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The gospel is based on love

08 March 2013

But will the next pope remember this, Christine Allen wonders


Hard choice: cardinals arriving for pre-conclave meetings in the Vatican

Hard choice: cardinals arriving for pre-conclave meetings in the Vatican

The election of the next pope offers the Roman Catholic Church a great opportunity to reconnect with the rest of the world, to communicate the best of its social teaching, and to put justice at the heart of its message. There has been plenty of talk about the importance of the new pope's coming from somewhere other than Europe, but I think the important thing is not where he is from, but what he says and does.

Pope Benedict's record in this area is mixed: he has made some extremely challenging criticism of economic models that do not deliver for people who are poor. And few popes have spoken as eloquently as he has on environmental concerns.

At the same time, however, he has, largely through some unfor-tunate remarks (for instance, his comments about Islam in a lecture in Regensburg in 2006, which caused great offence), failed to build on the genuine respect that marked the era of his predecessor. Pope John Paul II had a longer term, but forged strong relationships across Christian denominations and other faiths - for example, in many meetings with the various Archbishops of Canterbury in his time. 

There have been arguments that, because of the demography of the Roman Catholic Church - its growth in the so-called developing world - that a pope from the global South would bring an added dimension. I agree, but I would be wary of making assumptions.

Of course, the challenges around global poverty and the new economic order pose significant opportunities for the pope and the wider Catholic community. But the real challenge is the extent to which any pope, regardless of his geographical background, can carve out a sufficiently strong space to engage on the pressing social issues of the day, amid the demands of dealing with various crises - from sexual-abuse scandals to money-laundering and corruption - while also navigating pronouncements around sexuality without falling into homophobia. These crises come down to a question of power: both the inability to exercise it properly, and the abuse of that power.

A pope from the global South would present an important image of the Church. But, sadly, there are no Dom Helda Camaras or Oscar Romeros in the conclave.

The reality is that, during the tenure of Pope Benedict, we have seen a shift in the agenda and processes within the RC Church. For some, this has been a welcome move back to certain ground. For me, it has felt like an abandonment of the principles and ethos of the Second Vatican Council, which gave so much energy to the Church's social mission and subsequent engagement of lay people in outreach, organisations, and politics.

There has been a growing conservatism and a focus on issues around the beginning and end of life, and about sexuality, and much less about the wider social and economic challenges facing people, wherever they are. This is paradoxical, given Benedict's written statements on economic and environmental matters. 

One of the challenges is that Benedict's statements in this area were often expressed in such impenetrable language that it was difficult for the media to promote them, or for many in the pew to be aware of what was being said.

It is not by accident that Roman Catholic social teaching is called "the Church's best-kept secret". Who knows, for instance, that Benedict himself brought in the concept of intergenerational justice when he talked about the importance of ecology (Caritas in Veri-tate).

Roman Catholics are seen only ever to talk about sexuality, reproduction, or other aspects of what might be called "pelvic theology". It is not that this is unimportant, but there is more to Catholics than that.

I am occasionally asked by friends how I find my place within such a misogynist, homophobic, power-abusing institution as the Church. It is a valid question. Yet, for every example of those elements, I have found examples of the opposite, too: of service, humility, welcome, and genuine collaboration.

It is important that the next pope should continue the heritage of speaking out on social issues and proclaiming a gospel based on love. This does not mean creating a dichotomy between personal and social morality, but rather that both are covered by the call to respect human dignity which is a central tenet to Catholic social teaching. 

It is often said that because the Roman Catholic Church has been in existence for centuries, 50 years is not long to wait; but there are important opportunities over the next few years, where the voice of a social conscience over economic models, aid, paying tax, and caring for the earth needs to be heard.

The credibility of the RC Church on social issues is fundamentally undermined if it does not put its own house in order. There is much debate among lay people about a different vision of power in the Church. It seems that Rome has been too afraid to listen to it. The time to engage has now come.

All this needs to be communicated in a tone that can show leadership through loving and forgiving - not through command and control; and by being able to speak to people - not through impenetrable documents that require theologians to interpret them, but by putting into practice a clear message: that God is love. 

Christine Allen is Director of Policy & Public Affairs at Christian Aid; she is a former Chief Executive of Progressio, a Roman Catholic development organisation.

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