“Does Roman Catholic Social Teaching go down with the Titanic?"
There are at least two levels of suppression of Roman Catholic social teaching. The first level is with Church officials. In the first half of the 20th century, Catholic social teaching focused on the right of workers to organize and the duty of government to promote social justice for all. This was based on the philosophical principle that all are created equal and are endowed by nature with unalienable rights. Now the priority for political activity according to the hierarchy is opposition to: a woman’s right to choose, stem cell research and gay marriage. This is based on undifferentiated theological myth and tradition, plus unabashed alliance with the Republican Party and its money.
The next level is the groups that focus on reforming the Church such as the National Catholic Reporter and Call to Action. The Church they are trying to reform is, practically speaking, the hierarchy. Such efforts put Catholic social teaching on the back burner – the pot has boiled over; there is nothing left. At both levels the perspective is from the white, middle class – educated to live, work and do politics in a capitalist society.
Can Roman Catholic Social Teaching Shed Failed Undifferentiated Myths and Tradition?
There is value in using myths to explain inexplicable truth, but when they are used to suppress the basic rights of people the myths need to be re-thought. Traditions need to be reconsidered according to time and place. An indication of the problem is Angela Merkel’s comment about Muslims in Germany. Merkel is Chancellor of Germany and leader of the Christian Democratic Union political party. She said, “We feel bound to the Christian image of humanity – that is what defines us. Those who do not accept this are in the wrong place here.” Merkel is saying that Muslims don’t belong in Germany. A German born friend commented, “How can she say that? Turkish immigrants were crucial in re-building Germany after W.W. II.” In a globalized world, where it seems as if we all live in the same village, where do the Muslims belong according to the Christians?
Another example of traditions and myths needing to be rethought are the recent comments of German native, Pope Benedict XVI, at the shrine of Santiago de Compostela. Benedict XVI denounced social reforms in Spain and sided with the Spanish fascists of the 1930’s who were instigators of a bloody civil war. (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Nov. 7, 2010) The comments are appropriate because the shrine, named after James the brother of Jesus, celebrates the victory of the Christians over the Muslims in 844 at the battle of Clavijo. The victors were inspired by a vision of St. James leading the charge on a horse with his sword raised. Statues of Santiago on his horse brandishing a sword can be seen in Roman Catholic churches around the world especially in Latin America and Spain. St. James is also known as Santiago Matamoros – the killer of Muslims. A town in Mexico is named Matamoros after St. James.
Contrast Merkel and Benedict XVI with W.W. II Belgian resistance fighter Dr. Gaston Vandermeerssche, long time Milwaukee resident, who recently passed away. “I feel that the fundamental basis of patriotism should be a belief in mankind and its freedom … far beyond the aspirations of any one nation, any one religion, or any geographical location.” He also said, “One must learn to discover the values and the similarities of a human being that go far behind the color of their skin, the artificial and superficial expressions of their creeds or religions and especially beyond the particular piece of land on which they live. The concept of ‘international patriotism is the only guarantee; it seems to me, for world peace.” In an interview Vandermeerssch stated. “We have to start teaching our youngsters that patriotism, as we know it, to defend only your piece of land is wrong.” (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Nov. 5, 2010. Also,
Gaston’s War, Allen Mayer, 1988)
Roman Catholic social teaching is grounded on the best of western philosophy. It stands or falls based on the quality of the philosophical reasoning. It must be timely, open to dialogue, admit mistakes and incorporate new insights. Failed dogmatized myths and traditions that appear in the encyclicals can be jettisoned without damage to the message of justice for all. Mid twentieth century Dominican Thomist , Humbert Kane, O.P., had strong criticism for philosopher – historian Etienne Gilson who wrote the historical classic, History of Christian Philosophy in the Middle Ages. I had a couple of classes from “Hum,” and I can hear him now: “Brothers there is no such thing as ‘Christian Philosophy’ – philosophy is philosophy.”
True enough there are different perspectives, but the resulting discussion enriches all. An example would be the medieval cities Toledo and Cordoba of Muslim Spain. Jewish, Christian and Muslim thought flourished at the same time and have been basic for those seeking consensus and productive peace.
In summary, you don’t have to believe in the Trinity or Papal interpretation of natural law (the law of reason) to recognize nature’s mandate for “preferential option for the poor” and the required political and economic structures. This is where loyalty lies with justice, not with an institution.