One of the things we need to beware of is comparing our best to someone else’s worst. We do this all the time. A family member of mine once remarked “Man, those Catholics are really screwed up.” Having read the gigantic 1994 Catechism, and knowing he hadn’t, I asked “What do you mean?” He went on to describe some Catholics he knew. Of course the ones he was describing were folks who went to Mass once or twice a year, considered themselves Catholic, and didn’t practice the Christian religion at all. I said something like, Are you kidding me? Of course comparing a lapsed, non-practicing Catholic to the best Nazarenes you know makes it look like we are way better than them – how about comparing apples to apples? You don’t think I can show you people who attend a Nazarene church once in a blue moon, who if asked would say “yeah, I’m Nazarene” whose lives are a wreck ? They’re all over the landscape! You can’t think of one group’s worst representatives on the one hand, and think of your group’s best representatives on the other, and call that a fair comparison. This should go without saying, but we do it all the time.
If we are in a group we esteem, we tend to conceptualize that group by its best results. When we aren’t part of a group, or don’t like their theology, etc., we tend to think of the bad examples of why we don’t think they are all that great. Want to compare Catholics to Nazarenes? Put one of our best up against Mother Teresa or Francis. Want to look down on Pentecostals? Try comparing your life to my great, great Aunt Evelyn. I have “sort-of” “former”’ “non-practicing” “lapsed” Nazarenes all over this town whose fractured, messed up lives would give any lapsed Catholic a run for their money! We don’t accomplish any valuable evaluation of a religious group’s health or end-results by comparing our best to their worst.
I just read a great little book by Jesuit scholar Thomas Massaro called Living Justice: Catholic Social Teaching in Action.
The heart of the book is looking into the content of the thirteen social encyclicals written from 1891 to 2009 issued from the Pope of the time. The Popes have written far more than 13 encyclicals, but these 13 are the “social” ones, aimed at the world at large – written as sort-of Christian manifestos on the issues of the day (the first one for example, Rerum Novarum, in 1891, addressed worker’s conditions in the newly industrialized Europe, and argued for humane conditions and economic justice in the new factory systems). The encyclicals represent mature Christian thought on issues such as human rights, subsidiarity and the proper role of government, solidarity and the common good, a theology of private property, war, peace and disarmament, the effect of globalization on the poor and vulnerable in the world, etc. Wesleyans and Anglicans will recognize Massaro’s use of Scripture, Reason, Tradition and Experience as the four underpinnings of Catholic Social Teaching (and we called it ‘the Wesleyan Quadrilateral”!)
Although evangelicals have tried to write on social issues, we find a whole other level of theological maturity in Catholic Social Teaching (CST). When you have been around for 2,000 years, you tend to have good resources to draw on. Rather than trying to re-invent the wheel, evangelicals would do well to start familiarizing themselves with the body of CST. They may just find that the heavy lifting has already been done, and they can sign on to what work these fellow Christians of ours have blessed us with. Massaro reminded me again of something I noted long ago: the 1994 Catechism of the Catholic Church (all 700 pages!) is one of the best pieces (may be the best!) of Christian theology assembled, on the entire planet, period. Those of you who are Nazarene may be surprised to find that the Catechism reads as simply a bigger, stronger, faster, better-written Nazarene theology. What I mean is, you find very few places where you can’t say “Man they said that incredibly well! That’s exactly what we think!”