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The beautiful order of things

16 January 2015

Edward Dowler reads a reflection on church teaching on society

Not as the World Gives: The way of creative justice
Stratford Caldecott
Angelico Press £12.50

THE popularity of what is known as Catholic Social Teaching is currently high: warm words issue from many quarters about its encouragement of concepts such as subsidiarity, the common good, and the importance of community. In this illuminating study, the Roman Catholic lay theologian Stratford Caldecott, who died last year, brings a greater depth and astringency to the subject than it often receives.

The RC Church's social teaching is not, Caldecott argues, a set of free-floating ideas about what society is and how it should operate, but, rather, depends on a wider set of theological presuppositions without which it does not make sense. "We cannot ignore the Church", he writes, "or separate Catholic social teaching from the rest of theology."

Social teaching is rooted in Christian doctrine, in particular that of the Trinity, "the basis for diversity-within-communion at every level of creation", and is inextricably linked with the eucharist, "a wedding between heaven and earth", which grounds human life in divine life. Most of all, for Caldecott, the beauty of God, whose radiance reaches to the ends of the earth, must be the guiding star that enables us to understand human life and the operation of human societies.

Caldecott argues that the optimism of, for example, Gaudium et Spes about the way in which "mankind's triumphs are signs of God's greatness and the fruit of his sublime plan" must be balanced by a more rigorous and counter-cultural critique of many modern developments. These include soul-destroying employment that lacks creativity and beauty, the "turbo-capitalist" dominance of the market, and the machine-orientated outlook that "reduces all human nature to something merely mechanical". He strongly criticises Western societies' understanding of freedom as the ability to do whatever we want rather than, as in St Augustine's view, freedom from sin and freedom for the good.

Anglican readers may find some parts of the book rebarbative, such as the ingenious but perhaps unnecessarily systematised correlation of the Ten Commandments, the virtues, the Beatitudes, and the petitions of the Lord's Prayer. Moreover, the chapter on "the Mystery of Gender", drawing heavily on Hans Urs von Balthasar and on Pope John Paul II's theology of the body, may seem strong meat in its relentless application of metaphors of gender and marriage to unexpected aspects of theology and social life.

This is far, however, from being simply a nostalgic lament for the demise of Christian culture. Caldecott writes sympathetically about Islam, and predicts that a new civilisation will eventually be born out of the ruins of the old. This, he predicts, will be "from one point of view, a Christendom, but distinguished from old Christendom not least by the fact it will be shaped by many religious traditions".

The Revd Dr Edward Dowler is Vicar of Clay Hill in the diocese of London, and Director of Continuing Ministerial Education in the Edmonton Episcopal Area.

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