Christian Action and Its Decontexts – Matthew John Paul Tan

Catholic Social Ethics

For better or for worse, many Catholics have committed themselves to the collective project that the late Pope John Paul II has designated “the New Evangelisation”. In discerning the contours of this project, attention is now being given to the documents of the Second Vatican Council, whose 50th anniversary falls during this time. 2014 will mark the 50th anniversary of the promulgation of the Second Vatican Council’s declaration on ecumenism, Unitatis Reditegratio (UR), which of course will raise the issue of how evangelisation can also be a joint witness amongst separated brethren.

 The launch of my book Justice, Unity and the Hidden Christ coincides with the 50th anniversary of Unitatis Redintegratio, and looks at one exemplary action of such a joint witness, namely ecumenical acts of social justice, which was advocated in paragraph 12 of the declaration. According to UR, joint acts of social justice amongst Christians of differing stripes would “vividly expresses the relationship which in fact already unites them, and it sets in clearer relief the features of Christ the Servant”. What can be called the Social Justice approach to ecumenism has been advocated not just by the Catholic Church, but also other ecclesial communities and international organisations like the Lutheran World Federation, the World Communion of Reformed Churches and the World Council of Churches.

 Unfortunately, we are nowhere closer to communion now than we were 50 years ago via this route, and such frustration has caused many to abandon social justice as a means of fostering Christian unity (if not abandon the project of Christian unity altogether). Such a response, however, rests on the question “can Christian social justice foster Christian unity”, and the contention of this post is that the question ought to be the one put by the Anglican theologian Graham Ward: What exactly is a Christian action? Put another way, how can actions be interpreted as Christian by those outside the Christian fold?

 The key to the problematic of having actions being interpreted as Christian is our tendency to think of actions as just something we do. In other words we, the agents, cause an action to be undertaken and expect an effect to be made manifest. If what is sought to be effected is a Christian action, then what should take place is the Christian agent injecting Christian intention into his or her actions, to bring about a Christian effect. What Justice, Unity and the Hidden Christ seeks to bring out, however, is that there are several presumptions to this way of thinking about Christian action that must be interrogated.

 One that will be interrogated in this post is the idea that Christian intentions of the individual Christian agent are enough to steer any act towards a Christic end. This is often coupled with a presumption that the institutional form of any action itself is a neutral blank slate that is receptive to any intentions that the agent seeks to impose on it. However, in his Politics of Discipleship, Ward reminded us that the ends of actions are not determined by the intentions of the agents, but rather by the context within which such actions take place. Furthermore, critical theorists like Louis Althusser have long argued that the moment an action takes an institutional form, there are certain presumptions that are immediately put into operation and accepted as given by any actor. This means that any actor, regardless of his or her intentions, would have already (albeit unwittingly) accepted certain truths the moment he or she opts to take a particular course of action. Such presumptions can be very trivial, pertaining to whether an action requires two stamps or three, to very foundational claims about the way the world works, such as whether by doing such actions I do so as primarily an individual.

 We will return to this point soon. For now, it is important to note that critical theory has been instrumental in bringing to our attention how the institutional form actions take can be resistant to the intentions that the actor seeks to bring to bear on the action. Indeed, Michel Foucault has alerted us to how actions, since they operationalise a whole complex of knowledge claims, can modify or even transform the intentions of the actor. Thus, a Christian’s attention to his or her Christian intentions, without a corresponding attention to the institutional context of that action, may actually allow a curbing of the Christian ends of an action. Undertaking an action in a particular institutional context may render the action an extension of that context rather than the extension of the actor’s will, and thereby serve to reshape both the ends of the action, and even the intentions of the actor.

 Given the above, any Christian actor undertaking ecumenical action ought not to ignore the social and political contexts of that question, and by extension ignore the institutional forms that they produce. Otherwise, such institutions will end up undermining not only the Christian intentions of the Christian actor. They will also end up undermining the actor’s ecumenical intentions as well. One may see that it does not bode Christian action well upon the realisation that, contrary to the Christian conception of one as inherently communal, the institutional context presumes an agent to be a hermetically sealed individual for whom communal belonging is a consensual disruption. It also does not bode well when ecumenism also presumes a kind of unity in a diversity of ecclesial forms, but has to work within the institutions of political liberalism, which as Paul Gottfried argued in his After Liberalism, really brings about a unity that insists upon conformity.

 The question now is, having turned one’s attention to the context of an action, what should the context of an action look like? Or put another way, what is the “social” in Christian social action? If a Christian agent is one that is inherently communal, then the proper institutional context for a Christian action – including actions in the name of social justice – ought to be the Body of Christ, made present in his Church. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI has hinted at this in his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, where he spoke of the Church as a threefold responsibility. Benedict designated social action, or more accurately the ministry of charity (Diakonia), as one of these responsibilities. However, he also spoke of the other two responsibilities – proclamation (Kerygma-Martyria) and worship (Leitourgia), as equally indispensable parts of the Church. Benedict posited all three as presuming one another, such that to remove one would render the other two nonsensical.

 Seen in this light, it would seem that the neglect of the context of a Christian action would also be a failure in ecclesiology. Conversely, a more robust conception of the Church that takes seriously all the three responsibilities above as an irreducible complex would be necessary to protect the ecumenical intent of the Council Fathers. 

 Matthew John Paul Tan is the Felice and Margredel Zaccari Lecturer in Theology and Philosophy at Campion College in Australia. Currently, he is serving as a Visiting Assistant Professor in Catholic Studies and a Research Fellow in the Center for World Catholicism and Intercultural Theology in DePaul University in Chicago. He blogs at “the Divine Wedgie”. His book Justice, Unity and the Hidden Christ: the Theopolitical Complex of the Social Justice Approach to Ecumenism in Vatican II was published by Wipf & Stock earlier this year and explores the issue of Christian action in greater detail.

One thought on “Christian Action and Its Decontexts – Matthew John Paul Tan

  1. [ The question now is, having turned one’s attention to the context of an action, what should the context of an action look like? Or put another way, what is the “social” in Christian social action? ]

    This ‘”action” for evangelization must include the poor as participants.

    The New Evangelization and the Poor

    We cannot solve the problems of the New Evangelization without the help of the poor. Cardinal Claudio Hummes gives us some direction when he states: “A servant church must have as its priority solidarity with the poor,” he said. “The faith must express itself in charity and in solidarity, which is the civil form of charity,” Hummes said.
    “Today more than ever, the church faces this challenge. In fact, effective solidarity with the poor, both individual persons and entire nations, is indispensable for the construction of peace. Solidarity corrects injustices, reestablishes the fundamental rights of persons and of nations, overcomes poverty and even resists the revolt that injustice provokes, eliminating the violence that is born with revolt and constructing peace.”
    May I suggest a way to practice this “solidarity” here in the USA:
    A “preferential option for the poor” should be maintained in our Catholic Schools. If we find that we cannot afford to keep our schools open to the poor, the schools should be closed and the resources used for something else which can be kept open to the poor. We cannot allow our Church to become a church primarily for the middle-class and rich while throwing a bone to the poor. The priority should be given to the poor even if we have to let the middle-class and rich fend for themselves.
    Practically speaking, the Catholic Schools must close and the resources used for “Confraternity of Christian Doctrine” and other programs which can be kept open to the poor. Remember, the Church managed without Catholic Schools for centuries. We can get along without them today. The essential factor is to cultivate enough Faith to act in the Gospel Tradition, namely, THE POOR GET PRIORITY. The rich and middle-class are welcome too. But the poor come first. (William Horan)

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