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Society (Theology of)


In the Constitution on the Church in the Modern World Vatican Council II outlined some general principles for a theology of society. They concerned the social nature of man, the interrelationship between individual and community and between the primacy of the person and a notion of the common good as "the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfilment more fully and more easily" (Gaudium et spes 2526).

Resources: The Social Sciences. For these very general observations to become the subject of a systematic reflection on society, theologians must make use of the resources and conclusions of the social sciences. They will, first of all, have to take account of the almost bewildering variety which empirical research has discovered in social relationships and orders both across generations and across cultures. Secondly, they will have to reflect on what might be called "the dialectic of social existence," by which the very societies which men have produced themselves become the producers of men.

The latter interest will first see societies as human products, produced and constituted by shared meanings and values. Social relationships and orders are the effects of exercises of human intelligence and freedom, and not the inevitable products of a preconscious "human nature" nor of a cosmic or merely "natural" order.

Such social orders have their own "objectivity." They confront the individual born or reared within them with a massive inertial force. The "real world" into which he is introduced is the world as it has been shaped and interpreted by earlier generations and his own possibilities for self-realization are limited by the resources of his society and its communities. It is their language through which the world is mediated to him and which moulds and orients his own consciousness. It is their taken-for-granted stock of knowledge which constitutes the largest part of what he comes to "know." It is in terms of their roles and institutions and in pursuit of the values they honor that he learns to orient his freedom. In all these ways, the individual is a social product; the self is socially mediated.

Society: Theological Object. So understood, the social order itself becomes an object of theological investigation and evaluation. The society, policy, economy are not premoral givens within which individuals privately live, and the Christian message does not concern only their privatized lives. The social order is another of the ambiguous works of man, and its moulding and orienting influence on those born and reared within it is no less ambiguous. The Gospel does not address individuals in the abstract, but only the persons who exist, all of whom are social products. Thus, for example, contemporary theologians speak of "sinful social structures" or of "social sin" to describe the larger context of evil to which the Gospel must be addressed, and seek to explain how the "reign of sin" shows itself there as well as in the minds and hearts of individuals.

Such reflections lead easily enough into a political theology. This is not simply a "theology of politics," but an attempt to rethink the Christian message in terms of the fundamental and even constitutive role which societies play in the development of individuals. The search for meaning and value, which defines man, is seen to be a "political" enterprise, first in the sense that this search, like every other human endeavor, is inescapably marked by the social conditions under which it is undertaken, and, secondly, in the sense that the discovery of the revealed meanings and values of the Gospel has immediate political and social implications.

A critical theology of society, then, must (1) start from the social matrix of individual existence; (2) critically explore the relationship between that essential freedom which the Church has always defended as "free will" and its effective realization in concrete individuals;(3) interpret the meaning of the Gospel and the role of the Church in the light of the social dialectic; (4) elaborate effective hermeneutical principles by which the Gospel may be made to evaluate social orders; and (5) learn how to collaborate with the social sciences in bringing the Gospel's redemptive truth and power to bear upon concrete social orders and situations.

Bibliography: p. berger and t. luckmann. The Social Construction of Reality (New York 1980). j. gremillion, The Gospel of Peace and Justice: Catholic Social Teaching since Pope John (Maryknoll, NY 1976). g. gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics and Salvation, tr. c. inda and j. eagleson (Maryknoll, NY 1973). b. lonergan, Method in Theology (New York 1972). j. b. metz, tr., w. glen-doepel, A Theology of the World (New York 1969).

[j. a. komonchak]

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