IF IT has ever been true that the structure of Catholic Social Teaching (CST) is the Roman Catholic Church’s best kept secret, it can hardly be said to be so any longer. In the nearly 12 decades that have passed since Pope Leo XIII promulgated Rerum Novarum, a succession of encyclicals and conciliar and other teaching documents have provided for all Christians a body of reflection on the expression of the Christian message in relation to human society.
Simon Cuff is right to have decided that this body of thought is too important not to be made available to those who minister in congregations and provide leadership for the Church worldwide. He has succeeded in carrying through his decision in a book that combines detailed knowledge of the material with a very accessible style and a clear structure.
The introduction (rather confusingly placed in the Roman-numerals pages) gives a valuable overview of the scope of the book and helpfully lists the encyclicals and other relevant documents. There is then a “background” chapter, particularly focusing on people whose lives and thinking have played a part in developing CST, or, as in the case of Dorothy Day, have lived it.
Four principles of CST — the personal dignity of the individual, the common good, solidarity, and subsidiarity — are elucidated, with examples, in the next four chapters, followed by two that give accounts of the two significant concepts that were prominent in liberation theology: social sin, and the preferential option for the poor.
The move from theory to practice, elucidated in the famous process “See, judge, act”, is well described in the next chapter, with examples, which include the response to personal debt and to human trafficking. The concluding chapter presents what might be described as the hope implied in CST: that of a world populated by communities of human flourishing.
Inevitably, Cuff has had to make choices that may be different from the choices that other authors might make: the remarkable contribution of Benedict XVI to economic thinking in Caritas in Veritate is not explored at any length. At every point, however, Cuff connects particular people, issues, and projects with the documents of CST, so that the result is within the grasp of groups and individuals and can be commended as fleshing out an idea — Catholic Social Teaching — which they may well have heard about without being aware of the wealth of reflection and action which lies within it.
Yet the publication of this book raises a question: the interest in CST among Christians in many denominations, and particularly within the Church of England, is naturally to be welcomed for what it can contribute to the widening and deepening of social reflection within society and Church; it is also as a very valuable fruit of ecumenical relationships and gives further impetus to them.
Nevertheless, when someone as involved as Cuff is in the formation of Anglican clergy produces such a book — and, indeed, when the Archbishop of Canterbury stakes so much on CST in his Reimagining Britain — is that at the expense of understanding and valuing the social tradition within Anglicanism? Could not the social thought of figures such as F. D. Maurice and William Temple, and the powerful social action within the Oxford Movement and the Evangelical Revival, provide an equal impetus for a book called Love in Action: Anglican social teaching for every church? Is there a forgetting here, and how will it be remedied?
The Rt Revd Dr Peter Selby is an Honorary Visiting Professor at King’s College, London, and a former Bishop of Worcester.
Love in Action: Catholic Social Teaching for every church
SCM Press £15.99
Church Times Bookshop £14.40