Essential Catholic Social Thought, 2nd Ed.

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Bernard V. Brady
  • Maryknoll, NY: 
    Orbis Books
    , October
     400 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Bernard Brady’s revised edition brings his textbook, designed for an undergraduate introduction to Catholic social thought (CST), into the Francis pontificate. The book is neither a thematic introduction nor a companion to the social encyclicals, but rather a hybrid that includes unique “abridgements” of most of the papal documents, as well as numerous others. The inclusion of these abridgments, in the context of a semester-length-friendly eleven chapters, makes the book an attractive stand-alone resource for CST courses. 

The clear strength of the text is its breadth of coverage. Few teachers of CST will complain that Brady has left out something significant. The text includes significant treatments of every major relevant theme, from the classic issues of worker justice and human rights to later topics like racism and the environment. Brady helpfully complements the encyclicals not only with numerous other church documents (such as the joint letter of US and Mexican bishops on immigration), but also with significant sections drawn from John Ryan, Dorothy Day, and liberation theologians. Finally, the ample inclusion of material from Pope Francis is not only timely, but is done in a way that nicely displays how Francis’s themes elaborate on ones already present in CST, especially through the inclusion of works like John Paul’s Dives et Misericordia (on mercy) and his 1990 World Day of Peace Message (on the environment).

The choice to include full document abridgements, rather than actual excerpts, is possibly the text’s most unique feature. I admit I wondered about this at first, but I was won over. Brady is certainly right that reading full documents in an undergraduate class is very difficult; by contrast, his versions of Rerum Novarum (nine pages), Laborem Exercens (eleven pages), and even Laudato Si’ (sixteen pages) are quite manageable. While it risks giving students the impression that they are reading the actual documents, Brady’s paraphrasing succeeds in making key points clearer, and the abridging allows for readers to grasp the overall structure of the documents. Importantly, his choices when condensing material are consistently excellent. 

Admirable in its breadth and comprehensiveness, the volume’s weaknesses mirror its strengths. Two are worth pointing out in relation to its role as a textbook. The first is the tendency to present too many diverse typologies and lists drawn from secondary sources. The first chapter alone presents competing lists of principles from different church authorities, a discussion of four styles of social ethics from James Gustafson, a list of criteria on the Bible and morality, and an ill-fitting treatment of Ernst Troeltsch’s classic typology. Scholars of the tradition might welcome this comprehensiveness, but beginning students are likely to be overwhelmed. Moreover, the second chapter—Brady’s own interpretive grid—highlights four key ideas: personalism, the common good, conscience, and vocation. This is yet another list, and creates further challenges insofar as it includes two terms (conscience and vocation) that are not typical CST themes. Brady presents them in part because students taking such a class likely do not take a “moral theology” class as well, and so the latter two themes are in fact calls for students to apply and live out the teachings. Were I to use this text, I might well simply start with chapter 2, leaving chapter 1 as a resource to be consulted only if needed. 

The other weakness, perhaps telegraphed by these early chapters, is an increasingly unclear organizational strategy as the book unfolds. Chapters 3 to 6 present a clear chronological development of the tradition from Rerum Novarum through the 1970s, effectively complemented by key figures (the aforementioned Ryan and Day, John Courtney Murray, Gustavo Gutierrez). Thematic elements arise almost naturally. However, after chapter 6, the book pursues chronological and thematic approaches both alternatively and inconsistently. For example, chapters 7 and 8 present virtually free-standing introductions to, and abridgments of, key John Paul II documents, but then also includes treatments of immigration and racism—very important topics, but largely separate from the encyclicals. (The pairing of Centesimus Annusand racism is particularly mystifying, though of course the inclusion of racism is an absolute must for the volume.) Chapter 9 switches to war and peace, with a grab bag of texts—but this is oddly separate from its more natural home with Pacem in Terrisor Gaudium et Spes. Chapter 10 treats the environment, returning to chronology with Francis’s Laudato Si’, and then chapter 11 switches back to a thematic treatment of love and mercy, and is the chance to include abridgements of Benedict’s encyclicals. 

One reason for this may be how “light” the book is in attending directly to economic ethics as a keystone issue. Laborem Exercens, Centesimus Annus, Caritas in Veritate, and Laudato Si’ can be seen as gradual extensions of the fundamental economic teachings of the Church. But economics is not given clear thematic emphasis (it does not have its own chapter). I also wish Brady had more strongly foregrounded as organizational a claim he makes in his final pages, that CST “is characterized by three broad themes: we are to do justice, to see the human dignity in all, and to feel solidarity and love for the suffering and the marginalized” (361). These three themes—mapped onto the chronology he also notes in this conclusion—would have improved the focus and order of the whole.

These shortcomings should be seen in light, however, of the necessary task that Brady has undertaken so well: to provide an adequate introduction, at an undergraduate level, to a difficult but important body of work that is, as he notes, “a construction site” always in progress. Brady’s treatment aims at comprehensiveness (students will know a little bit about everything) and judiciousness (students will read a diversity of figures and a very balanced presentation), and it succeeds consistently in these ways. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

David Cloutier is Associate Professor of Theology at the Catholic University of America.

Date of Review: 
June 16, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Bernard V. Brady is professor of moral theol­ogy and chair of the theology department at the University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, MN. He is the author of several books: Christian Love, Be Good and Do Good (Orbis Books), and The Moral Bond of Community (Georgetown).


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