Social Thought

Social science professors at several universities team up to produce The Encyclopedia of Catholic Social Thought, Social Science, and Social Policy. An interview with Richard Myers, by Patrick Novecosky

Richard Myers (pictured at right) is the first to concede that a new set of encyclopedias is probably pretty low on most Catholics’ shopping lists. But at the same time, he’s quick to point out that there are some resources that educated Catholics shouldn’t be without.

Myers, a professor at Ave Maria School of Law in Ann Arbor, Mich., teamed with scholars Michael Coulter (Grove City College), Stephen Krason (Franciscan University of Steubenville), and Joseph Varacalli (Nassau Community College-SUNY) to produce the Encyclopedia of Catholic Social Thought, Social Science, and Social Policy.

The comprehensive two-volume work was released in July by Scarecrow Press. With more than 800 topics, the encyclopedia is a comprehensive introduction to Catholic social thought. It combines theoretical work on important topics and scholarly disciplines like economics, moral theology and natural law; social science perspectives on topics including alcoholism and globalization; and treatment of practical policy implications that flow from applying the Catholic religious, moral and intellectual tradition to contemporary issues such as abortion, immigration policy and school choice.

Myers and his fellow editors recruited some prominent contributors, including Cardinal George Pell of Sydney, Australia, Bishop Giampaolo Crepaldi of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Father C. John McCloskey of the Faith and Reason Institute, and Mary Ann Glendon of Harvard Law School. He spoke with Register correspondent Patrick Novecosky.

How did the project come about?

In 2001, Joe Varacalli asked the other three co-editors to work with him on this. He saw a need to make Catholic social teaching better known and to fill a gap in scholarly literature. Up until this time there had been no comprehensive overview of Catholic social thought — at least not of the scope of this project.

Part of the initial thought was to help to create a social movement to support the Church’s teaching. If you look at the list of entries included, there are almost 300 contributors. It has entries on a staggering array of topics — and entries on groups that implement Catholic social teaching. Part of our effort is to encourage them — and all Catholics who are engaged in the work of the Church — to recognize the interconnections between what they’re doing and help promote these activities.

When people think about Catholic social teaching, they usually think of a narrow conception of the encyclicals from the last 100 years or so — from Rerum Novarum on. But the Church’s social teaching is far broader and richer than the encyclical tradition alone. This project presents a much broader focus. It puts more emphasis on the theological, historical roots of Catholic social teaching as it plays out in a wide range of areas.

It seems like libraries and scholars would be most interested in the book. Would other Catholics find a use for it?

It’s primarily a reference book, but it’s really something that any educated Catholic would find useful. It’s really difficult to get a good introduction to a number of important documents, themes, thinkers and personalities. For example, it’s really hard to find a good overview of the thought of Leo XIII or Pius IX. We’re trying to make that accessible to people in a way that is not overly technical, but is still scholarly. Entries are 1,000 to 1,500 words, and we also provide a bibliography and cross-references to help them pursue it in more depth if they need to.

Has a project like this been attempted before?

There are broader projects like the Catholic Encyclopedia from the early part of the 20th century. Most of those projects are much more ambitious in terms of a comprehensive study of Church history and theology. They’re also much longer-term projects.

Encyclopedias aren’t that prevalent because the scope is so large and requires a large commitment. We were trying to do it in five to six years, which seemed like a long time to us. It’s well over 1 million words and 1,200 pages in pretty small print. We’ve moved at light speed in terms of getting this done in that time frame.

Has Catholic social thought been under-taught in our schools, parishes and homes?

I think so. There’s been a lot of concern expressed in the Church that this is a neglected part of Church teaching — at least certain aspects of it. The Church’s teaching on the life issues and certain areas of thought on labor and capital have been thoroughly talked about. Because it’s so broad and relates to every area of social life, it’s hard to pigeonhole.

Recent popes, for example, have bemoaned the fact that the Church’s social teaching is not as well known as it ought to be. This is really an important way to infuse the teachings of the Gospel into social life and as a tool of evangelization.

The one very useful document that collects a lot of the Church’s social teaching is the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, which came out in 2004. At the time we started the project, it didn’t exist. Part of the reason behind that document was to have a one-document summary of the Church’s thinking on these issues. Our project has the same goal in terms of trying to promote the Church’s teaching and to make it accessible to people. But it does this in a far more comprehensive way with not just a summary at a theoretical level, but also by looking at individual thinkers, organizations and areas of thought and practice that have contributed to the development of Catholic teaching.

This could be a valuable tool for clergy and the hierarchy, as well. Were they factored into developing the volumes?

Yes. It’s very useful in seminaries. There is a certain practical quality to the Church’s social teaching that is important for the clergy as they deal with people’s concerns about economic life and family life — and issues like the environment and international relations. The Church’s teaching on all these areas is very rich, and it’s important for the clergy to have a good background in it so they can better bring the Gospel to bear on those different areas.

What has the response been like?

It’s gotten a good response. We’ve gotten endorsements from people like Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver.

Reference books typically don’t sell in the range of Harry Potter books, but it’s selling quite well. The publisher has told us that it’s their top book of the year. They normally anticipate encyclopedias selling perhaps 1,000 copies, and they think ours will sell several times more than that.

The book has been supported by the Society of Catholic Social Scientists, so we’ve done a lot to boost sales in that group and the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars. Many of the contributors are members of one or both of those groups.

We’ve already begun to think about subsequent volumes or various spinoff volumes that focus on different aspects of the Church’s social teaching.

There are entries dealing with contemporary issues that will need updating. There are press reports that Pope Benedict is working on a second encyclical focusing on social questions. That would be something we’d include in a second edition, but that’s some years off.

Are you planning any other resources linked to the encyclopedia?

A website resource will be available in a few months. It will include the introduction and list of entries and contributors, some sample entries and new developments.

There are no plans to put the whole content on the Internet, but the website will try to give people an idea of the quality of the published volumes. It will also enable us to update information before the second edition is published.

Patrick Novecosky

writes from Naples, Florida.

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