Review: When charity is not enough

Seven Catholic peace activists were arrested at Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay in Georgia April 5, 2018. The protesters said they took the action to mark the 50th anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and to repent for the sin of white supremacy that guides U.S. military policy. (CNS photo/Kings Bay Plowshares).

For 15 years I have enjoyed the numerous books by the sociologist Sharon Erickson Nepstad that examine religious social movements that work for peace and justice. Her latest, Catholic Social Activism: Progressive Movements in the United States, explores the ways American Catholics have championed worker justice, peace, feminism, liberation theology, immigrants and environmentalism. Drawing upon historical texts and many other sources, Catholic Social Activism brings readers a thorough and complex history of recent Catholic activism in the United States.

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Catholic Social Activism by Sharon Erickson Nepstad

NYU Press

224p, $30

Some of the efforts, like the sanctuary and immigration movements, showed a great deal of cooperation between lay Catholics and the church hierarchy. Others, like women’s movements and liberation theology, have been contested; at times the laity’s activism leads the hierarchy into eventual engagement and at other times they remain at loggerheads. This lay-magisterium interaction is central to her book, and Nepstad tells a compelling story.

To suggest a critique of Nepstad’s book, it is, with important exceptions, a story of white Catholics. I know of many black and Hispanic parishes engaging in justice work in their communities. Including some of the parish- and diocesan-scale efforts that do not enjoy the national visibility of the groups Nepstad chronicles would have helped to illuminate their efforts.

Drawing upon historical texts and many other sources, Catholic Social Activism brings readers a thorough and complex history of recent Catholic activism in the United States.

Nepstad concludes the book by offering five themes learned through her observations. Exploring the first of these, she asserts that charity is not sufficient; socially engaged Catholics must work toward structural change. This book also demonstrates the power of collective action, as well as the costs of significant personal sacrifice: not only countless hours but also many people imprisoned—some even losing their lives.

It is much easier and more rewarding to engage in works of mercy, in which we see the immediate fruits of our efforts: one more jacket for a warmer body, a lovingly prepared meal for a full belly. But Nepstad demonstrates the Catholicity of justice work and might inspire readers to such work even when their efforts fall short of a clear victory.

The rigor and breadth of Nepstad’s research and analysis makes this an excellent book for academic courses. Yet the page-turning readability also makes it valuable for everyday Catholics who look to deepen their understanding of Catholic social teaching and how our church has enacted it.

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