MENTION social justice in a room where Catholics are mingling and expect a lengthy, heated discussion.
The internal combustion caused by this term, “social justice”, and its push or pull among Catholics, almost defines the influence of the Second Vatican Council in the Catholic Church in Australia.
But Dr Matthew Tan, a former Brisbane student and lecturer at Sydney’s Campion College, seeks to mend the 50-year-old damage with his new book launched on July 9 by Archbishop Mark Coleridge, Justice, Unity and the Hidden Christ: The theopolitical complex of the social justice approach to ecumenism in Vatican II.
It’s a “cryptic” title for a rather encouraging book, one through which Dr Tan hopes to appeal to both spectrums of the faith and those outside the Catholic Church.
“What (the title) means in simple language is asking, can social justice bring about visible Christian unity as was declared by one of the documents of the Second Vatican Council, which is the declaration of ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio?” he said.
The simple answer is yes, but according to Dr Tan, conditions apply.
“I basically say, answering that question involves first asking what it means to actually do a Christian act,” he said.
“And once you start asking that question, you start going beyond the realms of just mere theology.
“Essentially what it’s saying is yes, social justice can bring about Christian unity provided that you are understanding that the act that you are engaging in is not just an act of social justice, but it is an act of the Church.”
But in a modern society, where people are not only defined as Christians but members of the state, the market or an ethnic group, how does one distinguish between a Christian act and a secular one?
It came down to, Dr Tan said, the definition of “social” in social justice as understood by the Church.
The Church’s conception of “social” is “defined not by the state and modern economics, but by the body of Christ”.
“What that means … is a person is not just an individual but his individuality comes out of his Communion first with the body of Christ, which means there is a concept of identity which is defined by its relationship with another person,” Dr Tan said.
“Add to that there is also a transcendent dimension which is not covered in modern economics or modern politics and so that tension, defines the struggle when it comes to social justice, so I claim in the book.
“The Christian act of social justice is one whereby the act is first and foremost grounded in the Body of Christ as is manifested in the Church.
“That’s it put simply.”
Is it also possible to determine an authentically Catholic approach to social justice?
“The strange thing, or at least the paradox I am trying to argue in the book, is that the more distinct every single ecclesial communion defines themselves, in their acts of social justice, … the more opened up you would be to others, precisely because you are defining yourself in terms of your relationship with others,” Dr Tan said.
But rather than impose a relativistic approach to Christianity, where “we can all be Christians together” Dr Tan is on the side of exclusivity and differentiation as the means of fostering Christian unity.
“The openness is not defined only when you give up the ‘tribalistic’ notions,” he said.
“The more ‘tribalistic’ you become, paradoxically, the more open you become to others.
“I’m basically saying there is something in the traditional sources of the Church that should lead us to not close ourselves off from those who are non-Catholic or even non-Christian.
“Rather I’m saying that those very resources, which we rely on so tribalistically, should actually open us up to the non-Catholic or the non-Christian other.”
A Catholic living wholeheartedly their doctrinal identity as distinct from other Christian churches, will simultaneously, by way of the Christian definition of “social” as communitarian not hyper-individualised, encourage unity “without any judgement, whilst also at the same time recognising that they could one day become your co-religionist”.
“Again this goes back to the notion of what it means to be ‘social’ in social justice,” Dr Tan said.
“The ‘social’ in social justice, if you define that the Church forms the social, you are saying that who is or who is not a member of the Church is not very easily defined because your point of reference is not the present.
“Your point of reference is the end of history.
“Then, and only then, can you find out who is not a member of the Church.
“Until that time comes, you can never tell whether the person standing next to you, who is the non-believer, could one day be singing the same liturgical hymn at the end of history in the future.
“That’s why I’m saying the very thing that makes you distinct also is the very thing that opens you up to that other.”
Dr Tan cites the most controversial doctrine as one that defines his book’s paradoxical conclusion – the Eucharist.
“But what I am saying is the one thing that ensures that distinctly is not some vague sense of individualism, or some vague sense of common, dogmatic confession,” he said.
“I’m saying the thing that guarantees that kind of distinctness as well as openness at the same time is the Eucharist, because the Eucharist is both one and many at the same time.”
Justice, Unity and the Hidden Christ: The theopolitical complex of the social justice approach to ecumenism in Vatican II is available on Amazon.com, Book Depository and from the book’s publisher, wipfandstock.com.