- Patristics and Catholic Social Thought by Brian Matz
Patristics and Catholic Social Thought
Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2014
Pp. xvi + 295. $36.00.
Brian Matz’s new monograph is full of quality scholarship and interesting ideas, not to mention some great charts of patristic texts in Catholic Social Teaching (CST). Matz’s basic idea is that patristic sources are surprisingly under-used in these magisterial documents. More to the point, they are also often used to poor advantage. CST “remarkably mishandles the patristic source material at its disposal” (31; one great exception: Benedict XVI). The early chapter, “Themes in Patristic Social Thought,” is excellent (though I miss engagement with scholars such as Gary Anderson on charity). Matz observes that by the 4th and 5th centuries, the Fathers had “raised the status of the poorest of the poor in the eyes of the rest of the community,” and that “in most every case, the point was christocentric, for loving the poor meant both loving and mimicking the life of Christ” (56).
Hoping to offer assistance in appropriating patristic texts, the next four [End Page 492] chapters each propose a different “hermeneutical model” and then apply it to two patristic homilies on Lazarus and the Rich Man (Asterius of Amasea’s Homily 1 and Jerome’s Homily 86, each handily translated in Appendices). The first model, “authorial intent,” is the historico-critical approach, using techniques of contextualization to try to discover the original intention of the author. Next, the “distanciation model,” is Ricouer’s, beginning from an acceptance of the “distance” separating us from the world of the author, freeing the text from its original context and making available the inherent “surplus of meaning” that enables it to inhabit our world and be meaningful here and now. The third model, “Normativity of the Future” (NOF), does not accept divine inspiration of any text; rather, based on the idea of a future good that is universally inclusive of all human beings and animals, one must determine “what in a text is sin-filled and what is grace-filled” (126). Patristic homilies on biblical texts must be read and applied accordingly, valorizing parts that project an inclusive future, and rejecting the opposite, such as texts implying permanent damnation of sinners. Finally, the postmodern or “New Intellectual History” model “asks of readers of premodern texts to expose the many ways in which these texts distort, diffuse, or otherwise conceal agendas” (145). These four chapters are quite helpful in thinking about hermeneutical models.
In assessing the comparative usefulness of these models, Matz decides that the first and the fourth “do not get back to the biblical text [in patristic homilies] in any meaningful way” (168). By contrast, “the distanciation model holds great promise,” as it “invites CST today to open the texts of the patristic writers to discover what other new and interesting ways of reading the biblical texts are in store” (169). However, it is the NOF model that Matz finds most attractive, since it responds in particular to the concern that CST has or should have “to join Christ in proclaiming the arrival of the kingdom of God on earth” (169). “The NOF model is nothing . . . if not a guide for . . . reading biblical and patristic texts that is commensurate with the concerns of justice and equality” (169–70).
Despite the many merits of the book, Matz’s judgments about how the magisterium should apply his models seem lacking in appreciation for what it means that CST is an act of the magisterium. He binds the magisterium to a magisterium above the magisterium, forbidding the naming of heresy (Marcion can only be a “perceived heretic,” 119) or the acceptance of biblical inspiration, and excluding a priori eternal damnation. But further, why is the magisterium involved in social teaching at all? Because CST is “itself a valid instrument of evangelization” (Compendium of Catholic Social Teaching #67). Matz seems tempted to reduce the teaching of Jesus, and evangelization itself, to the horizontal, to the social gospel, as when he pictures that the magisterium, in the person of CST, should “join Christ in preaching the arrival of the kingdom...