Common Sense

April, 1997


Commitment to the Poor:

A Social Justice Reading of the Baxter Case

Peter Walshe

A few weeks ago, a copy of the Houston Catholic Worker (Jan./Feb. 97) turned up in my letterbox. The florid headline read: "Catholic Worker Priest Harassed by (ND) Faculty: Is Dorothy Day's Laetare Medal in Jeopardy?"- a reference to the controversy surrounding the appointment of Rev. Michael Baxter, CSC, to the Theology Department. The paper included a long extract of Baxter's theological writing, meant to provide both his critics and those unfamiliar with his work with a sample of his ""prophetic" orientation. Copies appear to have gone to most faculty, though the mailing was not limited to Notre Dame. A friend in Toronto reports receiving one. While it would be tedious to revisit the case simply to sift through the issues that resulted in President Malloy's decision to over-rule the Department, the fracas does highlight important matters. The debate that followed has been a first world - very American - bourgeois affair, conducted mainly by people with theological and political investments either on the right or in the center. From my point of view, the problem with both the debate, and with Notre Dame, is the absence of a prophetic liberation theology which has a its corner-stone a preferential option for the poor. Unfortunately, Rev. Baxter's appointment is unlikely to fill this vacuum.

While I do not know Baxter personally, people whose judgment I respect tell me he is a good man. He has had visibility on the abortion issue and the arms race, and has had a long association with the Catholic Worker movement which is dedicated to serving poor and homeless people. His theology, however, appears to separate the Christian community from what is seen as a depraved world in a way that we usually consider sectarian. One consequence of such a theology is an unwillingness to undertake a serious economic, social and political analysis aimed at understanding and transforming the causes of unjust social structures (social sin). This easily leads to a lack of engagement with fellow citizens who are working for political and economic change. Safe in the bosom of the faithful, the adherents of this theology are also reluctant to recognize the Church itself as a site of struggle, as corrupted by structural as well as personal sin and so in need of repentance and reform. The temptation is to see grace as confined to "saved" Christian communities - rather than present throughout creation, which is the traditional Catholic position.

Fortunately the Catholic Worker movement, which I have long admired, has a non-dogmatic tradition and is unlikely to be seduced by the sectarian model. In a recent letter to the National Catholic Reporter (Feb.28, 1997), Brian Terrell, of the Maloy (Iowa) Catholic Worker, writes that the movement has always "been (with some regrettable lapses) diverse and ecumenical, a community based on love, not an institution defined by narrow ideology....Baxter is one of the few Catholic Workers who hold that some degree of the legalism and formality that Dorothy Day strove to avoid in her life is necessary now in order to preserve the Catholic Worker as a 'coherent tradition.' Baxter insists that the movement redefine itself according to a system of his device, listing 50 'discrete elements' and three 'crucial' ones 'that cannot be set aside without losing identity.' He is adamant that the movement must yield on his crucial elements, that these are 'not really open for question now'....Peter Maurin, founder of the Worker with Dorothy Day, proclaimed 'there is no party line in the Catholic Worker!'... It is hoped that Baxter will be more tolerant and open to dialogue with the students and faculty at Notre Dame than he is with Catholic Workers."

Without a liberation theology, Baxter is unable to engage the foundational issue of our age with any rigor, namely the rise of a free market capitalism to economic and cultural dominance, a phenomenon that is destroying communities around the globe. And right here on his home turf there are issues he is not addressing. What follows is a short list. His own Holy Cross community has fused the University to the corporate world and its materialist values. The Notre Dame Business School is ethically challenged, going no further than supporting corporate codes of conduct that would merely tidy up a few of the worst aspects of unbridled capitalism. Business schools at secular universities do as much. The Center for Social Concerns - prohibited by its constitution from taking up advocacy - is strong on compassion but weak on justice. By emphasizing charitable social service, the Center does little in the way of educating students to analyze the systemic evil that creates, inter alia, homelessness. In the past it is worth noting, Michael Baxter was not involved in the campus movement which sought to pressure the administration to divest its portfolio of corporations that continued to invest in apartheid South Africa. The University's policy on this issue was set by the CEOs who dominate the Board of Trustees - no prophetic voice there!

If the struggle to check injustice and renew the earth requires engagement in the political arena, it also demands confronting the Church itself. Baxter is silent on the current monarchical papacy of John Paul II, its authoritarian rejection of the listening, consultative church called for by Vatican II, and the Pope's sexist refusal to permit even the discussion of women's ordination. One would also like to know what Baxter thinks about John Paul II's persecution of theologians who have articulated a liberation theology for their third world contexts.

The prophetic voice is easily scanted by a sectarian theology that has lost touch with the political and focuses on charity at the expense of justice. It is here that I suspect Baxter's theology has been most influenced by his Methodist academic mentor at Duke University, Stanley Hauerwas. Stanley, a valued colleague when he was at Notre Dame (we were also fellow parishioners), would not be unduly troubled, I suspect, by the sectarian label. For while he is concerned about the greed and materialism that capitalism generates, his answer is to retreat from a hostile secular culture into the Church as commonwealth. Interestingly, he has never had any use for liberation or feminist theologies. even when they provide trenchant analysis of capitalism's depredations. Struggling to build God's kingdom or commonwealth within the broad movement of history is seen as a futile endeavor. This undercuts Methodism's mission, which, said founder John Wesley, was to spread scriptural holiness AND the reform of the nation.

It is easy to slip into strange alliances without the compass of liberation theology. This is illustrated in Hauerwas' case by his presence on the editorial board of First Things. Besides being a flagship for capitalism, this journal peddles a religious nationalism which has alarmed even conservative allies (vide."Neo-con versus Theo-con," The New Republic, Dec.30, 1996). What sort of Christian witness is Hauerwas doing when hanging out with his fellow board members? Editor Richard Neuhaus led the drive to link conservative Catholics to the Christian Coalition; Midge Decter, a frightful cold-war hawk, supported the policies of son-in-law Eliott Abrams, Under- Secretary of State during Iran/Contra scoundrel time; Michael Novak's raison d'ątre is to shill for US corporations; David Novak blames America's moral decline on feminists and homosexuals; and George Weigel, a determined militarist and weapons-systems junkie, is an enthusiast for a Pax Americana. Weigel's distaste for populist liberation movements led him to vilify church organizations that supported the African National Congress in its struggle against apartheid.

To understand the contribution that a prophetic witness can make, consider South Africa. For decades the mainline churches of that country accommodated to the culture of segregation and to the systematic exploitation of black labor. By the 1960s they were conforming to the legal contours of apartheid. For example, Roman Catholic seminaries, schools, hospitals and parishes were segregated. This state of affairs persisted because of the absence of a liberation or, what South Africans prefer to call, a contextual theology. Such a theology embodies a biblical faith grounded in the particular historical context, resisting the injustices of the age. Belatedly this theology gathered strength in the 1970s and 1980s. But, when it did, a very different Christian praxis emerged, contributing decisively to the liberation movement and eventually to a relatively peaceful political transition. The prophetic church aimed at delegitimizing the apartheid state. This it did by attacking the regime's attempts to justify the status quo on biblical grounds. It did not seek a separate Christian initiative, or "third way," but joined forces with the broadly based liberation movement. Prophetic Christians suffered the consequences of their radical witness; many were tortured, some were killed. In the Pastoral Constitution of the Church (Gaudium et Spes), Vatican II called upon Christians to engage the world, understand it, learn from it and contribute towards its transformation. Inherent in this was the humbling realization that, all too often, it was not Christians who led the world's struggles for justice. In the words of Gaudium et Spes (Joy and Hope): "In every group or nation, there is an ever- increasing number of men and women who are conscious that they themselves are the artisans and authors of the culture of their community.... Such a development is of paramount importance for the spiritual and moral maturity of the human race... Thus we are the witnesses of the birth of a new humanism, one in which human beings are defined first of all by their responsibility towards their sisters and brothers and toward history."

Until Notre Dame as a community can embrace the wisdom of this orthodoxy, the University will remain rudderless in a hegemonic capitalist culture. As Daniel Maguire put it (Common Sense, Feb./March 1997): "Orthodoxy means getting it straight, It means not missing the main point, not getting corrupted by secondary issues... Commitment to the poor is the prime orthodoxy of biblical religion." This means engaging the world in the most intelligent way possible - working in every generation for its transformation.

*****

Peter Walshe teaches in the Department of Government and is a Fellow of the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies.

Back to Contents