Moving beyond words to make a difference

by
09 November 2011

The English RC bishops are stepping up their involvement in social action — about time, too, argues Francis Davis

Since Pope Benedict XVI’s visit last year, his exhortations to a deeper social responsibility have often been re­peated by Roman Catholic bishops in England. The bishops have had their staff organise four big confer­ences to plan the next steps in this field, but none of them has led to a clear outcome.

It remains to be seen what the practical application of a Roman Catholic idea of social responsibility might look like at a time of recession. The RC Church also needs to work all this out in an ecumenical context in which Anglicans are gearing up for an accelerating pace of legislative reform and social change (Com­ment, 28 October).

The RC social tradition is a com­plex animal. Formally, it is character­ised by a history of papal encyclicals, dating back to Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum in 1891, which set out to affirm the working poor, thus giving priority to labour over capital.

These are texts often cited with admiration by ecumenical partners, but are the subject of much debate. For example, during the 1980s, the US conservative Michael Novak in­flu­enced the content of Centesimus Annus (1991) by persuading papal advisers of the morality of North American business models — to such a degree that many South Am­erican Roman Catholics took to condemning publicly its pro-market positions. They preferred instead the rejection of structural economic injustice, finding solace in Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (1987), which expressed concerns that open markets would not set the poor free.

But South American liberation theology had its own weaknesses: on the one hand, it harnessed an eco­nomics, known as “dependency theory”, which was being discredited in the social sciences as empirically unreliable, at the very moment that Christians adopted it.

On the other hand, its claim to popular traction was always suspect. Participation in the base com­mun­ities of Bible-study groups that were the movement’s back­bone never surpassed two million people, in a continent of 300 million.

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YET, between the outpouring of encyclicals and the intellectual forays of faculty- and rectory-based Marxists, there has always existed a lived practice of social action on a large scale. Georgetown University reports that there are more RC-founded and -run com­mun­ity and social projects globally than there are parishes.

Often, these are led by the 750,000 women religious and 50,000 lay brothers rather than the 250,000 diocesan clergy worldwide. Caritas, the Church’s social-welfare agency, has more than one million lay staff and volunteers globally.

Bankrolled in large part by the giving by lay members of congrega­tions — the American sociologist Dean Hoge writes that often, delib­erately, there is more generosity for social causes than to the formal structures of the Church — these are pools of social hope. They have thus far been under-researched and under-appreciated by the bishops, however, as well as by social radicals and even those seeking new vehicles for ecumenical and interfaith collab­oration.

The danger, of course, is to try to squeeze this huge realm of Christian civic action into neat boxes of theory. An easy Left and Right rhetoric of state (good) v. charity (socially risky) might attract many. Yet, despite élite theological angst and away from ideological battle­fields there are traditionalists volunteering alongside anarchist radicals; Opus Dei at work with the justice and peace movement; An­glicans, Lutherans, Roman Catholics, and people of no faith commun­icating beyond partisan territories.

In these institutions, collabora­tion and ecumenism works in prac­tice, despite the formal stric­tures, even if elsewhere it is un­ravelling in theory. It has its counter­parts in every Church and religious com­munity.

Among the initiatives that this pool of hope sustains are schools, such as the Cristo Rey network in the United States, which combine real jobs with traditional learning, making them self-funding and more attractive to inner-city truants than the alternatives. In Austria, instead of a small credit union, a “bank for the unbankable” has been created, using real banks as branches in the even­ings, and turning them into centres where both finance and personal mentoring are provided.

By linking a practical idea of Christianity to institutions that can give it social roots, and habits of re­peated practice that sustains it, nuns, monks, and lay people of good will have quietly made concrete the meaning of Church and service. Meanwhile, elsewhere, those ideas have remained closer to a paternal­istic wish-list (or press-release), sometimes dressed up as “prophecy”.

For all the Pope’s academic power and his systematic call for the integration of rationality with reli­gious conviction, a religious com­munity (particularly one in search of penitence after the child-abuse scandals) comes to be judged more by the way that it behaves than by the idea it has developed of itself and its claims to authority.

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In such a possible humbling are lessons to be seized by Churches of all kinds: the primacy of pastoral work; the significance of active care in the face of economic crisis; and the importance that authentic practice takes on for social change. The last is especially true in eco­nomies where fleeting words and images are a new currency of market-transaction, with no roots in the physical world or rich human relationships.

Thus an opportunity is emerging for English Roman Catholic bishops to replicate social innovations that the global Church has already deliv­ered in other contexts. Such a direc­tion of mission could provide common vehicles for all English people of faith to share in a journey towards civic renewal.

A meaningful Roman Cath­olic and wider Christian social con­science needs more than words, especially at a time of eco­nomic crisis, if social re­sponsibility is to be anything other than a dream.

Thus an opportunity is emerging for English Roman Catholic bishops to replicate social innovations that the global Church has already deliv­ered in other contexts. Such a direc­tion of mission could provide common vehicles for all English people of faith to share in a journey towards civic renewal.

A meaningful Roman Cath­olic and wider Christian social con­science needs more than words, especially at a time of eco­nomic crisis, if social re­sponsibility is to be anything other than a dream.

Francis Davis is a research fellow at the Helen Suzman Founda­tion, and the author of The Catholic Social Conscience, published this month by Grace­wing.

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