This excellent volume sheds abundant light on the evolution of the social mission of the Catholic Church in the United States. Many factors, not the least of which is Vatican II’s call for people of faith actively to transform the temporal sphere through works of social justice, and contribute to a renewed Catholic awareness of the significance of our corporate social efforts. Curran’s desire to offer a full account of developments in this area leads him to offer an abundance of historical, sociological, and even political analysis, including many colorful and insightful case studies. The reader learns much about Catholic hospitals, schools, charitable agencies, and social movements of all sorts over the past century and more. But this book never loses sight of its place as a work of theology that proceeds primarily from a theoretical perspective, not simply as an historical account of church-sponsored institutions. Those interested in ecclesiology, social ethics, and pastoral dimensions of church ministries will find this book of particular interest.
Curran raises many questions that faced Catholic social institutions in the past and that still demand clarification today. On what terms should government contracts with Catholic health care and charitable services proceed? How may Catholic institutions, especially hospitals and schools, balance the values of distinctiveness and universal service as they grapple with mission integration? Is it even possible simultaneously to be thoroughly professionalized yet [End Page 89] still emanate “from the heart of the church?” What are the limits of faith-based advocacy and mobilization around such issues of conscience as abortion rights, nonviolence, and worker justice? Key documents of Vatican II, cited frequently by Curran, more often raise values and inspire world-embracing responses than actually settle relevant questions like these. In the distinctive context of United States civic life, Catholic social action had to become less monolithic and self-contained, so that church-sponsored institutions would serve all the needy, not just “our own poor.” This broadening of social concerns was neither a mere preference of bishops and other Catholic leaders nor a response to cultural trends. Ultimately it proceeded from the very nature of the church, called as it is to inclusivity and catholicity.
Curran succeeds in maintaining a solid focus on the theological underpinnings of these challenges even while providing numerous practical illustrations from recent church history. Along the way, the reader encounters some nearly forgotten movements and organizations, such as the Legion of Decency, the Catholic Family Movement, and the Catholic Peace Movement. Curran also raises up a worthy list of heroes in this enterprise: John A. Ryan, George G. Higgins, John Courtney Murray, César Chávez, Dorothy Day, Jack Egan, and Cardinal Bernardin among others. Near the end of the volume, the author hits exactly the right note by recalling that the most important contribution of church social ministry rarely consists in staging grand heroic actions. Rather, it lies ultimately in the ordinary task of forming, educating, and motivating lay Catholics to contribute to the common good in their daily lives. Thus healthy parish life, skilled preaching on social justice themes, and continual spiritual renewal emerge as the most important means to advance the social mission of the church today.
Thoroughly researched and documented, featuring reliable judgments at every turn, this volume belongs in every Catholic library. Displaying a lively style of presentation and extremely clear organization, this eminently readable work deserves a wide audience. [End Page 90]