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Catholic Social Thought? Not Your Father’s Encyclopedia!

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jan 16, 2013 | In Reviews

Would it not be wonderful to have an encyclopedia of Catholic social thought? I’m not referring to something like the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church issued in 2004 by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace—which is available in the library. That’s a fine source for the Church’s official social teaching, but it is not an encyclopedia with individual entries on just about everything that bears upon, explains, strengthens or undermines Catholic social thinking.

In these days of constant public controversy, such a volume would be extremely useful. We might even be able to figure out what we and others are talking about or perhaps, as the expression goes, where we’re coming from—or even where we’re headed.

But wait. Let us imagine for a moment that such a comprehensive effort could be undertaken. It would not do to have it written and edited by what we might justly call standard, cookie-cutter professors who all share the same standard, cookie-cutter prejudices. If we want to understand how some thinker (say John Dewey) or some widespread social fashion (say Feminism) or some philosophical approach (say economic personalism) or some particular Church document (say Rerum Novarum) fits into Catholic social thought, we necessarily want our encyclopedia to convey not only facts but a proper orientation to the truth about man, especially as articulated by the Catholic Magisterium. We would require the editors and writers to have the mind of the Church, so that they could “test everything and hold fast to what is good” (1 Thes 5:21).

These days I believe that would be something new under the sun! That would not be your father’s encyclopedia. And if we will put our collective powers of imagination to work, harness them to our deepest desires, squeeze our eyes tightly shut, cross our fingers, and whisper the incantation Society-of-Catholic-Social-Scientists, then trust me, the very work will appear in three large, well-crafted hardback volumes. I’m referring to the Encyclopedia of Catholic Social Thought, Social Science, and Social Policy edited by Michael Coulter, Stephen Krason, Richard Myers, and Joseph Varacalli. The publisher is Scarecrow Press.

In addition, you will have to go to a good library or pay $234.10. But it is worth either the trip or the dollars, or both.

The Encyclopedia was originally published in two volumes in 2007 totaling about 1200 oversize pages, but a third “Supplement” volume of about 400 pages was just published in 2012. Now, holding the first volume in my hands and flipping open to a random page, I find myself in the section devoted to the letter “F”. Early in this section there are so many entries on different aspects of the family that I need to scan ahead a little to give you an idea of the variety. Besides, it would be unbecoming to linger over the entry on “Faith & Reason” which was, after all, an academic journal I founded in 1975. (I can say that the entry is accurate. It even brought things to mind that I had forgotten.) So let us skip forward a few pages.

Starting with an entry on Feminism, we find another on Feminism in the Church. Then we learn of William Frederick Joseph Ferree, SM (an influential social justice scholar of the mid-twentieth century), followed by Fides et Ratio (John Paul II’s encyclical from 1998), which in turn is followed by St. Lucy Filippini (a social reformer and foundress who lived from 1672 to 1732). Then we can linger over an entry on Film (starting in the 1890s) before going on to John Mitchell Finnis, the outstanding Australian legal and ethical philosopher born in 1940. The next entry focuses on Thomas Fitzsimmons, a merchant-statesman and friend of George Washington at the time of the American Revolution. And Fitzsimmons, as you might imagine, brings us to the very brink of Foreign Policy.

These are not little one-paragraph summaries. Many of the entries run between a thousand and three thousand words; complex topics are generally broken down into multiple entries. Moreover, each entry concludes by identifying its author (there is a list of the academic affiliations of the contributors at the end of the second volume), and by offering suggestions for further reading.

But I should not forget the supplement, which is arranged in the same way. Between “Fem” and “For”—the brief sequence I recounted two paragraphs back—what was added in the supplement volume? Four more outstanding entries: Ludwig Andreas Feurbach (author of a nineteenth century sourcebook for dedicated atheists) is followed by Fideism, which in turn is succeeded by Film and Catholic Social Thought (many readers will recognize its author, Steven Greydanus), and finally by St. John Fisher—the lone episcopal martyr when Henry VIII nationalized the English Church. That event posed all kinds of problems for Catholic social thought, social science, and social policy.

There is little more that needs to be said, except to emphasize that the introduction to the Encyclopedia specifically embraces the desiderata I listed in my initial hypothesis. The first two volumes include over 800 entries by more than 300 authors. The supplement adds over 200 entries by more than a hundred contributors. Throughout there is an effort to “link social thought at a broad theoretical level to social science research and then to how the theory and social science research relate to specific policy questions”.

Just to be clear, let us see how these terms are being used:

  1. Social theory: “traditionally understood as consisting of papal encyclicals, other Church statements and analyses that deal not only with the ‘social question’ but also with other social institutions such as the family and education, and the writings, on the state of civilization, of both classical and contemporary Catholic intellectuals and scholars.”
  2. Social science research: “Catholic informed social scientific perspectives” (which are analogous in Catholic thought to what others emphasize as “feminist sociology, capitalist economics, Marxist history,…Freudian psychology”, and so on) as “applied to concrete social issues and social problems”.
  3. Policy questions: “social policy analyses, statements, and proposals shaped by a Catholic worldview regarding government, civil, and other private sphere social institutions.”

This is the kind of breadth we were looking for. Moreover, while the editors rightly maintain that “Catholic orthodoxy…leaves plenty of room for prudential disagreements and scholarly debates”, they have insisted, in recruiting their expert contributors and shaping the reference work as a whole, on respect and support for “the constitutive role that magisterial thought plays in authentic Catholic scholarship.”

It really is magic—or, far more accurately, a work of great grace—and it is only sensible to hope that this material will one day be made available online where it can be far more easily enlarged and updated, and will also do far more good. Meanwhile, I advise every institution with responsibility for a library, every individual who truly values his own private library, and all those who presume to write on these complex and contentious topics, to invest quickly in the Encyclopedia of Catholic Social Thought, Social Science, and Social Policy—and to keep it close at hand.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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