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The Social Mission of the U.S. Catholic Church: A Theological Perspective, by Curran, Charles E., Georgetown Univ. Press, Washington D.C., 2011, pp. 196 incl. Index

As we approach the half-way point in this year’s GIFT Program, it occurred to me that the book I am about to describe might be attractive both to folks not enrolled in the program as well as those who have been attending the sessions. For the first group, The Social Mission of the U.S. Catholic Church will supply the framework and the foundational material which has given the impetus to this program, goading the reflective reader to venture further to awaken interest and acquire further material on the subject.

For the second group, those who are participating in the Action for Justice Program, this book will more than fill in the blanks; it will provide not only useful insight into how we came to stand where we are today in the Church, but also a sound spring-board for continuing the mission which is the responsibility of all of us.

From the earliest days of the Catholic Church in this country, there has been an identifiable concern for those in need and the appropriate response to them. The scope and catchment of that response has varied widely over the generations, and not surprisingly, so also has the theological impetus. “Looking after one’s own,” was the stance, first, of the small clusters of Catholics in the early colonial days and the initial days of the new nation. Catholics were very much a minority, and “charity begins at home.” This pattern continued with the arrival of various groups of immigrants, poor in most instances, and isolated because of language, customs and appearance. Fraternal organizations developed, generally consisting of people from the same locale as their immigrant neighbors, dedicated to providing for widows, the unemployed, orphans and homeless. The St. Vincent de Paul Society came into being as a service of Catholic parishes in 1845.

These years saw the development of the Catholic School system, Catholic Hospital Services, and the beginning of the labor movement which had a direct impact on Catholic laborers. Not surprisingly, participants in all of these functions began to turn outward in their awareness and concerns; the siege mentality of earlier days was transformed into greater inclusivity. Several historic events contributed to propelling this new impetus: first, the Civil War, then, World War I, then, the Great Depression, followed by World War II. Responses to these events, which had an impact far beyond members of the Catholic communities, came from both the Catholic hierarchy and the Catholic laity. Questions of war, racism, unemployment, hunger and homelessness required more than charitable action; it required reflective thought and planning stemming from conviction that social justice was integral to Catholic faith and life. Efforts in this direction were not wanting; they were, however, just a beginning.

Vatican Council II brought about a new and deeper understanding of Catholic social teaching, melding the role and direction of the hierarchy with the expanding competence and conviction of the laity. The author considers three of the areas of concern which had existed prior to the Council, e.g., Catholic health care services, Catholic Charities, the Catholic Worker Movement, and shows how much of their focus was due at least as much to a new consciousness as it was to social history. Also, in the light of history following on the end of the Council, other areas of concern came to the fore, e.g., questions of peace, the right to life, and the rights of the migrant laborer. None of these areas has ever been without controversy, and as a reader who remembers most of the interactions involved, I found myself caught up, nonetheless, in the excitement and suspense of the engagements.

There was, I thought, significant tendency of Charles Curran toward repetition in the narrative. That might be the result of the enormous scope of the author’s material, or it could come from the skilled teacher’s desire that nothing significant be ignored. Perhaps both.

I found Chapter 7 particularly valuable: “Roles of the Church in Supporting the Social Mission.” Curran describes not only what those roles have been and are in this present moment, but also what they should be tending toward. Many of the richest advances in Catholic social teaching have occurred within the last thirty years and have had considerable impact on the faith community; they are not at a standstill, however. On the parish level, both the Renew Program and the Just/Faith Program have enormous potential. There is clearly a dynamic tension which exists between being educated for justice and acting justly, both as individuals and as institutions. A similar tension often exists between the hierarchy and the laity, between the local bishop or pastor and the person in the pew. Charity and integrity can dissolve any stalemate. The author’s optimism appears palpably in his concluding section in which he states emphatically the direction and intent of his study: “…the primary challenge facing the Church is to make Catholics understand that action on behalf of justice and transformation of the world is a constitutive dimension of the mission of the Church. ‘…what is most controversial is of minor importance compared to the primary need to educate and form Catholics to take their part in the social mission of the Church as a constitutive dimension of what it means to be Catholic.’”

Maureen F McDermott

December 2011