Shifting Realities

Review of Professor Charles Curran's new book, "The Social Mission of the U.S. Catholic Church."

By Richard M. Gula

onversion has been a central theme in the writings of the Rev. Charles Curran from the beginning of his career. It is with him still as the backstory of his interpretation of the social mission of the Catholic Church. The theological framework that prevailed before the Second Vatican Council not only distinguished but also separated the supernatural from the natural, the spiritual from the temporal, the hierarchy from the laity, the church from the world and the mission to sanctify from the mission to humanize. Curran spells out how the conversion of this theological vision yields one social mission for the church, namely, to make action for justice and the transformation of the world a constitutive dimension of the church and of what it means to be Catholic.

Charles E. Curran, the Elizabeth Scurlock University Professor of Human Values at Southern Methodist University, is one of our pre-eminent American Catholic moral theologians of the post-Vatican II era. He has been at the forefront of the renewal of Catholic moral theology and has carried the torch for at least two generations of moral theologians. To this day he continues to produce substantial volumes with the insight and comprehensive scope of a seasoned veteran but also with the freshness of a pioneer.

In 2002 Curran published Catholic Social Teaching: 1891–Present, an exposition and analysis of the Catholic social justice tradition. We now have a follow-up and equally strong work. In his new book Curran points out that our teaching on social justice is not co-extensive with our social mission. As he sees it, clergy, religious and laity have not yet tapped the potential of our tradition of social teaching to bring about a much-needed conversion of social structures, personal attitudes and the cultural environment. The theological, ethical and pastoral dimensions of this volume light the way to such a transformation.

The central aim of this work is to spell out the challenges we face when we take seriously the notion that promoting the church’s social mission is constitutive of proclaiming the Gospel. Like the prophets of Israel, Curran draws power for his proposals from his sense of history. The first two chapters lay out our historical inheritance of a social mission. They show that the ecclesiological vision of the immigrant church too narrowly construed the church and its mission by focusing more on taking care of its own poor than on converting social structures.

Curran is most poignant in the two chapters that develop his ecclesiology and pastoral proposals for participating in the social mission. He is one of our best witnesses to the vitality and promise of the distinctively Catholic features of the church. Inclusivity (the small “c” catholic character of the church) shapes our openness to diversity and legitimate pluralism, even on the prudential judgments we make when applying universal moral principles. While the bishops can speak for the church, the hierarchy does not have a monopoly on truth. The “both-and” approach of Catholicism makes it possible for both the hierarchy and the laity to share responsibility for the mission. In approaching social issues, our unity and diversity make room both for those whose vocation is to witness through nonviolent protest and for those who are called to work through political and economic processes to bring about change.

In addition to learning from the past, the good moral theologian also looks around at what is going on now. The heart of this book is Curran’s look around at three influences on our understanding and structuring of the social mission. The first is ecclesiology. The ecclesiological vision of Vatican II undercut the bifurcation of the temporal and spiritual orders by recognizing that the cooperation of the clergy, religious and laity to better the world is constitutive of the church’s mission to transform the world.

The second influence is the sociological situation of the church. The social mission of an immigrant church that took care of its own by supporting schools, hospitals and labor unions to protect the rights of workers gave way to working with others and for others as the church became assimilated into the American culture. Today’s sociological challenges for carrying out our social mission arise from the new social situation of the Hispanic majority in the church and from the significant loss of church membership.

The third influence is the historical situation in the United States. The poverty of the immigrants gave way to the issues of just wages and working conditions for our farmworkers, of a stable peace in a nuclear age and of abortion in a culture of choice. Today’s historical situation serves up issues of corporate power overwhelming politics, of ecological devastation and of lingering racism and sexism that poisons our political and economic structures.

For Curran, the formation, education and motivation of all Catholics to work for the common good are most urgent. We have our tradition of social teaching that gives us goals to which we aspire, but we also need practical steps: bishops consulting with the faithful in articulating our vision, schools incorporating social teaching across the curriculum, parishes forming socially conscious disciples through liturgical life and outreach services, and charitable institutions (like Catholic Relief Services) meeting immediate needs.

Curran has given us a book to motivate and guide us in this mission. Anyone who wants to see how the social teaching of the church can come to life ought to read it.

Richard M. Gula, S.S., is director of personnel for the Society of St. Sulpice, Baltimore, Md.

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