This past semester I revised my Social Justice Ethics syllabus to include Pope Francis’s new encyclical, Fratelli Tutti (2020). As I was rereading this encyclical in preparation for class, what stood out to me (as a historical theologian) the most in the text is Pope Francis’s call for us to engage with history. Namely, at several points in the encyclical, Pope Francis discusses the importance of learning from our history. He discusses this in relation to learning from the pandemic in chapter one, but also earlier bemoans a lack of historical consciousness more generally. In both examples, he ties our inability to learn from history to the problem of consumerism. The call implicit here is to be truthful about our history because without that truth, we cannot learn from history.

But Pope Francis goes a bit further than this in his critique. It is not just about not knowing history, but the problem of deconstructing that history so that the ideas we talk about today lose their meaning. I think here of the critique some make of the term “social justice”—the term that forms the title for my course. This term is used repeatedly—and in a positive sense in Pius XI’s Quadragesimo Anno (1931), though some want to reframe it today as something opposed to Catholic teaching. Pius XI describes social justice as based on the “norms of the common good” (QA 58), which call the different classes to share the benefits they receive with each other (QA 57). The focus here is economics and workers’ rights, but if we take the “norms of the common good” as a foundation, then we can expand our understanding of social justice to include the fight against racism, sexism, etc., as it is used often today. The Oxford English Dictionary defines social justice as “justice at the level of a society or state as regards the possession of wealth, commodities, opportunities, and privileges.” And, as an illustration of the development of the use of this term in the Catholic context, we can look to the USCCB’s definition in Economic Justice for All (1986), which defines social justice as “obligation to be active and productive participants in the life of society and that society has a duty to enable them to participate in this way” (§71). This definition still relies on the idea of social justice as being based on the “norms of the common good,” but it expands it beyond the mere economic discussion in Quadragesimo Anno to describe the overall right ordering of society. Thus, even as used today (except in the pejorative sense), social justice is a term that is part of the Catholic tradition. As a historical theologian, I want to always make sure that our discussion of things—like the term social justice—is rooted in the historical context and development of the ideas.

Pope Francis’s argument about learning from the pandemic is tied to his overall argument about learning from history. We need to be honest about our history and what happened in order to learn from it. (Thus, we also need to be honest about the meaning of our terms, as illustrated above.) As Pope Francis says later in the encyclical, “When conflicts are not resolved but kept hidden or buried in the past, silence can lead to complicity in grave misdeeds and sins” (FT 244). This quote leads into a section on memory which emphasizes the need to remember the atrocities that humans have committed in the past. This is about remembering the victims and keeping in mind the shame and horror over what was committed. It is important to remember because, as Pope Francis says, “We can never move forward without remembering the past; we do not progress without an honest and unclouded memory” (FT 249).

This reminds me of the section in the chapter on solidarity about forgiveness in Marvin L. Krier Mich’s The Challenge and Spirituality of Catholic Social Teaching (Revised Edition, Orbis Books, 2011). He focuses here on John Paul II’s understanding of forgiveness, quoting his 2002 World Day of Peace message to show his belief that “forgiveness is the opposite of resentment and revenge, not justice” (as quoted on p. 206). To rebuild relationships in this process of forgiveness, you cannot just overlook the wrongs that have been committed. Rather, these new relationships and the healing of the wounds caused must be founded in justice and to truly have justice, or right relationships, you need to also have truth. This idea finds support in other writings about forgiveness and reconciliation, which emphasize that for reconciliation you need to have both the offender and offended participating in the process. In this, two steps toward reconciliation require the understanding of the truth of the offenses committed—the acknowledgment of what happened and the apology of the offender.* These ideas dovetail nicely with Pope Francis’s encyclical on the importance of understanding history (and I did assign the excerpts from the encyclical alongside this chapter on solidarity). In his introduction to the encyclical, Daniel P. Horan emphasizes the influence of Saint Francis and the Franciscan spirit on Pope Francis’s thought and mentions “peacemaking and reconciliation” as one of those themes (p. xvii–xix, Orbis Books, 2020). Horan highlights the importance of truth telling and memory—especially the memory of the victims—in this process. As Mich says, “Forgiveness does not mean forgetting; instead, it is about remembering in a certain way” (p. 207).Thus the importance in all this of understanding our history, and understanding that history in a way that fosters forgiveness and reconciliation for us today. This is precisely why historical theology is so important.

One other passage that particularly struck me in Fratelli Tutti states, “We believers are challenged to return to our sources, in order to concentrate on what is essential: worship of God and love for our neighbor, lest some of our teachings, taken out of context, end up feeding forms of contempt, hatred, xenophobia or negation of others. The truth is that violence has no basis in our fundamental religious convictions, but only in their distortion” (FT 282). This point is repeated throughout the encyclical, as Pope Francis expresses a concern about people using their faith to justify “violent nationalism, xenophobia and contempt” (FT 86). The issue here is: how do we find the essential in the sources and our faith that we are returning to? All our sources bear the mark of their time periods and historical contexts. Despite what has been tried over and over again throughout Christian history, there is no “pure” time period to return to. So, it is not just about going back, but about seeking out the core, understanding ideas in their contexts, and learning from them for today.

This is precisely why historical theology is so important. Now, I recognize the difficulty in defining historical theology, as I have written about that before. Ultimately, as I would define it, historical theology is an approach to theology that borrows from historical methodology to answer theological questions that still have relevance to us today. It is about understanding these ideas in context so that we can really “concentrate on what is essential,” recognizing the difference between the essence and what is historically contingent as much as we can. As Patrick Carey has argued, “Historical theology tries to shed light on the ideas and the tradition that transcend the multiple historical incarnations, and on the ideas and systems of theological thinking that have either been captured by the times in which they emerged or were so conditioned by the languages and conceptions of their day that they have outlived their usefulness and are alien to the contemporary world for which historical theologians write” (Carey, “History and Theology: A Personal Confession,” U.S. Catholic Historian 23, no. 2 (2005): 11). Understanding ideas historically—and their development—represents the first step before applying them—if we even can—to the world today. We cannot just go back without understanding what has changed between then and now that might affect the expression of our core ideas. The example of slavery is what comes to mind first. If we just return to the sources uncritically, we will find support for slavery. Another example that comes to mind is the idea of human dignity in Catholic social teaching, which is the foundation for the equality of all humans. But perhaps our current context demands that we say more. In that sense, if we are engaged in a fight against racism, just saying that we are all equal becomes a mere platitude. It is similar if we are fighting for women’s rights.

Context matters and if we do not understand that context—if we ignore the work of the historical theologian—our theology will be bad as well. As Pope Francis asserts, “I cannot know myself apart from a broader network of relationships, including those that have preceded me and shaped my entire life” (FT 89). We need a correct understanding of our history in order to understand where and who we are today. This is precisely why historical theology is so important.


* In my Theological Ethics course, I often assign some readings on forgiveness by Donald B. Kraybill and Daniel Philpott from Moral Issues & Christian Responses, 8th edition (Fortress Press, 2013). These readings both discuss the difference between forgiveness and reconciliation.

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