Massaro and Shannon's collection of previously published materials on American Catholic social thought is a welcome addition to the literature. They bring together historical pieces and contemporary reflection on a multi-faceted subject ideally suited for classroom use. For the instructor whose time is compressed, the collection gathers together all those useful readings one would ordinarily spend hours assembling in the library.
American Catholic Social Teaching is actually a two-volume work. The printed text is supplemental to an accompanying CD-Rom. The latter contains documents issued by American bishops from 1792 to 1999. The former is a sampling of some of the best writing on issues ranging from the Church's relation to the state to war and economics to modern feminism. The two volumes do not have direct correspondence, that is, the bishops' texts are not the subject matter of the essays in the printed volume. Yet there are some parallels, some of which are flushed out below.
Beginning with John Carroll's Pastoral Letter to the Diocese of Baltimore—at the time inclusive of most of the eastern seaboardo—the CD-Rom contains an additional 22 selections divided into three sections: beginnings, 1792-1900; opening the new century, 1900-1950; and concluding the millennium, 1950-2000. Oddly, the blurb on the book's cover erroneously indicates that the documents were written between 1829 and 1929. The third section is the longest and exhibits the bishops' wide ranging concerns in the last half century: racism, rural life, women, the economy, nuclear proliferation, the family, and citizenship, among others. The present anthology now updates and in many respects surpasses Brian Benestad's Pursuit of the Just Social Order: Policy Statements of the U.S. Catholic Bishops, 1966-1980 (Washington, D.C.: Ethics and Public Policy Center, 1982).
The printed collection of essays by notable authors includes several discourses by individual bishops. For instance, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin gives an impassioned plea (some months before his death) for the Church to take its rightful place in the public life of the nation. Archbishop Rembert Weakland offers remarks on the tenth anniversary of Economic Justice for All, one of the bishops' most provocative statements on poverty and duty to the poor in a capitalist milieu, a project on which Weakland had worked. The bishops are joined by their predecessors in the episcopate, such as Archbishop William O'Connell and Bishop John Ireland. They are grouped together with several clerics who were at the forefront of developing the Church's social policies: Joseph Husslein on the eight-hour day; John A. Ryan on a living wage; John Courtney Murray on religious freedom. Still others reflect on the mechanics of the social teaching, such as James Heft's reflections on the bishops' teaching authority in matters of war and economics.
In my judgment, the editors have provided the reader a representative sampling of distinctly American Catholic social thought. That they believe the American context provides a significant contribution to Catholic social teaching as a whole is itself a statement of some import. Through the bishops' statements and the commentators' analysis on the social issues endemic to domestic policies of the United States, future decision-makers will be better equipped to address those pressing social needs as they may arise.
The collection is not immune from criticism, however. First, it seems that the collection is allergic to the voices of women. With the sole exception of the Catholic theologian Elizabeth Johnson, men or committees of men author forty-two other selections. This makes the anthology appear overly masculine. A similar criticism could be raised that there is a dearth of lay contributors as well (Johnson joins Gary MacEoin and Frederick Broderick in an elite club of three lay contributors).
Second, there are some instances where the reader comes upon a name or terms that are unique to the period when the selection was written. Absent an editor's note, this can be confusing. For example, in his short "Yardstick" column on Catholic union theory (1951), Monsignor George Higgins—the labor priest long associated with the Social Action Department of the bishops' conference—mentions John T. Flynn without identifying him as one of the leaders of the anti-liberal, non-interventionist, anti-welfare America First movement. Most readers will have no idea who this is.
Third, the CD-Rom is well ordered (though selections 17 and 18 are reversed in the printed table of contents), but texts will appear somewhat blurry on most personal computer screens or projectors. Still, the brevity of many of the selections, particularly in the printed text, will assist students and study groups gain a gradual appreciation for this part of the Catholic theological tradition. However, several documents on the CD-Rom are very long, such as Economic Justice for All (62 pages) or The Challenge of Peace (45 pages), and these offer readers opportunities for more sustained reflection, both in and out of the classroom.