Gunn says Catholic social teaching a well-kept secret

By Dennis Gruending

Joe GunnCatholics have a rich body of social teaching but their universities don’t teach it, their priests don’t preach it, and many people in the pews either do not know about it or are indifferent, says Joe Gunn, a long-time Catholic activist. Gunn spoke to the Faith and Public Life class at the Ottawa Lay School of Theology on February 16th. He spent seven years serving refugees throughout Central America and on NGO projects. He was later director of the Social Affairs office for the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops. Gunn has also worked widely in ecumenical coalitions and is now executive director of Citizens for Public Justice, a faith-based group based in Ottawa.

Alberta oil sands 

Gunn began his remarks by talking about a pastoral letter issued in January 2009 by Most Rev. Luc Bouchard, the Bishop of St. Paul, a Catholic diocese in Alberta that is home to much of the province’s rapid energy development. The letter is called The Integrity of Creation and the Athabasca Oil Sands, and in it the bishop writes, “I am forced to conclude that the integrity of creation in the Athabasca Oil Sands is clearly being sacrificed for economic gain…and constitutes a serious moral problem.” Gunn says that while the letter originated from a Catholic bishop, it has implications for everyone. “The bishop was taking Catholic social teaching and applying it to the questions of everyday life in his community.”

Gunn adds that the principles underlying Bishop Bouchard’s letter were thoroughly researched and carefully based upon Catholic theological principles, papal statements on social doctrine, upon pastoral letters on ecology from bishops around the world, and on previous statements made by Canada’s Catholic bishops. The response, as judged by letters to the editor in newspapers, ranged from indifference to contempt. “Tell the bishop to mind his own business,” said one letter. “He should focus on trying to make the church relevant again rather than trying to make government policy.”  Another stated, “Yes, he is entitled to his opinion … point taken, now back to church, eh?”

Papal encyclicals  

Gunn says that modern Catholic social teaching dates back to 1891 when Pope Leo XIII issued a papal document (encyclical) called Rerum Novarum, which, translated from its Latin title, means Of New Things. Gunn says that Pope Leo was responding to the industrial revolution in Europe, when people left the countryside to live in crowded cities where they worked long hours in dreary factories and lived in poor and unsanitary conditions. Traditional communities were breaking down and the church was fearful about losing its influence with the new working class. “The pope talked about a just wage for workers and about their right to join unions, and the church also began to shift its allegiances from monarchies toward liberal democracies.”

Gunn says that a second major encyclical prepared by Pope Pius XI in 1931 “defended private property but insisted that the right to property carried social obligations.” The document was also driven by the church’s fear and loathing of communism and of socialism. The church promoted the liberal state and supported moderate reform, although it attempted to direct that reform through Catholic organizations – trade unions, youth groups, family movements, even Catholic-inspired Christian democratic political parties. The Second Vatican Council, which was convened by Pope John XXIII in 1961, opened the church to greater dialogue with the world and with other Christian faiths and world religions.

Gunn says that another great change began to occur in the 1960s and 70s. Pope Paul VI wrote an encyclical called Populorum Progressio (On the Development of Peoples), which talked about the growing need to respond to the needs of the global south. Gunn says this spurred Catholics in Canada to set up an international aid agency (Development and Peace) at a time when other Canadian churches were establishing similar organizations. But by the 1970s the paradigm was shifting again. “We began to understand that we had to do more than be generous. We were called to be in solidarity with the poor and their movements for justice. Liberation theology explicitly maintains that the victims must be the transformers who take social change into their own hands.”

Ecumenical coalitions 

Gunn says that in these years that Canada’s Catholic bishops produced good statements on a variety of issues, including hunger, northern development and unemployment. He says people in Canadian churches also began to work together in ecumenical coalitions.  The extent and depth of that work represents a uniquely Canadian contribution to the international church. He laments that the churches have, in recent years, drastically reduced their financial support for the coalitions. “They are under-resourced and under-staffed and the cuts made in 2008 alone were abominable.” Gunn says that as a result “Christians are consistently punching below their weight in advocacy in Ottawa. We are unable to show that our action campaigns are having an impact comparable to the weight of the Christian population of the country.”

Gunn says, finally, that Christian churches are being confronted by a new dynamic. “For a long time Christianity was a religion centred in Europe, then North America — but soon a majority of Christians will live elsewhere. What will we do when Christians elsewhere point to our wealth compared to their poverty, or about how our wasteful energy consumption is leading to ecological crisis?” Gunn adds that another important dialogue will have to occur among the world’s major religions if we are to live in peace rather than perpetual conflict.

2 thoughts on “Gunn says Catholic social teaching a well-kept secret

  1. Mr. Gunn is absolutely right in stating that the Catholic Church (read the hierarchy) in Canada pays scant attention to Catholic Social Teaching. In particular, they display little interest in the principles in Rerum Novarum, Quadragesimo Ano and other encyclicals concerning the rights of workers. The English Canadian Church generally stand silent when worker rights are violated, minimum wages are frozen and large companies ignore their obligations under Canadian labour law. In addition, they often violate worker rights in dealing with their own employees in Catholic schools and social agencies. The current economic crisis will only worsen conditions for workers in all countries, but provide the Church with the opportunity to exercise its prophetic role.


  2. Joe Gunn

    I would really like a copy of your talk “what’s a believer to think”. I understand this talk was about the biblical relevance to the environmental crisis and whether the “church” can effectively respond to this crisis.

    Dale McLean

    Dennis replies: Hi Dale. Joe did not speak from notes. He suggests that you can read some of his ideas in the column he writes. Try:   


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