Chapter 2 - From Church Social Teaching to Contextual Theologies

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Church Social Teaching in the Life of Church

In 1991, seminars, workshops, studies and publications on Church social teaching were conducted in celebration of the 100 years of the first social encyclical, Rerum Novarum, issued by Pope Leo XIII in 1891. In the celebration of St. Joseph the Worker on May 1, 1991 Pope John Paul II celebrated the l00 years ofRerum Novarum by issuing his encyclical Centesimus Annus. It might be said that only after a century had passed did Church social teachings receive the first worldwide attention.

However, it is not too much if we say that in theological education, including the education of leaders, both ordained and non-ordained, Church social teaching (socio-theological reflections in general) has not constituted a comprehensive theoretical framework or orientation. Meanwhile, social teaching is part of the Church’s task for evangelization as emphasized by the two recent social encyclicals (SRS 41; CA 5 and 54).

In fact, socio-theological reflection is not entirely new in the Christian tradition. Since her beginning the Church has developed teachings or at least guidelines about social life though often not very explicit. In Acts 2:42-47 (also 4:32-35) we read that the early Christians were united not only in religious services but also in sharing their possessions, which resulted in the absence of the poor among them. In the Patristic period, the Church fathers emphasized that worldly possessions were for all people, a basic principle which constitutes an important part of Church social teaching up to now. Similarly, the duty to do good (caritas) to the poor has never been forgotten although Church institutions often have problems because of their wealth. However, in the course of history and in all continents there have appeared in the Church figures who sided with the poor and the oppressed, such as St. Francis Assisi, St. Peter Claver and Bishop Oscar Romero.

There have also been thinkers, often Church leaders or theologians, who have always attempted to defend the dignity and the rights of the poor, the oppressed and the alienated, such as Bartolomeo de las Casas, Francisco de Suárez, Friedrich von Spee or Bishop Ketteler. They have laid the foundations for the Churchs official social teachings, which were first promulgated with the first social encyclical issued by Pope Leo XIII in 1891.

What can we expect from Church social teaching? What are the meanings and functions of Church social teaching? Like any Church teaching, Church social teaching has the dimension of interpretation and that of direction of Church life. The Church presents global perspectives about human beings and the reality of human life, particularly about social problems and social developments. Social teaching in this sense can be viewed as a kind of theoretical model, which helps us in living out the Gospel spirit in our social life. Church social teaching is a pastoral help (see Mediation of Gospel Imperative Into Political Action in Chapter 12).

However, Church social teaching does not provide ready-made recipes to solve all those problems:

“The Church does not have technical solutions to offer for the problems of underdevelopment as such ... For the Church does not propose economic and political systems or programs nor does she show preference for one or the other, provided that human dignity is properly respected and promoted, and provided she herself is allowed the room she needs to exercise her ministry in the world.” (SRS 41)

Church social teaching is not a third way between liberal capitalism and Marxist collectivism, but it is an interpretation of human social reality in the light of the Gospel in order to inspire Christian conduct. Church social teaching is not an ideology but part of theology, particularly of moral theology (SRS 41).

It should be noted that the documents on Church social teaching might be utilized and exploited by various political groups for their own views and interests. Hence, like the previous social teachings, the encyclical Centesimus Annus has been understood and interpreted differently by neo-conservative groups, progressive groups and also radical groups.

The influence of Church social teaching does not originate with the hierarchy but depends on our sensitivity to the guidelines in experiencing, observing and precisely analyzing the social reality of human life. It therefore depends on the attempt to interpret and to find the directions and ways to change our world into a more human society.

In line with the above, Church social teaching needs to be interpreted in concrete situations by its translation and application to each local church. This need has been felt since the Second Vatican Council, and as a result there have been many social documents issued by bishops conferences from different parts of the world. The extent of the influence of the teaching depends mostly on the involvement of as many Christians and communities as possible. Therefore, Pope John Paul II stated:

Today more than ever, the Church is aware that her social message will gain credibility more immediately from the witness of actions than as a result of its internal logic and consistency. This awareness is also a source of her preferential option for the poor, which is never exclusive or discriminatory toward other groups.” (CA 57)

The importance of Church actions will be discussed further in the relations to Church praxis in Chapter 12 (The Witness of the Faith of the Church and its Political Dimension).

In the following we will see at a glance how social theological reflection appears in Church social teaching, universal and local, in people-oriented theology, and also in contextual theology. Therefore, it should be obvious that what is presented in this book is the continuity of the important trend in the Christian tradition. Furthermore, in this present ecumenical era we have to realize that there have been a lot of very useful ecumenical statements coming from meetings on such themes as Peace, Justice and the Integrity of Creation.


Brief View of Church Social Teaching

The encyclical Rerum Novarum (RN), written by Pope Leo XIII in 1891, saw the social problems affecting the working conditions of an industrialized society. At that time, the poorest were apparently the laboring class. Therefore, the laborer’s rights were defended, including their right to receive fair wages and their right for a union as a means to defend their interests. Most importantly this encyclical was the first official teaching approaching the social problem as a structural problem, namely as an issue of social justice and not as a charity. Therefore, it is clear that the Church pays attention to the structural aspects of poverty and injustice.

Concern for the weak and the structural perspective can also be found in the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity presented by Pope Pius XI in his encyclicalQuadragesimo Anno (QA) issued in 1931. The principles to regulate the above social structures are presented to support the ideals to overcome class hostility. Without solidarity and subsidiarity, the poor will always be the losers.

Though emphasizing the laborers right for a union, both RN and QA still expect changes primarily initiated by the upper class, namely people or classes benefiting from the liberal capitalist system. This was also true for Pope Pius XII, who did not issue any social encyclical but wrote a lot of social statements, addresses and messages, which further developed into the first two social encyclicals.

Thirty years after QA in 1961, Pope John XXIII in his encyclical Mater et Magistra (MM) stated the need for the laborers bigger participation in industrial management. He mentioned not only traditional issues, such as fair wages and personal property but also agricultural issues and, for the first time in Church social teaching, the poverty problem of developing countries which needs help from the rich ones. In his encyclical Pacem in Terris (PT), in 1963 John XXIII presented the problem of peace not only as the absence of war but also closely related to justice. In other words, if the poverty and injustice issues cannot be overcome, it is impossible to have peace on this earth. This message remains actual.

In his sermon in the opening of the Second Vatican Council on October 12, 1962, Pope John XXIII talked about the Church of the poor, an expression that later influenced the development of many local churches. The christological perspective of the Church of the poor appears in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium (LG 8, see also AG 5). However, it was not a big issue at the Second Vatican Council. The peak of the Second Vatican Councils ideas appear in Gaudium et Spes (GS, 1965), the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. This document invites Christs disciples to take part in the joys and the sorrows of the society, particularly those of the poor and the neglected (see Theological Foundation of Doing Social Theology in Chapter 1 and Theological Reflection on Faith and World in Chapter 6). However, the broader echo of GS was not the concern for the poor but the recognition of the world autonomy. Herein we read that the optimism toward the development of the modern world with all its possibilities, with the expectation that the fruits would be equally enjoyed.

The optimistic tone changed in Pope Paul VIs encyclical Populorum Progressio(PP, 1967). The experience of poor countries shows that the optimism of GS is difficult to realize. Populorum Progressio was the first social encyclical, which fully deals with the development of nations and the relation between rich and poor countries. Integral development was emphasized, thus focusing not only on economic progress but also on progress in knowledge, culture and basic human needs. For Christians, new humanism is found in their unity with Christ, the giver of life.

In 1971, on the 80th anniversary of RN, Paul VI wrote the encyclicalOctogesima Adveniens (OA). Here, he pointed at the discrepancies between rich and poor countries, racial discrimination, and alienation due to consumerism. Democracy, pluralism and free choice receive support. Accordingly, womens emancipation and the young are given special attention.

In the same year, as the result of the bishops synod in Rome, the documentDe Iustitia In Mundo (IM) was issued. The attempt to uphold justice is a constitutive dimension of evangelization. Evangelization without any effort to uphold justice is not complete. It should be related to giving priority to people and nations suffering from oppression especially victims of injustice and those deprived of voicing their opinions.

In 1975 Pope Paul VI wrote the apostolic message Evangelii Nuntiandi (EN) in similar tones with IM, particularly in Chapter 3. Evangelization is not complete without paying attention to the mutual influence between the Gospel and concrete human life. The plan of redemption touches the very concrete situation of injustice to be combated and of justice to be restored (EN 31).

Evangelization should not ignore justice, development, liberation and peace issues. Otherwise, a crucial Gospel message, namely the love for the suffering and the poor, would be forgotten.

To celebrate the 90th anniversary of RN, Pope John Paul II wrote the encyclicalLaborem Exercens (LE), which concerns human work. In this encyclical, the concern for the laborer is discussed intensively. The dignity of human work is highly appreciated. The principle of the priority of labor over capital, the human person over the whole collection of means of production, is emphasized (LE 12). This encyclical also pushes radical changes to defend the powerless against land-hungry and powerful groups.

On the twentieth anniversary of PP in 1987, Pope John Paul issued the encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (SRS). This encyclical, whose structures follow thepastoral circle pattern (see Dynamics and Main Elements of Social Theology in Chapter 1), strongly stresses the need to change the unjust structures and mechanisms and the need of global solidarity. These are all driven by Jesus Christs Gospel. The Pope states that

under the Gospel duties alone the Church feels to be called upon taking sides with the poor to see the justice of the demands, without ignoring groups' merits in the context of the common good.” (SRS 39)

This encyclical also uses the term option or love or preference for the poor(SRS 42).

In the centennial anniversary of Church social teaching, in 1991 Pope John Paul II issued the encyclical Centesimus Annus (CA). This encyclical mainly discusses the situation after the collapse of the communist system in Eastern Europe. The tradition of Church social teaching with its principles, including special attention to the poor, is again assumed to be very useful. There are also some new tones, such as the quite positive appreciation of the market system, competition, and liberal international economy. These obviously require a social framework, which should be governed by the state; the need for active movements without violence, which proved to be successful in Eastern Europe; cultural factors; and the need forhuman capital, namely the need for the development of knowledge and skills. Though poverty is understood not only in economic terms, global economic poverty remains a big challenge for human solidarity.

The above is a brief review of one hundred years of Church social teaching. Every document is influenced by the situation, the observation and the analysis it embraces. However, it seems that there has always been an apparent relation: in Church social teaching the poor and the suffering are always the concerns of the Christian faith.

Shifts of Emphases

Church social teaching has certain concerns, which have arisen in a certain context as a response to a certain situation. Because Church social teaching is never separated from the reasoning and the analysis of its period, it is not surprising that it has undergone shifts in line with its situation, reasoning and analysis.

(1) From the content it appears that in Church social teaching there has been a shift from the concern for personal properties to the concern for poverty, and finally to a firm statement of preferential option for the poor. Peace issues, for example, are more related to justice for those whose social rights have been violated, for the poor and the starving.

(2) In Church social teaching there has been also a shift in its approach, namely from a macro approach to a bottom-up approach.

(3) There has also been a shift from an individual approach to a structural approach. In RN, the Church is concerned with the lot of the laborer and supports labor unions though it has not urged the need for structural changes as mentioned in LE.

(4) In addition, there has also been a shift in its reasoning. The concept of the society as an orderly whole has been abandoned and has shifted to the need for concrete social analysis. General principles are not abandoned but made more complete.

(5) Accordingly, there has also been a shift in the argumentation. The deductive argumentation of the natural law has shifted to a more socio-theological inductive way of argumentation, which is based on the results of observation or analysis of a social reality (see for example the reasoning and the order of the chapters in SRS). Though the natural law involves the reality of creation, and is hence still valid, the totally deductive reasoning of the concrete situation is not considered suitable. A bottom-up approach, namely an analysis, is needed. Furthermore, the Bible has taken a more influential role in theological argumentation.


Political Theology

Political theology is understood here as the one that developed in Germany under theologians such as J.B. Metz and J. Moltmann. This political theology is not considered as a certain branch or part of theology such as theology of the state or theology of work, but as fundamental theology. Therefore, it is not theology about politics but theology, which pays attention to the social and political dimensions. Political theology aims at directing the entire theology, with all its parts and branches. It can be termed as fundamental theology in the sense that it concerns the basic current and orientation of the entire theology.

Political theology should be understood as an attempt to account for our faith and hope in facing the present socio-historical condition of human beings. Its program is a critique of a too individualistic and spiritualistic faith life. It is against the privatization and spiritualization of faith.

In line with the context of its emergence, namely the privatization of faith as a result of secularization, political theology indirectly speaks about poverty and suffering; and it does not have a certain political goal. The main program is continuous criticism, which is meant to account for socialized, down-to-earth faith. Because of its orientation to socialized down-to-earth faith, we can learn from this political theology, particularly about theology of the world (see Chapter 6). The core of this theology is summed up by its pioneer, J.B. Metz (1980:75) as follows:

Christian faith is a praxis in history and society. It sees itself as a hope full of solidarity, a hope for God whom Jesus proclaims as the God of the living and the dead, the God who invites all people to be his subjects”.

Liberation Theologies

Undeniably, in various parts of the world, including Indonesia, liberation theologies are sometimes misunderstood as if their main interests were to support action with violence. In fact, the concern of liberation theologies is in line with the independence movement in Indonesia, with the ideal of humanity, unity, democracy and social justice. To minimize such misunderstanding, perhaps we should term them as people-oriented theologies standing on the side of the poor and the oppressed. To avoid the misunderstanding, a feature of liberation theologies is presented in the following.

Like political theology, liberation theologies understand themselves not as a certain part or branch of theology but as orientation of the entire theological reflection, namely orientation to liberate the poor and the oppressed. Theological reflection on whatever theme is conducted from the viewpoint of the poor and the oppressed.

Liberation theologies can operate at different levels: scientific, pastoral praxis or popular. On whatever level, the liberation praxis precedes reflection. Of course, in its turn reflection will influence the subsequent actions. However, the priority is in the orthopraxis, namely right action, which is truly a faith action.

The root of liberation theologies in Latin America can be traced from the sixteenth century when prophetic theology against colonialism, a praxis and theology presented by Antonio de Montesinos and Bartolomé de las Casas, appeared. The present liberation theology originated from pastoral praxis of the liberation of the basis communities in the 1960s. Of course, the openness of the Second Vatican Council also motivated the development of these liberation theologies. So did the Latin American Bishops Conferences in Medellín (1968), in Puebla (1979) and in Santo Domingo (1992).

The basic direction of liberation theologies was the liberation of the poor and the oppressed. Liberation is understood as comprehensive, thus involving liberation from social, economic and political oppressions. This liberation recognizes the history and the strength of the poor to change their oppressive and suffering historical condition. This theology is also seen as the manifestation of union in Jesus Christ the Liberator and that of the worship of God who listens to the cries of the people and who wants justice.

The manifestation of liberation theologies and their various themes depends on the manifestations of the oppressions. We find theological reflections on prisons, on labor, on synthesis between struggle and contemplation and the likes.

In line with the starting point and the direction of liberation theologies, the focus is on Gods liberation in history and the preferential option for the poor and the oppressed because the oppressed are chained by injustice or structural violence, which has seeped into the social structures. Hence, it is unavoidable that the content of theological reflection is the structures of sin.

There are two responses to liberation theologies from the Sacred Congregation of the Faith. The first is an instruction on some aspects of liberation theology (August 6, 1984), the second is an instruction on Christian freedom and liberation (March 22, 1986). The first sounds more negative, the second more positive. Despite the rather negative tone, the first justifies the liberation theology terminology and supports preferential option for the poor. In the second instruction, the support is repeated and it also mentions the need for working simultaneously for the conversion of the hearts and the improvement of unjust structures.

Contextual Theologies

In relation to the life of the community and the attempt to theologize in concrete situations, we are familiar with terms such as adaptation, indigenization, inculturation as well as contextualization. Lately, the term inculturation and contextualization are commonly accepted as attempts to implement praxis and reflection of faith in concrete situations. What we mention about political and liberation theologies are attempts at contextualization. This is what we are doing in this book.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, there are attempts at inculturation and contextualization in dealing with their massive problems: the slavery experience of black people and the contempt of their culture and race. As a result, in that region liberation is closely related with re-discovering African self-confidence and cultural identity. Inculturation begins with cultural values as well as examining negative aspects of the existing culture. Family solidarity, feeling and spontaneous expressions of joy in religious rites, a religious sense, hospitability and appreciation of persons and life are cultural values, which should be nurtured and developed. However, along with those values are trends, which harm persons and the society, which are against the Gospel message.

A special form of oppression is found in the apartheid politics in South Africa. The contextualization of faith and theology here concerns the opposition to color discrimination and struggles for right equality and liberation.

In Asia, where religious plurality is a characteristic, which requires special attention in addition to extreme poverty, the attempts for contextualization of faith and theology have been realized in inter-faith and inter-religious dialogues as well as cooperation in attempts to overcome poverty. Attempts at inculturation of faith and theology which originally were more or less separated from liberation are now more closely linked together. Inter-faith and inter-religious dialogues and cooperation strive to bring about social transformation.

In Indonesia, the attempts to contextualize the life of faith and theology are seen in various works such as architecture, music, dance, painting, and audio-visual electronic media. There are also attempts in catechesis and liturgy. The social theology we develop is part of these inculturation and contextualization attempts.

One example of the early efforts of contextualizing Church theology and praxis was done by Francis van Lith, S.J., who used theological argumentation of human brotherhood and sisterhood to defend the rights of the local people against the colonizers and to support movements of independence. He stated (van Lith 1922 in Banawiratma 1991: 31) that:

“In Christ’s Church there is no Jew, no Roman, no Greek. Therefore, there is no Dutch, no Javanese. Order of life (brotherhood and sisterhood) of the early Church is still valid also outside the Church: the Dutch (original), the Indo (mixed blood) and the Javanese from now on live peacefully as brothers and sisters in one house; otherwise, soon they would not live together.”

Feminist Theologies as Liberation Theologies

Feminist theologies in a certain sense also deal with particular problems of poverty, namely gender injustice, discrimination and oppression against women. These are particularly true for poor women who often become victims of physical poverty, gender, ethnic, race or color discrimination.

Feminism is not only a theoretical concept but a movement of liberation towards social and ecclesial change. Therefore, feminism should be properly called feminist liberation theology. It seeks to comprehend and to liberate women and marginalized men from multiple forms of oppression.

Like liberation theologies, feminism also has various nuances, which cannot be described here in detail. The basic trend of feminism is to defend oppressed women. It is aimed not only at removing oppression but also at eradicating patriarchy and kyriarchy in the society, in Church and in families, where women do not have equal share and are treated unjustly. There is no equality between men and women in the society. There is no equal sisterhood and brotherhood in religious communities.

One recent manifestation of feminism includes the ecological perspective and calls itself ecofeminism. The problem of the present ecological destruction is caused not only by an anthropocentric view of reality but also of an androcentric view of reality. Male-centered views and activities as well as patriarchal and kyriarchal views and structures do not give women their proper roles, they even oppress them.

Feminist movements and feminist spirituality are not meant to be exclusive for women. Feminist spirituality is different from female spirituality, which refers to womens special experience of life, just as male spirituality refers to mens special experience. Challenging patriarchy or kyriarchy and the opposition to womens oppression involve both men and women. The culprit is not the male group but the system and structure of patriarchy and kyriarchy.

How to integrate feminist criticism of the patriarchal and kyriarchal tradition in society and Church is a challenge to find a new orientation and praxis.


The World Council of Churches in Vancouver in 1983 invited churches to enter a conciliatory process, a shared commitment to struggle for justice, peace and the integrity of creation. The formulation issued by the World Council of Churches reveals three key elements in the social agenda of the major churches all over the world.

The conciliatory process refers to the togetherness and commitment of the christian community at local, regional, national and international levels. In this conciliatory process joint movement in one Spirit can take place without being burdened by juridical issues in each Church. The issue is the joint concern and struggle for justice, peace and the integrity of creation at all levels by involving as many people as possible.

Looking into the entire movement in Church social teaching up to contextual theology and the conciliatory process, as presented in this chapter, from the perspective of the social sciences, we will see various backgrounds of different analyses. However, those differences meet at their starting points, namely the Gospel. Jesus Christ has been accepted as determining the life of Christians. The Gospel has challenged us to cooperate with everybody to overcome poverty and suffering for the sake of justice, peace and the integrity of creation, for the sake of the life of the world.


Selected Readings

Amin, M. Masyhur (ed.)

1992 Wanita dalam Percakapan Antar Agama: Aktualisasinya dalam Pembangunan. Yogyakarta: LKPSM NU DIY.

Arief Budiman

1981 Pembagian Kerja Secara Seksual: Sebuah Pembahasan Sosiologis tentang Peran Wanita di dalam Masyarakat. Jakarta: Gramedia.

Banawiratma, J.B.

1985 Menghargai Rakyat dan Tradisi Mereka: Belajar dari Teologi-teologi Pembebasan.  Prisma, th.14, 6: 19-28.

1988 Pilihan Mendahulukan kaum Miskin dan Ajaran Sosial Gereja in Aspek-aspek teologi Sosial, ed. J.B. Banawiratma. Yogyakarta: Kanisius, 157-175.

1991 Iman, Pendidikan dan Perubahan Sosial. Yogyakarta: Kanisius.

Carr, Anne

1988 Transforming Grace, Christian Tradition and Womens  Experience. San Francisco: Harper & Row.

Dorr, Donal

1991 The Social Justice Agenda, Justice, Ecology, Power and the Church. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.

Fabella, Virginia

1993 Beyond Bonding: A Third World Womens Theological Journey. Manila: EATWOT and Institute of Womens Studies.

Fiorenza, Elisabeth Schüssler

1984 Bread Not Stone: The Challenge of Feminist Biblical Interpretation. Boston: Beacon Press.

1995 Jesus, Miriams Child, Sophias Prophet: Critical Issues in Christology. NY: Continuum.

Gutiérrez, Gustavo

1973 A Theology of Liberation. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.

1983 The Power of the Poor in History. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.

1984 We Drink from Our Own Wells: The Spiritual Journey of a People. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.

Kieser, B.

1992 Solidaritas: 100 Tahun Ajaran Sosial Gereja. Yogyakarta: Kanisius.

Metz, J.B.

1969 Theology of the World. London: Burns & Oates.

1980 Faith in History and Society: Toward a Practical Fundamental Theology. London: Burns & Oates.

Okolo, Chukwudum B.

1991 The Liberating Role of The Church in Africa Today. Kenya: AMECEA Gaba.

Pieris, Aloysius

1986 A Theology of Liberation in Asian Churches? East Asian Pastoral Review, Vol. 23, no. 2: 117-137.

1988 An Asian Theology of Liberation. Edinburgh: Clark.

Sobrino, Jon

1985 The True Church of the Poor. Quezon City, Philippines: Claretian Publications.

Walsh, Michael and Davies, Brian (eds.)

1991 Proclaiming Justice and Peace, Papal Documents from Rerum Novarumthrough “Centesimus Annus”. Mystic, CT: Twenty-third Publications.

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