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Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Questions about "public theology"

I have been thinking for some time about the emergence of "public theology" as yet another attempt by mainstream Christian theologians to avoid facing fully the implications of the disintegration of Christendom. Some unrelated googling to follow up on the work of Catholic theologian
 Michael Baxter turned up the following comments by him on this theme that provides some support for my suspicions in his analysis of responses by mainstream Catholic theologians to Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement.

Notice here the similarities between Weigel's and Curran's reading of the Worker. Both find it lacking in responsibility when it comes to institutional change. Both appeal to criteria of effectiveness. Both extol the Worker for its inspiring example, but its significance is restricted to the realm of individual witness. Both are indebted to the Weberian paradigm of politics. Differences in tone and emphasis notwithstanding, the readings of the Catholic Worker offered by Weigel and Curran are equally condescending and misleading.

And this is true, I would submit, of a host of social ethicists dedicated to developing a "public philosophy" or a "public theology," whose considerable differences give way to a common reading of the Catholic Worker's ecclesiology as "sectarian." This is a key word in the lexicon of Catholic social ethics done in the Troeltsch-Niebuhr-Gustafson lineage. It is invoked as a way to dismiss the claim that Christian discipleship entails a form of life that is embedded in the beliefs and practices of the Church and therefore cannot serve as the basis for universal, supra-ecclesial ethical principles that are then applied in making public policy. In this dismissal, it is possible to detect the lineaments of the kind of Weberian critique of the Catholic Worker offered by Weigel and Curran, namely, that Gospel ideals do not pertain to politics and must therefore be translated from ends into means, from absolute into relative terms, so as to have a more direct bearing in the world of pragmatic policy making. But such a translation reproduces the former neo-Scholastic separation of theology and social theory that Peter Maurin criticized in his easy essay. It also runs counter to the consistent claim of Maurin and Day that true society is rooted in the supernatural life of Christ and cannot be abstracted from the beliefs and practices of the Church. Most importantly, this "public theology" approach fails to take seriously a contention that has been central to the life of the Catholic Worker from the beginning, namely, that the modern nation-state is a fundamentally unjust and corrupt set of institutions whose primary function is to preserve the interests of the ruling class, by coercive and violent means if necessary-and there will always come a time when it is necessary.

Those working out of the Murray tradition of "public theology" find this assessment of the modern nation-state to be intolerably negative. And indeed it certainly is negative-but Day would add that this is for good reason. After all, she was formed politically by the Old Left during and after the Great War. This was the era of the Committee on Public Information, the suppression of journals such as The Masses, the Palmer Raids, the shut-down of the Wobblies, and the Red Scare of the twenties. The history of state-sponsored political repression was very much intertwined with Dorothy Day's personal history (as is especially clear from the first part of her autobiography), and it left her forever wary of the claims of the state, as she herself indicates with the title of the chapter in The Long Loneliness on anarchist politics: "War is the health of the state."

("Blowing the Dynamite of the Church": Catholic Radicalism from a Catholic Radicalist Perspective Houston Catholic Worker Newspaper)

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