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Reflections on Plenary Address: Claiming Our Catholic Social Justice Traditions, Maureen Fielder, SL and James Nickoloff

By James Nickolof, Associate Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies, College of the Holy Cross 

I was pleased to see that both Maureen Fiedler and the Dignity Convention itself began with the theme of gratitude for the gifts of many persons and for God's love, because

I have come to believe that any sound theology and any sound ethics must be rooted in thanksgiving. The Church as a whole seems to be (slowly) moving beyond the discourse of obedience and exhortation to one which begins with gratitude. I take this as an encouraging sign.

Maureen masterfully linked the struggle of LGBT persons and communities for justice to the larger struggle for the survival of life on the planet. In this regard, she voiced a serious criticism of globalized capitalism rooted in greed. I noted that the Church's critique of the absolute right to private property is not new, and I cited several excerpts from the letters of St. Ambrose of Milan (who died in 397 CE) which show this to be the case:

Earth at its beginning was for all in common; it was meant for rich and poor alike; what right have you to monopolize the soil? Nature knows nothing of the rich; all are poor when she brings them forth.

God created the universe in such a manner that all in common might derive their food from it, and that the earth should also be a property common to all.

Why do you reject someone who has the same rights over nature as you? It is not from your own goods that you give to the beggar; you are restoring to him what is already his. The earth belongs to all. So you are paying back a debt [while you] think you are making a gift. (Emphasis added)

Maureen mentioned the meeting of the Latin American bishops which was held at Medellin, Colombia in 1968, following Vatican II, and which declared that the Church must enter into solidarity with the poor and the marginalized of society. I elaborated on this, pointing out that many, including liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez, have come to see the Medellin conference as the authentic completion of the work of Vatican II. While Vatican II dealt extensively with two of the three goals for the Council proposed by Pope John XXIII (the Church's relationship with the modern world and the reunification of all Christian churches), the Council gave very little attention to the Pope's third concern (the challenge presented by world poverty). With its focus squarely on the poor and the Church's relationship with them, Medellin deserves a careful re-examination by Catholics today. I pointed out that Medellin also dealt with the Church's own sinfulness, a theme which should be of interest to all people seeking justice, including LGBT persons.

Finally, Maureen suggested that because the principles about human equality and nondiscrimination are already part of Catholic teaching, we should not be surprised if one day the magisterium approves women's ordination and same-sex marriage by saying, "As we've always said down through the ages." I agreed and shared the story of one of my theology professors who had concluded that the Church's teaching always evolves in three stages. First, a new question arises to which the Church’s magisterium must give an answer: “No, the answer is no, has always been no, and will always be no,” reply the authorities. In a second step, the hierarchy decides to study the question further. And in a third step, the magisterium declares its teaching, clearly and simply: “Yes, the answer is yes, has always been yes, and will always be yes.” The desire for continuity will not go away, but the development of doctrine is a fact of history.