Bridging the Divide in Contemporary U.S. Catholic Social Ethics

By Heyer, Kristin E. | Theological Studies, June 2005 | Go to article overview

Bridging the Divide in Contemporary U.S. Catholic Social Ethics


Heyer, Kristin E., Theological Studies


IN THE CONTEMPORARY CONTEXT of the United States, the dominant stance in Catholic social ethics remains a "public church" model albeit with differing methodologies and a degree of internal pluralism. In the decades since Vatican II, the U.S. Catholic Church has generally understood itself as a "public church," for its basic understanding of pastoral responsibility includes participation in the wider civil society. (1) Despite the general postconciliar Catholic embrace of reformist social ethics, including liberal and neoconservative versions, critics on both the left and the right find collaborative models such as these insufficiently prophetic. (2) The witness of such groups constantly tests the dominant Church on what issues and by what justification Christians engage. (3) In this article I aim to clarify these contemporary methodologies; challenge conventional ways of understanding the relationship of two major methodological approaches, essentially a collaborative and a more radically prophetic style, respectively; and suggest ways of moving beyond the mere coexistence of these divergent approaches in the light of their mutual clarification and critique. In so doing I map the theological differences that give rise to diverse ethical methodologies.

Catholic social ethics has historically exhibited various methodological tensions that are, in part, inherent in any human effort to relate the fullness of the Christian tradition to the realities of a social context. Such tensions reflect a degree of pluralism within the tradition as well as the nature of the relationship between faith and reason, religious vision and moral principles, and ethical directives and policy orientations. Generally speaking, the methodological tensions that characterize recent Catholic social ethics may be described as encompassing a reformist model of social ethics and a more radically prophetic witness model. Many argue on theological and sociological grounds that the Church should encompass pluralistic methods for vocation and witness. (4) Some Catholics have called the presence of those who feel a special call to witness to voluntary poverty, peace, or to life itself as keeping the larger church faithful and honest, but assert that by definition such groups will remain minorities. (5) J. Bryan Hehir has recently charged that understanding the Catholic Church in the United States as such--that is, as a public Church that simply tolerates a more radically prophetic minority--is becoming increasingly insufficient. (6) Here I develop this contention, challenging the idea that there simply exists an irreducible tension between diverse methods. I argue that the truth claims and theological foundations grounding each approach call for a creative combination of both, rather than living with substantive pluralism or relegating one to minority status.

The tensions exhibited by these reformist and more radicalist approaches must remain as constitutive of life "between the times," although some characterize such pluralism as incoherent split-personality (7) while others term it Catholic "genius." (8) The multifaceted nature of the basic public church posture helps guard against too optimistic or too pessimistic a view of the wider world and a disproportionate reliance upon a particular theological "canon within the canon." (9) Due to distinct emphases within the whole Christian canon and the ambiguities entailed in worldly activity, a range of approaches persists, some more prophetic than public, others aiming to impact the surrounding culture rather than legislation.

In the service of bridging the methodological divide in contemporary U.S. Catholic social ethics, my article focuses on two approaches that persist within the Catholic landscape as represented by J. Bryan Hehir and Michael J. Baxter, C.S.C. In the course of a critical examination of these stances, I attempt to move the methodological discussions in social ethics beyond the existing, rigid typologies toward a more dynamic tension between each model's distinct emphases. …

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