Saturday, May 27, 2006

On social justice and the Church

One of the “battleground” ideas in the ongoing discussions in the Church is a certain tension between social justice and Catholic identity. Generally, those on the “left”, who voted with very little reservation for John Kerry, seem to favor the former, while those who put more attention on the latter were less inclined to vote for Kerry.

The “left” thinks Latin ought to be done away with completely, the Church should “get with the times” on sexual morality, and in general, the Church should focus her efforts on social justice rather than all else: as the kiddie song goes, “and they’ll know we are Christians by our love.”

I’m reading through Thomas Woods’s “How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization”. I wouldn’t say it’s got a lot of scholarly teeth - the author’s enthusiasm for the faith is stated up-front and easily allows a non-Catholic to dismiss it as biased. What it does, though, is put into focus what the Church had on her plate for the first millenium or so - what she was like before there was Christendom.

It seems to me that, in AD 500 or so, social justice was the obvious mission of the Church. Barbarian raids were still a big issue, which decimated the culture that was the Church’s inheritance for the first few centuries. The Gospel really did shake things up for people, in straightforward and obvious ways: no, you really are not supposed to sacrifice each other unto your little pagan deity, but are supposed to be kind to your enemies (!) and pray for your persecutors (??!?!??!).

The Church won that battle - these days, no one in civilized society ritually sacrifices another human being (except for when it’s called “abortion”). We have the “golden rule”, and in general, being kind to one’s neighbor and giving to charity are values that everyone appreciates. (Look at Bill Gates for the political capital to be gained from giving to charity.)

I am becoming leery of people who focus on social justice for the Church because there is nothing distinctly Christian about what we normally think of as social justice in modern society. Sure, we could argue that abortion is an offense against social justice - it is, but not in the general mindset. Not that, intrinsically, there is anything wrong about things not being distinctly Christian. Inter-faith prayer services, when they focus on commonly accepted values like peace are a good thing.

The catch is that when the practice of the Catholic faith resembles other Christian faiths (or even non-Christian practices), the “inconveniences” of being Catholic become more and more of an issue. They become a heavier cross to bear. Further, the “inconveniences” look more and more like holdovers from a bygone era; in this regard, it is perfectly sensible, though still in error, for someone who too heavily emphasizes social justice to regard Humanæ vitæ as outdated and in need of correction/update/etc. These people’s experiences of the faith have taught them that, if only implicitly.

In summary, social justice is great and necessary - but emphasizing it at the expense of other, more distinctly Catholic elements of the faith results in a Church of “good people” who are only different from other “good people” in that they can’t explain why they think so many other “good people” are hurting themselves by using condoms - or, worse, who decide they will be “progressive” and abandon this part of their faith, since they can still think of themselves as “good people”.


At Wednesday, May 31, 2006 10:34:00 AM, Anonymous Brandon Field said...


Fr. Timothy Radcliffe, O.P., gave a talk about the tensions in the Church. It's a bit long, but I found it really well thought out. (Not surprising, since Fr. Radcliffe used to be the Master General of the Dominican Order). NCR has a transcript here. I think it sort of addresses what you're trying to get at here.

At Thursday, June 01, 2006 1:52:00 PM, Blogger Cantor said...


I’ve actually read this. A few thoughts on it:

One niggle: The author may not be familiar with liturgy and translational issues. The Scriptures (Matthew and Mark) say the blood is given up for “many”. The consecration words are “pro multis”. “For all” is ICEL’s work, which probably will be changed in the upcoming Missal.

Interesting, though, the point about how the body and blood aren’t quite to be seen in the same light as the other. Perhaps a justification for the old practice of separate feast days for each?

I don’t know that traditionalists reject dialogue. Most contact I had with that element is rife with *pleas* for dialogue; they seem to feel that the bishops generally turn a deaf ear to them. I think “dialogue” carries with it the idea that “we may not be right”, which is as uncomfortable for those who condemn the old Mass as it is for people who condemn the 1969 Missal.

I do agree that, at least in my parish if not the Church overall, there needs to be stronger outreach to homosexuals. The failure to do so, to recognize this phenomenon among the faithful, is to teach implicitly that the Church has no “answer” at all here, or that she isn’t proud of that teaching. But folks in my parish are *not* ready for, say, the very orthodox priest I had at undergrad who once preached on homosexuality, looking right at us and telling us we were sitting next to people who had this condition as their incredible cross to bear.

He overlooks the fact that many Catholics who, like me, look to pre-V2 liturgical traditions for inspiration, didn’t live through it. I did not endure “so many years of feeling unseen and unregarded”.

I fail to see the tension between a liturgy that is to be celebrated as given, not to be tampered with, and a liturgy that is “prepared for these people, at this time, a unique moment”. Glad to see that he touches on this idea later; I’m still not sure, though, what his point is about following rubrics.

On the sexual ethics. This is why I look with suspicion on things that “warm the Mass up”, make it about the gathered assembly. When we focus on God as a “third party”, we regard less what we know about the person sitting next to us. No one would feel “unwelcome” if there were simply no expectation to be welcome or unwelcome. This is an idealistic view, I know, and it can never approach this ideal (nor, I think, should it)....but this is the virtue I find in the more traditional practice.

Ohhh boy. We distance people from Christ when we refuse to proclaim (what we believe to be) His teachings - *including* the unpopular ones. Teach with charity, certainly, but above all present the message as something serious to be lived by, worthy of surrendering our own desires and impulses.

At Thursday, June 01, 2006 2:53:00 PM, Anonymous Brandon Field said...

I bought his book, "What's the point of being a Christian?" and it just arrived yesterday. I'll let you know what I think when I read through it. All of the things I've read from Fr. Radcliffe (his talks on from his time as Master General) have really impressed me. In this particular talk, I liked the deference that he gave to both of the "sides" of the modern Catholic Church. Keeping his Dominican background in mind, and the traditions of the disputatio, is important I think to understand what he really means when he says "dialogue". Elsewhere, he has said: "The concept of the ancient 'dispute' was that one did not win by showing the error of one's opponent, but rather by showing that he was correct, even though only partially. In place of overthrowing him by showing how wrong he was, one had to find some place to accept the minimum of truth that he possessed. It was a form of discussion that built community and consensus. A famous Dominican bishop of Trinidad used to say: 'Never affirm, never deny, always distinguish'. Even if the other person says something clearly absurd, one must then reply: 'Perhaps there is some truth in what you say.' That is our tradition. What we have to offer the Church at this time is a place where debate can happen, debate without fear of truth, exchange of words that build community. That is the proof of the worth of our studies."

One thing that monks don't have in common with the laity when they talk about liturgical celebrations is that we (the laity) aren't living the liturgical life that they are. Some of us do some of the hours of the Divine Office, some of us do Daily Mass most days, but none of the laity are living the liturgical calendar in the same way as a professed religious (or a secular priest, although if they aren't living in community they aren't living quite the same liturgical life as religious). So the liturgical needs of the laity in a mass celebrated at an average parish and the liturgical needs of the religious are often different. For example, a monk can't have the same idea of what is needed in a secular liturgy in terms of making it feel more welcoming; to him, everyone in the community there is an intimate family member, he eats with them every day, he lives and works with everyone gathered there. When he sees a secular liturgy, with hundreds of people who don't know each others' names, he might think that something should be added to give the liturgy more of a family feel. I don't know, but it could move like that.

Also, a friar vowed to celibacy is going to have a different take on sexual ethics than those of us not. And different again from those of you who aren't vowed one way or another yet. So when he talks about a crisis of sexual ethics and how to deal with it, he is approaching the topic from a completely different perspective. (I've read allegations that Fr. Radcliffe said things on the sexual ethics topic in the original speech that upset people. Since I don't have any further evidence of anything, I don't have anything to say about that except to say that the perspective of a celibate friar speaking on sexuality is going to be very different than that of a married man. Especially if that friar has counselled and supported other men and women who have also vowed celibacy).

Wow, that was a long post.


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