August 27, 2010


A Brief Review of
Introducing Catholic Social Thought.
Milburn Thompson.
Paperback: Orbis Books, 2010.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]

Reviewed by Bill van Loon.

Though many in the evangelical world are newly discovering the importance of social engagement, our Catholic brothers and sisters have a long history worth exploring. In the new book Introducing Catholic Social Thought, part of a series directed toward both college students and general readers, J. Millburn Thompson guides us through this rich history.

The content of the book is presented in a way that is intended to make the topic of Catholic social thought approachable and easy to digest. Thompson begins by distinguishing between teaching and thought. Teaching focuses on the explanation of the major documents of the Roman Catholic Church that were written by popes and bishops. Thought takes into consideration the teaching and applies it to the social context.

Thompson says the Catholic social tradition brings the Christian faith to bear on relevant social issues. He says the book focuses on the spirit of Catholic social teaching rather than the letter. Thompson gives a lot of attention to the “social question” and response of the faith with the history and  content of Catholic social teaching used as foundational elements to the discussion. The primary way he does this is by including the stories of people and organizations who he believes incarnated Catholic social teaching.

Thompson presents several key areas of social concern where Catholic teaching and thought have been used to engage society around the globe. He explains the foundations and development of Catholic social thought before he steps into the social topics. His topics include citizenship, economic justice, war and peace, consistent ethic of life and ecological and environmental ethics.

Each chapter considers significant documents in this history of Catholic social thought. Thompson explores their origins and meanings and applies them to today. Stories of key people from all across history range from the Church Fathers, St. Francis of Assisi, Thomas Aquinas, Erasmus, John Paul II, César Chávez, Mother Teresa, John Leary, Dorothy Stang and many others. Encyclical material from Pope Benedict XVI is also included.

The book is a good, solid introduction to catholic social thought; although, I had a couple of minor concerns. First, some of Thompson’s transitions between his discussions of teaching and thought are not alwaysclear. The reader who prefers clearer transitions may get a little distracted. At other times, the demarcation lines are clear as in his discussion of war and peace.

Second, Thompson does some editorializing. The section on torture in the second chapter, in particular , while important to human rights issues, bordered on polemic. Thompson wants to keep his material timely and relevant and for a primer like this work, it seems unnecessary to engage in this sort of polemic.

Overall, Thompson did a good job introducing this topic and made it approachable. The book is appropriate for undergraduates and the general reader who is interested in learning more about the Catholic understanding of social issues. It could be used in social justice, Catholic social teaching and ethics courses. It is also suitable for adult and church study groups. Thompson believes Catholic social teaching and thought should be a regular part of Catholic life, if not the life of the whole church. The book is an invitation to each of us who are followers of Christ to understand Catholic social thought and to become contributors to God’s story and work here on Planet Earth.