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Book review: Integral Human Development: Catholic Social Teaching and the capability approach, edited by Séverine Deneulin and Clemens Sedmak

02 February 2024

Robin Gill considers an exploration of common ground in social ideas

FACED with the inter-linked global challenges of human-induced climate change, environmental pollution, growing inequalities between rich and poor, mass migration, and conflicts threatening the use of proliferating weapons of mass destruction, how can pluralistic societies reach and implement effective, ethical consensus?

This intelligent collection seeks to address this question by focusing on two of the most influential, but competing, attempts to do so: Roman Catholic teaching articulated by Vatican II and by successive popes, and the explicitly secular and functional “capability approach” of the celebrated Nobel Prize Laureate the economist Amartya Sen and his political followers.

Fifteen American and European Catholic scholars explore ways in which these two radically different approaches might work fruitfully together. The two editors, Séverine Deneulin, of Campion Hall, Oxford, and the Austrian Clemens Sedmak, formerly the youthful F. D. Maurice Professor of social ethics at King’s College, London, and, now, at Notre Dame, are well placed to lead this discussion. They admit at the outset that their explicitly Catholic approach is unlikely to appeal to non-Christians, but believe that some of the basic concepts within Catholic Social Teaching — a radical option for the poor and emphases on the common good, solidarity, and subsidiarity — can resonate more widely, albeit only when their exponents do not make their doctrinal foundations too explicit.

In turn, they also argue that Sen’s capability approach — maintaining that governments should aim to give people the freedom necessary to use their capabilities to live the life that they have reason to value — contains implicit “liberal” values that are not fully explored or even justified. Theologians who have worked extensively on secular ethics committees will know the tension here between wanting to share values across religious and secular divides and feeling that these values are sometimes more profoundly developed within their own faith tradition. Preaching in this context would soon sow discord, and yet using nothing but secular discourse can appear faithless.

This collection is in two parts. In the first, “Foundations”, the limits of both Catholic Social Teaching and the capability approach are identified, along with suggestions about how they might complement each other. Here, Katie Dunne, from the National University of Ireland, argues that successive papal encyclicals have been far too androcentric — even Pope Francis’s otherwise splendid Laudate Si’ has a short digression defending (male) papal teaching on contraception and abortion, despite widespread criticism from conservationists. In contrast, Sen is gender-inclusive.

Amy Daughton of Birmingham University explores some of the value limitations of the capability approach in contrast to Catholic Social Teaching, and Sedmak provides a helpful overview.

The second part. “Common Ground for Action”, is more practical, examining joint developmental work in Uganda, Romania, South America, and elsewhere. Surprisingly, there is no mention here of the influential developmental work of Paul Farmer (1959-2022), Professor in the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School, who, as a lay Catholic social activist, was profoundly shaped by Latin American liberation theology. As with Christian Aid, his religious commitments were obvious, but he acted rather than preached and sought cooperation across religious and secular divides.

This is a book to borrow and relish. It reaches no easy solutions and is sometimes repetitious, but it wrestles thoughtfully with an issue that should concern us all in a pluralistic world that faces very serious, human-induced, global challenges.


Canon Robin Gill is Emeritus Professor of Applied Theology at the University of Kent, and Editor of Theology.


Integral Human Development: Catholic Social Teaching and the capability approach
Séverine Deneulin and Clemens Sedmak, editors
University of Notre Dame Press £58

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