- Catholic Common Ground Initiative - https://catholiccommonground.org -

Response to the 2004 Murnion Lecture

delivered by Mary Ann Glendon
Harvard Law School
June 25, 2004

Online at NCR Online: Full text of John Allen’s 2004 Murnion Lecture [1]

Mary Ann Glendon
Mary Ann GlendonWhen I learned that Jon Allen would be delivering this year’s Common Ground lecture, I was delighted, for as a longtime reader of his columns, I knew we would be given real substance to ponder. Mr. Allen has more than fulfilled that expectation with an important reflection that deserves to be widely read and circulated.

I was also enthusiastic about the topic, “Common Ground in a Global Key,” and the invitation to think about whether an international perspective could yield any useful lessons for the Common Ground Initiative here in the United States.

Jon Allen’s talk suggests that there are indeed a number of ways in which U.S. Catholics could benefit from broadening our horizons. I particularly appreciate that he based his reflections on his personal experiences as a journalist covering the Vatican. Taking my cue from him, I would like to support his conclusions with some observations based on my own experiences working with Catholics from other countries.

In my case, those experiences go back to the Pleistocene Age when I was a law student at the University of Chicago and living in International House, a residence for foreign students and Americans engaged in international studies. One evening, many of us Catholics attended a talk on the idea of a universal Church. The Jesuit speaker began by noting the vast cultural differences among people who had been baptized into a single faith. For example, he said, your average Irish Catholic can easily summon up a vision of himself burning in Hell forever, while your average Italian thinks God would never be mean enough to do that to him personally. The thrust of the talk was twofold: we should be cautious about confusing custom with doctrine, and we should rejoice that the Church’s relatively small body of core teachings can be brought to life in different cultures in a legitimate variety of ways.

The extent of that variety has been brought home to me vividly in my professional life as a legal comparatist, and in my volunteer work for the Holy See, most of which involves collaboration with women and men from developing countries. So I thought it might be useful to supplement Jon Allen’s remarks with a brief account of the kinds of issues that arise in interactions with Catholics from Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East. In my experience, those interactions have been dominated by two concerns: poverty and religious persecution.

At the U. N.’s Beijing Conference in 1994, it was the women on the Holy See delegation from Africa, Asia and Latin America who helped the rest of us to see that one of the chief defects of the draft platform was its devotion to first-world concerns–and a corresponding deafness to the points of view of the poorest women in the world.

Three years later, as an auditor in the Synod for America, I had the opportunity to listen for a month to bishops from North and South America as they struggled to communicate about the state of the Church in our hemisphere. Each bishop was given only five minutes for his intervention, which forced each one to focus on what he thought was most important. The different preoccupations of the Anglo- and Latin-American bishops were striking. While the U.S. and Canadian bishops expounded on a variety of themes familiar to us all, their brothers from the South had a more unified, and more global, perspective. They were united, for example, in their concerns about the prevalence of a purely economic conception of the human person, the negative effects of globalization, external debt, unemployment, environmental degradation, the neglect of the weak, and the growing distance between rich and poor. It speaks well for the Synod process that the concerns of the Latin American bishops were heard, digested and given a prominent place in the final document. But how many U.S. bishops, I wonder, returned with a determination to speak to the faithful at home about the Synod’s exhortation to think in terms of a single “America” rather than North and South?

My third example concerns Catholic academics from different cultures. When the Pontifical Academy for the Social Science was founded by Pope John Paul II in 1994, he told us our mission should be practical as well as theoretical: Like any other learned society, we should contribute to the advancement of knowledge, but we should also work “with a view to finding solutions to people’s concrete problems, solutions based on social justice.” In keeping with that exhortation, the Academy has focussed on issues that are central to Catholic social teaching–changes in the world of work, the risks and opportunities of globalization, and most recently on the way in which changes in family behavior have affected the care of dependents in welfare states and in places where the welfare state is minimal or non-existent. Even though our group of 33 men and women from five continents is impressively united in its enthusiasm for these important topics, there is still a tension that runs generally between members from the developed and less developed countries. It is a division between those who emphasize theory and those who want to move more quickly to practical applications. Personally, I believe that tension is healthy, for I was taught by Bernard Lonergan that theory are practice are two blades of the scissors–you can’t get very far without both of them. But it has been good for those of us who like to take lots of time to look at a question from all angles to be reminded, as the Holy Father often says, that “the poor cannot wait.”

There is another, deeper difference among the members of the Pontifical Academy, a difference so important that we will devote our whole annual meeting next year to exploring it. That is the concept of the human person, so central to Catholic social teaching, yet so little developed in the social doctrine. To understand how deep that difference is, just consider that in many African and Far Eastern languages there is simply no word for “individual.”

My intuitions about the lessons to be drawn from such experiences are very similar to those of Mr. Allen. If there is one of his points that I would particularly emphasize, it is the importance of trying to see things through the eyes of others. That habit or skill is often under-developed in people who are accustomed to being in the drivers’ seat. It’s not news that we U.S. Catholics, like the rest of our fellow citizens, tend to be rather parochial when it comes to things international. As Mr. Allen noted, there was little concern expressed on this side of the Atlantic for the crisis in the Holy Land in the Spring of 2002. Some of the issues that agitate U.S. Catholics appear in a quite different light, when you hear the stories of our brothers and sisters in many parts of the world where Catholics are suffering severe persecution, even to the point of death, for religious freedom and for the Church’s right to govern herself.

The international perspective also helps us to see ourselves somewhat differently and to understand the ways in which our own Catholicism has been shaped by the culture of our particular society. Unlike, say, our sisters and brothers in the two largest Catholic countries in the world, Brazil and Mexico, the religious sensibility of U.S. Catholics has been influenced by a pervasively Protestant, now increasingly post-Christian, culture whose legal system strongly reinforces the idea of religion as an individual matter between a man and his God. To spend time with men and women from Latin America, even those who are not religious, is to realize how a pervasively Catholic culture forms a Catholic sensibility.

Let me conclude with a personal observation. When I am with Catholic women and men in international settings, I never fail to be awed by the sense of the incarnate reality of a truly universal Church. It is the same sense of awe that I experienced long ago as a child in a small western Massachusetts town, when I thought about all the people in faraway lands who were praying the same prayers every Sunday in the same language. Today we pray in different languages, but globalization has brought us closer together in other ways. And I never fail to be uplifted by the realization that in today’s world, it is often the Church and only the Church that lifts up the principles of the priority of human over economic values, of persons over things, of the dignity of all legitimate forms of work, and of the responsibilities of those to whom much has been given.

So I can only add “Amen” when Jon Allen urges U.S. Catholics to join with the Holy See–as the “leading voice of conscience” in the world–in addressing global concerns. Yes, there will be differences of opinion along the way, but that’s how it has always been in our huge rowdy Catholic family. But there is also is much common ground to be discovered, and rediscovered. And finally, there is this: If over a billion Catholics, as members of a Church that transcends all national, racial, and ethnic boundaries, cannot act together in the struggle against violence, poverty, and religious persecution, it is hard to see from whence progress against mankind’s old enemies might come.

Available at NCR Online: Full text of John Allen’s 2004 Murnion Lecture [1]