Church Is an Agent for Progress: Charles Curran Tells How Catholic Social Teaching Challenges Individualistic Status Quo. (Spring Books)

By Jones, Arthur | National Catholic Reporter, February 1, 2002 | Go to article overview

Church Is an Agent for Progress: Charles Curran Tells How Catholic Social Teaching Challenges Individualistic Status Quo. (Spring Books)


Jones, Arthur, National Catholic Reporter


Being Catholic, says theologian Fr. Charles Curran, is all about trying to change the world, about becoming a "transformative agent."

"The danger, always," he said, on the eve of the publication of his latest book, Catholic Social Teaching 1891 -Present: A Historical, Theological and Ethical Analysis (Georgetown University Press), "is that as American Catholics we'll instead give in to the individualistic culture and status quo."

Catholicism's bulwark against giving in, Curran argues, is Catholic social teaching the key papal and episcopal documents since Rerum Novarum, Leo XIII's clarion 1891 encyclical on the condition of the working class. However, said Curran, Catholics not only have guidelines, but a guide: Pope John Paul II.

Curran has been a theology professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas since he left The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., in 1988.

"There's no doubt that some people outside the Catholic church do pay attention to the social teaching," said Curran, "as when you have [Professor Samuel P.] Huntington of Harvard writing, `Who would have believed in 1950 that the greatest force for democracy in the world would have been the Catholic church?'"

Curran believes, as does Huntington, that John Paul, "as a transnational actor, has done more for democracy in the developing world, and behind the Iron Curtain, than any other force."

Curran makes this distinction, however. His book, he said, "shows the tremendous historical development that has occurred in Catholic social thought." But it is a development, he continued, that has not similarly occurred "in other areas of Catholic teaching, such as sexual morality." The latter issue has particular relevance for Curran, who was deprived of his right to teach Catholic theology because, the Vatican ruled, Curran's opinions on Catholic sexual morality -- specifically on the use of artificial birth control in marriage -- ran counter to church teaching.

Explaining the potential impact of Catholic social teaching, he said, "I always go for the idea of a big church. We definitely need the kinds of prophetic witness the radical Catholics bring out. But it is the mainstream church that works to try to change the social structure. In the process, you have to live with compromises. No doubt about it.

"We are in a country," Curran said, "where there's heavy individualism. This is the native, inbred individualism that fosters the total free market economy. Catholic teaching stands for a much more communitarian understanding of life and people's need. We have a teaching, a ritual and a lifestyle that talks communitarian all the time." Even lackluster Catholic parishes, he said, have social outreach programs, and even social justice or urban ministries -- a marked change from a half-century ago.

Curran's encapsulation of the key documents from his book offers the following:

* Rerum Novarum ("The Condition of Labor"), Leo XIII, 1891: "It put the church on the side of the worker; significant in this country, even though the church lost the worker in Europe."

* Quadragesimo Anno ("After Forty Years"), Plus XI, 1931: "Developed the theme -- strongly opposed individualism and looked for a more corporatist or solidaristic understanding of society."

* Mater et Magistra ("Christianity and Social Progress"), John XXIII, 1961: "Often not given sufficient credit for opening up the teaching beyond the primary issues of labor and the economy. Emphasized the principles of socialization and the need for growing government intervention (much to the chagrin of William F. Buckley, editor of National Review.)"

* Pacem in Terris ("Peace on Earth"), John XXIII, 1963: "Stressed the need for dialogue, and how that affects the whole church. It was the beginning of the end of the Cold War. You could talk about the differences between ideologies and movements, and that it might be helpful to sit down and talk to people. …

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