Bernard Brady’s Essential Catholic Social Thought provides an initial and readable introduction to Catholic social teachings, thought and practices for undergraduates or adult faith formation groups. Brady’s goals are three: 1) to provide a readable interpretation of the usual magisterial documents in the Catholic social tradition; 2) to locate Catholic social thought in a social context intellectual thought, prayers and living practices; and 3) to introduce foundational themes, including the social nature of the human person, human rights, development, peace, justice, solidarity, work and workers.
Brady opts to present the documents of Catholic social teachings in “an abridged and clarified form.” Sentences are shortened, arguments are summarized, re-statements of previous documents are omitted, and historically dated sections are left out. For the most part the abridgement reads well and includes essential material, even if I may have made other choices. The end product successfully introduces the reader to the essential arguments and principles of Catholic social teachings in a way that is accessible to those beginning a life of commitment to social ethical thinking and practices.
These abridged documents from popes, councils and synods are located in relationship to Catholic social practices — including movements, saints and heroes — as well as other complementary authors and Episcopal statements. This contextualization is an ever present reminder that the Catholic social tradition comes from the lived practices of the people of God, is articulated and ordered by social ethicists, affirmed in magisterial teachings and returns to social practices. As such, this approach provides a major contribution to the field, although the inclusion of positions and practices which provided a critical lens on the documents or teachings would have rounded out the context.
Chapter One introduced the concept of social Catholicism and reviews central principles of Catholic Social Teachings, a listing of social Catholic practitioners throughout the ages, as well as recurring questions in the study of Catholic social thought such as authority, forms of moral reasoning and discourse. Chapter Two focuses on the understanding of the human person as social by nature, the see-judge-act model, conscience and vocation.
Chapter Three focuses on Leo XIII’s Rerum novarum in the context of Thomas Aquinas (law and justice) and John Ryan application to the United States context. Brady provides a brief introduction and then lets the text of Rerum novarum — as well as the rest of the magisterial documents — stand on their own merits. This approach works find in a classroom setting, but some highlighting of the significance of themes and principles would have been a welcome addition.
Chapter Four introduces Pacem et terris as well as four key figures in Catholic life in the United States during the middle decades of twentieth century, namely Dorothy Day, John F. Kennedy, John Courtney Murray and Jacques Maritain. Chapter Five turns to the documents of Vatican Council II, especially Gaudium et spes, and Paul’s VI’s document on development, Popularum progression. Chapter Six turns to Paul VI’s Octogesima adveniens and the 1971 closing statement of the World Synod of Bishops, Justice in the World in the context of Latin American Episcopal statements and liberation theology.
The final three chapters center on the social encyclicals of John Paul II. Chapter Seven addresses Laborem exercens along with environmental and immigration/migration statements. Chapter Eight discusses Sollicitudo rei socialis as well as racism, capital punishment and the “consistent ethic of life.” Chapter Nine looks at Centesimus annus as well as economic systems, war and peace. As this paragraph suggests, the link between the encyclical of focus and the other topics is not always clear. Having noted this disconnect, the topics treated are important to an overview of recurring themes and principles in Catholic Social Teachings.
Each chapter begins and ends with a prayer or prayerful thought and concludes with questions for consideration and discussion. The chapters and the abridged texts are sprinkled liberally with headings to guide the reader. In spite of Brady’s insistence on the presentation of the Catholic Social Tradition as an abridgement of the magisterial documents, the back cover refers to them as excerpts. The book certainly provides a solid and holistic introduction to Catholic Social Thought for an undergraduate course. As a text in such a setting, I would recommend its consideration.