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Patrick Allitt

The Catholic Face of Poverty and Justice

Catholic writers throughout the twentieth century have tried to improve their church's public reputation. It is not, they have declared, the leader of reaction, the champion of archconservatism, and the enemy of freedom. On the contrary, it pioneered humane, non-Socialist alternatives to capitalism, it cared for the poor and needy, and it resisted the degradation of mass society. In fact, no beacon of human rights has cast more light into the murky modern world.

These Catholic apologists have not always been able to convince their Protestant and secular brethren, and they have sometimes been forced into special pleading and the making of artful omissions, but their case, strong in patches, does deserve a respectful hearing. Brown and McKeown's The Poor Belong to Us and Thomas Bokenkotter's Church and Revolution are latter-day contributions to this tradition, each emphasizing the enlightened, progressive, and humanitarian character of Catholicism while minimizing its autocratic and intolerant side. Bokenkotter's is much more fun to read and comes about as close as any book on Catholic intellectuals can to being a real page-turner. Brown and McKeown's sober study is more limited, but its modest scope and meticulous approach make it ultimately more convincing.

Bokenkotter, a Cincinnati priest, professor, and social activist, likes to make bold, eye-catching statements. In a brief introduction, he declares that the Catholic church now leads the world's "progressive" forces, and that the Catholic social conscience has been gaining force in the two centuries since the French Revolution. He then tries to substantiate the claim with nearly 600 pages of biographical sketches.

The book provides a handy introduction to the lives and works of about 30 Catholic writers and politicians. It is particularly strong on the first generation of nineteenth-century "liberal Catholics," Felicite de Lammenais, Jean-Baptiste Lacordaire, and Charles Count de Montalembert; on the founder of the ...

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