capitalism, the churches are beginning to assert once again a more comprehensive global and theological vision of ministry, and that “perhaps church people are in fact more ready to hear and respond to the great issues of global injustice than we give them credit for.” His exciting overview of church history and global economics can help to make that happen.

Dr. Thomas E. Ambrogi is an interfaith theologian and an organizer on a wide range of international development issues. With an earlier history as a Jesuit priest and a university professor of theology and the applied social sciences, he lives in Claremont, Calif.

National Catholic Reporter, February 10, 2006

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