Reviewed by Ron LARGE, Department of Religious Studies, Gonzaga University, SPOKANE, WA
Perhaps the best way to describe this book is to quote from its conclusion. "This book tells us something of the richness, diversity, limitations, and hope of the Catholic social tradition as it is expressed in the lives of men and women and in the documents it has inspired." (414) For anyone teaching a course on Catholic social thought, Mich's book is a welcome arrival. Beginning with Rerum Novarum and proceeding in mostly chronological order, the book moves through the major Papal social encyclicals as well as some of the documents from Latin American and U.S. Bishops.
Each chapter follows a similar format by looking at a specific issue in terms of related documents and people. The discussion of issues is often broken into smaller segments for a more detailed examination. For example, in the chapter on "Calls for Action," Mich examines three major areas: 1. Octogesima Adveniens 2. Justice in the World 3. Centers for Analysis and Advocacy. Each one of these sections is further subdivided into smaller segments that examine a variety of related topics. A conclusion and helpful discussion questions complete each chapter. The discussion questions are generally formed to elicit the reader's reflection on the implications and application of the teachings within the documents. The questions are particularly well suited to a classroom setting where students would have the opportunity to discuss the practical meaning of Catholic social teaching.
A particular strength of the book is the consistency with which Mich presents his study of the encyclicals and documents. He describes the methodology, content, issues and themes, responses and criticisms, and the social impact of each text. He shows how methodological shifts with regard to the creation of the documents have an effect on both the nature of the debate and the text itself. Mich's analysis of the U. S. Bishops efforts to write a pastoral letter on women is a case in point. By showing the various levels of the debate and the number of controversial elements that surrounded the Bishops' efforts to write the pastoral on women, Mich provides the reader with an awareness of the connection between process and product. In this particular case, as Mich notes, it is a process that remains unfinished. In addition he examines what he sees as the strengths and weaknesses of the documents in conjunction with offering his own criticisms.
While Mich could be identified as a liberal on the theological spectrum, his points are cogent and well-presented as he strives to be fair with regard to the variety of perspectives that revolve around any given issue or document. Another strength of the book is the vast number of people and groups that Mich studies in conjunction with his consideration of the various documents. His investigation of people and movements reflects the specific issue under discussion and features many well known names, such as: Fr. John Ryan, Dorothy Day, Fr. John Courtney Murray, Cesar Chavez, Cardinal Bernardin, Pax Christi, Catholic Charities, and the Campaign for Human Development. However, Mich also gives the reader many of the less well known lights in the history of Catholic social teaching such as: Mother Jones, Fr. Edward McGlynn, The Black Catholic Clergy Caucus, and Bishop Francisco Claver. There are many more. Given the almost impossible scope of his subject, Mich's analysis is thorough and comprehensive. The book contains extensive footnotes and a very helpful index. Perhaps, however, the key lies in Mich's own words, "Our treatment has not been exhaustive, but rather illustrative of what it means to live out the Christian faith in a complex society." (414) That task, it seems to me, is precisely the point of Catholic social teaching and the contribution of this book.