May 2004

Opening up the Church’s social teaching

David Standley

People can learn about the social teaching of the Church through parish provision of opportunities for reflecting on real-life situations. David Standley, parish priest of St Vincent de Paul, Clapham Common, in the Southwark Archdiocese, describes the setting up of an ‘open forum’ and other initiatives in his parish ‘where the Spirit can work in the minds and hearts of those listening’.

Growing up during the Second World War, I had a boyhood friend with whom I swapped shrapnel and chased butterflies (and, yes, caught, chloroformed and pinned them out on display – I shudder at our innocence). Later my friend became a Catholic for five minutes during National Service when he was courting a Catholic girl. He emigrated to Australia, and we kept in touch. In 1963, by now an atheist, he wrote to say how inspired he was on reading Pope John’s Pacem in Terris. It was the best thing he had found on the issues around war and peace

While parish priest on the Isle of Sheppey I met a man who had retired early from the Fire Service after sustaining injury in the course of duty. He was brought up a Catholic, but had given up any practice years ago. As a trade union activist he was concerned about justice in the workplace. Someone had alerted him to the teaching in Rerum Novarum and Quadragesimo Anno. He was amazed to read in papal documents views and sentiments that seemed to coincide with his own. He had never heard of this teaching through his Catholic education. It was this that brought him back to the Church and the sacraments.

Social teaching not well known
I have to say, sadly, I find it hard to recall other people converted or reconverted by the social teaching of the Church. Mostly, they haven’t heard of it. Two shafts of light, surprisingly rare. And yet we know we have in our tradition, and still developing, a rich and valuable teaching about justice, war and peace, industrial relations, human rights, international trade, the common good. ‘The Church’s social teaching proposes principles for reflection; it provides criteria for judgement; it gives guidance for action’ (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2423). High sounding words. And herein lies the first difficulty. Official teaching in church documents tends to start with principles stemming from assumptions about the nature of God or the nature of creation, supported by reference to Scripture.

This is not the way most people come at the big questions of life. We are mostly moved by what we see and hear, either in our own lives or by what the media thrust before us. As the Young Christian Worker movement understands so well, if we are to move forward we have first to See, to discover the real facts; then to Judge, and this is where the gospel and the social teaching can help; and then to Act in whatever way we can.

Budget item
A number of parishioners are certainly looking for courses that will broaden and deepen both their knowledge of church teaching and their theological education. These will often include components on the social teaching. In our parish we set aside a budget item to support people taking up these courses. It may be a weekend, a week, or part-time study over one or two years, such as ‘Education for Parish Service’. It is important that in parishes we proclaim the importance of theological education for all, and back it financially.

Quite often these days useful courses and workshops are arranged ecumenically. In fact, it is around justice and peace issues that some of the most effective ecumenical co-operation takes place. In exploring these issues people do want to hear the biblical tradition and its application to current questions; they want good theological insights; they want to feel supported by the Church.

I have found that some of the most effective learning about the Church’s social teaching has come from real-life situations, and the debate that followed. I give three examples:

Personal involvement
1. For many years now on Ash Wednesday a number of Christians (under the banners of Catholic Peace Action, Pax Christi, Christian CND) have gathered at the Ministry of Defence in Whitehall. As a non-violent witness against the defence policy of successive British governments that proclaims our readiness to use weapons of mass destruction, if they deem it is in our own self-interest, blessed ashes and charcoal are used to call the MoD and its workers to repent – to choose life rather than death. The action had a particular poignancy this year, after the righteous pursuit of Iraq for its supposed arsenals of similar weapons, on the doubtful grounds of preventive self-defence.

Some years ago my own involvement in this non-violent action (and subsequent court appearances) provoked a lively debate in the parish. Is this direct action ever justified? Is it appropriate for a priest to get involved? What are the rights and wrongs of nuclear weapons? My bishop was fearful that this action would be divisive and alienating. If anything, the opposite proved to be the case. There was open and lively debate. The Church’s teaching on the morality of war, and nuclear war in particular, was heard. Certainly there were different points of view (as there seem to be in the Church at large), but awareness was raised to a new level. People engaged with the questions.

The Common Good
2. Before the 1997 General Election the bishops of England and Wales issued their document on The Common Good. It laid out the basic principles of Catholic social teaching, and then ranged over a number of particular topics. The bishops advised against making any one policy (e.g. abortion) the touchstone of acceptability. It was generally well received, within and beyond the Catholic Church. Yet I suspect that not many actually read the document.

In our parish, after an overview of the whole document, on four consecutive Sundays at Mass we invited different parishioners to reflect on that part of The Common Good that touched their own working lives. A teacher, a nurse, a business executive and a policeman spoke on how the bishops’ words sounded to them, and what challenges they felt as Christians in the decisions and policies they were involved in at work. On the whole they felt encouraged and strengthened by the bishops’ teaching, but were able to add some grit from their own experience. Their reflections drew everyone in, and copies of the document were available for people to read further.

Scandal in the Church
3. A particularly sensitive issue arose over the revelations of child abuse by priests. As the evidence accumulated and convictions followed, disbelief turned into dismay, then anger. The anger was twofold: first at the betrayal by priests themselves, held in a unique position of trust; and later at the failure of some bishops to act on information, a failure that led sometimes to further abuse. Avoidance of public scandal seemed more important than facing the truth and its consequences. Within church structures principles of social and natural justice were not being applied equally.

In our parish I felt that we needed an open forum where those who wished could express their views and feelings. Quite a number came. In the expectation of strong feelings we used an experienced facilitator. What followed was a deeply honest exchange of opinions and feelings on a very sensitive subject. There was widespread dismay over the apparent cover-up to protect clergy and the ‘reputation’ of the Church. But there was also an understanding of how difficult it is to combine forgiveness and belief in the possibility of reform with realism, restitution and justice. The meeting itself was a cathartic experience of being truly ‘Church’, as we wrestled with our failure as Church to live out the principles that we proclaim. I imagine this must be even more acute in parishes where abuse has actually taken place.

Fair Trade
As I write this we are in the midst of ‘FairTrade Fortnight’. And Lent, too. It seems an excellent opportunity: to connect the call of Lent to review our lives with the very real question of how we shop and spend in the light of current trading practices that exploit and oppress producers in poorer countries. Catholic social teaching is right behind the FairTrade campaign. The Cafod Fast Days, with their excellent information and publicity, also offer educational opportunities.

But we have to be careful: there will be people in our parishes who just cannot afford to pay the extra cost of fairly traded food, and have to look for the best bargains. Do we need basic economic security in our own lives before we can respond to wider issues of social injustice? The Church consistently cries out for justice for the poor, and proclaims solidarity with the poor. But how often do we allow the poorer people of the parish to set the agenda?

Some of the poorest people are refugees and asylum seekers. There are restrictions on their right to work and earn money. Local residents, even the police, are quick to point to scams that organise ‘profitable’ begging, and in turn exploit the front-line beggars. This certainly happens, but some people are quicker to denounce the crime, slower to engage with the real suffering behind it in many cases. We get requests to promote advertisements for people looking for domestic work, often illegally. We are challenged to fit together our Christian duty to co-operate with the law, our campaigning for more generous legislation, and our instinct to help people supplement their meagre resources.

Prioritising spending
At the end of our annual financial report to the parish, I appended this sentence: ‘Although building and maintenance work accounts for most of the expenditure, funds are available to support theological education and the mission of the Church to live and proclaim Christ and the gospel. This has to be our priority.’ How we raise funds, how we spend our money – here is a touchstone of how we hear and apply the social teaching of the Church. The parish budget can embarrass us in the way it reveals our concerns and priorities.

Here is a good place to ground the debate. Buildings do need to be kept in fair condition, this also is a responsibility. Modifications need to be made to accommodate new insights, especially around access for variously disabled people and improving the celebration of the liturgy. They can be expensive, very expensive. At the very least, they should trigger setting aside a proportion of the budget for educational, support and charitable purposes.

Personal contact
There is a further debate about how far a parish might set out on a project of its own – often through a personal contact, perhaps a supply priest from Africa – or fall in with the well-researched and organised projects of the Church-backed agencies, such as Cafod or Housing Justice. Personal contacts are more satisfying in some ways, but we want to maximise our effectiveness, and remind ourselves in parishes that we belong to a wider enterprise, both the Church at home, and throughout the world.

Informing the homilist
Finally, it might seem that the homily would be a good place to communicate Catholic social teaching. But teaching is not really the purpose of the homily. It is rather to open up a space where the Spirit can work in the minds and hearts of those listening, in the light of the word of God. Moreover, the language of official documents (like the language of some pastoral letters) does not lend itself to exciting public reading, so should be quoted sparingly. The social teaching should inform the thinking of the homilist, and come through in his words, but more indirectly. This is not the time for catechesis. Of course, the documents should be available, and people encouraged to read them, perhaps in a parish group.

Perhaps this leads us back to the Parish Justice and Peace Group. These can be places of real education and concerted projects. They do great work, and create a sense of solidarity in the spirit of the gospel. They can also generate frustration when members feel unsupported or even under suspicion from the rest of the parish. Sometimes all justice and peace initiatives can be left to them – ‘that’s what they do’. We have to find other ways of engaging the parish at large.




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