Tuesday, 23 October 2012

A Tricky Question

The other night on Twitter, an intelligent and benign atheist was commenting on how the image of the Catholic Church which came across in the social (and I suspect other) media was predominantly concerned with right to life issues (where we take a stance with which she disagrees). What she had not seen anywhere online was Catholics’ commitment to social justice.

I recognise what she describes, and think there are various reasons for it. 

Partly, of course, it depends what one means by social justice. If one means a left-wing agit-prop, then clearly that is something I have no time for.  I do not believe in political solutions to spiritual problems, in the salvation of souls through socialism (or capitalism, come to that).

However, if one means a concern to feed the hungry, comfort the sick, and visit the imprisoned, then that is certainly at the heart of practical Catholicism.

It is also at the heart of most parishes I have ever had anything to do with.  At home, the Society of St Vincent de Paul, for example, organises these corporal works of mercy; worldwide, the Catholic Church is a major provider of famine relief, development, healthcare, and education.

So why don’t we blog and tweet about this stuff?

As I said, I think there are various reasons. One is that we are under orders not to boast of our charity: not to let our left hand know what our right is doing (Matt 6:3).

Another is that it isn’t newsworthy - just as saying that all planes landed safely at Heathrow today isn’t newsworthy.  It is just part of normality. Of course we share with those less fortunate than ourselves: it is part of who we are as a community.

When people say the Church only ever talks about sex, they clearly don't go to Mass.  I rarely, if ever, hear sexual morality preached about. I frequently hear sermons on the need to feed the poor, house the homeless, comfort the sick and so on.

But when a priest or bishop says such a thing, the media, understandably, ignore it. It is not news. 'Bishop says we should feed the poor! Shock Horror!' won't sell many papers.  It is only when they are counter-cultural that they are all over the news.

Also, so much is done on a very local and intimate scale: it is almost private. Anna and a friend, for example, run the local Life Baby Store.  They collect unwanted baby kit (prams, buggies, highchairs, cots and so on that have been outgrown) and distribute them to new mothers who need them. It’s not a big, glamorous, or spectacular operation; they just get on with it, and local mothers are grateful.  And occasionally they are asked why they are doing it by a curious mum, and they explain it’s about solidarity and supporting mums under pressure.

Likewise, the local SVP organises visits to the housebound and those in homes and hospitals.  Again, it’s not a big, glamorous, or spectacular operation; they just get on with it, and people are grateful.

Similarly, the parish has a box at the back of Church to collect imperishable food.  We liaise with the Salvation Army, and it is distributed by them to hungry people. Yet again, it’s not a big, glamorous, or spectacular operation; they just get on with it, and people are grateful.

And I suspect that is typical of nearly every parish in the country.  Quiet and nearly invisible - and unsung.

Which is probably as it should be; except the risk is that people who don’t see that side of the life of the Church are getting a distorted view; not just because of people like me, blogging about the difficult bits, but also because the media, naturally enough, pick up on any bad news relating to the Church; and also because many lapsed Catholics seem to need to attack the Church in their comedy shows, novels, plays, soap operas and so on, as a way of processing their own issues.

The result of all that is that people may have a completely distorted understanding of the Church, which may impede them hearing the Good News, and make it harder for them to recognise, in the Church, the Mystical Body of Christ.  We risk hiding our light under a bushel...

So how do we correct that?  How do we get the other side of the Church, the active works of mercy that are such a living and positive feature of her, across to people - without boasting?


blondpidge said...

I was thinking about this earlier today, how to accentuate the positive without being self-promoting.

As you say, so much goes on at a local level, every parish will do an awful lot quietly, without fuss and behind the scenes, as do individuals.

On a local level here, we have an extraordinary couple who, every year give up all their annual leave, fly to Kenya for 6 weeks and have over the years built an orphanage and school. They flew out on Monday for the latest phase which involves teaching local boys carpentry skills as well as other general relief work. This year they were overwhelmed that our local parish raised £7k for them and thanked everyone for their continued support in difficult times. We also have projects like the soup kitchen that Fr Ray's Church runs for the homeless in Brighton. Many families give up time to go and help male sandwiches but as you say, talking about what everyone does is not right either.

Maybe the answer is to blog and tweet inspirational stories from a local level that we all take for granted? The thing is that caritas/evangelisation is through deeds, not words and the Internet is a place of the former.

Chris (Longmont, CO) said...

Hmmm ... Couple ways to do that.

First option: Why define, or re-define, something which is already defined. For example, abortion and fornication weren't as big of issues in 1930 as they were in 1960. As a result, one would be a little confused hearing the preacher discussing how we need to stop these practices, when they aren't widely going on. In the same way, as we already have so many fine organizations and charities already doing these functions, why should we tell people to go out and start doing these things. As a side note, however, we should have MORE people involved in these different ministries ... but I digress.

Second option: If I was asked about these charities or why we don't handle the "social justice" issues, I would begin by asking them what they mean by the term (as you did). Most likely, they are thinking of it in a different manner than a Catholic should ... or ... they believe that we don't already have a focus on them. In which case, I would start pointing out our existing agencies, as you did (St. Vincent de Paul, Sisters of Charity, Sisters of Mercy, Knights of Columbus, etc.). Afterwards, I would ask if they feel that we need to fill any more gaps?

Chris (Longmont, CO) said...

Now that I have had a little time to think about this ... there is another reason that Catholics appear to be focusing on the issues involving rights to life (abortion & euthanasia), sexuality and the like.

It boils down to the issues we call non-negotiable.

A movie came out back in 1993 which describes this idea very graphically: Indecent Proposal. In the movie a couple is having a hard time financially, so a rich man offers to spend the night with the wife for one million dollars. Many people would see this as something that is non-negotiable.

Everyone has something with they believe is sacred and can't be bought or sold. As Catholics, the right to life and the current definition of marriage are two of them.

I heard someone turn the political discussion around by asking if the issue were about slavery, would that change their opinion? If a candidate were to offer some sound solutions on how to turn our economy around, get everyone jobs, etc ... but say that we would have to get involved with slavery, if that would be 'OK'?

This approach definitely gives one pause for thought. Assuming, however, that the other person really wants to talk, and not just start a fight.

Simon Platt said...

Crikey! It seems to me that we hear very little about the Church's commitment to the sanctity of life and little else but "social justice" issues.

Are we talking about the same church?

Ben Trovato said...


The question isn't about direct debates; though I agree with what you have to say in that context.

It is more about the impression of the Church that people get who have nothing to do with it, but merely gain an impression by what they see being blogged, tweeted etc, as bystanders.


I agree: that's what we see and hear - from the pulpit etc. But the impression bystanders get is based on what gets airtime in the media, on twitter and blogs; that is often the sanctity of life stuff (rightly in my view) but rarely the day-to-day working out of charity at a local level.

Rhoslyn Thomas said...

Great post and exactly what needs to be said.