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Posted April 8, 2005

The Social Edge Interview:
Author and Theologian Gregory Baum

by Gerry McCarthy

Dr. Gregory Baum is an Officer of the Order of Canada. He taught theology at St. Michael's University College in Toronto for 28 years. He also served as an expert for Vatican II from 1960 to1965. Since 1986 he has been Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at McGill University in Montreal. Dr. Baum is the author of numerous books, including: Man Becoming, Nationalism, Religion, and Ethics, and Karl Polanyi on Ethics and Economics.His most recent book Amazing Church: A Catholic Theologian Remembers a Half-Century of Change was recently published by Novalis in Canada and Orbis Books in the United States. I reached Dr. Baum in Montreal to speak about the book.

Gerry McCarthy: In Amazing Church you look at the first sentence from the Vatican II document Gaudium et spes (The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World)."The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the people of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these too are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ." You write that this is a brief reference to the evolution of Catholic social teaching calling for the preferential option for the poor. Significantly, you explain that: "This evolution has lifted the commitment to social justice to the spiritual order as an indispensable dimension of the life of faith, hope and charity." This was a major spiritual leap for the Church at Vatican II wasn't it?

Gregory Baum: What's important to look at is that John XXIII in Pacem in terris (Peace on Earth) used arguments drawn from natural law and from the Gospel. Beginning with Leo XIII Catholic social teaching was always based simply on natural law and human reason, because it was thought this was what people outside the Church could understand. Christ was not mentioned. It was presented purely as natural wisdom. John XXIII changed this. He involved Jesus Christ and the Gospel in this teaching. In particular he said he was trying to lay the foundation for human rights. He found two reasons for doing this. One of these is the creation story --that we're created in God's image. The second is the redemption story --that all of us are addressed by God. This is the divine summons calling us to friendship with God. John XXIII gave theological reasons as the basis for human dignity and hence for human rights.

This was a total change in the orientation of Catholic social teaching. It's a Christian teaching and we're committed to justice, not simply because of reason, but out of fidelity to Christ. It raises this to the supernatural order. In the spiritual books used in seminaries and monasteries in the past, the world was never mentioned. Things like unemployment, war and injustices were not thought of being part of the spiritual life. In many religious orders that's been totally changed. Spirituality is a committed part of justice and mercy.

GM: Looking at the evolution of the Church's official teaching over the past 50 years is remarkable --particularly when we think about religious pluralism. But some observers suggest there is a retrenchment (or restoration movement) occurring in the Vatican. For example: the release of Dominus Iesus by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in 2000. What do you make of this?

GB: Obviously there's a new centralization in Catholicism. There's an attempt to repress dissent. There are these phenomena. But when it comes to the official teaching I discuss in my book I'm amazed. Pope John Paul II was enormously worried about what Samuel Huntington calls "the clash of civilizations." He opposed this and proposed a dialogue with civilizations. That's why you have these remarkable statements of solidarity with Muslims.

It's quite true that there are debates about these things in the Vatican. People don't always agree. But in the book I speak about the signs of the times. In the present conflict, Pope John Paul II in his teaching was committed to this.

GM: Early in the book you write that in the United States one often hears about the distinction between conservatives and liberal Catholics. You explain that this "two-fold distinction applied to Catholic bothers me." A bit later you add that: "If we make a distinction between conservative and liberal Christians, we leave no room for Dorothy Day and Daniel Berrigan and, more generally, for Catholics associated with the Catholic Worker, Pax Christi, the Center for Concern,

Development and Peace or any of the other faith-and-justice groups and centres created all over the Catholic world, many of which are strongly supported by religious orders."

Still the conservative and liberal labels persist. They also appear to be used more clumsily (and even recklessly) today. What are your thoughts?

GB: I have the impression that "liberal Catholics" are concerned with issues of personal freedom and tend to feel at home in the society of the present. The Catholics I call "solidary" or faith-and-justice Catholics are preoccupied with the maldistribution of wealth and power in the world and the suffering inflicted upon the victims of society. These Catholics find it difficult to be reconciled with society as it is. They share with conservative Catholics a strong sense of sin, which they interpret above all as structural sin, the damage inflicted on human beings by unjust institutions.

GM: Can you speak with me about the Church's recognition of the sinister side of modernity -- particularly in light of liberalism embracing human progress (and modernity), but tending to overlook its sinister side?

GB: The Church has learned to be in critical dialogue with modernity, to learn from its achievements. For example: human rights, democracy and religious pluralism. But at the same time to resist the dark side of modernity --such as the dominant individualism and utilitarianism, the unregulated market system, and the neo-colonial exploitation of the Third World. The Church laments the decline of social solidarity and the growing indifference to the common good. We are in dialogue with modernity, but in critical fashion, learning from certain aspects, and rejecting others.

GM: In the book you write that: "As the Church enters a new ethical horizon, it rereads the Scriptures and rethinks its teaching in a process that involves debates on all levels of the Catholic community and eventually leads to a modification of the official position. In such historical situations, disagreement with the magisterium may render an important service to Church, helping it to respond to the signs of the times in the light of the Catholic faith." But sometimes Catholics who disagree with the official teaching of the Church find themselves described as "outside of the faithful" by the Vatican. What do you make of this?

GB: The Church changed its mind on several important issues at Vatican Council II. Even though the Popes had condemned the principle of religious liberty for over a century, the Council published a declaration affirming religious liberty. Even though Pius XI had condemned the ecumenical movement in a special encyclical, the Council recognized the ecumenical movement as the work of the Holy Spirit. Theologians who had disagreed with the magisterium in the past were now invited to participate in the Council and help to formulate the Church's new teaching. Ever since, Catholics have been convinced that thoughtful and prayerful disagreement with the Church's teaching renders a service to the Church because it furthers discussion and may prepare an evolution of church teaching. Bishops who now claim that dissent from the magisterium is not permitted should be reminded of the Church's experience at the Council when positions that were previously condemned became official teaching.

GM: Toward the end of the book you write about the Church's refusal to review what the equality of men and women means in the light of God's revelation. I suspect one example of this is the Church's continued opposition to the ordination of women to the ministerial priesthood. Why hasn't the Church moved forward on this? Do you think any of their arguments have merit?

GB: While Protestant Churches have moved with western culture by recognizing the equality of men and women and adopting a more positive attitude to human sexuality, the Catholic Church has refused to go along with this. This has widened the gap between the Catholic Church and the Protestant Church, creating an obstacle to ecumenical co-operation. Why has the Catholic Church been so reticent? For one thing, the Catholic Church is international, at home not only in the western world, but also in cultures on other continents, cultures that have the traditional attitudes toward women and sexuality. Secondly: while in the Protestant Churches the decisions on these issues are made by committees made up of men and women (married and un-married) in the Catholic Church these decisions are all made by old men dedicated to sexual abstinence. Our Church is making a serious mistake in not allowing a free theological debate on these issues.

GM: You write that: "We want to rejoice in the Good News, be grateful for the many gifts received, celebrate Christ's resurrection and marvel at the unknown God --without forgetting the human torment. I have often called this dancing with a wounded leg." This isn't an easy dance is it? We can sometimes lose our balance?

GB: I think it is possible to be so overwhelmed by the suffering in the world, the killings and the starvation, that it becomes difficult to resist depression. We could lose our balance and fall into despair. What we want is to be hopeful believers, trusting in the divine promises. At the same time, we don't want the kind of happiness that makes us forget the injustices and the suffering in the world. We don't want to use the worship of God to cast into oblivion the victims of society. The God of love constantly remind us of their presence. Catholics may try to interpret their own modest happiness as a sign and sacrament of what God wants for all humans.

Gerry McCarthy is Editor of The Social Edge.


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