Shifting Realities

Book cover
The Social Mission of the U.S. Catholic Churchby Charles E. CurranGeorgetown Univ. Press. 196p $26.95 (paperback)

Conversion has been a central theme in the writings of the Rev. Charles Curran from the beginning of his career. It is with him still as the backstory of his interpretation of the social mission of the Catholic Church. The theological framework that prevailed before the Second Vatican Council not only distinguished but also separated the supernatural from the natural, the spiritual from the temporal, the hierarchy from the laity, the church from the world and the mission to sanctify from the mission to humanize. Curran spells out how the conversion of this theological vision yields one social mission for the church, namely, to make action for justice and the transformation of the world a constitutive dimension of the church and of what it means to be Catholic.

Charles E. Curran, the Elizabeth Scurlock University Professor of Human Values at Southern Methodist University, is one of our pre-eminent American Catholic moral theologians of the post-Vatican II era. He has been at the forefront of the renewal of Catholic moral theology and has carried the torch for at least two generations of moral theologians. To this day he continues to produce substantial volumes with the insight and comprehensive scope of a seasoned veteran but also with the freshness of a pioneer.


In 2002 Curran published Catholic Social Teaching: 1891–Present, an exposition and analysis of the Catholic social justice tradition. We now have a follow-up and equally strong work. In his new book Curran points out that our teaching on social justice is not co-extensive with our social mission. As he sees it, clergy, religious and laity have not yet tapped the potential of our tradition of social teaching to bring about a much-needed conversion of social structures, personal attitudes and the cultural environment. The theological, ethical and pastoral dimensions of this volume light the way to such a transformation.

The central aim of this work is to spell out the challenges we face when we take seriously the notion that promoting the church’s social mission is constitutive of proclaiming the Gospel. Like the prophets of Israel, Curran draws power for his proposals from his sense of history. The first two chapters lay out our historical inheritance of a social mission. They show that the ecclesiological vision of the immigrant church too narrowly construed the church and its mission by focusing more on taking care of its own poor than on converting social structures.

Curran is most poignant in the two chapters that develop his ecclesiology and pastoral proposals for participating in the social mission. He is one of our best witnesses to the vitality and promise of the distinctively Catholic features of the church. Inclusivity (the small “c” catholic character of the church) shapes our openness to diversity and legitimate pluralism, even on the prudential judgments we make when applying universal moral principles. While the bishops can speak for the church, the hierarchy does not have a monopoly on truth. The “both-and” approach of Catholicism makes it possible for both the hierarchy and the laity to share responsibility for the mission. In approaching social issues, our unity and diversity make room both for those whose vocation is to witness through nonviolent protest and for those who are called to work through political and economic processes to bring about change.

In addition to learning from the past, the good moral theologian also looks around at what is going on now. The heart of this book is Curran’s look around at three influences on our understanding and structuring of the social mission. The first is ecclesiology. The ecclesiological vision of Vatican II undercut the bifurcation of the temporal and spiritual orders by recognizing that the cooperation of the clergy, religious and laity to better the world is constitutive of the church’s mission to transform the world.

The second influence is the sociological situation of the church. The social mission of an immigrant church that took care of its own by supporting schools, hospitals and labor unions to protect the rights of workers gave way to working with others and for others as the church became assimilated into the American culture. Today’s sociological challenges for carrying out our social mission arise from the new social situation of the Hispanic majority in the church and from the significant loss of church membership.

The third influence is the historical situation in the United States. The poverty of the immigrants gave way to the issues of just wages and working conditions for our farmworkers, of a stable peace in a nuclear age and of abortion in a culture of choice. Today’s historical situation serves up issues of corporate power overwhelming politics, of ecological devastation and of lingering racism and sexism that poisons our political and economic structures.

For Curran, the formation, education and motivation of all Catholics to work for the common good are most urgent. We have our tradition of social teaching that gives us goals to which we aspire, but we also need practical steps: bishops consulting with the faithful in articulating our vision, schools incorporating social teaching across the curriculum, parishes forming socially conscious disciples through liturgical life and outreach services, and charitable institutions (like Catholic Relief Services) meeting immediate needs.

Curran has given us a book to motivate and guide us in this mission. Anyone who wants to see how the social teaching of the church can come to life ought to read it.

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Leonard Villa
7 years 6 months ago
This review is less than honest in calling Fr. Curran a "pre-eminent Catholic moral theologian" when the Catholic Church her self has removed the label Catholic from his so-called moral theology.  Probably moral philosophy is more appropriate a term since the final arbiter for Fr. Curran are his own conclusions rather than a servant of the truth as taught by Christ's Church.  Here is the judgment of the Church on Fr. Curran's rejection of Catholic moral teaching: In light of your repeated refusal to accept what the church teaches and in light of its mandate to promote and safeguard the church’s teaching on faith and morals throughout the Catholic world, this Congregation, in agreement with the Congregation for Catholic Education, sees no alternative now but to advise the most reverend chancellor that you will no longer be considered suitable nor eligible to exercise the function of a professor of Catholic theology. Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith AAS 79 (1987) 116-118.  Fr. Gula surely knows this but neglects to mention it.  The Church's social doctrine is undermined by fifth columns masquerading as Catholic teachers while denying Catholic doctrine making their own writings or "selected peers" the court of final authority.
7 years 6 months ago
I knew someone would dredge up the condemnation of Fr. Curran, still a prioest in good standomng, a widely recognized ethicist and moral theoogian, despite thar condemanation, and without any refernce to the conten tof the bppk under discssion.
In our divided Church, this is the kind of blog critique that does nothing to evalaute anyone's work,
7 years 5 months ago
What pains me most when Fr. Richard Gula labels Charles E. Curran "one of our pre-eminent American moral theologians of the post-Vatican II era" is his having to add "Professor of Human Values at Southern Methodist University" instead of "professor at some Catholic University."

Charles Curran is Catholic (a priest in good standing), and universally acclaimed as a pre-eminent moral theologian.

Why are some of our greatest theologians and thinkers (Congar, Skillebeexk, Kung, Curran) being silenced in our church, instead of being encouraged to discuss, clarify and sharpen their thoughts and the thoughts of fellow scholars, as is being done everywhere in our universities by specialists in their fields?

I wish all our bishops had the same unshakable faith in the strength of our Catholic Church as Thomas Jefferson had in the strength of the idea of democracy. In his First Inaugural Address, March 1, 1801, Jefferson said: "If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve the Union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it."
Joseph Quigley
7 years 3 months ago
Everything Charles Curran writes reminds me of Jesus' rebuttal of the Pharisees, the Scribes, the Herodians and other of his opponents.
With one strange difference - Curran does not resort to the forthright language Jesus used. For example Jesus can say: "Oh, you Pharisees! You clean the outside of the cup and plate, while inside yourselves you are filled with extortion and wickedness." Luke 11:39 et passim.
Curran treats his critics and opponents with courtesy and respect.
He recognises, it seems to me, that like all men he himself is limited in his intelligence and experience.
Jesus on the other hand, being sinless and able to read the hearts and minds of men, could use strong language when dealing with his adversaries in the hope of making them see the error of their ways.
Would that all moral theologians, catholic and non-catholic, could put principles before personalities when discussing the mission of the church in the 21st century!
Charles Curran, even when I don't agree with him, never, to my knowledge "plays the man" to use a football analogy. Skill with the ball and not cutting the legs out from under an opposition player is the way he plays, and, I hope, wins the game.


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