In Support of the Candidacy of Francois Houtart for the Nobel Peace Prize


Anthony and Maggie Mansueto


It is with great pleasure that Seeking Wisdom joins its voice to those supporting the candidacy of Francois Houtart for the 2011 Nobel Prize for Peace.


We bring to this cause a distinctive perspective. Most of the voices raised in support of Houtart have come from the global South, and his candidacy has been framed as, in some measure, a bid for recognition of the struggle for an "alternative globalization" led by the World Social Forum and the World Forum for Alternatives, of which Houtart has been a leader. And his contributions to this cause are certainly significant. But it would be a mistake to understand his candidacy so narrowly.


Francois Houtart was born to an aristocratic family in Belgium in 1925 --one of those families most North Americans don't really know about that seem to produce leaders in every field of human endeavor and which position its members in movements across a broad political-theological spectrum. His grandfather, Henri Comte Carton de Wiart was Prime Minister of Belgium in the 1920s and one of the founders of the Christian Democratic movement. One ancestor helped found the Jesuit St. Louis University; another helped found the anticlerical Vrie Universitiet Brussel.


Houtart himself was destined for the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy --known at the time as the Academy of Nobles, because only those with four quarters of nobility (all four grandparents had to be aristocrats) could be admitted. This is the academy which trains Vatican diplomats and has long been the "royal road" to positions of power within the Church. Houtart declined.  Instead, he joined the Resistance, and fought bravely to liberate Europe from fascism. After he was ordained for the Archdiocese of Malines, he studied urban sociology, asking for the first time why the Catholic Church had lost its base of support among the working classes. The answer was quite apparent: the Church had built no parishes in the new urban working class districts for decades. So he came to Chicago to learn from the U.S. Church. There he found a Catholicism deeply engaged with the struggles of the working class, with parishes in every neighborhood and for every ethnic community, with priests supporting the trade union movement and community organizations.  He learned deeply from this church and from its people, which was actually doing what European Christian Democracy had been advocating for 50 years and doing it not only or even primarily to defend the privileged position of the Church but rather to create the conditions for the full development of human capacities.  Where in  Europe Christian Democratic parties gathered the votes of the more conservative section of the working class and peasantry, but left the churches empty, in the United States the Church stayed out of partisan politics, choosing instead to motivate struggles for justice and peace from below, but filled its parishes with empowered working class families deeply committed to the Catholic vision of what it means to be human.


It was this experience which he brought with him when the bishops of Latin American asked the young sociologist to help them develop a new pastoral strategy for the region. It was Houtart's strategic leadership during the 1950s which laid the groundwork for the networks of base communities and the civically engaged Catholicism which has driven the history of the region ever since.

His work in Latin America so impressed the bishops, that when the Second Vatican Council was convened, they invited him to accompany them as a peritus or expert consultant. He was secretary of the subcommission which drafted the introduction to Gaudium et  Spes: The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. This introduction, which was largely taken from an earlier book by Houtart, situates the modern project in a larger spiritual context. On the one hand, it affirms the religious meaningfulness of inner-worldly human activity, and places the Church firmly on the side of humanity's struggle to extend its creative capacities and to liberate itself from every form of exploitation and oppression. At the same time, foreshadowing later critiques of modernity, it reminds humanity that its ultimate vocation is not simply techno-political progress, but rather participation in the life of God.  The inner-worldly struggle for justice --for full humanity-- is the very process which stretches us beyond humanity, towards God.


The impact of this document --and thus of Francois Houtart-- should not be underestimated. Catholic theology since Gaudium et Spes has been partly an elaboration of the document  and partly a rear-guard struggle against it on the part of the Catholic Right.  But it was also the charter for a much broader global trend which has found spiritual meaning in inner-worldly struggles. It is this trend which has largely assumed leadership of the global struggles for ecological and social justice as high modern ideologies of techno-political god-building have been discredited. At the same time, Houtart's vision has demonstrated that understanding the limitations of the modern project need not lead to postmodern nihilism and despair. He has been a Doctor not only to the Church but to the cause of humanity's spiritual cultivation as a whole.


Since the 1960s Houtart has played a critical role in leading --humbly and behind the scenes-- movementts against exploitation and oppression of every kind. Because of this he has often been subjected to threats and deprived of honors which he should rightly have enjoyed. In the face of this --and of what has often seemed like a lossing struggle-- he has persevered. In a petition for a different sort of honor we would cite him for heroism in hope and fortitude as well as for wisdom and pastoral and political prudence. Those who question some of his political alliances are unaware that he has consistently used those alliances to press the case for liberty and justice with regimes on the left as often as with those on the right.


It is, therefore with joy and hope that we lend our support to the candidacy of this man Francois Houtart, who has stood firmly on the side of "those who are in any way poor or afflicted" for the Nobel Prize in Peace. May the prize recognize his struggle and theirs, and open a new era in which humanity, seeing with his help through and beyond these dark times, is able to once again recover its own hope and feel once again the joy which comes from being stretched towards and beyond full humanity, in the direction of the divine.


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