Public Theology and the Global Common Good

The Contribution of David Hollenbach

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Kevin Ahern, Meghan Clark, Kristin Heyer, Laurie Johnston
  • Maryknoll, NY: 
    Orbis Books
    , August
     224 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


This book celebrates David Hollenbach’s innovative scholarly work in Christian moral theology. With chapters by some of Hollenbach’s former doctoral students spanning the US, Europe, Africa, and the Caribbean, Public Theology and the Global Common God: The Contribution of David Hollenbach explores four major themes that, as Meghan Clark’s introduction aptly shows, characterize Hollenbach’s corpus over the past four decades: justice as participation, human rights, the global common good, and public theology, situated against the backdrop of Hollenbach’s signature concerns about human dignity and solidarity—intellectual and social—with suffering peoples in a pluralistic, globalized world. As Margaret Farley’s foreword attests, Hollenbach exemplifies a global public theologian whose initial work on North American Catholic social thought expanded to advance a significant theory of human rights in dialogue with Western, Australian, African, Middle Eastern, and Southeast Asian religious and political traditions.

Part 1 engages justice as participation, which Hollenbach uses to rethink theological anthropology as well as different types of justice (xvii-xix). For Grégoire Catta, SJ, justice as participation centers on the preferential option for the poor, a core principle of Catholic social teaching born in Latin America. A pedagogical praxis of listening to the poor involves the epistemological privilege of the poor (5-6), including popular culture and religion; compassion; and accompaniment as manifested in the Jesuit Refugee Service’s [JRS] multiple ministries and advocacy (3). Justice as meaningful social and political participation is closely linked with accompaniment, “Good accompaniment reduces the power inequalities between humanitarian workers and beneficiaries, and promotes the genuine participation of displaced people … [it] is a question of creating the space for them to be fully agents or citizens, but it is also about all parties being transformed” (10, 12). Faith-based NGOs like JRS, according to Kevin Ahern, act as key players in participatory global governance, and as a means to mediate and embody justice, or the empowerment of local communities to challenge global indifference (21-24, 25). Kristin E. Heyer and Mark Potter offer a case study of the binational Kino Border Initiative at the US-Mexico border city of Nogales which accompanies, advocates for, and empowers undocumented migrants for economic, communal, and civic participation (26-28, 33-36), as well as challenges receiving communities to confront social sins against migrants (31-32, 36).

Part 2 focuses on human rights as the starting and pivot point of Hollenbach’s leading contribution to a Catholic moral theology and ethics of universal and participatory human rights (xx). Gerald J. Beyer overviews the history and theological anthropology of Catholic traditions of civil and political rights as well as social, cultural, and economic rights found in the writings of Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II. Anna Floerke Scheid promotes human rights as embodied rights by drawing on feminist and womanist theologies of embodiment to contest all sorts of theological and social dualisms which dehumanize and deny women, people of color, and differently-abled people their rights to bodily integrity and well-being (40-47). Moving from personal bodies to the body politic, René Micallef, SJ elaborates ethical rules for porous national borders and an ethic of hospitality in order to simultaneously protect national sovereignty and the rights of migrants (53-60). Nevertheless, Mark E. Gammon warns that the universality of human rights discourse and practice—without recognition of its historicity, particularity, and contextuality—may inadvertently fuel elite norms and structures which such discourse and practice actually aim to undo (67-70).

Part 3 examines the global common good, which is achieved in Hollenbach’s view (based on his JRS consultant work) by prioritizing the needs, freedom, and participation of diverse global poor and marginalized peoples, particularly immigrants and refugees (xxii). Jacquineau Azetsop, SJ, and Anna Kasafi Perkins resist tolerance and its operative isolationist, individualist anthropology as a politically weak, reductionistic, free-market approach to the common good (115, 119), due to its negative implications for social interactions (Azetsop) and for international integration, especially in the Caribbean (Perkins). Tisha Rajendra and Laurie Johnston identify different facets of flawed solidarity between the diaspora and sending communities in Sri Lanka’s civil war as a case study of how solidarity fails to move from particular groups to universal practice (121-126). Together, these chapters highlight global struggles for the common good, which prompt Martin J. O’Malley to portray justice as a practice and a process, as a dynamic movement from less-to-more flourishing in postconflict situations (101-102, 104-108).

Integrating the previous themes, Part 4 highlights public theology, or the public role of religion in social and political life, which for Hollenbach involves inclusive participation in democratic traditions of public encounter and persuasive dialogue with others in a pluralistic society with a view toward a shared vision of the common good (xxiii-xxiv, 140). Gonzalo Villagrán, SJ, and Matthew Bagot place Hollenbach’s prominent contribution to public theology in the context of liberation and political theologies as well as global religious cultures, with particular attention to Vatican II, Argentinean teología del pueblo (Villagrán), and Islamic political theologies on religion’s indirect influence on society and politics in secular states (Bagot). Michael P. Moreland situates Hollenbach’s project of public theology in the American Catholic context, attending to John Courtney Murray’s contributions to the American legal cultures of church-state relations. US public theology, according to David E. DeCosse, responds to rising libertarian notions of individual freedom and responsibility by offering an integral, embodied notion of freedom in relationship that combines Karl Rahner’s theology of created freedom as both gift and task, Hollenbach’s equality of freedom in and for relationships, and M. Shawn Copeland’s theology of embodied freedom amid inequalities.

Reflecting on Hollenbach’s Society of Christian Ethics presidential address, Clark’s introduction proposes a constructive theology of the cross to frame Hollenbach’s lifework and next generation social ethics. In that address, Hollenbach urged doing social ethics under the sign of the cross to emphasize practices of compassion and solidarity with global suffering peoples. But, as feminist and womanist theologies have long argued, the cross needs to be placed on the theological spectrum of Jesus’s incarnation, life-ministry, and resurrection. As Copeland maintains, Jesus’s life-ministry entailed putting his body—the body of God—in community with materially, socially, religiously, and physically marginalized peoples; upending religio-political structures of such marginalization; and, ultimately, experiencing liberation with these peoples in their healing and his own bodily resurrection. As Scheid similarly observes, “While the cross inspires … a solidarity that enables us to put our bodies on the line, to claim our human rights and the rights of others, the resurrection offers hope that our efforts will bear fruit” (49). This book bears rich fruit for social ethics but, in my view, needed more constructive theological reflection from contextual, liberation, and comparative theologies in order to extend Hollenbach’s project for a global church in a pluralistic world seeking the common good.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Rosemary P. Carbine is associate professor of religious studies at Whittier College.

Date of Review: 
July 13, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Kevin Ahern is Assistant Professor of religious studies at Manhattan College (NY).

Meghan Clark is Assistant Professor of theology and religious studies at St. John’s University (NY).

Kristin Heyer is Professor of theological ethics at Boston College.

Laurie Johnston is Associate Professor of theology and Director of Fellowships at Emmanuel College in Boston.


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