Former Labour MP, minister and government 'faith envoy' John Battle; Christine Allen, executive director of the development agency Progressio, and Bishop John Hine of Southwark Archdiocese, were among those launching a new website dedicated to Catholic Social Teaching last week.
The website www.catholicsocialteaching.org.uk is from the livesimply network. Catholic Social Teaching (CST) covers the interlocking areas of community and participation, care for creation (people and planet), life and work, peace, and human solidarity.
CST has been called the Catholic Church's "big secret", amounting to a massive and historic web of ethical and theological thought on social practice.
Recently, controversial Church teaching on contraception and human sexuality, questioned or rejected by many inside and outside the institution, has come across in the media as the main preoccupation of Catholic thinkers, along with hardline stances on abortion and other bioethical concerns.
But commentators and academics rightly point out that this is a very one-sided view of what the Catholic tradition of social thought, rooted in enquiring faith, has to offer.
In recent years, a strongly critical stance towards free market capitalism, militarism and environmental degradation has emerged from moral theologians and the Church's official teaching position, for example.
Indeed some conservative Catholics, including converts like former Tory politician Ann Widdicombe, have been challenged by fellow believers on aspects of Catholic Social Teaching which question their own political ideology.
Catholic Social Teaching also has many points of contact with other Christian traditions of social thought, with religious and non-religious humanism on some issues and principles, and with those of other faiths wrestling with peace and justice concerns.
As well as papal encyclicals and pastoral letters, it has produced a robust Catholic peace movement in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and has resourced anti-war and social justice activists such as the Berrigan brothers in the United States, as well as outspoken figures like Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement.
Such people have also often turned their attention on the practices of the institutional church, making the point that external advocacy and internal behaviour need to match one another. Human rights and hierarchy has therefore become one of a number of areas of contestation and debate in recent times.
Launching the website at Heythrop College, London, Bishop Hine said it would help to equip people to respond to the ecological, peace and justice challenges of the 21st Century, “because if our calling is to become more like Christ, then we will view what we are doing to our world and the injustices of our society as intolerable.”
Former government minister John Battle, told the invited audience of 60 people that Catholic Social Teaching must not be an ‘add-on’ to the Catholic faith. Rather, it was about "the whole practice of our faith."
He added: “Catholic Social Teaching helps us to make sense of what we do at Mass when we walk out of the church doors.”
Welcoming the new website, Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster, declared: "This website will be useful whether you’re coming to Catholic Social Teaching for the first time or whether you want to find out a bit more on this journey of discovery. It (the website) is very important because Catholic Social Teaching is such a crucial exploration and application of the faith which is so formative in our lives and so important for us all."
The US Catholic author and lecturer Megan McKenna claimed that truth, light, peace and hope were among the foundations of Catholic Social Teaching.
She said Catholic Social Teaching was about "what people deserve simply because they are human beings". And she ended with the challenge: “If your religion doesn’t make you more compassionate, truthful and just, and stops you thinking about yourself, then it is no religion at all.”
The website traces the history, themes and principles of Catholic Social Teaching back to the inspiration of the New Testament era, though it began to emerge as a coherent body of official Church thought in the High Middle Ages, with key figures such as Thomas Aquinas.
At times CST has helped the Church become a strong opponent of oppressive economics and politics in wider society. The Protestant theologian Stanley Hauerwas is among those who have remarked on "resistance to capitalism" as a significant feature.
On other occasions, it has blended important ethical concerns (such as attempts to limit war) with the interests of Christian Empire and the concerns of Christendom - as in 'Just War' teaching.
In recent years the Catholic Church has moved much closer to thoroughgoing nonviolence and the theological pacifism of the Historic Peace Churches, though it still maintains strong links with the armed forces in some cases (such as 'military bishops').
The principal of subsidiarity, common in European political thinking, has its origins in Catholic Social Teaching as much as in classical Humanism.
The new online resource outlines a brief history of Catholic Social Teaching, links the key documents, and provides opportunities for discussion, reflection and action. It includes FAQs, podcasts and links.
CAFOD, Operation Noah and Progressio, with whom Ekklesia is very pleased to cooperate, are the initiatives singled out in the 'campaign' section, along with Millennium Development Goal (MDG) organisations, including Oxfam.
One fascinating exercise (and not merely an intellectual one) would be to review, appreciate and critique the tradition, process and content of Catholic Social Teaching from the perspective of the emerging post-Christendom discourse (www.postchristendom.com/) - one which seeks to acknowledge the damage done by the alliance of Christianity with top-down governing authority and subserviently 'civic' religion.
The website Catholic Social Teaching: Faith in a Better World can be viewed here: http://www.catholicsocialteaching.org.uk/
(c) Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. A nonconformist Anglican with strong Anabaptist links, he is a trustee of the London Mennonite Centre, an associate of the Iona Community, has worked extensively in the ecumenical movement, and has been on the staff of a Catholic theological institution. He has also spent time with mainly Catholic base communities in different parts of the world.