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Realizing the presence, promise, and power of the Kingdom of God.

Can the Catholic Church Recover?

The question posed by Catholic thinkers

Cornelius J. Casey and Fáinche Ryan, eds., The Church in Pluralist Society: Social and Political Roles (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2019), xi+165 pp., $30.00.

The sons of Issachar are listed in the Bible among the “mighty men” who served King David (1 Chronicles 12.32). While all the other men of that elite group were included because of their military prowess, the particular expertise of the sons of Issachar seems to have been in the areas of discernment and counsel. They are described as men who understood the times and knew what Israel should do. Understanding the times and knowing what the Roman Catholic Church must do to reform itself and recover a meaningful role in society is the overriding theme of the essays in The Church in Pluralistic Society.

The contributors to this book take up the mantle of the sons of Issachar, informing and advising the clergy and institutions of the Roman Catholic Church on how to reform the Church and reinvigorate its involvement in the social and political arenas of American life. The essayists - J. Brian Hehir, Terry Eagleton, Patrick J. Deneen, Hans Joas, William T. Cavanaugh, Massimo Faggioli, Fáinche Ryan, and Patrick Riordan SJ - bring insights and advice from various sectors of the Catholic academy. They issue a call for reform in the Church and its social agencies to reenergize the Catholic contribution to social change in what philosopher Charles Taylor has identified as “a secular age”. Many of the essays take Taylor’s work as their launch pad, touchpoint, or underpinning. All the essays are thoughtful, helpful, and include insights and suggestions for reform that should be of interest to Christian leaders from all communions. An epilogue by Cornelius J. Casey skillfully ties all the essays together and points readers to the Church’s hope, which is the continued coming of the Kingdom of God.

The Catholic Church has a long tradition of working to shape social and political life. The Second Vatican Council (1962-65) renewed what had become a flagging undertaking in the post-war years, offering historical, Biblical, and theological underpinnings for renewed efforts in social and political matters. The documents created in that forum can still be helpful for reforming the Church today.

The essayists in this volume argue that America has become a more pluralistic society than in the days of Vatican II, and that it is even tending beyond pluralism to a kind of illiberal liberalism that wants to define the terms and determine the parameters for social and political life in America and the world. The danger, as the essayists see it, is that the Church might not understand the changing intellectual and philosophical tides, and so might become adrift, or even excluded from, what has been historically an important facet of its ministry. Church leaders must understand the nature of our pluralistic society and adjust their efforts to contribute, together with other social movements and agencies, to achieving a more just world.

Contributors are not entirely agreed on their understanding of pluralism. Most assume ours to be a social order open to collaboration and cooperation on common ground and shared interests. Church leaders need to recognize that the pluralism defining the American social order in our day is far less open to cooperation from religious institutions than in the last years of the previous century. The challenge to the Church is how best to fit in and find those niches where it can be of most help, cooperating for social change with existing agencies, and coming alongside with new efforts. The Church’s primary mission is to embody and proclaim the Gospel, and, over the centuries, this has always included helping to meet society’s needs with distinctly Christian charitable efforts.

A major theme in this book is the Church’s need to reform itself and rediscover its proper calling as a believing community supporting a caring and effective charitable network. The Church must work harder at modeling and encouraging neighbor-love across a broad spectrum of relationships and responsibilities. Reforms that are not motivated and sustained by genuine love for neighbors are not likely to survive amid the rising encroachment of government in the social sphere. This is an especially important note in view of the recent sex abuse scandals that have blighted Catholic parishes throughout the nation and around the world. Can the Church be trusted to love the last and the least? It seems unlikely that any real reform of the Church, or any rekindling of respect for its social presence, will be realized until this matter is completely resolved and reforms are set in place to preclude its recurrence. Surprisingly, however, this book does not mention the scandal, but concentrates on calling the Church to reform and refurbish its sclerotic institutions and discover ways of creating more involvement on the part of lay people in social and political efforts. That elephant is in the room, however, and will have to be soberly addressed before any real reform can be achieved. More efficient bureaucracies, new programs, and innovative reforms are not likely to create the kind of respect and openness the essayists in this volume hope to recover.

Real reform in the Catholic Church’s view of itself must also make a place for lay people to be more involved in shaping doctrine and policy. Ryan’s essay revisits the views of Cardinal Newman in the 19th century, and is the only essay in the book that speaks effectively about the people of the Catholic Church as opposed to its clerical and institutional presence in society. She also is one of the few contributors who directs any attention at reforming the spiritual lives of Catholics, which would seem to be an important aspect of any effective reform movement.

The Church must also redirect its efforts at transforming the world by addressing what Cavanaugh refers to as the religion of consumerism. Cavanaugh rightly argues that Catholics need to face up to and address the powerful allure of materialism and consumerism in our day. The notion of choice, guided by mere personal preference and feasibility, has achieved a kind of hegemony over the minds and lives of many, and has become, even for Catholics, the defining motif of their lives. This desire for things and experiences betokens a longing for transcendence which consumerism cannot satisfy; accordingly, it may provide an opportunity for the Church to speak into a growing vacuum, if it can find the right ways to do so. If the Church cannot liberate its own members from the shackles of materialism and consumerism, it will not have any unique message or hope to offer the world. Reform must begin in the hearts and minds of Roman Catholics before Roman Catholics can hope to bring a change of worldview to society.

The contributors to The Church in Pluralist Society have made valuable contributions toward helping Christians and others understand the times in which we live. In their cautious rethinking of pluralism and the growing hegemony of illiberal liberalism, they concur with other Christian writers, such as Steven Smith (Christians & Pagans in the City)  and Carl Trueman (The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self). Their call to review the Church’s historical role in social and political life, to reform its own communities, and to redirect efforts to take more into consideration the best practices for addressing the secular religions of our day can also be helpful. Their essays offer practical suggestions for applying the insights and conclusions of Charles Taylor’s work to reinvigorate the Church for effective action in the social and political arenas.

One concern is that the book tends to speak to Catholic institutions – social agencies and other charitable works – rather than congregations and individual Church members. It can leave Catholic parishes and Christians thinking that becoming more meaningfully involved in social and political life is beyond their pay grade. Ryan’s essay makes steps toward trying to overcome the sense of separation between Catholic laity and the issues on the ground, but the book could have done more.

In the spirit of the sons of Issachar, the contributors to The Church in Pluralist Society have made important observations, raised critical issues, and pointed in helpful directions for reform in the Catholic Church and its role in society. While their counsel falls more on the side of understanding the times, their advice on what the Church should do at least indicates a direction for reforming Catholic social endeavors in the immediate future.

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