Interrupting Catholicism

Catholic Social Thought and the Economy

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Matthew A. Shadle
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , July
     392 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Matthew A. Shadle’s book sets an exceptionally learned benchmark for a comprehensive treatment of modern Catholic social thought, especially its treatment of economic life. Jumping off from theoretical treatments of how modern capitalism arises from and reinforces a disembedding of ordinary life from the sacred, Shadle’s key argument is that Catholic social thought moves from a 19th century backward-looking integralism that longs for a restoration of the previous sacralized order toward “theologies of continuity” that attempt to “integrate Christianity with one or another of the modern master narratives, reinterpreting them as the working out of dynamics fundamental to Christianity” (17). Following the thought of Lieven Boeve, Shadle suggests that postmodernity has made this strategy problematic in two ways: the whole idea of “master narratives” with which to correlate has collapsed, and the success of the strategy rested on existing social contexts that remained residually Christian. Therefore, a new approach is needed that appreciates the lessons of theologies of continuity, but shifts them toward a theology of “interruption” that develops “a communitarian Catholic vision” (20). Such a vision will be fostered, Shadle contends, by drawing on better social scientific tools—such as critical realist sociology and institutionalist economics—which not only allow for a more accurate picture of reality, but which themselves suggest why the communitarian vision is a better alternative than remaining caught—as theologies of continuity generally do—in a binary of market-versus-state. 

The vision Shadle advances is developed as an alternative to several theologies of continuity that emerge from the “aggiornamento framework” found in the works of Jacques Maritain, M. D. Chenu, the documents of Vatican II, and the encyclicals of the Vatican II popes. Shadle carefully traces the emergence of this framework against the backdrop of postwar European economies, and then elaborates on its variants in Latin American liberation theologies, American Catholic progressive thought, and neoconservatism. It is difficult to overstate the immense reading Shadle has done to bring together this historical narrative, and even more impressive is the relentlessly even-handed treatments he accords them. I know of no English language source that treats figures as diverse as Chenu, Ignacio Ellacuria, David Hollenbach, and Michael Novak in such detail and with such fairness. Moreover, Shadle’s detailed contextualizations help enlighten readers to the ways in which such theologies respond to specific local developments, such as the complex form of Christian social democracy in many European countries or the unexpected 1970s economic malaise in the United States that so empowered Reaganomics. Unlike many works in Catholic social thought, Shadle is not merely interested in constructing a case of advocacy; he argues like a scholar who is responsible for assessing competing positions with clarity. Most importantly, these chapters well support his original claim that, despite their variation, all these approaches are theologies of continuity whose basic strategy is to reconcile Catholic thought with modern social realities.

The last third of the book treats the “communio framework,” chiefly in the works of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. This framework, by emphasizing “the central importance … that God’s revelation in Jesus Christ provides … for understanding the human person,” as well as by foregrounding “intermediate communities” (206), is not anti-modern, but does pinpoint “the contradictions of modernity” in ways that complicate the continuity strategy. This section concludes with a treatment of five contemporary Catholics, who represent progressive, neoconservative, liberationist, and communitarian approaches. While Shadle favors the last, he qualifies his support for William Cavanaugh’s representative work by insisting on the necessity of a stance of “encounter and dialogue,” which is fostered by the other figures but is also clearly evident in the work of Francis.

The strength of this book—its stunning comprehensiveness—is also its chief weakness. While Shadle’s balanced evaluations of so many figures do imply a normative position, the notion of “interruption” central to his constructive project is not developed clearly, and the proposed importance of the distinctive social-scientific tools rarely reappears after the initial chapters. The book comprehensively documents the limitations of existing continuity strategies and rejects any return to discontinuity (integralism, “Benedict option”). Yet one wishes for a constructive chapter devoted to a clear exposition of what “interruption” looks like. (This is especially true because other material feels unnecessarily exhaustive—for example, the US bishops’ 1986 pastoral on the economic feels like a march through the material with little payoff.) It may be that Shadle’s position is more or less that of John Paul and Benedict, but with certain caveats, but again, this isn’t entirely clear. The book’s even-handedness may betray a false irenicism that avoids clear conflicts in the positions. For example, both liberationist and communitarian positions are overwhelmingly critical of global capitalism, whereas the progressive critique occurs within a commitment to that system and neoconservatism downright lauds it. The individual evaluations of thinkers’ “weaknesses” don’t get us to a confrontation with problems like this.

However, given the unfortunate tendency of Catholic social thought monographs to offer only one narrative, Shadle’s project—while incomplete—performs an invaluable service. It should be required reading for all Catholic social ethicists, as well as for those outside the field who want to understand what contributions it might make to contemporary economics. It is the kind of book that I will have ready on my shelf for consultation for decades to come. And it surely sets up Shadle for a further book developing his alternative vision.

About the Reviewer(s): 

David Cloutier is Associate Professor of Theology at The Catholic University of America in Washington, DC.

Date of Review: 
September 12, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Matthew A. Shadle is Associate Professor of Theology and Religious Studies, Marymount University.


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