Viewpoint: social justice can revitalise the Church

 I recently attended two events both linked in different ways to revitalising the church. The first was a day organised by The East London Communities Organisation on Catholic social teaching, the second, a two day conference convened at Butlins in Bognor Regis by Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor, to discuss the renewal of the Westminster diocese. Both in a sense were looking for the same thing, revitalisation and renewal. At the seminar on Catholic Social teaching the opening address was provided by historian Dr Paul Doherty, the head of Trinity High School. Doherty underlined how social teaching runs through the Catholic faith from the early days of the church. He referred to the various Papal encyclicals of the last 120 years. From Leo XIII's Rarum Novarum noting that workers are being exploited by a rich oligarchy to Quadragesimo Anno in 1931 declaring economic dictatorship is immoral to John Paul II's 1981 declaration that work is a right that makes life more human. There is a remarkable line of consistency running through these encylicals laying out the duty for Catholics to work for social justice. Indeed, not long after the seminar Doherty himself turned to the encyclicals to defend the participation of his own school in a march against low wages. In response to an accusation that the school was brainwashing the children Doherty claimed that as a Catholic community the school has a moral duty laid upon it by nine encyclicals issued in the past 120 years to pursue social justice. The Telco seminar was well attended with people keen to know more about what has been called the 'Church's best kept secret' - namely its social teaching. The practical application of the theories discussed on that day were seen two weeks later as hundreds of Catholics joined with other faiths to march down the Mile End Road in east London to protest against low wages. Other mass displays involving Catholics putting the social teachings of the church into practice have been evidenced over recent years with the anti debt and anti landmine campaigns and most recently the anti war protests. Organisations like CAFOD, CIIR, Church Action on Poverty and Pax Christi have been at the forefront of this work. Now to turn to parish life which will eventually lead to Butlins. In parishes the social justice work of the church is often done by justice and peace groups. These vary in size and number. There is though an immediate problem with the concept of the J&P group. This is that once the group is established the rest of the parish can sit back and think it is up to the group to do the social justice work for the church - those sitting back can include the priests. This is not the case. In 1971, the Synod of Bishops in Rome declared that pursuit of social justice in the world was a constitutive part of the faith. In other words it was a responsibility placed on every Catholic not just those who put themselves forward for the J&P group. J&P groups are only feasible under this teaching if they are seen as facilitators of the work for justice, not tokenistic offerings to stand in place of a wholehearted community commitment to the work. As it is J&P groups often face an uphill task. In my own parish we have a J&P group which set up anew some 18 months ago. The priests are supportative. One is in the group and the other does what he can to help. The group can put information into the weekly newsletter, have occasional speakers in to talk at Mass and do petitions. The group though has found some frustration from a feeling of failure to get the social teachings of the church over to the parish. The J&P group has no social justice input to the confirmation process or to the faith groups. If there is no formative process going on then when people read about low wages, anti war petitions or prisoners in the church newsletter what will it mean to them? J&P groups also sometimes carry the burden of being labelled political. If being political means working for social justice in the real world rather than musing on fairy tales from a bygone era then yes I guess J&P work is political. The questions for those who seek to attack and marginalise those working for social justice is how do they suggest change can be achieved without being political? The church is not a place to come and hide from the real world. An interesting development at parish level is the number of people who are involved in social justice work but not within the structures of the church. In my parish this became apparent when the J&P group asked a prison chaplain to come and speak on Prisoners Sunday. After Mass several people went up to him and told of how they worked with prisoners in various ways - none were involved in the J&P group or other church groups working for social justice. David Jackson, the interfaith coordinator for the Leeds diocese hit on a similar theme at the annual Justice and Peace conference in Swanwick."The Church has the theory and resources in terms of lay people who are skilled and want to stand alongside others working for the common good. But these people are not receiving the motivation and support from the structures of parish life," said Mr Jackson. Now there is nothing wrong with people doing social justice work outside of the church institutions. Indeed, many would argue that at times the church makes working for social justice so difficult that there is little choice other than to look elsewhere which brings the story nicely round to Butlins and the Renew programme. The Renew programme involves forming faith groups and developing leaders within parishes across the diocese. There are 17 training sessions for parish leaders over the three year period that the renew process takes place. The five seasons of renew comprise God, a community of love, Conversion, Reaching Out, Reconciliation and Renewing for the 21st Century. The overarching idea seems to be that of developing small Christian communities within the parishes. There does though not seem to be any particular slot given to the social teachings of the church. People hear basic Christian communities and think of the liberation theology groups of Latin America. Those vital groups formed largely around the social teachings of the church. How does Renew link to the active thriving church of the low wage, anti debt, and anti war campaigners? The idea behind Renew of building community is admirable. It no doubt does bring people together over cups of tea to discuss church matters but what then? Critics might claim that Renew is a programme devised to avoid controversy. Is it a safe but soft option that will not relight any fires in the church? There is a growing division in the Catholic Church today between those who are actively rolling up their sleeves and getting involved in issues that count and those bogged down amid ritual and maintenance. The first involves the anti war, anti debt and low wage campaigners. It includes organisations like CAFOD, Church Action on Poverty, Telco, CIIR and Pax Christi. These groups and the activists on the ground are part of the living and growing the church. It is also noticeable that the living church is inclusive, including both sexes, different races and all ages amongst its ranks. The other group that is obsessed with ritual and maintenance is the dying church. It is dying because it does not attract either the young or enough of the wider community. The dying church also tends to be dominated by white middle aged and elderly males. For the church to move forward as one, the inhibitions need to be put aside and the social teachings of the church declared from the rooftops. It is this strata of teaching that can help revitalise the church not an overdose of ritual and bombast. (This article, published with permission of the author first appeared in the Universe 15th December 2002)

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