This article appears in the May 2003 edition of the Catholic Medical Quarterly

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Book Review

Peter H. Millard

The Social Agenda of the Catholic Church: The Magisterial Texts
Edited by Rev. Robert A Sirico & Rev. Maciej Zieba, OP.
Burns & Oates, A Continuum imprint, London and New York
p225, �14.95, 0-6264 8573 0;
October 2002

Often one hears what the church is against: here one finds what the church is for. Ten sections cover the nature of Catholic social teaching, the human person, the family, the social order, the role of the state, the economy, work and wages, poverty and charity, the environment and the international community. The final section considers the challenge of Catholic social teaching.

The book opened my eyes. So much wisdom has been written in magisterial texts: until now, most of it has been hidden from the laity's eyes. Scholarly documents are for scholars, lesser beings need simple words. The Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace is to be congratulated for enabling the publication of this book. In the preface, the Vietnamese president of the council, the late Archbishop Francois-Xavier Nguyen Van Thaun, describes the motivation that underpins the book s publication.

In 1945, aged seventeen, the Archbishop was a young member of a small group of Catholics in the Imperial City of Hue. Communism was gaining the upper hand. Fortunately, they had access to three social encyclicals. Facing great difficulties, they reproduced them as best they could, and one of their number - Alexis - at great risk to himself and his large family, went from province to province to distribute the texts. As he secretly moved from village to village he would strap the texts to his legs. Finally, Alexis was caught and died in prison.

The Lord Jesus did not abandon them. Alexis's actions left behind a great legacy. In Vietnam the distribution of the Pontifical social teachings opened a new path of light and hope, which enabled the Catholic Community to cope during the days of darkness that were to come. Reading this story of heroic deeds, in the comfort of my home, in a country currently under immense moral strain, where the forces of moral evil appear to be gaining the upper hand, I wondered what would happen if discussion groups, based on the ten sections of this book, were established in all churches in our land.

The texts in each section have been chosen for their social significance. For example, the section on The Nature of Work, based on the writings in the first book of Genesis, emphasises the Churches conviction that work is a fundamental dimension of human existence on earth. Furthermore, work is with others and for others. Each person is aided, sometimes impeded, by the teachers; yet, regardless of these influences, each one of us remains the principal agent of his own success or failure.

Just wages and compassion are necessary components of an equitable and just society.

The National Health Service has changed from a welfare state to a welfare market. We stood back as the early contract deprived ward cleaners and domestics of a just wage. Now public services are being run down; and the hospital safety net for sick and dependent people, irrespective of their age, has gone. "Behold the wages of the labourers.., which have been kept back by you unjustly, cry out: and their cry has entered into the hearts of the Lord of Hosts" (Jas 5:14)

"Furthermore, the mentality which honours women more for their work outside the home than for their work within the family must be overcome". Then I thought of a Belgian colleague of mine who had six children, five daughters and finally a son. His wife told us that, once only, had he lifted a finger to do anything in the house. And my mind drifted to my three sons; and I saw how the male role had changed as well.

I have only one criticism about this excellent book. It would have helped me enormously if the dates of the Magisterial texts had been included in the text. Nevertheless, I think that the book could act as a catalyst for change in the Guild. No one has to tie this book to their leg to transmit its message to others. Yet, the challenge we face is how to transmit the good news in the Church s social teaching to ourselves, before we can transmit it to others.

Professor Peter H. Millard is emeritus Professor of Geriatric Medicine at St.George's Hospital Medical School.

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