Critical Comments Selected by Gerald Darring

Arthur McCormack. Tablet (20 November 1971) 1115. “The Synod was of historic importance. First of all it put the Church, openly and publicly and with very wide agreement, squarely on the side of those who are against injustice, on the side of the poor and oppressed and those millions whose voices are not heard often enough. The Synod has put the theme of justice, and especially social justice and concern for this world, into the very center of the Church’s life…. The question of poverty and justice in the Church itself was given due importance, though not to the extent that it overshadowed the real world problems or gave the impression of an introverted Church only concerned with itself.”

Andrew M. Greeley. America (20 November 1971) 424. “The Church looks ridiculous to nonbelievers as its leaders offer pontifical advice to virtually every other human institution about the need for justice and freedom, but show precious little interest in reforming their own institution. (And at least some Catholics are also embarrassed by the fact that most of the facile comment made on complex issues of international politics and economics were singularly innocent of the sophistication that can only come from expert advice.)”

Henry Ten Kortenaar. Commonweal 26 November 1971) 197. “Bishop Carter of Canada was right when he said that it is one thing to discuss justice among fellow-bishops in an affluent country, and another to hear those prophetic voices from other parts of the world. This prophetic tone was not entirely reflected, however, in the final document. Its theology is a good deal more challenging than that on the priesthood; some of its practical conclusions, on international and ecumenical cooperation for development, etc., are excellent; it also denounces some of the major ills of the modern world (armaments, pollution, discrimination, etc.), but does not name any concrete situations of injustice, as several bishops had asked. Among the reasons given for this silence were the impossibility of naming them all, the difficulty of determining where concrete injustice lies, and the danger that some bishops might get in trouble at home.”

Gregory Baum. National Catholic Reporter (10 December 1971) 8. “The synod, it would seem, has adopted the vocabulary from the social thinking in South America. It speaks easily of ‘liberation’…. In the North American context, the teaching regarding liberation and the raising of consciousness sounds quite radical. We associate this sort of approach with Catholics of the Left. Most Americans are embarrassed by this trend of the Catholic Church’s official teaching. It is not likely that this approach to morality will influence the preaching and teaching in North America.”

John B. Sheerin, C.S.P. Catholic World (December 1971) 99. “The Synod discussion on peace and social justice was encouraging, if not world-shaking. The Synod talks brought us abreast of World Council of Churches pronouncements. Yet one wonders if there is much point in making official pronouncements. The younger generation claim that the organized Churches are forever crying ‘Lord, Lord’ but failing to do the will of God.”

John F.X. Harriott, S.J. Month (January 1972) 17-18. The document contains these advances: 1) “It officially acknowledges the face and concept of structural or institutionalized injustice especially on the international level.” 2) “Where the Council was vague about injustice in the Church, the Synodal document is specific.” 3) Liberation in Christ and in society is not longer regarded purely as an inner spiritual conversion but includes all the conditions of life. 4) “The document speaks of the right to development.” 5) “Local Churches will feel entitled to make political judgments instead of leaving them exclusively to the Holy See.” 6) Education is seen not as acceptance of traditional values but as “conscientization and criticism of structures, standards and values obtaining in various societies.” 7) “Social reform has been firmly included as an essential element of the pastoral ministry at all levels.” 8) Nationalism is looked at more positively.

Peter J. Henriot, S.J. Chicago Studies (1972) 115-16. “What makes the Synod document uniquely important, and worth more than the usual passing notice, is its emphasis upon the theme of social sin. That emphasis is the key to what I argue can be considered a ‘new’ theology of the Church’s social involvement–‘new’ at least in the sense that it has never before been so clearly explicated in an authoritative Roman document. Theologically, it helps us to understand more completely and adequately both 1) why the Church is socially involved, and 2) how the Church is socially involved.”

Vincent McNamara. Furrow (1972) 587. “It is a well-known fact that many hoped that the synod document would condemn specific injustices rather than engage in generalities. This does involve taking sides, opting for the poor, offending people. But this is the very tradition which the Church has inherited in this matter from the prophets and Christ.”

Richard A. McCormick, S.J. “Notes on Moral Theology.” Theological Studies (April-September 1972) . The Synod document “builds on several skeletal assertions. (1) There is the notion of social sin…. (2) The Synod asserts that action on behalf of justice is ‘a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the gospel.’ (3) Why? Because in the Christian message love of God and neighbor are inseparable. And love of neighbor is inseparable from justice to the neighbor. (4) The Church’s specific responsibility is not to offer concrete solutions in the social, economic, and political spheres. Rather it is to defend the dignity of the human person…. The one criticism that could be brought against the synodal statement is that it did not get sufficiently down to specifics.”

Gary MacEoin. Cross Currents (1975) 189. “A preparatory commission drafted a document with as many scraps as Joseph’s coat. Nobody was satisfied. With inadequate discussion, the Synod rejected the draft, offering a new hodgepodge of suggestions, which were later issued as the Synod’s statement, but again with inevitable superficiality and lack of internal cohesion.”

Joseph Gremillion. The Gospel of Peace and Justice (1976) 21. “Through the 1971 Synod the Catholic Church reaches and registers a new peak awareness of unjust structures and of the need for liberation and reform. This assures for Justice in the World, so succinct and striking, a unique place among the documents of the aggiornamento. Its moral authority is further strengthened because it is the collegial product of pastors freely selected by their brother bishops from all nations and cultures.”

David Hollenbach. Claims in Conflict. New York: Paulist Press, 1979, p. 89. “Though Justice in the World lacks the systematic approach to rights found in Pacem in Terris, it provides a social analysis and a fundamental normative vision of the present situation which point the way to the implementation of Pope John’s charter of rights.”

Charles M. Murphy. Theological Studies (1983) 308-09. “The heart of the ambiguity about the meaning of constitutive seems to reside in differing conceptions of what kind of justice is being referred to…. The natural, human virtue of justice as explained in classical philosophical treatises … can only be conceived as an integral but nonessential part of the preaching of the gospel. But (the) biblical sense of God’s liberating action which demands a necessary human response … must be defined as of the essence of the gospel itself. The latter sense seems to reflect better the mentality of more recent Christian social doctrine. A decided shift took place in magisterial teaching regarding justice from John XXIII’s Mater et Magistra onward: the previous conception of an organicity through reason was placed alongside a more biblical-imaginative perspective on justice. It is within this new context that Justice in the World must be understood.”

Donal Dorr. Option for the Poor (1983) 187-88. “The one word in the passage around which most of the controversy has focused is the word ‘constitutive.’ By saying that action for justice is a constitutive dimension or element of the preaching of the Gospel the Synod was ensuring that such activity could never be dismissed as being merely incidental to the work of the Church; it would have to be given a central place. Ever since the document was issued, this passage, and this word, have been cited on innumerable occasions to show that the Church officially rejects the view that action to bring about a more just society takes second place to more ‘spiritual’ or ‘religious’ matters. In fact the statement has become a kind of manifesto for those who are working for political liberation against oppressive regimes or structures and who want to invoke the Church’s support for such activity.”

Francis Schussler Fiorenza. Foundational Theology: Jesus and the Church. New York: Crossroad, 1984, pp. 207-08. This document is crucial, for it proclaimed that the Church’s “mission to transform the world is not secondary, improper, or derivative; it is constitutive of gospel proclamation. The document goes beyond previous affirmations, beyond viewing justice and liberation as only prerequisites or consequences of the Church’s mission. Church documents, especially papal statements, have since quoted this text, but they have not used the expression ‘constitutive’ independently of the quoted text. The International Theological Commission … suggests that ‘constitutive’ does not mean ‘essential’ but ‘integral.’ However, the formulations of Justice in the World are carefully nuanced. The document states that transformation of the world is, in some way, constitutive of the proclamation of the gospel. It does not make it the sole or exclusive element of that proclamation; but if the transformation toward justice is missing, then a distortion of the gospel occurs.”

James E. Hug. “Measuring the Shock Waves: The Economic Pastoral.” New Catholic World 229 (September-October 1986) 213. “The Pastoral’s impact on U.S. culture will depend in part on its influence in the Church. Since the 1971 Synod document Justice in the World, the Catholic hierarchy has been explicitly conscious that the credibility of its teaching depends upon the integrity of its own practice. If Catholics and Catholic institutions do not embody what they call for, no one will pay attention.”

Gregory Baum. In Walter Block and Irving Hexham, eds., Religion, Economics and Social Thought, Vancouver, BC: The Fraser Institute, 1986, pp. 49-50. “Justice in the World… gave expression to a remarkable doctrinal development. The document recognized the reality of ‘social sin’ (a. 2-5). … And because Justice in the World accepts this wider notion of sin it is obliged also to expand its understanding of Christian redemption. If Jesus is the one sent by God to save us from sin, then this includes the personal and the social dimension of sin. What follows from this is that salvation too has a social dimension. Justice in the World explicitly affirms that the redemption which Jesus Christ has brought includes the liberation of people from the oppressive conditions of their lives (a. 6). This is a new position in Catholic teaching.”

Manuel Velasquez. “Questions of Special Urgency”: The Church in the Modern World Two Decades After Vatican II. Judith A. Dwyer, S.S.J., ed. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 1986, p. 191-92. This was “by far the most influential of the church’s modern statements on structural injustice.” It was “shot through and through with the liberationist view that injustice is fundamentally a structural issue…. Structural injustices, the bishops write, cannot be eradicated by a simple conversion of individuals,” and since “social structures influence the way in which individuals perceive and deal with the world, they must be changed.”

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