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Vol 37 No 4


Brian Lewis

Philip Malone MSC

Liz Hepburn IBVM

Tom Ryan SM

Neil Pembroke

Bruce Duncan CSsR

John Ryan


Kevin Mark


A schizophrenic process in the Church?

The conservative retreat from the social dimension of the Gospel


ONE OF THE increasing problems facing the Catholic Church in Australia is the difficulty of integrating the social aspects of the Gospel as an integral part of Catholic thought and practice. The problem has been accentuated by the promotion of more traditionalist trends in the Church, with a higher stress on inner-Church discipline, devotionalism and conservative interpretations of doctrine. What has been notably missing in places is a wider sense of evangelisation, as calling for a deeper engagement with societies and cultures, and as vigorously encouraging the vocation proper to lay people of transforming the world to approximate more closely the Reign of God which Christ will usher in at his final Coming.

I do not wish to caricature such a conservative agenda, for it is genuinely trying to address serious problems. Many people are still abandoning regular Sunday Mass, even among stalwarts. The almost wholesale departure of the young from Church involvement is deeply alarming, and one cannot help fearing that we will see a further collapse of Mass attendance in the next decade. Recruitment to the clergy and religious life is perilously low, threatening the continued existence of many religious orders in Australia and even the regular celebration of the Eucharist in many communities. It is not surprising then, that some Catholics and clergy wish to return to an earlier pattern of Catholicism, emphasising the authority of the Church to decide moral issues, trying to revive earlier forms of devotionalism and promoting more conservative interpretations of Church doctrine.

This agenda may indeed be helpful to some people, but as a general pastoral strategy I believe it is doomed to fail. The Church is now deeply committed to ecumenism and inter-religious dialogue, and the cohesive sociological forces generated among Catholics by sectarianism are no longer operative. The strong ‘ghetto’ strategy which served us so well in the past is now not appropriate. In my view at least, those who try to re-invent it in Australia may well gather a small coterie around them, but they will be seen as a small sect-like group isolated from the wider culture, polarising the Church, and basically irrelevant to major issues of the day.
It may well be true in Australia, as Peter Steinfels fears for the United States, that the Church ‘is on the verge of either an irreversible decline or a thoroughgoing transformation’.1 Much will depend on the calibre of clerical and lay leadership to improve the quality of discussion in the Church.

There are competing agendas in the Church about how to respond, though these are overlapping and complex. John L Allen in the National Catholic Reporter of 7 November suggested that the cardinals themselves could be grouped under four headings:
•‘The Border Patrol’ group of doctrinal conservatives worried about secularisation, relativism and the loss of Catholic identity;
•‘The Reform Party’ of doctrinal moderates seeking to advance the agenda of Vatican II on decentralisation, the role of the laity, etc.
•‘The Social Justice Party’, concerned with the great issues outside the Church, including hunger, poverty, war and injustice.
•And ‘the Integralists: Cultural conservatives’ who want Church teaching written into civil law.

Peter Steinfels commented that most observers would identify Pope John Paul II predominantly as combining doctrinal conservative and social justice positions.2 But all four broad positions have their advocates in the Roman curia and among the cardinals, and compete against one another to make their voices heard, sometimes to the confusion or embarrassment of Catholics elsewhere.
The last category of Integralists would be rare in Australia, where in recent decades most bishops were pastoral men predominantly supportive of social justice and the progressive agenda of Vatican II. More recently, however, there has been a swing to some who champion the doctrinal conservative agenda. These are the favourites of such traditionalist groups as the promoters of the magazine AD 2000.

My concern in this article is to argue that this traditionalist agenda tends to downplay or ignore the social justice concerns of the Church, despite the many social justice interventions by recent popes.

In the view of many, the traditionalist agenda fails to respond adequately to the call of the Second Vatican Council to listen to the signs of our times and engage more forcefully with our culture and history. It directs its energy to shoring up internal Church cohesion but resiles from much of the ‘ad extra’ agenda of the Council. Some conservative strategies rightly place a high priority on developing youth groups, but excessively stress compliance with certain practices and devotions. Where is the formation for social activism that, for example, the Young Christian Workers’ model once provided, in engaging with the real issues of the workplace, wrestling with the implications of the Gospel for their situation, and training people to act on their own initiative?

The failure in this traditionalist view to integrate the social dimensions of the Gospel is leading, in my view, to a schizophrenic or dualistic view that elevates the inner-church world to such a dominant place that the ‘ad extra’ dimensions of social engagement and transformation are left hanging in limbo, or implicitly relegated to a secondary, even optional, place. It does not explicitly reject the social imperatives of the Council, but in practice tends to ignore them, or does not know what to do with them.

The resurgence of this traditionalism is relatively new in Australia, but is connected with conservative theological movements in the Vatican itself. Church documents can be analysed to see how they reflect the views of competing groups in Rome and elsewhere. Many documents attempt to reconcile such differences, but I will illustrate how the social justice agenda has been downgraded even in the 1994 Catechism of the Catholic Church with its deeply flawed synthesis of Catholic social teaching.

Social Flaws in the Catechism
One of the leading US social commentators, John Pawlikowski, in 1999 evaluated the Catechism’s treatment of Catholic social thought, noting the difficult task it faced of synthesising such a vast content. He gave it a mixed report, commending the Catechism’s treatment of the social nature of the person, and the importance of solidarity, particularly to champion greater equality among nations. One of its strongest statements was to condemn ‘the perverse mechanism’ blocking the development of poorer nations; it urged the richer nations to assist them, and to remedy ‘usurious financial systems, iniquitous commercial relations among nations, and the arms race’ (par. 2438). Its sections relating to social and economic justice are comparatively brief (pars. 1877-1948; 2401-2442), as are the sections on war and peace (pars. 2259-2269; 2302-2317).3

However, Pawlikowski found that one of the ‘most glaring omissions’ was ‘the most striking failure of the Catechism to present the quest for justice as absolutely central to the authentic proclamation of the gospel… this teaching can appear to be no more than one of the many dimensions of the Catholic faith. This stands in sharp contrast to the emphasis on human liberation through social commitment as part of the very core of the genuine gospel preaching and evangelization in such documents as the 1971 Synod of Bishops statement on ‘Justice in the World’ and Pope Paul VI’s apostolic exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi. Not a trace of this bold linkage between proclamation and human liberation can be found in the section dealing with ‘Mission’ (849-870).’4

Indeed Justice in the World is never cited. Both Rerum Novarum and Quadragesimo Anno are virtually ignored, while Mater et Magistra and Development of Peoples are cited infrequently. Pacem in Terris is used ‘mostly in relation to the issue of authority in society rather than its central themes of human rights and world peace.’5

Pawlikowski also wrote that ‘the Catechism has failed to capture fully the dynamic relationship posited originally by John XXIII and repeated by Paul VI and John Paul II’ on the importance of the role of government in securing the common good.6

In addition, there is very little attention to structural sin, despite its importance in recent statements by the popes and bishops. And ‘…nowhere does one find a clear presentation of the far-ranging dimensions of the ecological crisis and the pastoral and moral challenge it presents in so many countries in the world.’7

Moreover, as Pawlikowski points out, the Catechism ‘omits the challenging charter of human rights found in Pacem in Terris’, and gives no indication that at Vatican II there was a decisive change in the teaching on religious liberty and in Church-State relations, particularly accepting democracy as the norm. The presentation of the Catechism attempts to demonstrate the logical cohesion of Catholic belief, but is quite ahistorical and unable to show the shifts in Catholic thinking over time in changing contexts.

‘Because we have seen some significantly distorted interpretations’ of Centesimus Annus ‘about Capitalism, something that John Paul himself has critiqued in several addresses subsequent to the encyclical, the Catechism should have included an explicit statement on the Church’s perennial difficulties with Capitalism. If the response is that such a topic is too specific, my response is that the Catechism is quite specific on sexual sins. So why not in the area of economic justice.’8

Pawlikowski continued that the Catechism is ‘weak, and I would even be prone to say misleading’ in its treatment of migration, which Pacem in Terris declared a basic human right. ‘And the emphasis is almost as much on the right of political authorities to circumscribe immigration and the gratitude immigrants are to show to host countries than it is on the natural right of emigration/immigration as set down by John XXIII. The Catechism’s treatment of this subject has fallen far short of presenting the full t[h]rust of Catholic social teaching.’9

Pawlikowski was also critical of the use of non-inclusive or sexist language, and especially ‘the forced retranslation’ of the Catechism which he regarded as ‘a violation of human equality’.10 One can only agree with Pawlikowski about the need to use inclusive translations, which are now commonly regarded as the courtesies of language in the English-speaking world. To deliberately return to non-inclusive language, given the strength of feeling about this issue even among many men, is simply incomprehensible.

One must be even more concerned about whether non-inclusive language will be imposed on the translations of the new missal. At a time when the Australian bishops have been trying to engage women in a constructive dialogue about their role in the Church, to impose non-inclusive language, even against the wishes of many if not most of the bishops, is to my mind pastorally gravely irresponsible. If one wanted to offend and antagonise many women and to drive them out of the Church, this is certainly the way to do it.

The Catechism’s Deficiencies About War and Peace
A further grave inadequacy in the Catechism in its views on war and peace became evident during the debate over the 2003 Iraq war. Pars. 2307-2309 are too condensed to reflect adequately the conditions for fighting in war, and there is no discussion at all of a principled pacifist option, or of international frameworks of peace or the role of organisations like the United Nations in conflict mediation.

Even the usual criteria for a just war are not all clearly listed. The Catechism does mention the criteria of: just defence [against an unjust aggressor], with the damage ‘lasting, grave and certain’; last resort; the need for serious prospects of success; defence must not produce greater harm; (2309) and non-combatant immunity (par. 2313).

But it does not discuss the criterion of legitimate authority, simply asserting that when ‘there is no international authority with the necessary competence and power’, governments have a right to self-defence, ‘once all peace efforts have failed’ (2308). There is no explicit discussion of just cause, and certainly no mention of ‘a right of pre-emptive strike’. Nor is there any mention of the traditional criterion of ‘right intention’, or the goal of restoring a peace with justice. It recognises that those who possess ‘modern scientific weapons—especially atomic, biological, or chemical weapons’—may commit ‘indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas’, but it does not condemn such weapons in principle (par. 2314). It does reject the arms race and excessive military spending (2315-2316).

The most astonishing failure in the treatment of just war is its statement in par. 2309: ‘The evaluation of these conditions for moral legitimacy belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good’.

In other words, political authorities are to decide the morality of a war. How convenient for them! As we saw during the recent war on Iraq, apologists for the Bush Administration quoted this passage to deny the churches a right to decide on the morality of the war. In short, this passage naively surrendered to political expediency any role for the Church in determining the morality of war. Despite the strong opposition of the Pope and bishops’ conferences around the world, it allowed the partisans of the war to pit the Catechism against those denying the moral legitimacy of the invasion of Iraq, and helped confuse Catholics and others about what was the Church’s stand.

Not only that, but par. 2310 declared: ‘Public authorities, in this case, have the right and duty to impose on citizens the obligations necessary for national defense’ [italics in original], seeming to imply that citizens were obliged to accept the case for war. Fortunately par. 2311 added: ‘Public authorities should make equitable provision for those who for reasons of conscience refuse to bear arms’, but did not consider what might be done when the leading Church authorities refuse to accept a war as just, even though a government so declare it. Nor did par. 2311 distinguish between conscientious objection in principle, or objection to a particular war.

The presentation in the Catechism of Catholic teaching and thinking on just war and international relations is evidently seriously deficient, even ignoring aspects of the thinking of Pacem in Terris and Pope Paul VI, not to mention many of the interventions by John Paul II himself, especially given his strong opposition to the 1990-91 war against Iraq. It is difficult to explain how such a treatment was accepted into such an important document.

Admittedly, such a document not only has to synthesise complex issues compiled by numerous experts, but represents the results of compromises among different views in Rome, particularly of the final editors. In the case of the war and peace issues, par. 2309 in particular seems to reflect the influence of some the neoconservative authors, Michael Novak and George Weigel. Certainly these sections of the Catechism gel closely with their later partisan interventions in 2002-03 in support of the Bush Administration.

What Happened to Human ‘Liberation’ as a Key Category?
What is missing overall from the Catechism is the passionate engagement with the major problems of the contemporary world, not just against war, but against the economic domination that is trying to reshape world culture and civilisations. There is occasional mention of the great drama of hunger and poverty in the world, but it is not given the prominence that John Paul gives it in his speeches.

I could not locate a single reference in the Catechism to liberation theology and its continuing importance for developing nations especially, yet the struggle for human and social liberation in all its dimensions is one of the greatest yearnings of contemporary cultures, and is intimately linked with the Gospel. The 1971 Synod of Bishops in Rome famously declared:
Action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world fully appear to us as a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the Gospel, or, in other words, of the Church’s mission for the redemption of the human race and its liberation from every oppressive situation (Justice in the World, Introduction).

This passage is entirely and inexplicably missing from the Catechism, yet it is regarded as one of the most critical in the whole of modern Catholic social teaching. Nor did the Catechism quote Pope Paul VI in Evangelii Nuntiandi (1975):
Hence, when preaching liberation and associating herself with those who are working and suffering for it, the Church is certainly not willing to restrict her mission only to the religious field and dissociate herself from man’s temporal problems (#34).

Paul VI continued:
[The Church] is trying more and more to encourage large numbers of Christians to devote themselves to the liberation of humanity. She is providing these Christian ‘liberators’ with the inspiration of faith, the motivation of fraternal love, a social teaching…to translate it concretely into forms of action, participation and commitment (#38).

And what of Pope John Paul’s own many speeches on human liberation, even from when he became Pope? In Rome on 21 February 1979, he declared: ‘Christ! It is necessary to speak of our liberation in Christ; it is necessary to proclaim this liberation. It must be integrated in the whole contemporary reality of human life’.

After the disputes over liberation theology in the mid-1980s, John Paul wrote to the bishops of Brazil on 9 April 1986 that as long as the work of social transformation was located properly within the evangelising mission of the Church, ‘the theology of liberation is not only timely but useful and necessary’, especially ‘for inspiring pastoral praxis in favour of social justice, equity, the observance of human rights, the construction of a human society based on brotherhood, harmony, truth and charity.’

As I have written elsewhere, John Paul’s program for the Great Jubilee drew from the concept of the Exodus as a foundational metaphor for Jesus as he states his mission in Luke 4. The Pope wanted to emphasise and integrate the social dimensions of the Gospel.11 The program for the new millennium can be seen as his attempt to articulate a liberation theology for the entire world, which he speaks of as ‘our commitment to history’. ‘Intense prayer, yes, but it does not distract us from our commitment to history: by opening our heart to the love of God it also opens it to the love of our brothers and sisters, and makes us capable of shaping history according to God’s plan’ (At the Beginning of the New Millennium, 33).

John Paul reiterated this message in 2001 in his Apostolic Exhortation following the 1998 Synod of Bishops for Oceania, Ecclesia in Oceania:
The Church regards the social apostolate as an integral part of her evangelising mission to speak a word of hope to the world; and her commitment in this regard is seen in her contribution to human development, her promotion of human rights, the defence of human life and dignity, social justice and protection of the environment (#26).

Again, ‘It is certain that commitment to justice and peace is an integral part of the Church’s mission to the world’ (#26).
In short, the Catechism fails adequately to reflects the urgency of the social justice agenda at this stage of history, or its poignant relevance for evangelisation, especially when by 2020, eighty percent of the world’s Catholics will live in developing countries wrestling with the dramatic issues of social injustice, widespread hunger and endemic poverty. It seems inconceivable that the Vatican will not have to give these issues much greater attention, as the increasing numbers of bishops from crisis-ridden developing countries will undoubtedly become more demanding that the social justice agenda be given a much higher profile.

Leadership and the Social Agenda
Neglect of the social implications of the Gospel by conservative sections of the Church is reflected in debates between different groups in the Vatican itself. Writing of how these factional struggles affect episcopal appointments, the distinguished US Jesuit social commentator, John Langan, wrote recently that certain elements in the Roman curia ‘have generally, though not always, shown a strongly conservative trend.’

Many of the proponents of this ‘restorationist’ agenda have been political and economic conservatives, as well; but this is clearly not true of the Pope himself, who has been a vigorous advocate of human rights and democracy and a stern critic of the neglect of the needs of the poorest.

Langan argues against the polarising tendency of this new conservatism. Instead he calls for leadership with ‘a genuine ability to meet the needs of people who are religious seekers and who are often living on the fringes of the Church. Dismissing such people because their faith is weak or confused or because their lives are not conformed to Catholic teaching in key respects, and even exulting in the prospect of a smaller but purer Church when these have departed, should be seen as incompatible with the example of Jesus…’
Langan regrets that criteria for the appointment of bishops are giving first place to ‘organisational reliability and a partisan version of theological orthodoxy’, above ‘pastoral service and cultural sensitivity.’12

I would add to Langan’s account that the conservative agenda will in the public mind not only lock the Church too exclusively into often private matters of sexuality and bioethics, but obscure the rich tradition of Church social engagement, with its larger sense of evangelisation. The paradox is, as Langan noted, that few have done more to advance this social agenda than John Paul II, through his numerous encyclicals, speeches and symbolic gestures around the world.

Yet some of those who extol their doctrinal orthodoxy most vigorously seem unable to grasp the implications for the Church’s social agenda. Instead of opening a fresh conversation with Catholics, and indeed other believers, about how we might respond to the great challenges of our time, there is sometimes a retreat to an unconvincing piety, an almost triumphalist declaration of Church authority, and insistence on uncritical compliance. Most offensive is the implication by some conservatives that they alone are orthodox.

The two great models of clerical leadership in recent times have to my mind been the English Cardinal Hume and the US Cardinal Bernardin who were able to engage their cultures in an intelligent and joint search for wisdom, with great integrity and respect for others. The social agenda of the Vatican Council was also close to their hearts, not an afterthought.

It is undoubtedly difficult at many levels of leadership in the Church to manage the tensions between competing views among Catholics. And it would be unreasonable to expect bishops in particular to be always ready to speak out on a whole range of social issues, unless they have the required expertise in specific areas. The more fundamental question is how do we develop and speak more collaboratively as a Church, encouraging better structures of participation and drawing on the skills in our community, while supporting lay people inspired by Catholic social principles to engage wider social matters on their own initiative.

Social activism has been a strong tradition in the Australian Church during the last century, and has been reinvigorated especially by the leadership of various bishops, with support for the justice and peace commissions and other social agencies in many dioceses, Caritas of course, the enthusiasm of many religious orders, and myriad groups in parishes or regions, often working ecumenically or on an inter-religious basis. Pressing crises like that of East Timor, the asylum seekers and the Iraq war continually stimulate the formation of new networks.

I am deeply convinced that the social agenda of our time—equity and justice in our own society, global poverty and hunger, social inequality, violence and war, ecological sustainability and respect for other cultures, religions and races—are privileged vehicles for modern peoples to explore the meaning of God in their lives and the traces of grace drawing us into the future. What clearer signs of the times could we possibly want? Is this not precisely Vatican II’s agenda in The Church in the Modern World, which Popes Paul VI and John Paul II have repeatedly urged us energetically to embrace? The traditionalist agenda blindly ignores all this and risks undermining these urgent dimensions of evangelisation.

Bruce Duncan CSsR lectures at Yarra Theological Union. His publications include The Church’s social Teaching From Rerum Nov-arum to 1931, and Crusade or Conspiracy: Catholics And The Anti-Communist Struggle in Australia..

1 Peter Steinfels, The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003), 1.
2 Peter Steinfels, ‘The pigeonholing of religious combatants’, New York Times, 22 November 2003.
3 John Pawlikowski, ‘Catholic Social Teaching in the Catechism’, in Ethics and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, (ed. Michael E Allsopp. Scranton: University of Scranton Press, 1990, 145-46). Pawlikowski is currently president of the International Council of Christians and Jews.
4 Ibid., 148-49.
5 Ibid., 145.
6 Ibid., 147.
7 Ibid., 149.
8 Ibid., 150.
9 Ibid., 151.
10 Ibid.
11 ‘Launch out into the deep: why the Pope stresses social concern so strongly’, Summit, 28, 3 (September 2001), 16-17.
12 John Langan, ‘Cleaning up the mess’, Tablet, 25 October 2003.