Merkle, an associate professor of religious studies at Niagara University, New York, has produced one of the best works on the Catholic social thought that I have had the privileged to read. The book is divided in three parts. The first, "Foundations," composed of four chapters, deals with basic theological concepts that undergird the Catholic social teaching. The second, "The Catholic Social Tradition," presents in six chapters the various aspects of the Catholic teaching on social issues. The last, "The Future of the Catholic Social Teaching," suggests in a single chapter how the Catholic social teaching can be put into practice.
Merkle begins by noting the four approaches to Catholic social tradition, which has been seen as "social policy, prophecy, moral doctrine, and social principle" (18) and argues that these are not mutually exclusive. Furthermore, she insists that even though the Catholic social teaching is addressed to both Catholics and people outside the church, it can be fully understood only "from the heart of the church," that is, by being practiced in and by people in the ecclesial community: "Catholic Social tradition is found in the living Church, the believing Church, the worshipping Church, the converting Church, the prophetic Church, the suffering Church, and the serving Church" (18). Consequently, she takes great care to elaborate the intrinsic connections between the church's social teachings and practices on the one hand and faith and spirituality on the other, making up what she terns "Social Catholicism."
The greatest strength of Merkle's book is that it does not present Catholic social teaching as though it were embodied exclusively in magisterial documents, from Leo XIII to John Paul II, a common practice of many books on Catholic social teaching. On the contrary, with great skill and insight, Merkle relates the papal and conciliar social teachings to theological trends and ecclesial movements, casting her net far and wide. Included in her discussion are political theology, liberation theology, Black theology, Hispano/Latino theology, the women's movement and feminist theology, and the theological voices from Africa and Asia. It is this rich and comprehensive intercultural (and hopefully, also interreligious in the future) approach that sets Merkle's book apart and makes it very useful for those seeking an integral and integrating vision of Catholic social tradition.
Finally, Merkle's reflections on the kind of ecclesial communities that are necessary for a full understanding and implementation of the Catholic social tradition are very much to the point. As a "thought experiment," she paints the contours of a church that is made up of shared histories marked by participation; of identity characterized by sacramental character, responsibility, and subsidiarity; of mutuality marked by accountability; of pluralism with a preference for the poor; of autonomy with sufficiency and new structures of authority and ministry; and finally, of communion. Needless to say, Merkle's ecclesiology is a tall order, but one that is both an absolute prerequisite for understanding and practicing Catholic social teaching and the outcome of such an understanding and practice.
The book makes a very minor error in identifying repeatedly Augustine's The City of God as a "fourth-century work." As a matter of fact, it was written between 413-26 and Augustine's mature works belonged to the fifth century. I enthusiastically recommend From the Heart of the Church for college and seminary courses on Catholic social thought. Ordained and lay ministers would also benefit immensely from a careful perusal of it.