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The New Dictionary of Catholic Social Thought.

Edited by Judith A. Dwyer. Pp. xxxi + 1019. Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1994. ISBN 0 8146 5526 2. 69.99 [pounds sterling].

Once upon a time (and I tell no lie, for I was there and heard it all) a proposal was made to bring a distinguished non-American moral theologian to lecture in a North American Catholic school on the social and political questions of his country. The proposal caused a row, for the theologian, it was said, was known to be a fundamental moral theologian. What specialist competence did he have, then, to speak about a social question? Since when, I have had the suspicion that `Catholic social thought' was a striking example of the doubtful capacity of theologians to subdivide their enterprise into vast numbers of airtight cells.

There is special interest, then, in a Dictionary of Catholic Social Thought. How will these practitioners conceive of and define their subject? The editor proposes to do this in terms of the body of literature and constellation of questions arising out of the series of Papal Encyclicals beginning with Leo XIII's Rerum Novarum. And for the purposes of this Dictionary the tradition ends, not with Veritatis Splendor or Evangelium Vitae since, a sluggish reviewer must confess, it went to press before the appearance of those much-discussed documents, but with Centesimus Annus, John Paul's centenary reflection on Rerum Novarum and the latest of the twelve papal, synodical, and conciliar documents to earn a lengthy article to itself. It is a matter of some curiosity how the Dictionary would have handled the more recent Encyclicals had it been in a position to do so.

The authors react very differently to this definition of their field. Some treat it strictly, and plunge straight in at 1891, following their subject through the phases of the Encyclical tradition to Vatican II and beyond. Of such a kind is Gerard Hughes' disciplined `Authority, Political'. Some find room for a shorter or longer introductory section sketching the development of the subject from the Bible up to the threshold of Rerum Novarum; others allow only biblical material in their introduction. Others, again, adopt an inclusive historical sweep which allows the modern tradition only a certain highlighting, as in Daniel Rush Finn's impressive and comprehensive `Economic Order'. Some divide their article between the history of thought and the analysis of the question (e.g. `Human Rights' by Thomas Hoppe); while others more or less ignore the description of the tradition, and present a programmatic statement or a general essay (so Josef Fuchs on `Natural Law'). It is difficult not to think that this variety of approach detracts from the usefulness of the dictionary. If there is a readership--and surely there is--that has an interest in learning precisely what this corpus of documents has said about `Subsidiarity' (Michael E. Allsopp), does the same readership not have the same interest in learning what the same documents have said about `Conscience' (Walter J. Woods)?

But Catholic social thought is constituted not only of the leading concepts in the papal and conciliar documents, but of contemporary challenges: `Aged, Care of', `Business Ethics', `Computerization', `Investment', `Marginal Persons', `Sexism'; of parallel theological discourses: `Liberation Theology' (naturally), `Black Theology', `Feminism and Catholic Social Thought'; and of practical undertakings and institutions, to which a fair number of the two-hundred-and-sixty-six articles is devoted. And here a local interest becomes apparent. Of the hundred-and-seventy contributors listed, a hundred-and-thirty-eight have addresses in the United States, and this is reflected consistently through the Dictionary. (An Irish contributor with a surname in the Gaelic style with the self-standing O, suffers the indignity of being written throughout as though it were a middle initial, and so misplaced in the alphabetical list!) Thirteen articles are devoted to movements, issues, and institutions which belong exclusively to the United States, four to Canada, two to Australia, one each to France and Germany. Latin America as a whole is assigned three (`Liberation Theology', `Medellin', and `Puebla'), Europe as a whole one (`Fribourg Union'). Great Britain is represented by an article on Chesterton and his friends entitled `British Distributivists'. South Africa is assigned an equal share with the U.S. in `Black Theology'; apart from which, mention of the African continent seems to be absent from the Dictionary, and to the Asian continent and the Indian sub-continent I have come across no reference. Of the twelve biographical articles (excluding those devoted to Popes) six are about people who were born and died in the United States. Germany does comparatively better here, with three. France boasts two (but one of them, of course, is Maritain, who is almost an honorary American), and Italy one. But these statistics do not communicate the American orientation of the Dictionary as a whole. The word `national' and `nationwide', for instance, are standardly used to mean `U.S.'. And many international problems and phenomena are discussed as though they were exclusively American issues: A.I.D.S.; Credit Unions; Homelessness; Neoconservatism; Right to Life Groups. `Abortion' begins with Roe v. Wade, and confines itself thereafter to discussing the rulings of U.S. courts.

Defining social thought in relation to the Encyclical tradition supposes that one knows which Encyclicals are canonical for social purposes. One striking absence is Humanae Vitae. (You can read about it under `Birth Control'). In fact, a great deal that the Popes and the Council have talked about is treated as not central to Catholic social thought. Some articles are labelled gingerly, `X, Social Implications/Aspects of', as though to say a dictionary of social thought is not responsible for treating the subject in the round: Abortion, Euthanasia, Homosexuality, Reproductive Technologies. What, one might wonder, are the non-social aspects? Is this merely a way of taking one side in an argument? And why, if Homosexuality is so doubtfully social, is Divorce unproblematic? Leaving aside the hot topics of sexual and medical ethics, there are disturbing gaps which hardly seem to reflect the contours of the Catholic church's interests and undertakings. Education is given extremely short shrift: one very general article by Theodore M. Hesburgh entitled `Education, Role of', which at three-and-a-half columns is one of the shorter articles in the book--many run to twenty, some as long as forty columns. Punishment fares little better: `Capital Punishment' (Jeremiah J. McCarthy) has four-and-a-half columns, `Prison' (Thomas L. Schubeck) seven; but there is nothing about the principles of penal practice, nothing about penal reform or non-custodial punishment, nothing about crime and the role of the criminal courts, nothing about policing and investigative techniques. Ecology does better with ten columns from Thomas Ryan, three-and-a-half from George L. Frear on `Animals, Rights of', and some short but pertinent observations in the fine doctrinal article on `Creation' by Charles C. Hefling Jr. Yet it is still discussed as a good idea that somebody ought to follow up, not as a going contemporary concern which has already generated its own history and institutions. To prolong the list of omissions would be tedious. Inadequate indexing has no doubt made them seem worse than they really are. Still, here are three further difficulties I had that made me ponder: I had no success at finding a reference to the Franciscan ideal of poverty; and I had to look hard to locate the United Nations and Jesus Christ.

The editor has included a few strategic biblical articles (`Beatitudes', `Covenant', `Kingdom of God'), a few doctrinal ones, a handful of moral theological ones--but no article on `Justice' (of all things!)--and two short--over--short--philosophical ones (`Existentialism' and `Personalism'). There are three articles devoted to high points in the tradition: `Fathers of the Church, Influence of', `Augustine, Influence of', and `Thomas Aquinas, Contribution of'. Peter Phan pulls off the general patristic article as convincingly as anyone could in twelve columns, but his Augustine is quite wayward, being devoted solely to medieval Augustinianism. Robert Barry's Thomas divides itself sensibly between a review of Thomas's doctrine and an account of the Thomas revival in the modern Catholic tradition.

Oh that my enemy would edit a dictionary! If he imposes a coherent and uniform conception, his tyranny will leave him with no friends. But Judith Dwyer, we may suspect, has committed no sins against charity in executing her formidable task. The result is, at the best assessment, an untidy product. There is an article on `Co-partnership' and another full column on `Partnership', which begins by saying it is the same as co-partnership. There is an article on `Charity', meaning `love', and another article on `Love'. The article on how God is presented in the documents is called `God, Images of'--but has nothing to do with the imago Dei. The long article on `Labor and Capital' includes a full discussion of Laborem Exercens; the next, even longer article is 'Laborem Exercens'. The cross-referencing is uncertain. `Poor, Preferential Option for' does not cross-refer to `Poverty', and neither article cross-refers to `Economic Order'. An article on Indigenous Peoples is called `Land Rights'. And if you cannot see what you want at first glance, you will not find it in the Index, since the Index is actually not an index at all, but a list of the articles with the same cross-references that are printed already at the end of each article.

The best articles are the long ones, which survey a theme in detail through the eyes of the documents in which the tradition is chiefly interested and provide an adequate background in the history of Christian political thought: Paul E. Sigmund's `Democracy', for example, or William E. May's `Work, Theology of'. The articles on particular documents are also very useful, as are those which report on initiatives and events bound up with the development of the tradition, such as `Base Communities' by Marcello de C. Azevedo. The implication of this, perhaps, is that the Dictionary should not have been a dictionary at all, but a handbook.
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Author:O'Donovan, Oliver
Publication:The Journal of Theological Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1997
Words:1648
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