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A Century of Catholic Social Thought

This year marks the centenary of the promulgation of Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum. Over the next several months there will be a myriad of scholarly conferences, lectures, sermons, masses, etc., commemorating the anniversary of this seminal Church document and the tradition of social thought that it inaugurated. Collections of essays celebrating this anniversary are already beginning to find their way out of publishing houses and into stores and catalogs. More promise to follow as conferences conclude and their proceedings are published.

A Century of Catholic Social Thought is one of the first collections of commentaries published commemorating this year’s anniversary. This volume considers both the historical development of Catholic social teaching and its continuing significance, especially in light of the dramatic economic and political changes taking place in today’s world. The editors make clear at the outset that they are taking the opportunity the occasion presents to “reflect on the enduring and developing contribution that modern Catholic social thought has made, and is making, to the debate over the right-ordering of public life in our society and, indeed, throughout the world.”

This particular collection reflects, then, not only on Rerum Novarum, but on virtually all of the formative papal documents that over the last one-hundred years have so profoundly affected the world in which we live. Virtually all the major anniversaries of Rerum Novarum have been commemorated with further papal pronouncements on social matters. Commentaries on those encyclicals, Quadragesimo Anno (1931), Mater et Magistra (1961), Octogesima Adveniens (1971) and John Paul II’s Laborem Exercens (1981) are included and authored by such capable scholars as Msgr. William Murphy, Thomas C. Kohler, Robert A. Sirico, James Finn and Robert A. Destro. Also included are commentaries on Pacem in Terris (1963—George Weigel), Gaudium et Spes (1965— Mary Eberstadt), Dignitatis Humane (1965— Kenneth L. Grasso), Populorum Progressio (1967— Robert Royal), and Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (1987—William McGurn).

Please, don’t let all the Latin titles scare you away from this provocative volume. These essays were put together so that interested persons, whether introducing themselves to the tradition of Catholic social thought for the first time or simply looking for fresh insights into familiar documents, might be enriched by this set of reflections. Indeed, it was the hope of the editors that this volume would be something more than a set of textual exegesis’. Rather, they strove to “put the encyclical and conciliar documents into conversation with the ‘joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties’ of people today.” They succeeded brilliantly.

What makes this volume even more valuable is the forward by renowned theologian Richard John Neuhaus and the ecumenical afterword by the Very Reverend Leonid Kishkovsky, president of the National Council of Churches. Both essays add considerable depth and perspective to the remarkable tradition of social thinking that this collection of scholarly, yet prayerful, ruminations commemorates. All in all, A Century of Catholic Social Thought is must reading for all who seek a moral and just solution to society’s social ills.