Since Pope Leo XIII's promulgation of Rerum novarum in 1891, the Catholic Church has been developing a body of documents known as "Catholic social teaching." In Catholic Social Teaching 1891-present: A Historical, Theological, and Ethical Analysis, moral theologian Charles Curran offers his readers an exposition and analysis of this body of work.
Curran rightly notes that there is no "official canon" of documents constituting the corpus of Catholic social teaching (7). He includes thirteen documents originating in the Vatican as well as the two best-known documents of the U.S. bishops, The Challenge of Peace (1983) and Economic Justice for All (1986). For the most part, the canon Curran offers is uncontestable. However, he includes two documents not often seen in this corpus: Dignitatis humanae (Vatican II's 1965 "Declaration on Religious Freedom") and Evangelii nuntiandi (Paul VI's 1975 "apostolic exhortation" known in English as "Evangelization in the Modern World"). Also, nothing after Centisimus Annus (1991) is included within Curran's canon. Some (though certainly not all) lists include John Paul II's Evangelium vitae (1995) or even Fides et Ratio (1998) among the body of Catholic social teaching (e.g. the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis has such a list at http://www.osjspm.org/cst/doclist.htm). These inclusions and omissions, though certainly defensible ones, downplay John Paul II's contributions and emphasize those of Paul VI, a theme which Curran revisits consistently throughout this book. The particular inclusion of Dignitatis humanae significantly shapes Curran's understanding and critique of Catholic social teaching.
The first half of Catholic Social Teaching 1891-present: A Historical, Theological, and Ethical Analysis focuses on methodology, while the second half focuses on content. The three methodological chapters treat theological, ethical, and ecclesial questions respectively. The chapter on theological methodology examines how Catholic social teaching has been shaped by the attempt to be universal (i.e. catholic), the goodness of creation, and the insistence on mediation (i.e. the sacramental principle). These in fact ground "the existence of and need for Catholic social teaching" (23). However, they are also related to the natural law approach, which, as Curran points out, has tended to dominate Catholic social teaching. This approach offers benefits, not least of which is an openness to dialogue with "all people of good will," the usual addressee of papal encyclicals of this nature. However, this approach has meant that Catholic social teaching tends not to be significantly shaped by explicit references to Jesus, scripture, or the language of grace (29-30). Such references are not absent, but they are limited. This raises a significant question regarding Catholic social teaching: "Is there a unique Christian content regarding social justice in the world and the transformation of human society that is not shared by non-Christians and all people of good will?" (40). What might Catholic social teaching look like if even some of it drew explicitly from scripture and addressed the demands of the Gospel upon Christians? A provocative question.
In the second chapter, Curran focuses on three shifts that he has observed within the ethical methodology of Catholic social teaching since 1891: the shift from classicism to historical consciousness, the shift to a greater emphasis on the person as subject, and the shift to increasing use of a relationality-responsibility model for ethics. Curran has been calling attention to these shifts since the 1980s. In this chapter, he describes how these moves have taken place over time within Catholic social teaching. The case for the shifts to the person and the relationality-responsibility model are well-made.
The case for the shift to historical consciousness, however, is less convincing. The pre-Vatican II documents were still in the classicist mode (focusing on the eternal, the unchanging). The shift to historical consciousness, with greater attention to the particular and to development over time, begins at Vatican II. Curran offers Dignitatis humanae as "[t]he best illustration of historical consciousness at work in Vatican II" (58). Gaudium et spes also shows "a more historically conscious methodology at work" (59). However, it is Paul VI's Octogesima adveniens which "best incorporates a historically conscious methodology" (60). Octogesima adveniens attends to the diversity of situations in which the Church finds itself, shies away from natural law while appealing instead to inductive methodology, and emphasizes change while upholding continuity. The shift has been fully and rightly made: a shining moment.
The moment fades, however, as John Paul II becomes pope and "did not continue the emphasis on historical consciousness" (61). In fact, his methodological approach "stands in contrast with Octogesima adveniens" (62). The contrast becomes a "step back" and then becomes outright "opposition" in the next few pages (62-3). Curran sees a "serious tension" between historical consciousness and the neoscholastic tradition in which John Paul II was trained. Although John Paul II has continued the emphasis on the person and has employed the relationality-responsibility model (though not exclusively), his resistance to historical consciousness makes this "shift" more difficult to describe as a shift. The picture, as it stands, seems to be that Catholic social teaching had shifted to historical consciousness and John Paul II is an unfortunate distraction from the shift. This picture may have been credible in the 1980s-a mere decade or so and two social encyclicals into this papacy-but one has to wonder if it is still credible now to so emphasize Octogesima adveniens and downplay John Paul II. Perhaps, given the continuing development of the tradition, Curran needs to modify his characterization of it.
The second half of the book attends to the content of Catholic social teaching by addressing such themes as anthropology, the political order, and the economic order. Curran describes not only the content of teachings, but their development and interrelationships as well. For example, he describes both the nature of the state and the notion of the common good, as well as how thinking on each of these topics developed and a sense of what the state's obligation to work for the common good should be. He traces the development, in varying depths, of the Catholic teaching on just war and pacifism, private property, liberalism, preferential option for the poor, human rights, and religious freedom. Again, Dignitatis humanae figures more prominently than one would expect. Curran finally admits that this document is not usually included among collections of Catholic social teaching and that its subject matter "clearly differs" from the more standard documents (235). Yet Curran spends much of the final chapter offering ways that Catholic social teaching would be much improved by adopting more fully the insights of Dignitatis humanae and John Courtney Murray.
Although Curran raises interesting questions and offers an important perspective on Catholic social teaching, this book ultimately offers a distorted account of Catholic social teaching. Curran cites John Courtney Murray more often in this book than anyone else, including any of the papal authors of Catholic social teaching documents. Although Murray can certainly offer much in the way of question and critique, to so emphasize his perspective in a book purporting to be an analysis of Catholic social teaching seems problematic at best. This emphasis, combined with Curran's downplaying of John Paul II in particular, gives the reader a skewed picture of Catholic social teaching.