Catholic faith is a social faith

By  Joe Barkovich, Catholic Register Special
  • December 13, 2007

{mosimage}TORONTO - The Catholic faith has always been a social faith that takes the material world and human bodies seriously, said Fr. William Ryan, S.J.

The Jesuit scholar delivered the Chancellor’s Lecture at Regis College  Nov. 23, speaking on Faith and the Public Forum Revisited.

Ryan, founding director of the Centre of Concern in Washington, D.C., and a former general secretary of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, said, “History shows us multiple incarnations of our faith not only in churches  but also in schools, universities, hospitals, farms and co-operatives but yes, even in government, and in whatever was judged capable of fostering the faith and the human well being of its members, especially the most needy.”

The Catholic Church has been involved in public life for hundreds of years, Ryan said.  A recent example — indicative of how things have been changing recently — is the decision by Pope Benedict XVI to accept the invitation from UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to address the General Assembly on climate change and its effect on the poor as a moral issue.

Several “signs of the times” point to transitions we are witnessing in world views, attitudes, scientific models, economic thought and more, said Ryan, acting director of the Jesuit Forum for Social Faith and Justice.

Some of these include: globalization, self-doubt and fear, positive impact of non-governmental organizations, the growing impact of spiritual/religious entities and a passionate, nostalgic revolt developing in some church circles against the theology of the Second Vatican Council. 

Said Ryan of the latter: “For them, the so-called ‘perfect society church’ trumps the ‘people of God church.’ Deductive theology trumps inductive theology. Doctrine and discipline win over pastoral outreach and service to the world, with the result that the enhanced role of the layperson both in the church but especially in the world, so emphasized at Vatican II, is having little sequel.”

Catholics with social conscience have much to turn to for inspiration and example if they want their faith to have vital public presence and impact, he said.

Perhaps foremost are teachings such as Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes (The Church in the Modern World) and the 1971 church synod on Justice in the World as well as the invigorating leadership of Popes Paul VI and John Paul II. It was with their encouragement, Ryan said, that “episcopal conferences issued dozens of significant social statements in the period 1970-1990. In some countries, bishops collegially took action on the human rights and social justice front in a very visible way. The Canadian bishops, in their own many statements, articulated a coherent criticism of the dominant ideology and economic mechanisms which create and maintain the injustice under which the majority of mankind labours, even while they blind the elite in Canada and elsewhere from perceiving how to share more justly the good things of the world.”

Catholics can also draw on the recognition the church’s work is being given by some in not always friendly secular circles. For example, the  political scientist Samuel Huntington has claimed that in the last half of the 20th century the Catholic Church was the most influential international agency in promoting human rights, Ryan said.

On the downside, one of the sad realities is that Catholic social teaching “is often not taught as an integral part of the faith in our seminaries, parishes and universities; and most Catholic lay persons, even leaders, have only a vague notion of what it is about or else they are convinced that it deals almost exclusively with issues of sexuality. And political leaders’ interest seldom goes beyond whether the bishops are for or against particular projects of law which they personally support.”

One of many signs of encouragement is that growing numbers of Catholics, especially young people, are involved in secular and faith-based initiatives  because they are motivated by the belief that a better world for all is indeed possible, said Ryan.

Ryan singled out the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace which is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. He commended the agency for its  “persevering, creative education and partnership development work in Canada but especially in many poor countries around the world.”

The evening following the lecture, Ryan received an Honorary Doctorate of Divinity.

(Barkovich is a freelance writer in Welland, Ont.)

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