Christ and Culture: Behind the debate about 'public theology'

America readers may be unfamiliar with “public theology,” but they are well acquainted with its work. The culture wars are expressions of public theology. Church teaching, especially when it seeks to engage men and women of good will, as Pope Francis did in his environmental encyclical “Laudato Si’,”is another instance of public theology. Public theology describes the work of theologians who are committed to engaging in public dialogue in terms understandable to an unchurched public, what we once called natural law.

The inspiration for public theology lies in the Catholic belief that the church has a role in transforming the wider society under the influence of the Gospel. The Second Vatican Council set the agenda for public theology in expounding its belief that church and world are co-related and, according to the “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World,” that they serve one another.

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Among the major achievements of public theology in the United States in the post–Vatican II era were “The Challenge of Peace” and “Economic Justice for All,” the U.S. bishops’ pastoral letters of the mid-1980s, notable for the open, dialogical fashion in which they were drafted.

Public Theology and Its Critics

In the post-conciliar period, however, some theologians grew critical of this dialogical posture toward the wider culture. The character of public theology may be understood by contrasting it with these more countercultural, church-centered thinkers. The differences between the two parties have been most evident over issues of war and peace. Voices from the two sides were heard again last spring in the pleas of some at a Vatican conference for the church to jettison the just war tradition as a framework for moral criticism of armed conflict.

The prophetic school, as opposed to public theologians, encourages a particular moral ideal—nonviolence, for example, or solidarity with the poor—as incumbent on all “true” Christians. They prefer a small-tent, gathered community to a big-tent, inclusive church. (For their part, public theologians see virtue in engaging the world and find God at work in all men and women of good will, not only those within the church.)

Among those belonging to this alternative theological current are Michael Baxter, of Regis University in Denver, and William Cavanaugh of DePaul University in Chicago. It includes many former Catholic Workers and the strict pacifist wing of Pax Christi USA along with solitary figures like the peace activist John Dear. Their thought is close to Protestant peers like Stanley Hauerwas and John Milbank, who admire sect-like churches that hold themselves apart from worldly involvement, like traditional Mennonites.

The anti-hero for the countercultural school is the late Jesuit John Courtney Murray, who, as he attempted to reconcile Catholicism and American religious freedom, became a major drafter of Vatican II’s Declaration on Religious Liberty.

The complaint of the critics is that in the cause of dialogue with American society Murray compromised the more demanding Gospel content of the Christian life. In choosing to dialogue with American political culture, what he called “the American Proposition,” Murray became the godfather of public theology. His critics believe he sold out to the dominant American culture.

It would be mistaken, however, to conclude that public theology and more sectarian schools of social theology closely track with the standard culture-war differences between progressives and conservatives in American politics or between pro-choice and pro-life advocates. Public theologians using philosophical-sounding language are found on both sides of the conservative-progressive divide, and in the past three presidential election cycles, though not this last year, the two parties did intellectual combat with one another.

Bryan Hehir of Harvard’s Kennedy School and M. Cathleen Kaveny, with a joint appointment at Boston College’s Law School and department of theology, are public theologians, but so are George Weigel of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and Helen Alvaré of the George Mason University’s Scalia School of Law. In Murray’s phase, they are all “men [and women] locked together in argument” for the common good. As a group they differ from purist practitioners of theology in their belief that the church must engage with the world.

David Hollenbach: Public Theologian

Among the leading American public theologians in the post-Vatican II era has been David Hollenbach, S. J., a longtime friend and fellow Jesuit. In his 1996 presidential address to the Society of Christian Ethics, he identified the field of his endeavor as “a pluralistic, multi-religious world that includes many agnostics and unbelievers.” He continued, “The social ethical question is fundamentally how we should live together in such a world.”

Though he is widely published in his own right, perhaps Father Hollenbach’s most influential contribution to American public theology was his role 30 years ago as the principal staff writer for the U.S. bishops’ 1986 pastoral letter “Economic Justice for All.”

Writing to an October event at Boston College celebrating Hollenbach’s achievement, retired Archbishop Rembert Weakland, chairman of the ad hoc bishops’ committee that authored the letter, noted that Hollenbach had “assumed the major portion of responsibility for writing” three drafts of the text.

“In fact,” Weakland wrote the assembled theologians, after Hollenbach took on his role, “it became clear” that an approach “that emphasized the value and dignity of every human person on this planet, would become the refrain of the entire work as we confronted diverse economic systems.”

The 1986 letter also employed two of Father Hollenbach’s key ideas: human rights as the minimum conditions of justice in society and justice as participation, themes he had articulated in his early book on Catholic human rights theory, Claims in Conflict (Paulist, 1979). Jobs and unions, investment and entrepreneurship are all ways in which men and women can participate in the economic life of their societies.

Human rights have run like a leitmotif through Hollenbach’s career. Before joining the Georgetown University faculty this year as the Pedro Arrupe Distinguished Research Professor, he headed Boston College’s Institute for Human Rights and International Justice. Last year he was honored by the Library of Congress with the Maguire Chair in Ethics and American History. The topic of his research at the library, as much of his work in recent years, was the rights of displaced peoples. He is a consultant with Jesuit Refugee Service and has been deeply involved with the suffering of displaced peoples of several African countries, including Kenya, Rwanda, Burundi and South Sudan.

The Emerging Generation

Another of Hollenbach’s contributions has been the mentoring he did at Boston College for dozens of younger scholars, many of whom organized last October’s event “Public Theology and the Global Common Good: The Contribution of David Hollenbach, S. J.,” and a festschrift (celebratory volume) of the same name published by Orbis last fall. In his work with refugees and other victims of injustice, Father Hollenbach modeled for them “intellectual solidarity”—that is, the practice of scholarship in the service of the world’s “crucified people.”

In his 1996 presidential address to the Society of Christian Ethics, he said a social ethics “under the sign of the cross draws us into solidarity with those who suffer, and leads to action to alleviate this suffering and overcome its causes.” Like their professor, Hollenbach’s students have committed themselves to utilizing their academic research in service of people living on the margins of society.

In an email to me, Gerald Beyer of Villanova University writes, “I believe that Christian ethicists must abandon the preoccupation with ‘how we think’ and become more concerned with what we do. David Hollenbach’s work, which has focused our attention on real human suffering, has inspired a generation of ethicists to stand in solidarity with the poor and the oppressed, using their God-given gifts to promote human dignity and the common good.”

Beyer, who wrote his dissertation under Hollenbach on Poland’s Solidarity labor movement, writes, “The situation of workers both domestically and abroad horrifies me.... I view (and use) Catholic Social Teaching as a powerful tool in the struggle for worker’s rights.”

Beyer’s current research focuses on the harmful impact of corporate business models on American higher education. While he has worked for justice for food service and maintenance workers at universities, he regards the plight of faculty, especially adjunct faculty, as symptomatic of the economic injustice built into American higher education, including Catholic universities, today. “When 25 per cent of professors in the United States receive Medicaid and/or food stamps,” he writes, “something has gone awry.”

Kristin Heyer, also a Hollenbach protégé and now a tenured professor at Boston College, like Hollenbach has explored the ethical questions surrounding migrants and refugees. Drawing on the Christian Realism of Reinhold Niebuhr, she regards exclusionary immigration policies as an expression of group egotism. The nation-state, she holds, intensifies and rationalizes xenophobia.

Group egotism, she argues in an email to me, “is evident in exclusionary construals of national identity and in strategies that obscure such endeavors alike. Nativist elements of U.S. culture have historically served to manufacture an imagined sense of community.”

Heyer adds, “Representations of the outsider as a social menace have been continually reinvented in moments of national crisis, with the general pattern evidencing xenophobia’s productive function in the national imaginary.”

Heyer, who did her field research with the Jesuits’ Kino Border Project at Nogales on the Arizona-Mexico border, points out that the same quest for security that leads to maltreatment of immigrants also contributes to the forces that stimulate migration flows: “opportunistic capital investment, material extraction in developing countries, or active recruitment of racialized and gendered immigrant labor.”

The antidote to anxious fear of the other, she believes, is the culture of encounter proposed by Pope Francis. “Building cultures of accompaniment and encounter,” however, demands “bold candor and humility,” virtues through which church communities can genuinely be a leaven in the secular world.

Meghan Clark, an assistant professor of Saint John’s University in Queens, N.Y., and an America board member, commends not only Hollenbach but also the Boston College ethics faculty for modeling how academic ethics can serve the church as it serves the world.

Professor Clark has focused on the study of economic inequality and considers herself an advocate for women on the margins. “I seek to serve the institutional church,” she told me, “by being in solidarity with particularly vulnerable women who don't get theology training and rarely a voice at U.N. debates.”

“While we came together to celebrate David,” Clark wrote referring to the October event honoring Hollenbach, “he is far from unique in his commitment to practicing moral theology and social ethics in service of the Church. Virtually all of the ethics faculty are involved in the Catholic peace-building network, with groups like J.R.S. or C.R.S., with the efforts of religious communities, and so on.”

 “Ecclesial identity was taken seriously” at B.C., she says, “and the vocation of the theologian within one’s religious community was valued.” Heeding that call, Clark belongs to an interdisciplinary team at Saint John’s that consults for the Holy See Observer Mission to the United Nations in New York. She has also served as a consultant to the Domestic Policy Committee of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. 

Another Hollenbach protégé, also serving on the America board as well as with the international Catholic lay movement Pax Romana at the United Nations, is Kevin Ahern of Manhattan College. He has a long history of involvement with lay Catholic organizations. Besides Pax Romana he has also worked with the International Young Catholic Students.

As Pope Benedict XVI at the end of his pontificate endeavored to bring these groups under curial control, Ahern played a key role as the mediator for the lay movements. His recent book, Structures of Grace, examines the role of these lay movements in the church’s social mission.

Ahern wrote me, “I see my role as a theologian as being in service to the poor.” The service of the theologian in the church, he argues, must mean that “we be attentive to and concerned with the realities and needs of anyone at the margins of society. This has been a central challenge of Pope Francis—that we must be attentive to those at all the margins, social, economic, political AND ecclesial.”

The new generation of theologians, even as they serve the church in its highest councils, Ahern observes, do not always feel themselves close to the hierarchy. They are conscious of being laypeople who, by definition, don’t find the clerical caste which leads the church at ease with them the way it was with earlier generations of priest and religious theologians.  

Ahern recalls that a few years ago “a group of Generation X and millennial theologians had a meeting. It was a very ideologically diverse group of people from around the country. One thing we all had in common was a feeling of marginalization from our local church. For those of us who feel a vocation to theology,” he laments, “this can be very painful.”

He observes, “[T]here is a real challenge for lay theologians to be heard by the hierarchy. My focus is...the role of Catholic social movements and institutions, like the Young Christian Workers, Jesuit Refugee Service and Plowshares.”

“The mission of the younger generation of moral theologians,” Ahern told me, “must be like that of the Jesuits. We are called to be at the margins of the church, at the margins of academic theology and pastoral ministry, and at the social-economic margins.”

 “If we are comfortable in our social/professional position, something is wrong,” he concludes. “The suffering and sin facing people and planet today demand critical analysis and action. Young theologians must respond.”

In working at the margins as they also work at the heart of domestic and international society, like John Courtney Murray and David Hollenbach before them, this new generation of American theologians is finding ways to transform the world with the leaven of the Gospel. 

Correction: The universities of Michael Baxter and William Cavanaugh were misidentified in an earlier version of this article. Professor Baxter is a professor at Regis University in Denver, not the University of Notre Dame, and William Cavanaugh is a professor at DePaul University in Chicago, not Marquette University.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
TOBIAS WINRIGHT
9 months 4 weeks ago
A decent piece, Fr Christiansen, honoring an important theological ethicist (Hollenbach) and highlighting the important work of a number of his students. However, just a couple of little details are incorrect. Baxter has not been at Notre Dame for years, and he currently is affiliated with Regis University in Colorado. Similarly, Cavanaugh is not at Marquette but at DePaul University in Chicago. Finally, to the dismay of a number of Hauerwasians, Milbank is not a pacifist.
Neil Purcell
9 months 2 weeks ago
"The culture wars are expressions of public theology." If by theology, you mean the fixation on abortion as the sole moral challenge of the past forty years, then I quite agree. Public theology has done very well in making this one issue the driver of political power for people who cut public funding for all sorts of moral purposes; who sanction the use of torture;,who deny relief to the sick, the homeless, the hungry, and the imprisoned; who engage in unjust war; and who deny any merciful relief to refugees. I would call that a failing of public theology, and the Church, to influence our society - we have just elected a man who glorifies personal wealth; who condemns polite language and civility as "political correctness", who has endorsed by his own example a crude objectification and sexual assault of women, and who has made appeals to hate, racism, fear, and violence, into a very effective, if theologically offensive, political platform. He has done very well with Catholics. If this is any indication of the value of public theology, I'd rather have a ham sandwich.
Richard Booth
9 months 2 weeks ago
Ha! I agree with your hand sandwich metaphor and your commentary. I don't know if and when the Church and its people will figure it out.

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