A Prophetic, Public Church

Witness to Hope Amid the Global Crises of the Twenty-First Century

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Mary Doak
  • Collegeville, MN: 
    Liturgical Press
    , May
     2020.
     250 pages.
     $29.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780814684504.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In A Prophetic Public Church: Witness to Hope Amid the Global Crises of the Twenty-First Century, Mary Doak contends “there is a great need for community today” (xi) as humanity faces problems of an unprecedented scope, including, but not limited to, the rise of an unequal and unbalanced global economy, a raging and worsening global climate crisis, and widespread and destabilizing patterns of global human migration. She attributes these problems to the modern condition in which interconnectedness and interdependence are related to anonymity in contemporary society. For her, these problems can “be resolved only if people around the world put the interests of the long-term, global common good above their immediate personal benefit” (xiii), recognizing that “the freedom to pursue one’s own goals and desires” (xi) likewise demands a communal responsibility for others.

Engaging with the tradition of Catholic social teaching, Doak specifically asks: In this global milieu, what does it mean for the church to be called “a sacrament—a sign and instrument, that is, of communion with God and of the unity of the entire human race” (Vatican II, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium) in Austin Flannery, ed., Vatican Council II: Constitutions, Decrees, Declarations, Liturgical Press, 2014; quoted on p. 11)? And, what does it mean, practically, for the Church to affirm that “the joys and hopes, the grief and anguish of the people of our time, especially of those who are poor or afflicted, are the joys and hopes, the grief and anguish of the followers of Christ as well” (Vatican II, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes) in Austin Flannery, ed., Vatican Council II: Constitutions, Decrees, Declarations, Liturgical Press, 2014; quoted on p. xi)? In asking these two questions, Doak insists that a prophetic and public church is necessary for the advancement of “the long-term, global common good” (xiii).

By taking the mission of the church (i.e., what the church is for and is called to do), and not its nature (i.e., who and/or what the church is), as her fundamental point of departure, Doak argues for an ecclesiology of “doing,” and not merely “being.” In arguing this point, she contends that “the current realities of economic inequality, global climate change, and massive human migration are thus properly ecclesiological issues” and not just “topics for Christian social ethics” (xviii). Because of this, she suggests that, in order for the church to become the tangible and realizable communion it is called to be, it must first become a church of doing, or practice.

Drawing on the Second Vatican Council’s ecclesiological vision, with a particular focus on its emphasis of church as a sacrament, Doak argues that there are two prominent, though not exclusive, historical and contemporary ecclesiological failures hindering the mission of the church that contribute to its inability to wholly confront the problems of today. These are: (1) religious anti-Semitism, in which Judaism, and by extension Jews, become the church’s principle external Other; and (2) religious misogyny, in which women become the church’s principle internal Other. Here, Doak’s analysis provides future scholars the opportunity to examine more exhaustively the external and internal Others beyond and within the church and their relation to contemporary global issues.

With regard to Judaism, an opportunity to examine the ways in which the church has labeled and continues to label a multiplicity of religions as externally antithetical to Christianity and the impact this has had and continues to have on human migration, for instance, emerges. Similarly, with regard to religious misogyny and the historical and contemporary place of women in the church, an opportunity to examine the ways in which a multiplicity of peoples within the church have been and continue to be branded as internally inferior, and thereby placed on the margins of society (e.g., economically or environmentally), surfaces.

As such, A Prophetic Public Church serves not only as a mechanism for discussing the external “othering” of Jews and the internal “othering” of women, but it also functions as a paradigmatic model for how to constructively engage a multitude of historical and contemporary “otherings” that have and continue to plague the church’s ecclesiological self-understanding, particularly, and thereby mission, more generally. For example, Doak’s approach, offers a promising way for examining the church’s external chastisement of Islam as well as its internal alienation of gay, bisexual, transgender, and/or queer persons and enables an understanding of how each of these errors of “othering” is, at base, ecclesiological, thereby hindering the church’s understanding of mission and its response to a wide range of contemporary crises.

Doak’s ability to flesh out concretely what it means for the church to be called a sacrament in the contemporary global milieu is therefore an unmistakable gift to the field of ecclesiology. The question of what it means for the church to affirm that “the joys and hopes, the grief and anguish of the people of our time . . . are the joys and hopes, the grief and anguish of the followers of Christ as well” is keenly demonstrated: the church must be prophetic and public in its witness and action, living up to Saint Paul’s imploration to “reconcile all things” with God (1 Cor 1:20), including “its own deepest failings” (224), if it is truly to be “a sacrament . . . of communion with God and of the unity of the entire human race.”

Doak’s book would be of innumerable value to any Christian—Catholic or non-Catholic, academic or layperson alike—who aims to understand better the Second Vatican Council’s call for the church to be a sign and instrument of communion and who desires to be a participatory member within this body, faithfully responding to the “signs of the times” with a prophetic witness to and public engagement with a God who calls each and every one of us to have hearts after God’s own (see 1 Sam 13:14; Acts 13:22). Undergraduate and graduate courses in ecclesiology, the Second Vatican Council, and Catholic social teaching will find this book a particularly rich resource for discussion and reflection on what it means to be and, more importantly, to do church in the 21st century.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Marcus Timothy Haworth is a graduate student in theology at the University of Notre Dame.

Date of Review: 
September 22, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Mary Doak (PhD, The University of Chicago) is a professor of theology at the University of San Diego. Her publications include Divine Harmony: Seeking Community in a Broken World (Paulist Press, 2017), Translating Religion (Orbis Books, 2013, coedited with Anita Houck), and Reclaiming Narrative for Public Theology (SUNY, 2004), as well as various articles on public theology, eschatology, and ecclesiology. She is currently serving as president of the College Theology Society and is a past president of the American Theological Society (Midwest).

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