As discussed in part 3 of this series about JustFaith, Marvin L. Krier Mich’s Challenge and Spirituality of Catholic Social Teaching (revised edition) notes that while the Catholic bishops may view the principles of Catholic social teaching as a “starting point,” Mich exhorts his readers to place experience before theory – as if the two were in contradistinction to one another. In this way, Challenge and Spirituality erodes acceptance of authentic Catholic social teaching and places something else in its stead.
Over the 30-week JustFaith program (2011-12), Challenge and Spirituality is read in its entirety and discussed on five occasions. Presumably, therefore, its perspective reflects the JustFaith program in significant ways. In week 4, for instance, JustFaith materials use the book’s introduction of “the pastoral cycle and social analysis” as a lead into one of its discussion questions. The pastoral cycle (illustrated on p.11) is grounded precisely on placing “experience before theory” and will be used elsewhere in the JustFaith program.
Looking at other discussion questions based on the book, one can see the emphases JustFaith wants to make, although it must be stressed that no facilitator is required to use any particular question. Here are some of those questions:
Week 4, JustFaith question #6: “The creative energy of the prophet (pages 95-99) is to call the community to a new vision of reality. Who are the prophets of our time? Describe their new vision of reality.”
In the Christian lexicon, “vision,” “prophet,” and “reality” have particular meanings. The word “prophet,” for instance, means one who speaks, acts, or writes “under the extraordinary influence of God to make known the divine counsels and will.” “Vision,” in this sense, refers to a “supernatural perception of some object that is not visible naturally.”[i] “Reality” – the stuff of endless philosophical discourse – is simply, for our purposes, what is.
God is the actor behind all these words. God has created what is; a vision is true or false according to the integrity with which it conforms to what is; a true prophet can only speak what God gives him to speak.
A person who “dreams” of another reality – a “better” reality, perhaps, in his own thoughts – is not, in the religious sense, a “visionary” or a “prophet.” His dream is self-generated; it may or may not come to pass; it may or it may not prove to have been as good as the dreamer hoped.
Liberationism, however, confuses the hopes and dreams of well-intentioned people with “God’s voice,” as if the two were one and the same. So Mich, the liberationist, after having retold the story of Moses, writes: “The prophet has two tasks: ….second, to imagine a different kind of future than the current reality.” Later on the page, he repeats and then continues: “The second task of the prophet is to imagine a different kind of future. ‘The prophet does not ask if the vision can be implemented, for questions of implementation are of no consequence until the vision can be imagined. The imagination must come before implementation.’” (p. 95, quoting Walter Brueggemann,[ii]) The liberationist “prophet” is the actor – the motivator – not God.
The emphasis of the passage read in Challenge and Spirituality to discuss question #6 is that compassion – the ability to stand with those who are suffering – and the vision of a future without suffering is the prophetic task to which the Christian is called.
To this, the reader is given a bit of revised, liberationist history: “The early church challenged the idolatry of Rome and struggled to live an alternative consciousness where the economics of equality and the politics of justice were expressed in a religion that celebrated God’s freedom. But as the church gained acceptance by the Roman Emperor Constantine, it gradually shifted its stance. When Rome ‘fell’ in 467, church leaders became more responsible for the social order. As it developed a hierarchical structure, the church itself took some of the cultural trappings of power and authority of Rome.” (p. 97)
The message is inescapable: the JustFaith participant is the prophet. He is the one who will feel compassionate solidarity with suffering; he is the one who will envision – and presumably act upon – “the economics of equality and the politics of justice.” If the Church, or any Church dogma, gets in the way of that, it’s because the Church isn’t what it once was.
Week 14, JustFaith question #8: “What does it mean to say that everything in nature is a ‘sacrament of God’s love’?” (referring to pages 51-53)
That’s a great question.
Mich answers it: “’By being thoroughly itself, a sacrament bodies forth the absolute self-donative love of God that undergirds both it and the entirety of creation.’ We think of the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church as revealing God’s grace, ‘[b]ut every creature, human and nonhuman, animate and inanimate, can be a sacrament.’ This discovery that every part of creation is a sacrament of God’s love is the beginning of great reverence for God’s creation.” (p. 51, quoting Michael and Kenneth Himes[iii])
Redefine any word and it can mean anything you want it to. If the capacity of all created goods to be vehicles of grace gives everything the right to be called a “sacrament” then we have no word for those special vehicles of particular grace that were instituted by Christ.
Mich, quoting from the National Catholic Rural Life Conference, flattens the word “sacred,” too: “Water, a creative force, is essential for all life. It is the common heritage of all creation, a sacred gift.” (p. 51)
The concept of the “sacred,” traditionally, points to the distinction between the things of pertaining to God and things pertaining to the natural, human world. Unconsecrated water – most water – belongs to the natural world. It is, indeed, essential for all life and it may serve God’s purposes but it is only “sacred” in those places and in those amounts where it has been specially blessed and set aside for particular, divine purposes.
To speak of natural goods and their natural benefits as “sacred” doesn’t – as the innovators of flat language suppose – elevate human respect for those goods. It simply devalues human respect for the sacred.
There’s a more serious problem, here, than the linguistic, however. Week 14’s reading portion, whether discussed or not, includes the thought of numerous people whose perspective simply isn’t Catholic and at times is anti-Catholic. The reader is introduced to Elizabeth Johnson’s curious notion that “we need to re-imagine systematically the uniqueness of being human in the context of our profound kinship with the rest of nature.” (p. 57) Guess this is one of those places we have to discover another meaning for “reality.”
The reader is introduced to problem of “biocentricism.” “[E]mphasizing humanity’s ‘superior role’ over creation is somewhat troublesome,” writes Mich. (p. 57)
Rather humorously, the reader is introduced to a “Prayer of St. Basil” – a modern fiction for which there is no evidence of having been written by the saint, though it has enthusiastically made the rounds of various “earth ministries” under that title. Like much else among the writings of “eco-theology,” this patina of Catholic tradition is thin and, ironically, debases genuine ecological concerns.
Week 21, JustFaith question #3: “Review the principles for economic life outlined on pages 178-179 in Mich’s book. How might the basic principles listed here offer both guidance and solutions to the current national and global crisis?
The principles for economic life outlined on pages 178-179 do reflect Catholic thought pretty well but they have been, unfortunately, preceded by a scriptural retelling that casts them into a very uncatholic light. So, backing up a few pages, we are reintroduced to the parable of the laborers. This is the Bible story about a householder who hires workers throughout the day and then ends up paying them all – those who worked a single hour and those who worked all day – the same, full day’s wage. The workers who put in the most effort complain at the unfairness of the householder who then defends his generosity, adding that “the last will be first and the first will be last.” [Mt 20: 1-16]
As the parable begins with the words, “The kingdom of heaven is like a householder who…,” the Church explains that the landowner is God, whose mercy extends to those who turn to Him at any point in their lives.
Mich, however, putting forward the theories of “scripture scholar” William Herzog, offers another interpretation: "A non-traditional interpretation of this parable paints a different picture. When we do not presume that we should identify God with the landowner we open ourselves to a new angle of understanding, seeing the world from the perspective of the oppressed day laborer. The parable interpreted in this way again shows God on the side of the poor. If it is faithful to the words and actions of Jesus, the church [sic] should look for ways to give voice to workers who bear the heat of the day, but who are not treated with dignity or paid enough to meet their basic needs. The Bible contains many texts like this parable that address the rights of workers, especially when they are trampled upon by the aristocracy." (p. 177)
What is the reason for this “non-traditional” interpretation? One answer is that liberationists want to reeducate Christians into a perspective about economics that the Bible doesn’t present unless its texts are twisted into “non-traditional” interpretations.
That perspective – that context – then, becomes the lens through which the reader is expected to understand Catholic principles for economic life. The above question about “solutions to the current national and global crisis” will be answered through a context that, as with its scripture interpretations, reduces complex spiritual matters, with concrete material consequences, to purely economic matters.
How this reductionism plays out will become more apparent when we look at what JustFaith does with its graduates…but program participants are still be formed.
Week 22, JustFaith questions #1&2: “What is your response to the ‘consistent ethic of life’ as described in Chapter 3? Were there any aspects of this ethic that surprised you? What did you personally find most challenging about this ethic?” “Cardinal Bernardin saw the interrelatedness of diverse social problems, such as abortion and nuclear weapons. Do you agree with his approach? Explain your reasoning.”
The chapter titled “Human Dignity: Respect for Every Life” goes to great length to put the problem of abortion into the context of Cardinal Bernardin’s “consistent ethic of life” theory, which it equates with Pope John Paul II’s appeal to create a “culture of life.” Mich writes, quoting from the Pope’s encyclical, The Gospel of Life: “The starting point of this cultural transformation would be ‘in forming the conscience with regard to the incomparable and inviolable worth of every human life.’ The culture of life would include ‘the courage to adopt a new lifestyle consistent with making practical choices – at the personal, family, social, and international level – on the basis of a correct scale of values: the primacy of being over having, of person over things.’ This is a tall order for a materialistically centered culture.” (p 75)
What magnificent words! Their meaning seems obvious until they are filtered through the liberationist’s lens. Then we learn that, to support a “culture of life” – to make those practical choices that will achieve cultural transformation – we must be prepared to permit social engineers, who may have little or no Catholic understanding, to organize us. The chapter on “Option for the Poor,” for example, discusses the grounds on which organizations can receive grants from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD): “[T]he group or community organization must be addressing systemic change.” (p. 131)
“Systemic change” isn’t defined. Perhaps the reader is meant to associate it with the cultural transformation proposed by John Paul II, in which there is regard for “the incomparable and inviolable worth of every human life.” But as the organizations CCHD funds have a very limited, secular concept of a consistent life ethnic – almost never addressing the issue of abortion, for instance – clearly, we are looking at two different ideas.
Mich the Author
As a closing note, Marvin Mich’s background sheds some light on the problematic elements of Challenge and Spirituality. Mich is a laicized priest who is the current Director of Social Policy for the Catholic Family Center, a regional office of Catholic Charities in the Rochester area.
He has served as Associate Professor of Christian Ethics and Academic Dean, St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry, Rochester Diocese’s theologate, and as president of the board of directors of the Greater Rochester Community of Churches.
Irregular as such a teaching position is for a laicized priest (canon law says that, as a general rule, laicized priests are not to teach religion), even more irregular is Mich’s 2005 signature on a RAPPORT (Renewing a Priestly People: Ordination Reconsidered Today; RAPPORT is a Christian base community within the larger Women's Ordination Conference) petition, cosponsored with the dissenting Catholic movement, Call to Action Upstate New York, demanding that the Catholic Church ordain “to the priesthood all who are called by God and gifted, women as well as men.”
The Call to Action movement, not coincidentally, has been one of the premier champions of liberationism in the US Catholic Church.
[i] Definitions from John Hardon, Modern Catholic Dictionary, (Bardstown, Eternal Life, 2001)
[ii] Walter Brueggemann, Prophetic Imagination, 2nd edition, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 2001), p. 40.
[iii] Michael Himes and Kenneth Himes, “The Sacrament of Creation: Toward and Environmental Theology,” Commonweal 117 (1-26-90), p. 44.