Kathleen Sprows Cummings
Last month, students in my class on women and Catholicism spent an evening at a Catholic Worker House in South Bend, Ind. We prepared a meal, shared it with the guests and listened to an after-dinner talk by Margaret Pfeil, a staff member at the house and my colleague at Notre Dame. Pfeil spoke about how the witness of Dorothy Day has shaped her own life and the larger Worker movement. She led us on a tour of the community’s new drop-in center, describing the painstaking efforts to raise the additional $10,000 needed to open its doors. Pfeil explained that the Catholic Workers had not sought any large grants, but trusted that the funds will accumulate, in Day’s words, by little and by little.

The following afternoon, all Notre Dame students, faculty and staff were invited to attend Notre Dame’s annual Academic Forum. This year’s topic was The Global Health Crisis: Forging Solutions, Effecting Change. Panelists included the world-renowned physician Paul Farmer, the economist Jeffrey Sachs and the tropical medicine specialist Miriam Opwonya. Gwen Ifill of PBS moderated the televised discussion, and an archived Webcast of it is now available online. At the forum’s conclusion, President John Jenkins, C.S.C., announced the creation of the Notre Dame Millennium Development Initiative and urged all participants to take dramatic action to alleviate the health crisis. As a Notre Dame family, the forum’s Web site reads, we can and must make a difference in the world.

On consecutive days, then, my students had the opportunity to experience two different manifestations of what the ethicist Kristin E. Heyer calls the social witness of U.S. Catholicism. One is rooted in the local community, highly personal and against the grain. The second is global in orientation, corporate and unmistakably intertwined with secular culture. These models roughly correspond to the sect type and church type described by Ernst Troeltsch in The Social Teaching of Christian Churches. The former occupies a voluntary society apart from the world and in tension with it, while the latter takes responsibility for collaborating with institutions of wider society and is able to adjust to the world.

In Prophetic & Public Heyer, who teaches at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, Calif., argues that the divide between these two typologies in Catholicism is not as sharp as the prevailing wisdom would suggest, citing John Paul II’s legacy of engagement as only one illustration. If the late pope embodied a more collaborative posture through his personality and his scholarship, his opposition to the culture of death was more in tune with the sect type.

According to Heyer, Troeltschian types are particularly inadequate for understanding the church’s social engagement in the American context. Central to her argument is a comparative analysis of the supposedly dueling approaches of the Revs. J. Bryan Hehir and Michael Baxter to Catholic social ethics. Hehir, who has served as policy advisor to the United States Catholic Conference, dean of Harvard Divinity School and president of Catholic Charities USA, is one of the most influential public figures in the history of American Catholicism. Encouraging collaboration with the state and other secular actors, Hehir is committed to a church that enters legislative debates and makes concrete policy recommendations. He identifies four themes that shape his own sense of vocation: Ideas count. Institutions are decisive. Politics are about life and death. Prayer is critical.

In contrast to Hehir’s vision of the public church, Michael Baxter offers a much more radical interpretation of Catholic social ethics. Baxter, an assistant professor of theology at Notre Dame (and coincidentally, a resident of the Catholic Worker community that my students visited), challenges Hehir’s assumption that there is a fundamental harmony between Catholicism and the political arrangement of the United States. In Baxter’s view, collaboration with the government risks co-optation by it. Whereas Hehir accepts the world on its own terms, Baxter views it through a hermeneutic of suspicion, wary of its potential as a tool for violence or temptation. He sums up the problem: In the field of Catholic social ethics, 95 percent of the thought goes into what the policies should be, and 5 percent into doing the works of mercy in a personal way. It should be just the reverse.

While most social ethicists acknowledge that the church is big enough to accommodate both models, Heyer proposes an approach to public theology that moves beyond their mere coexistence. Suggesting that the models embraced by Hehir and Baxter might clarify and inform one another, she underscores three areas of overlap: the Christian call to both charitable and structural justice efforts, the significance of discernment in any social engagement and the prospects for joining liturgical or sacramental renewal to social justice efforts. She posits that those who adopt the stance of either Hehir or Baxter have much to learn from each other. While Hehir shortchanges the call to discipleship that is at the core of Baxter’s vision, Baxter perceives too rigid a divide between discipleship and citizenship.

Heyer supports her argument with case studies of three Catholic advocacy groups: Network, the U.S.C.C.B. and Pax Christi USA. Here again, Heyer seeks to bridge the typological divide, urging that the differences among the approaches of these organizations be held in creative tension. Drawing on her analysis, she proposes three methodological directives for Catholic social engagement. First, she urges that there be a stronger connection between embodiment and advocacy, pointing out that the church’s public authority has been compromised, to say the least, by the scandal of sexual abuse by members of the clergy and the vexing trio of sexism, clericalism and authoritarianism in its internal structures. Second, she recommends the installation of mechanisms for self-criticism to guard against distortion, observing that both PCUSA and NETWORK continually assess how they as organizations might be complicit in the injustices they attempt to expose in the wider society. Finally, she emphasizes that Catholic social ethics should consistently address a comprehensive range of issues, since the elevation of a single issue risks not only partisanship but also blindness to its connection with other social justice issues.

By insisting that public theology must be at once faithful to the full sense of Catholic tradition and attentive to the signs of the times, Heyer offers a framework for engagement that is both helpful and hopeful. If my students are any indication, young Catholics also find it very pragmatic. I was pleased to find out that one of my more business-minded students, who was critical of the Catholic Workers’ incremental approach to fundraising and mystified by their unwillingness to apply for tax-exempt status, has signed up to bring dinner to the community each week.

Kathleen Cummings is associate director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame, Ind.