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Hurley and Social Justice


From the time of his studies in Rome in the latter part of the 1930s, when Denis Hurley was introduced to the social encyclicals of Popes Leo XIII (Rerum Novarum) and Pius XI (Quadragesimo Anno), his great passion was the promotion of social justice.

Returning to South Africa as a newly-ordained priest in 1940, he immediately saw the relevance of what he had learnt about the Church's social teaching to the situation in this country. He was also struck by the appropriateness of the Young Christian Workers' (YCW) "see-judge-act" methodology and would have liked to become a YCW chaplain.

Initially his passion for social justice as a curate at Emmanuel Cathedral, as superior of St Joseph's Scholasticate, and even as a young bishop, was largely intellectual and academic. Though he could see the need for change, he was not in any way an activist but called for evolutionary steps towards a just society.

As he was increasingly exposed to the effect of apartheid injustice on ordinary people, he became aware that a more dynamic and engaged response was called for. This was especially so after Vatican II and its decree on The Church in the Modern World. Direct contact with suffering people moved him to take up the cudgels on their behalf and be prophetic in word and action.

He was delighted by the document "Justice in the World" which emerged from the Synod of 1971, and took to heart its famous words: "Action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world fully appear to us as a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the Gospel."

In an address at St Joseph’s Church, Morningside , Durban during 1986, the year in which South Africa’s apartheid crisis reached its zenith, the archbishop set out simply and clearly the Church’s relationship to the world of politics and social issues. He described the failure of the Church to deal with the social issues arising from the Industrial Revolution.

In the address, he explained how Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum began to address those issues, especially wages, for the first time. The archbishop emphasised the critical role played by Joseph Cardijn’s ministry among young factory workers in Belgium in the 1920s and how he developed the "see-judge-act” methodology which has become a crucial way of responding to socio-political issues.

The two greatest theologians of the Second Vatican Council, Yves Congar and Marie-Dominique Chenu, were profoundly influenced by Cardijn’s thought and practice. The Council, and particularly its decree Gaudium et Spes which deals with the Church’s relationship to the modern world, has played a most important part in defining the Church’s role in influencing the political world but not itself seeking political power.

In the first "Archbishop D. E. Hurley Lecture ," delivered by the archbishop himself in 1995, he addressed the concern that Justice and Peace is "sidelined" in the Church, and urged that the Church should become a "happier place" for these values that are integral to christian living.

Further reading

Mewa Ramgobin and Denis Hurley by Paddy Kearney (PDF)

'When Mewa Ramgobin, one of the great Natal Indian Congress leaders, died recently in Cape Town, I recalled the long interview I had with him in 2003 for the biography of Denis Hurley that I was writing at that time. Re-reading the 18-page transcript of that interview I was struck by the unique and unlikely friendship between these two prominent Natalians. Their many fascinating encounters changed each of them: Mewa Ramgobin depended on Hurley for moral guidance and occasionally material support for his campaigns and interventions; Hurley in turn was challenged by Ramgobin’s activities to become more activist in his anti-apartheid stance...'

Read the PDF of the full article: Mewa Ramgobin and Denis Hurley (Kearney P 2016)

Non-violence and peace-making, lessons from Oscar Romero, Denis Hurley and Pope Francis' (Dowling, Bishop K, 2016)

'I am hoping to share something of my journey with others in the search for a better world based on a commitment to active non-violence and just peacemaking – in the light of three important historical figures: Archbishop Romero, Archbishop Hurley and Pope Francis.' Bishop Kevin Dowling C.Ss.R

Read the PDF of Bishop Dowlings Hurley Memorial Lecture 'Non-violence and peace-making, lessons from Oscar Romero, Denis Hurley and Pope Francis' that was delivered in November 2016