Prophetic and Public

The Social Witness of U.S. Catholicism

Kristin E. Heyer

"With careful attention to particular and well-chosen scholarly voices and advocacy groups, the author succeeds in presenting a study that is, as claimed, critical, comparative and constructive."
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The United States was founded on a commitment to religious tolerance. Based on this commitment, it has become one of the most religiously diverse and religiously observant liberal democracies in the world. Inherent in this political reality is the question, "What is the appropriate relationship between religious beliefs and public life?" This is not a new question, but in contemporary US politics it has become a particularly insistent one. In this intelligent, wide-ranging book, Kristin Heyer provides new and nuanced answers.

Prophetic and Public employs the discourse of public theology to consider what constitutes appropriate religio-political engagement. According to Heyer, public theology connects religious faith, concepts, and practices to their public relevance for the wider society. Her use of public theology concepts to address the appropriate possibilities and limits for religio-political engagement in the United States is both useful and enlightening.

Heyer approaches the relationship between public morality and religious commitment through the example of the Catholic Church. She looks at two prominent Catholics—Michael Baxter and Bryan Hehir—as a way of discussing norms for practice of public theology. Heyer also analyzes case studies of three US Catholic advocacy groups: The US Conference of Catholic Bishops, NETWORK, and Pax Christi USA. Through her analysis she shows the various ways that the organizations' Catholic identity impacts their social and political efforts. From her investigations come norms that define possibilities and limits for political actions based on religious conviction.

This deeply thoughtful book examines what is truly fundamental and inescapable about public life and private religious belief in the United States. In doing so, it makes skillful use of the tools of theology, philosophy, law, and advocacy to demonstrate that the Catholic Church reveals great diversity in its public theology, providing legitimate options for a faithful response to urgent political issues.

Table of Contents

Abbreviations and Acronyms

1. Public Theology in Contemporary U.S. Civil Society
Philosophical Perspectives on Religion as a Legitimate and Postitive Force in Public Life
Sociological Perspectives on Religion as a Legitimate and Positive Force in Public Life

2. Catholic Foundations of Public Theology and Political Participation
Troeltschian Types and Theological Tensions
The Legacy of Vatican II for the Church's Social Mission
Pope John Paul II's Legacy for Public Engagement
Public Theology in the U.S. Context: Diverse Forms and Modes

3. Divergences within American Catholic Social Ethics: J. Bryan Hehir and Michael Baxter, CSC
Rev. J. Bryan Hehir and the Public Church
Michael J. Baxter and Catholic Radicalism
Critical Analysis of Hehir and Baxter
The Models of Hehir and Baxter: Beyond Coexistence

4. Catholic Political Advocacy in the Contemporary U.S. Context
Pax Christi USA
United States Conference of Catholic BishopsComparative Analysis of Organizations

5. Catholic Public Theology for the 21st Century
Theory and Praxis
Conclusions on Public Theology and Political Advocacy
Methodological Directives
Theoretical Implications

Bibliography of Primary Sources



"[Heyer's] scholarship, precision, and fairness deserve praise. This is an important book, one that despite U.S. focus would be very useful in other contexts. . . . In addition, it is pleasant (and all too rare with academic studies) to find that the book is well written and could be read profitably and without difficulty by nonacademics."—Theological Studies

"Kristin Heyer's first book provides a lucid, fair-minded analysis of a major fault line within contemporary U.S. Catholic social ethics and practice. Her well-researched treatment of major representatives of prophetic vs. public forms of U.S. social Catholicism both on the level of theory (e.g., Bryan Hehir and Michael Baxter) and practice (e.g., Pax Christi, NETWORK, and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops) grounds a judicious and persuasive case for critical collaboration between these different approaches. Anyone interested in grasping the terrain of U.S. Catholic social ethics or public theology today, and in discerning ways beyond internicene conflicts that detract from Catholics' shared vocation to solidarity within a suffering world, will delight in and benefit from Heyer's fine work."—Christine Firer Hinze, associate professor of Christian ethics, Marquette University

"Heyer's careful work opens up fresh avenues of conversation about the possibilities and limits of public theology by developing a vision of social witness rooted in the hope of common ground."—Margaret Pfeil, assistant professor of theology, University of Notre Dame

"With careful attention to particular and well-chosen scholarly voices and advocacy groups, the author succeeds in presenting a study that is, as claimed, critical, comparative and constructive."—David O'Brien, Professor of Roman Catholic Studies, department of history, College of Holy Cross

"Kristin Heyer touches many bases—theology, philosophy, law, and advocacy groups—in developing her understanding of public theology and the social witness of U.S. Catholicism. Not all will agree with every aspect of her analysis and approach, but everyone must appreciate the helpful contribution she has made to this important discussion by bringing into the dialogue an analysis of the work of three Catholic advocacy groups."—Charles E. Curran, Elizabeth Scurlock University Professor of Human Values, Southern Methodist University, and author of The Moral Theology of Pope John Paul II

"I have taught and written on many of the issues Heyer covers but have never been able to put together, in such a concise and clear manner, the relevant theory, practice and ethical guidelines. The combination is quite impressive. I would use it in a course I taught on religion and politics and recommend it highly to students."—John A. Coleman, SJ, Casassa Professor of Social Values, Loyola Marymount University


Supplemental Materials


Winner of the 2007 College Theology Society Book Award of the College Theology Society

About the Author

Kristin E. Heyer is Bernard J. Hanley Professor of Religious Studies at Santa Clara University.

248 pp., 6 x 9

Jun 2006

248 pp., 6 x 9

ISBN: 978-1-58901-082-6
Jun 2006

248 pp.

ISBN: 978-1-58901-397-1
Jun 2006

Moral Traditions series
David Cloutier, Darlene Weaver, and Andrea Vicini, SJ

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