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Catholic Social Conscience: Reflections and Action on Catholic Social Teaching

Ed. Keith Chappell and Francis Davis
ISBN: 978-0852447734
Publication details: Gracewing, 2011 267 pages
Category: Social justice and environment

Catholic Social Conscience is a vitalising workbook, a collection of some sixteen essays by scholars and practitioners which assess the actual, contemporary impact of Catholic Social Teaching (primarily presented in twentieth century encyclicals) and propose an extension of its reach into the depths of twenty-first century challenges. The collection seeks to meet one of the challenges for the Church in this age of instant media: to overcome the temptation not just of populist scapegoating (which prevents an honest appraisal of positions and strengths) but of ‘reading the signs of the times’ far too superficially.

The contributors to this brilliantly challenging collection attempt to ‘establish navigation points for discerning the present initial foundation stones for a future journey of conversation and new studies to undergird exploration and fresh practice’ (p. 258). Noting that only 26% of UK Catholics surveyed in 2008/9 were ‘fully aware of the Second Vatican Council’ and pointing to ‘a mismatch of words and convictions between the Episcopal and the parochial levels’, Francis Davis points out that, ‘even for Bishops, the defining and description of principles and reasons is all well and good but we must also recognise the pragmatic dimension or indeed the realpolitik of the ideation and implementation of social teaching’. He suggests that ‘the think tanks of the neo-liberal and neo-conservative political right have, in proportion to their resources, achieved more cultural traction, elite buy in and institutional impact than almost all of the local Churches’ (p. 202). For all our encyclicals, we have limited impact on the world and lives of the people around us.

Yet in recent years Catholic Social Teaching has received interest from outside quarters: economics commentator, Will Hutton regards our tradition as a vital ethical approach to the financial crisis; historian, Eric Hobsbawm in his latest work cites Pope John Paul II as the twentieth century’s best critic of liberal capitalism; and, closer to home, ‘Big Society’ proponents pray in aid Catholic teaching on subsidiarity. Theologian, Erik Borgman explores this principle of Catholic Social Teaching in the first essay and re-roots its challenging, radical depths in an awareness that ‘we are one another’s wealth’. He presents it as a tool to allow us to avert the damaging effects of populism and begin to tackle, ‘the experience of not being really part of things, not being seen or heard, not being paid attention to, not being taken seriously in their experiences and struggles, in their griefs and anxieties’, that characterises the lives of far too many ordinary Europeans. Ellen Van Stichel takes us into the Church’s concept of global justice as participation (‘persons as agents of their own history’ [p. 36]), through which the Bishops might not question only ‘what the economy does for people’ but ‘how people participate in it’. Keith Chappell on ‘The Human Person and Human Rights’ is complemented by Jolantha Babiuch’s historical account of personalism (not to be confused with individualism) from an East European perspective, though she notes that while personalism ‘generated some fruitful ideas in the area of civil society’, it ‘had rarely produced any developed economic thought’(p. 72).

A central group of essays reminds us to pay much closer attention to the Eastern European experience, too quickly dismissed since 1989 but still a case in point as Jonathan Luxmore illustrates poignantly in a moving essay on poverty in modern Poland. Europe’s future cannot be limited to the euro crisis but is about shaping relations with and between former states and possibly Turkey.

Essays on ‘Family and Community’ (Prendergast), ‘Advocates and Spiritual Chaplains’ (Morgan) and the potential uses of Pope Benedict’s recent encyclical, Caritas in Veritate in educational action for cultural change (Grace), amplify the detailed empirical research of Davis’ ‘Roman Catholicism and the Welfare Society’. Each of these essays repays careful reflection. Caritas in Veritate itself provides ‘profound guidance for action and transformation’, perhaps not least in its radical approaches to a new ‘economy of communion’ (not followed up in these essays) as the current ‘crisis thus becomes an opportunity for discernment in which to shape a new vision for the future’, as Pope Benedict puts it.

This collection of thoughtful essays, significantly and deeply European in character, will prove groundbreaking, digging much deeper than current ‘crisis accounts’ and challenging our Church to ‘the common task of renewing the social conscience’, developing the real capacity to make a much needed impact in the future.


The reviewer, John Battle is former Member of Parliament for Leeds West.



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