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Last month, students in my class on women and Catholicism spent anevening at a Catholic Worker House in South Bend, Ind. We prepared ameal, shared it with the guests and listened to an after-dinner talk byMargaret Pfeil, a staff member at the house and my colleague at NotreDame. Pfeil spoke about how the witness of Dorothy Day has shaped herown life and the larger Worker movement. She led us on a tour of thecommunity’s new drop-in center, describing the painstaking efforts toraise the additional $10,000 needed to open its doors. Pfeil explainedthat the Catholic Workers had not sought any large grants, but trustedthat the funds will accumulate, in Day’s words, “by little and bylittle.”
Thefollowing afternoon, all Notre Dame students, faculty and staff wereinvited to attend Notre Dame’s annual Academic Forum. This year’s topicwas “The Global Health Crisis: Forging Solutions, Effecting Change.”Panelists included the world-renowned physician Paul Farmer, theeconomist Jeffrey Sachs and the tropical medicine specialist MiriamOpwonya. Gwen Ifill of PBS moderated the televised discussion, and anarchived Webcast of it is now available online. At the forum’sconclusion, President John Jenkins, C.S.C., announced the creation ofthe Notre Dame Millennium Development Initiative and urged allparticipants to take dramatic action to alleviate the health crisis.“As a Notre Dame family,” the forum’s Web site reads, “we can and mustmake a difference in the world.”
Onconsecutive days, then, my students had the opportunity to experiencetwo different manifestations of what the ethicist Kristin E. Heyercalls “the social witness of U.S. Catholicism.” One is rooted in thelocal community, highly personal and against the grain. The second isglobal in orientation, corporate and unmistakably intertwined withsecular culture. These models roughly correspond to the “sect type” and“church type” described by Ernst Troeltsch in The Social Teaching of Christian Churches.The former occupies a voluntary society apart from the world and intension with it, while the latter takes responsibility forcollaborating with institutions of wider society and is able to adjustto the world.
In Prophetic & PublicHeyer, who teaches at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, Calif.,argues that the divide between these two typologies in Catholicism isnot as sharp as the prevailing wisdom would suggest, citing John PaulII’s “legacy of engagement” as only one illustration. If the late popeembodied a more collaborative posture through his personality and hisscholarship, his opposition to the culture of death was more in tunewith the sect type.
Accordingto Heyer, Troeltschian types are particularly inadequate forunderstanding the church’s social engagement in the American context.Central to her argument is a comparative analysis of the supposedlydueling approaches of the Revs. J. Bryan Hehir and Michael Baxter toCatholic social ethics. Hehir, who has served as policy advisor to theUnited States Catholic Conference, dean of Harvard Divinity School andpresident of Catholic Charities USA, is one of the most influentialpublic figures in the history of American Catholicism. Encouragingcollaboration with the state and other secular actors, Hehir iscommitted to a church that enters legislative debates and makesconcrete policy recommendations. He identifies four themes that shapehis own sense of vocation: “Ideas count. Institutions are decisive.Politics are about life and death. Prayer is critical.”
Incontrast to Hehir’s vision of the public church, Michael Baxter offersa much more radical interpretation of Catholic social ethics. Baxter,an assistant professor of theology at Notre Dame (and coincidentally, aresident of the Catholic Worker community that my students visited),challenges Hehir’s assumption that there is a fundamental harmonybetween Catholicism and the political arrangement of the United States.In Baxter’s view, collaboration with the government risks co-optationby it. Whereas Hehir accepts the world on its own terms, Baxter viewsit through a hermeneutic of suspicion, wary of its potential as a toolfor violence or temptation. He sums up the problem: “In the field ofCatholic social ethics, 95 percent of the thought goes into what thepolicies should be, and 5 percent into doing the works of mercy in apersonal way. It should be just the reverse.”
Whilemost social ethicists acknowledge that the church is big enough toaccommodate both models, Heyer proposes an approach to public theologythat moves beyond their mere coexistence. Suggesting that the modelsembraced by Hehir and Baxter might clarify and inform one another, sheunderscores three areas of overlap. The Christian call to bothcharitable and structural justice efforts, the significance ofdiscernment in any social engagement and the prospects for joiningliturgical or sacramental renewal to social justice efforts. She positsthat those who adopt the stance of either Hehir or Baxter have much tolearn from each other. While Hehir shortchanges the call todiscipleship that is at the core of Baxter’s vision, Baxter perceivestoo rigid a divide between discipleship and citizenship.
Heyersupports her argument with case studies of three Catholic advocacygroups: Network, the U.S.C.C.B. and Pax Christi USA. Here again, Heyerseeks to bridge the typological divide, urging that the differencesamong the approaches of these organizations be held in creativetension. Drawing on her analysis, she proposes three methodologicaldirectives for Catholic social engagement. First, she urges that therebe a stronger connection between embodiment and advocacy, pointing outthat the church’s public authority has been compromised, to say theleast, by the scandal of sexual abuseby members of the clergy and the “vexing trio” of sexism, clericalismand authoritarianism in its internal structures. Second, she recommendsthe installation of mechanisms for self-criticism to guard againstdistortion, observing that both PCUSA and NETWORK continually assesshow they as organizations might be complicit in the injustices theyattempt to expose in the wider society. Finally, she emphasizes thatCatholic social ethics should consistently address a comprehensiverange of issues, since the elevation of a single issue risks not onlypartisanship but also blindness to its connection with other socialjustice issues.
Byinsisting that public theology must be at once faithful to the fullsense of Catholic tradition and attentive to the signs of the times,Heyer offers a framework for engagement that is both helpful andhopeful. If my students are any indication, young Catholics also findit very pragmatic. I was pleased to find out that one of my morebusiness-minded students, who was critical of the Catholic Workers’incremental approach to fundraising and mystified by theirunwillingness to apply for tax-exempt status, has signed up to bringdinner to the community each week. Kathleen Cummings
Kathleen Cummingsis associate director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of AmericanCatholicism at the University of Notre Dame, Ind. Click here for a sample of author's writings in America and for books by author at amazon.com. Link to "sample writings" is slow; link to amazon may list books by authors with similar names.
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