Charles Curran, professor of human values at Southern Methodist University, needs no introduction. His name has been associated with Catholic moral theology in the United States for nearly half a century. Over the years Curran’s attention has turned gradually from hot button issues piquing the American Catholic conscience to concern for conveying a sense of what moral theology is about, through reviewing how it is conceived and practiced in different historical periods. It is an undertaking that shows deep respect both for the tradition and the development of contemporary moral consciousness.
The word mission is complex and to some extent multivalent. For Christians it goes back to Matthew 28 and commissioning the disciples to proclaim the Gospel in the world. There is a sense of “being sent” and an implication that the one sending has a specific task in mind. The social mission of the church, however, might better be understood in light of Luke 4, where Jesus associates the transformation of human suffering with the impulse of the Holy Spirit. Whereas Mathew’s description of mission is single and focuses on the message, Luke’s account is more fluid and centers on the people who are to hear the message. Because mission is a constitutive element of the Church, Christians often find themselves debating what God is calling us to do at any given time. Often recourse is had to what has come to be called the Church’s social teachings.
In this book Curran turns his attention to the Church’s social mission, exploring its importance in American Catholic life and distinguishing it from what is usually referred to as the “social teachings of the Church.” Rather than parsing the ethical arguments that evaluate particular structural and systemic evils in society, Curran offers a practical ecclesiology that shows how the Church comes to discern what it must do in response to human needs, Gospel mandates, and social circumstances at any given time in its history.
The Social Mission of the U.S. Catholic Church tells the story of the conscientious responses of American Catholics to their society. Curran recognizes as a principle of mission that “action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world” is integral to understanding the Church and the credibility of the Gospel. What that means in the concrete, however, has rarely been a unified, much less universal project of the whole Church. Curran’s descriptive history of such “action” and “participation,” along with his pastoral theological account of the differences in their modes and models, priorities and preferences, highlights the contributions of the Church to a more just America, as well as the ambiguities in their conduct. This approach allows the reader to distinguish the changing patterns of the Church’s relationship to American society from colonial times to the present. Curran’s inductive approach explores the concrete commitments of Catholics over the decades and the constructive process through which they negotiate the question of what should be done.
The book unfolds in four movements. Chapters one and two explore the structure of the Church’s social mission from the colonial years to the period just prior to Vatican II. Curran uses these chapters to lay out his thesis that “social mission” can only be understood and evaluated in reference to the contingent features that give it shape and direction. He sketches the evolution of the collective social consciousness of a Church that was a numerical minority of British Catholics in the colonies to a cultural minority of immigrants and economically disadvantaged in the 19th and 20th centuries. Here we follow the development of what may be seen by many the “classical” model that blends social mission with the notion of Catholic action. Today, that proudly self-conscious, at times militant sense of the Catholic Church’s mission in American society, ambivalently realized with the election of a Catholic president, seems to have faded. Curran undertakes to explain this shift through a discussion of the ecclesiology that emerged in Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium and Gaudium et Spes and how these led to fundamental changes in our thinking about and structuring social mission. When non-ordained men and women are seen as part of the people of God and full participants in the life and mission of the Church, a displacement of leadership occurs in the social mission, as well as in the process by which it is identified, initiated, and carried out. A new challenge also emerges for the Church: how to take what had previously been separate movements-- sanctification of the Christian (work of the “church”) and betterment of the world (work of the laity)—and join them into a single life of witness to the Gospel.
In a third movement, Curran illustrates how a changed understanding of Church accounts for a change in meaning and operation of three traditional agencies and movements of social involvement: Catholic charities, Catholic health care, and the Catholic Worker Movement; three issues that defined and directed the social mission during the 70s and 80s: abortion, peace, and the cause of the California farm workers. Issues and institutions, however, do not tell the whole story. How the Church motivates its members and utilizes resources toward fulfilling its social mission is a necessary part of the horizon on which an operative understanding of social mission of the Church develops. Curran points out the tensions and anxiety that arise and threaten the Church, when social issues and religious obligation are discussed together. What becomes apparent in this discussion is that the social mission of the Church is imbued with an inescapable plurality. There are many social missions within the Church and many actors. The social mission is also carried out by Catholics in unison with other Christians, non-Christians, and non-believers.
Perhaps no other moral issue has been politicized and proposed by the hierarchy as a litmus test for Catholic concern for society than that of abortion. This not only obscures the richness and diversity of the Church’s role in building a just American society, but for many Catholics it has provided the basis on which they accept or reject the Church’s claim to even has a social mission. Curran devotes an entire chapter to this question, including a very incisive discussion of the limits and possibilities of law. Curran concludes with a desideratum: If the social mission of the Church is constitutive of what it means to be Catholic and to credibly talk of salvation, it will be carried out by the members of the Church, mostly outside clear ecclesial structures and without hierarchical control. Therefore, the most pressing condition for the success of its social mission is for the Church to educate its members in this element of faith and to provide a formation that enables them to meet the challenge.
Curran’s purpose is to construct “a systematic understanding of the social mission of the Church.” To do this he employs a double framework of inquiry. The first looks at the Church as subject and asks how Catholics see themselves—their understanding of the Church, their place in society, and what the world they inhabit looks like to them. The second views social mission as object, inquiring about its importance, its agents, appropriate means and the respective roles of clergy and laity in the mission. By approaching “social mission” as the action of a community (rather than normative definition), Curran engages the reader in what Lonergan describes as “the reconstruction of the constructions of the human spirit.” The social mission of the Church is always something concrete, responsive to changing circumstances, a complex of desired goods, effective structures, and penetrating values. By examining various examples of social mission as faithful responses of the Catholic community, Curran paints a picture of the Church as a living body interpreting the “signs of the time” and discerning the Gospel calling in the world today.