Public Religious Dialogue: The Economic Pastoral and the Hermeneutics of Democracy

By Magill, Gerard | Theological Studies, December 1993 | Go to article overview

Public Religious Dialogue: The Economic Pastoral and the Hermeneutics of Democracy


Magill, Gerard, Theological Studies


Effective conversation between religion and society in the United States requires a sensitivity both to the variety of meaning and to the multiplicity of voices in our culture. The variety of meaning highlights the importance of interpretation and the multiplicity of voices underscores the significance of community in our nation. An appreciation of the relation between interpretation and community necessarily entails connecting hermeneutics and democracy. In this article I explore the interaction between hermeneutics and democracy as a foundation for religious dialogue in the public arena.

Scholarly literature increasingly emphasizes the need for collaboration between religion and society.(1) In that literature the pairing of hermeneutics and democracy contributes to the design of such a collaboration, at least implicitly. For example, in theology David Tracy sketches the contours of a conversing community of interpretation.(2) In sociology Robert Bellah and associates depict the discovery of belief as interpreting tradition through community.(3) And in philosophy Alasdair MacIntyre portrays the virtue of interpreting tradition as a socially embodied argument.(4) My analysis traces a similar strategy in the pastoral letter on the economy which was published by the American bishops in 1986.(5)

I suggest that in the pastoral letter a sense of hermeneutics and a sense of democracy underlie the dialogue between religion and society with regard to the economy. However, the terms "sense of hermeneutics" and "sense of democracy" do not occur as such. I use these terms to convey the implicit appreciation of the variety of meaning and the multiplicity of voices and the explicit appreciation of interpretation and community that exist in the pastoral letter.

Moreover, the sense of hermeneutics and the sense of democracy can be construed plausibly as indicating the meaning of what appears as an appeal to the imagination. That appeal is related to the central argument of the pastoral letter. From the outset the bishops want to engage conscience in the public arena: "The pursuit of economic justice takes believers into the public arena.... We are called to shape a constituency of conscience" (intro. no. 27), including "the conscience of the nation" (no. 86). And the discernment process that shapes conscience in the public arena involves the imagination: "In pursuit of concrete solutions, all members of the Christian community are called to an ever finer discernment of the hurts and opportunities in the world around them, in order to respond to the more pressing needs and thus build up a more just society. This is a communal task calling for dialogue, experimentation, and imagination. It also calls for deep faith and courageous love" (no. 126).

There is a prima facie association, then, between the imagination and the call to shape conscience through dialogue and the action of experimentation. Even though there is no explanation of what the imagination means here, the appeal does not seem to be merely rhetorical. That is evident from the association between the imagination and moral vision. It is significant that the call for an "imaginative vision" (no. 108) encompasses public and Christian dimensions. Under the title of "the need for moral vision" the bishops exhort "a renewed public moral vision," and under the title of "the Christian vision of economic life" they discuss "the Christian moral vision" (nos. 27-29). Hence, imaginative vision seems to bridge the interests of public society and Christian religion.

I do not claim that the bishops deploy an explicit approach to or theory of the imagination. Clearly they do not intend to provide a systematic analysis.(6) However, David Hollenbach argues perceptively that despite the genre of a pastoral letter their argument coherently embodies aspects of moral theory. For example, they combine the liberal commitment to pluralism in society with the communitarian commitment to the common good. …

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