A gut check for American Catholicism

A gut check for American Catholicism

Also: A good run for Vatican PR, Obama's Catholic roots and the 'economy of communion'

by John L Allen Jr

Published in the National Catholic Reporter on Jul. 17, 2009 in the column All Things Catholic

The following are excerpts from an article in John Allen Jr´s weekly blog for the National Catholic Reporter. In it, he names Focolare (and EOC) among “the winners” in the recent Papel Encyclical, Caritas in Veritate. He speaks about them at the conclusion of a reflection over the “package deal” approach the encyclical gives towards the defense of human life and economic justice, as well as the resulting “gut-check” he sees posed to American Catholicism by this explicit union.

A broken wrist notwithstanding, Pope Benedict XVI is relaxing in Valle d’Aosta in northern Italy from July 13 to July 29, winding down after the exertions not only of the past year, but just the week before his vacation began. In fact, when the definitive history of Benedict XVI’s papacy is written, the first week of July 2009 might well deserve a chapter all by itself.

Twice in that short span, Benedict propelled himself into the thick of global debate by offering his slant on two of the hottest topics on the planet today: the economic crisis and Barack Obama.

Both the pontiff's long-awaited social encyclical Caritas in Veritate, and his July 10 tête-à-tête with the American president, generated an avalanche of comment and analysis. (My own coverage can be found in both the on-line and print editions of NCR). Rather than rehash the details here, I'm going to try to answer just one question: Did we see or hear anything that poses a direct challenge to the American Catholic church? I think the answer is "yes," and the fact that it hasn't quite registered yet tells us something important about where things stand.

During the July 7 Vatican press conference to present Caritas in Veritate, it fell to Archbishop Giampaolo Crepaldi of Trieste, Italy, former secretary of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, to say whether the document contained anything new. In truth, there wasn't much. Most of its economic and political analysis recapitulated points already made many times in social encyclicals, beginning with Leo XIII's Rerum Novarum in 1891.

(The astonishment unleashed by Benedict's rejection of laissez faire capitalism, or his call for a "true world political authority," thus goes to show that Catholic social teaching may indeed be the church's "best-kept secret." Nobody familiar with it should have been surprised.)

Crepaldi did point to one original aspect of Caritas in Veritate: Benedict's insistence on holding anthropology and sociology together -- or, to put it differently, his insistence on treating the pro-life message of the Catholic church and its peace-and-justice concerns as a package deal. This is the first papal social encyclical to so thoroughly blend economic justice with the defense of human life from conception to natural death.”

These indications of Caritas in Veritate don't have value merely as exhortations," Crepaldi said. "They invite a new way of thinking, and a new praxis, that takes account of the systematic interconnections between the anthropological themes linked to life and human dignity, and the economic, social and cultural themes linked to development."


Thus the question implicitly posed by Benedict's encyclical: Can the church in this country develop a new way of "breathing with both lungs," bringing its pro-life and peace-and-justice energies into greater alignment?…Can American Catholics evangelize the country's politics, or are we content to be evangelized by it?

That, in any event, seems to be the gut-check posed by Caritas in Veritate.


…among the winners [from Caritas in Veritatae], a clear example would be Focolare, one of the new lay movements in Catholicism created during the 20th century. Focolare's "economy of communion" project, which claims to link roughly 750 firms worldwide in a more humanistic way of doing business, is the lone initiative singled out for praise by Pope Benedict XVI in the document.

(Oddly enough, Benedict XVI cites the "economy of communion" but doesn't explicitly mention Focolare, making the question of whether a reader automatically caught the reference perhaps the best recent test in papal literature of true "Catholic insider" status.)

The pope hailed the economy of communion as a promising form of intermediate activity between for-profit business and non-profit institutions, rupturing what he called an "exclusively binary model of market-plus-state" which is "corrosive of society."

Commonly reckoned to be among the largest and most influential of the new movements, Focolare was founded in 1943 by Italian Catholic laywoman Chiara Lubich, who died in 2008, to promote the ideals of unity and universal brotherhood. Today Focolare claims to be represented in 182 nations, reaching millions of people.

During a 1991 trip to Brazil, Lubich challenged Focolare members to launch businesses that could create jobs and opportunities for the impoverished city of Araceli. Various firms resulted, including a plastics manufacturing business, a clothing company, and a pig farm.

Building on that impulse, the Focolare movement developed what they describe as a new approach to business activity. Profits from "economy of communion" firms are pooled to fund development programs, charitable activities, and programs of formation and education in disadvantaged areas.

Today Focolare claims some 750 business around the world as part of the network, including 36 in North America. According to Focolare materials, the firms range from cottage industries to multi-million dollar enterprises.”

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