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  • Patristics and Catholic Social Thought: Hermeneutical Models for a Dialogue by Brian Matz
  • Kenneth R. Himes O.F.M.
Patristics and Catholic Social Thought: Hermeneutical Models for a Dialogue. By Brian Matz. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 2014. Pp. xvi + 296. $36.00 (paper). ISBN: 978-0-268-03531-0.

This is a very fine work that reflects wide reading and careful scholarship presented with clarity in organization and good writing. It certainly is to be recommended for theological libraries. For individuals, it is important to note the book's subtitle. This is not a volume that aims to present an overview of the social teaching of the patristic era. Nor is it a comprehensive examination of certain major authors or key themes of the period. In short, this is not the book to go to if one wants to find out if the Latin and Greek fathers had different understandings of the nature of the state or what was Tertullian's view of the duty to pay taxes to the empire. Readers looking for that kind of information should look elsewhere.

What Matz does provide is a rewarding volume focused on the hermeneutical method best suited to use when employing patristic texts in social teaching. One could readily imagine substituting texts from medieval Scholasticism on social teaching, and the method and argument of the author would not have to change all that much. This book would benefit individuals wishing to learn how to appropriate texts from another time and place in a way that enlightens and informs present-day reflection on social issues by Christian theologians.

The essay is rather concise, only 175 pages in length. The rest of the book includes extensive reference notes (96 pages) along with two appendices and two indexes. Matz divides his work into six chapters, but the major contribution is the final four chapters, in which he looks at how four different interpretive models can be used to read the same two texts, homilies by Jerome and Asterius of Amasea on Luke's parable in chapter 16 of the rich man and Lazarus.

Matz begins the book with the observation that Benedict XVI's encyclical Deus caritas est stands out for its use of patristic material. "Of the encyclical's roughly 13,000 words, 1,030 of them (8 percent) are devoted to one patristic [End Page 446] source or another. No other document of Catholic social teaching (CST) comes close" (7). Indeed, several of the CST documents Matz studied use no patristic materials, and the majority he investigated devote 1 percent or less to the Church fathers (16).

Chapter 1 contains several very telling tables that show the paucity of patristic citations in documents of Catholic social teaching, the ways in which the patristic materials are commonly used, and the patristic texts that are most often cited. Matz laments the general neglect of patristic writing by authors of official Catholic social teaching and discusses the errors in the ways that the patristic texts are used when they do appear. His conclusion is that Catholic social teaching "remarkably mishandles the patristic source material at its disposal" (31). As a student of teaching, I can assure Matz that many biblical scholars (e.g. John Donahue, S.J.) would make a similar complaint about the way in which biblical texts are cited and used in these official documents.

As a professor of the history of Christianity, Matz undoubtedly wishes to see the riches of the Christian tradition better treated so that our past can help illumine our present situation. He sets out in the second chapter to provide a sketch of three important themes in the writings of the Fathers that continue to be vital concerns for believers in the present moment: the common good, private property, and the poor. For each theme, he provides a comment on how the topic was treated in literature of ancient Greece and Rome before turning to how the topic was treated and developed in Christian literature. This chapter offers insights and helps a reader appreciate what knowledge of the patristic materials can add to our modern social outlook, but it is...


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