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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

What is the Prophetic Role of the Catholic Church in American Society Today?


Event Recap

On April 1, 2002, in the inaugural lecture of the Boisi Center’s series on “The Prophetic Voices of the American Churches,” the Rev. J. Bryan Hehir, President of Catholic Charities USA and an advisory board member of the Boisi Center, offered his perspective on what the prophetic role means for Catholicism in the United States today.

In the Catholic Church, said Hehir, the prophetic vision comprises two distinct yet complementary styles, what he called the “pedagogical” and the “prophetic.” The “pedagogical” style corresponds to a perspective that sees the Church as having a universal calling and a responsibility for the whole society. As a tolerant yet firm teacher, this Church accepts the reality of social pluralism and seeks to effect change by collaborating with the institutions of society in a long, incremental process.

The “prophetic” style, on the other hand, is more about witness and conversion. The Church in this mode addresses social issues with great clarity and urgency, demanding action and situating itself as a community in contrast to the established institutions of society.

Hehir asserted that the Catholic Church incorporates both styles in defining how it relates to American society. Whether it takes a pedagogical or prophetic approach depends on the particular issue at stake. On questions of war, for example, the Church has changed its position in significant ways over the course of the 20th century. In 1956, Pope Pius XII claimed the just war tradition as a basis for denying the legitimacy of conscientious objection for Catholics. But this view was modified in the 1965 Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes , which allowed room for conscientious objection and greater dialogue. The Church’s subsequent reflection on the morality of nuclear weapons relied on the same just war tradition to arrive at a pacifist position with respect to nuclear war. Today in the United States, the issues of humanitarian intervention and self-defense against terrorism raise new questions for the style of the Church’s prophetic role.

Another example of the Catholic Church’s mixed approach to social issues is in the area of health care policy. Historically adopting a primarily pedagogical orientation by forming large social institutions in close collaboration with the state, the Church has discovered that its support for universal health care coverage has actually become a prophetic stance in American society. Its positions on abortion and capital punishment are similarly prophetic, which means the Church has had to learn to negotiate with the larger society on these issues in the same way that traditional peace churches like the Mennonites have done.

Hehir concluded his lecture by reflecting on the implications of the current sexual abuse crisis for the Catholic Church’s prophetic role. Framing the crisis in terms of five key dimensions—moral, legal, administrative, theological/juridical, and pastoral —he emphasized the reality of objective evil involved in the cases as well as the Church’s responsibility to the wider civil society. From an administrative perspective, he argued, the Church needs to develop a “universal, transparent system,” possibly in the form of independent commissions, for dealing with future problems; on the theological side, the Church must also address current confusion in its teachings about sexuality.

According to Hehir, the crisis poses a serious threat to the kind of public trust that is essential for the Catholic Church to play a role in public moral discourse. Hehir believes that its hope of restoring that trust and credibility actually lies in a strengthening of its prophetic witness as protector of the vulnerable and caretaker of the needy. The reality of objective evil involved in the cases as well as the Church’s responsibility to the wider civil society.