Catholic Social Thought

Edited by David O’Brien and Thomas Shannon, Orbis, £30

There are 687 pages in this collection of Church documents, roughly 635 of which are freely available on the Vatican website. So the consumer spends £30 for 50 or so pages of introductory material and indices. This is, it turns out, as bad a deal as it sounds.

The explicitly modernist thesis of the editors is that tradition and orthodoxy are barriers that must be overcome if the Church is to engage today’s society fruitfully. Throughout the text, concepts that evoke the tradition of the Church are kept at a careful distance as if they emit an embarrassing odour. We are told, for instance, that Pope John Paul II’s “commitment to doctrinal and moral orthodoxy … caused considerable disaffection”. Among whom (other than the editors), the reader is left to guess.

Natural law consistently has adjectives applied to it that signal whether the editors approve or disapprove of the way the popes marshal the concept, but we are never treated to substantive explanations of these judgments. For instance, the very first page of the book ascribes to Pope Leo XIII a “conservative, even negative understanding of natural law”. But, in the introduction to Mater et Magistra, we read that Pope John XXIII “brought a new openness and style to [natural law] that liberated it from static assumptions”. This is gobbledygook, meant to set the popes against one another, elevating John at Leo’s expense while shirking the burden of engaging substantively with their claims.

Meanwhile, concepts such as “the signs of the times” are warmly embraced but never fully explored – a vagueness that conveniently allows the phrase to mean anything at all. We are told about Gaudium et Spes that “the basic characteristic of the document is its feeling of openness to the contemporary situation”. What part of the “contemporary situation” is the Church open to? Whatever part you want it to be, dear reader.

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