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The World as It Could Be

Saturday Book Pick: Father Thomas Williams on Catholic social teaching.


| Posted 2/18/12 at 4:04 AM


Many books about Catholic social teaching are introductory in nature. That’s not bad because, as Peter Henriot et al. observe in the title of their own book, Catholic social teaching is “Our Best-Kept Secret.”

Legionary Father Thomas Williams’ book, however, takes a different tack. Not directly an introduction to Catholic social teaching (although it showcases what Pope Benedict XVI has contributed to that discipline), the book’s primary thrust is to apply Catholic social thought to today’s and tomorrow’s social issues.

The book is on the cutting edge of seeking to push Catholic social thought forward. It’s both expository (this is what was taught) and exploratory (this is where that teaching might lead).

Father Williams does an excellent job sewing together 12 chapters, most of which had previously been independent articles, into one coherent whole.

The subjects range broadly, from abortion to capital punishment, from economic development to global governance, from religious liberty to religious discrimination.

The author’s conclusions are likely to bother both those on different sides of the political spectrum because — like the Church — Father Williams’ point of departure is the good of the human person as made in God’s image, not as part of a government program. The Church is involved because “the state needs help in discerning the nature of this good and its concrete requirements. The Church ‘is called to contribute to the purification of reason’ since practical reason ‘can never be free of the danger of a certain ethical blindness.’”

Challenging the political status quo is appropriate, however, because Catholic social thought is not an alternate “political” program, but a critique of any and every political program. Political “liberals” may feel discomfort at “Abortion as a Social-Justice Issue,” where Father Williams argues that the extermination of the unborn is not primarily a bioethical, but a civil-rights issue; indeed, one on which many Catholics have long been AWOL. His “Global Governance and the Universal Common Good” will likely elicit pushback, especially if read superficially, from those unwilling to acknowledge any authority in the political realm above the sovereign state.

Do animals have rights or dignity? Is violence ever justified, or have we even managed to define what “violence” is? Does the state have a right or obligation to discriminate among religions?

What evolution has occurred in the notion of “distribution of goods” since Pope Paul VI’s Populorum Progressio (The Development of Peoples), and how might that development affect the time-honored notion of “distributive justice”? How should society deal with the seeming antinomies of “unity” and “diversity”? What is specific about “Christian charitable service”?

These and many other questions are some of the issues Father Williams addresses in this book. Although it can be read intelligently by someone starting out in the field of social ethics, a reader with a basic introduction to Catholic social thought would profit better from it.

While Father Williams tackles some of the most complex issues of our day (e.g., his discussion of unity and diversity obviously has relevance to multiculturalism), he writes clearly and understandably.

By including several chapters dealing with Benedict XVI’s social magisterium, he shows us the Pope’s “refreshing reconsideration of how fundamental moral principles, and especially the commandment to love, must be applied in the social sphere.”

Father Williams does not shy away from controversy, but admits “this book in no way attempts to be comprehensive in its scope. It is heuristic in its nature and aims only to stoke the fires of public debate by bringing up some questions that may be overlooked in many contemporary forums of Catholic social thought.”

The priest’s ideas may sometimes require refinement (e.g., his discussion of violence needs more clarity), but they are thought-provoking. His goal is both noble and lofty: “understanding the world as it could be.

Register correspondent John M. Grondelski writes from Perth Amboy, New Jersey.


Catholic Social Thought for a New Generation

By Thomas D. Williams LC

Herder and Herder/Crossroad, 2011

226 pages, $24.95

To order: