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Legacy of a Catholic social thinker

  • 21 January 2010
On 11 January Jean-Yves Calvez died at the age of 82. He was a Jesuit priest, an influential social thinker whose engagements responded exactly to the large movements in the Catholic Church and the world over the last 50 years.

Shortly after he was ordained a priest in 1957, Fr Calvez published La pensée de Karl Marx, which provided a clear and objective treatment of the German philosopher. It came out of his studies in German intellectual history during the 19th century. The work was as much studied in Communist cells as it was in Catholic circles.

Fr Calvez was then teaching social ethics, and the success of the book led him to engage constructively with many Marxist intellectuals at a time when a small space for reflectiveness had opened in communist circles. The book also enabled him to enter into conversation with Russian Orthodox thinkers on social issues.

Before the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s, he was studying systematically Catholic Social Teaching, and his collections, edited with Jacques Perrin, of key documents on the Social teaching of the Popes, appeared from the start of the Council, followed later by a three-volume treatment of Christian thinkers about society.

The impact of Fr Calvez on Catholic attitudes was enormous but diffuse. He inherited a view of Catholic social teaching as a body of abstract reflection on principles, dominated by its opposition to political systems, and particularly to Communism. He showed how Catholic reflection was influenced by and responded to changing social contexts.

The change in emphasis can be seen in the title of his first book which referred to Catholic social teaching, whereas that of his last spoke of Catholic social discourse. He also made clear that it was about human beings, and so involved solidarity with the poor as well as thought on their behalf.

His books, articles, introductions to papal and episcopal documents and comments on issues of the days influenced two generations of students and teachers. Perhaps his indirect influence can be detected in the high place given to social justice in Australian Catholic schools.

By the end of the Vatican Council, Calvez had been elected as Assistant to Jesuit Fr General Pedro Arrupe in Rome. He supported Fr Arrupe in his insistence that familiarity and solidarity with the poor are an essential dimension of Jesuit life, and helped respond to the conflicts and misunderstandings that