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Towards a Politics of Communion: Catholic social teaching in dark times by Anna Rowlands

17 June 2022

Edward Dowler reflects on Roman Catholic social teaching

THOSE interested in political theology from a wide range of perspectives will appreciate this lucidly written, though also dense and demanding, study of Catholic social teaching (CST) by Anna Rowlands, Professor of Catholic Social Thought and Practice at Durham University. Rowlands brings to her subject an enormous range of reference both of the core documents themselves and also of wider currents of social and political thought.

Since the modern inception of CST in Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum, successive popes have asked similar questions in different settings, crisply summarised by Rowlands: “Who or what do you think will save you, and what do you want to be saved from and for? What are your sources of authority and legitimacy and who, or what, grounds or guarantees them? What kind of freedom results and for whom? Who is your ‘Other’ and what work do they . . . perform in your social vision?”

These persistent questions, together with the fact that papal encyclicals maintain a similar tone and register across time, and are often are full of cross-references to other similar documents, can make it possible to assume that CST is a more homogeneous block of teaching than it is.

Rowlands shows how CST in its modern form has arisen out of engagement not only with the biblical and theological tradition, but also with particular changing historical contexts, such as, for example, migration to the Americas during the 19th century and the two world wars. Moreover, she demonstrates that the tradition is by no means uniform: for example, there is an illuminating discussion of the extent to which successive popes have acknowledged that “structural sin” in societies may limit human agency.

At the heart of CST is the concept of the common good: a standing challenge to both individualist and collectivist modes of thought. Acknowledging the contested nature of this concept — Marxists, for example, would dispute its very existence, arguing that political life is inherently conflictual — Rowlands explores the parameters of this concept.

Since the common good is ultimately rooted in the nature of God, the supreme good, its task is, in the words of the philosopher Josef Pieper, to “pierce the dome”: it has a transcendent dimension that goes beyond the “common need” of men and women for basic and essential things.

Rowlands traces the concept through its classic expressions in St Augustine and Aquinas, and demonstrates the different emphases that modern popes have brought to it. Pope John Paul II took it in a personalist direction, pressing for the dignity of the free moral agent who finds an accordance between his or her own good and solidarity with the whole. For Benedict XVI, the common good is characteristically nurtured in small communities that school their members in worship, education, and loving service. Pope Francis brings a populist emphasis on the “mythic”: the stories and events that form societies and bind people together.

Rowlands ends this key section with her own striking summary of the common good within Christian theology — informed by the textured analysis that she has presented. She reminds us that “this vision begins counter-intuitively not with ‘doing’ or ‘activism’ but with a form of ‘not-doing’: a receptive awareness of a prior divine initiative that acts as the basis for human activism.”

The Ven. Dr Edward Dowler is the Archdeacon of Hastings, and Priest-in-Charge of St John’s, Crowborough, in the diocese of Chichester.

Towards a Politics of Communion: Catholic social teaching in dark times
Anna Rowlands
Bloomsbury £25.99
Church Times Bookshop £23.39

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