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Author Archives: Maria Power

Where might we find Radical Hope?

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When I was at junior school in the 1980s, the nuns decided that it would be best for us to learn the hymns that we would sing at assemblies and school Masses off by heart. I’m not sure why we were made to do this, but to this day I can still remember word for word a number of these hymns, but one that sticks particularly in my mind is Go tell everyone based on Luke’s Gospel, the chorus of which went: 

He sent me to give the Good News to the poor 
Tell prisoners that they are prisoners no more,
Tell blind people that they can see,
And set the downtrodden free.
And go tell ev’ryone the news that the kingdom of God has come,
And go tell ev’ryone the news that God’s kingdom God has come.

At the time, we didn’t realise what a radical message of hope that this was but being confident of God’s love for us (because the universally adored music teacher, Mrs Gregg, had told us that this was so), we sang this with great gusto and joy. Given that we were living in Thatcher’s Britain, a time and place about as far removed from the kingdom as you could get, this was no mean feat. 

The third Sunday of Advent is commonly known as Gaudete Sunday and is celebrated to remind us that although this is a season of waiting, it is also a season of joyful anticipation of the birth of Jesus who came to set us free. But the world doesn’t feel very joyful at the moment and freedom, defined by Pope Francis as service to others, has been drowned out by individualism and consumerism.  Globally a third-world war is being fought piecemeal, conflicts in Israel-Palestine, Ukraine, Syria, Yemen, Haiti (the list could go on) and their attendant refugee crises show us how greed for power, money and revenge destroys lives and societies. When these wars are over, there will be no infrastructure for refuges to return to. Human rights violations are the norm in China. Right-wing populists are now gaining power in Europe and South America. In the UK, austerity has hit the poorest hardest and the structures of society that we once relied upon, such as the NHS, now feel as if they are crumbling. So where can we go to find the radical hope that this long-remembered hymn promises us? 

The chorus of this hymn is based on Luke’s Gospel (4: 14-30). This is the Gospel in which we learn that radical hope is based upon joy and the freedom that a life of service to the poor, vulnerable and oppressed brings. This is the only Gospel that contains what Tom Wright calls ‘the gospel before the gospel’ – the Magnificat (Tom Wright, Luke for Everyone, 2001, p. 14).   Mary who has shown great bravery in following God’s will seeks sanctuary with her cousin Elizabeth, where John the Baptist leaps in his mother’s womb thereby recognising Jesus’s divinity (Luke 1: 41).  The song that Mary recites immediately after this is one of great joy and triumph – an exultation of the promise that awaits us in the heavenly kingdom but also of what could be if we were to follow the teachings of Christ. 

What does this Canticle teach us? Through the Magnificat, Mary outlines for us Christ’s mission and demonstrates that we have a role to play in its fulfilment. We are taught what God will do for us, if we take up his offer of freedom by serving others. The mighty will be cast down and the lowly exhalated.  This is the good news that Jesus brought and asks us to continually work for. The poet, Carolyn Whitnall, in her poem- prayer “This House” sums up Jesus’s role in this perfectly. 

Oh come, oh come Emmanuel, and hurl

Our order into holy disarray:

Upend the tables where we wheel and deal.

And scatter our accrued prosperity.

Awake us, dancer on the dancing deep.

From placid slumber; rock the boat. Disturb

The peace that we content ourselves to keep.

And make us see the chaos that we transfer.

Confound our clarity, cut short our too long

Prayers, take back the narrative and heckle

Sermons preached to itching ears. Through down

Each stone in every separating wall.

Do what you’re here to do … but come what may,

Rebuild the ruins of us, please – and stay.

But we too must play our parts. We need approach the reordering of society with imagination inspired by the Magnificat and create a world worthy of Christ’s incarnation. That radical hope can only be achieved, as Carolyn’s words show us, in partnership with God. A God, who in his mercy wants to reorder society remaking it in the image of the Christ-child born in a manger yet recognised by those who saw him as a messenger of joy and freedom – as the Liberator.  

Dr Maria Power, FRHistS, is Research Fellow at Blackfriars, University of Oxford. She is the Director of the Human Dignity Project at Las Casas Institute for Social Justice.  In June 2019, she was a Holland Visiting Fellow at the University of Durham. In 2017 she was appointed as a Visiting Fellow at the Benedict XVI Centre for Religion and Society at St Mary’s University as well as being awarded membership of the Catholic Theological Association.

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Ukraine One Year On

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Nonviolence, Just War, or Peacebuilding? Catholic Ethics and the Russia-Ukraine War

2023 is a year of notable anniversaries in the Roman Catholic Church. April sees the 60th Anniversary of the promulgation of John XXIII’s Pacem in Terris written as the Cuban Missile Crisis terrified the world, whilst May brings the 40th Anniversary of The Challenge of Peace published by the United States Bishops’ Conference in response to the continuing threat of nuclear war that overshadowed the years before 1989.

One would hope that in commemorating the anniversaries of these publications, we would be living in a very different context – a context in which nuclear arms were no longer a threat but rather a topic that allowed people the chance to reminisce about nuclear warning drills at school and the relief they felt at the resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Sadly, we do not. In the past year, whenever people have heard that I am a Christian ethicist who works on matters relating to war and peace, they inevitably ask me in worried tones: ‘do you think that Putin will launch a nuclear missile attack on the West?’ To which my usual reply is ‘probably not, but there’s no point in worrying about it because if it happens, we’ll all be dead anyway.’

My dark sense of humour aside, the events in Ukraine over the last year have been a sobering reminder that we are, as Pope Francis frequently reminds us, ‘fighting a third world war piecemeal’ and there is something about the invasion of Ukraine that has really brought this home to us, in a way that the fighting in Yemen and Syria for instance hasn’t.  Whether this is a result of the renewal of Cold War hostilities or collective guilt regarding the West’s role in destabilising the Middle East and colonisation, remains to be seen and I’m sure will be endlessly debated in the years to come.

Responses within the Roman Catholic Church, the tradition from which I write, have been similarly intense. This is particularly because, as paragraph 2309 of the Catechism teaches, self-defence is one of the few categories of Just War teaching remaining and it rapidly became apparent that both Ukrainian forces and society would be able to withstand this invasion. A Temple Tract written with Professor Tobias Winright of St Patrick’s Pontifical University, Maynooth, explores these debates in the light of the invasion of Ukraine by Russia.  In it, we show how the concepts of just war, just peace, and peacebuilding have been brought to bear in moral analyses of this war, as well as how the war has impacted these ethical perspectives.

Debates on matters relating to war and peace have been a key feature of the so-called ‘culture wars’ that dominate Roman Catholicism in the US, and which sadly seem to be making their way over to the UK. In broad brush strokes this means that conservatives advocate for ‘just war theory’ and liberals are ‘absolute pacifists’.  Pope Francis’s advocacy of nonviolence (which is not the definitive declaration campaigned for by the Catholic Nonviolence Initiative) is seen as either dangerous or something to be celebrated rather than for what it is: a continuation of the past 60 years of papal teaching. Neither side are as bad or as naïve as the other side likes to think, but, in public at least, they aren’t conversing with one another.

This form of either/or thinking is damaging. It allows for the maintenance of a state of negative peace in which the threat of violence is always present and sees positive peace as utopian rather than the hope offered to us by Christ’s kenosis. The nature and form of the debate allows Roman Catholics to abdicate responsibility for peace, because, so the logic goes, war and peace are matters of international relations and are something that we can’t do anything about.   Most worryingly though, it leaves no space in between for the kind of thinking that comes from ethicists, such as Tobias Winright, Lisa Sowle Cahill, and myself, and activists, such as women religious working in conflict zones, who seek to reconcile the two into a position which accepts that violence can and will happen, but that it should be mitigated, and that we all ought to be working towards creating a state of positive peace both globally and locally.  

We have a saying in Irish ‘leagfaidh tua bheag crann mór’ literally ‘a small axe can fell a big tree’ which is helpful when one is overwhelmed by the scale of the task facing us. We can build peace in a myriad of ways, we can as Cardinal Matteo Zuppi suggests create a zone of ceasefires around our hearts which will ripple outwards like a pebble thrown into water; we can pray for peace; we can educate ourselves on the ways in which nonviolent activism works and implement its teachings into our everyday lives; we can campaign for as much money to be spent on humanitarian assistance as on arms. What we can’t do is remain silent in the face of the suffering caused by war.

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Overcoming political polarisation: some thoughts from Northern Ireland

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Dr Maria Power, Senior Research Fellow at the Foundation, asks what we can learn from Northern Ireland about tackling our polarised politics.

When Pope Francis was on BBC Radio 4’s Thought for the Day on 29th October 2021, he suggested that:

‘Every crisis calls for vision, the ability to formulate plans and put them rapidly into action, to rethink the future of the world, our common home, and to reassess our common purpose.’

While Francis was talking about climate change, his words also provide us with inspiration as we seek to overcome the political polarisation that is still prevalent in Northern Ireland, some 23 years after the Good Friday Agreement was reached. In brief, the Protestant, Unionist, Loyalist, and the Catholic, Nationalist, Republican communities still vote by and large along sectarian lines; resources such as housing and public amenities are still contested (although this is slowly abating); corruption is common among the political classes; new migrations to the region have resulted in racism; and paramilitarism is endemic within working-class communities. As one of the participants in my current research project commented:

‘it’s too much in our DNA for it to disappear in just 20 years.’

Within working class communities in particular, polarisation is framed in terms of winners and losers of the conflict, with the Protestant, Unionist, Loyalist community viewing itself as the loser abandoned by the British state that it had so valiantly fought for.

However, there is an alternative narrative, one of faith-based organisations and churches working to present a different vision of politics and society in which we use the teachings of Christ—and if you’re Roman Catholic the magisterium—to create a picture of society as it should be, and a map to get us there.

How we got here

It is obvious from this description of contemporary Northern Ireland that the world is not as it should be. It is not the way God wants it to be and political, social, economic, and religious relationships in Northern Ireland are broken. As the work of Tearfund and Thrive Ireland so aptly demonstrate broken relationships with ourselves, God, others and wider creation creates the perfect storm of personal and social conditions that leave a society open to political polarisation. In Northern Ireland, this has led to identity being formed primarily through the lens of the political – with identity politics and therefore political polarisation being intensified by high levels of socioeconomic deprivation. This leaves communities vulnerable to control by paramilitary organisations making it harder to move beyond the polarised silos of Protestant, Unionist, Loyalist, Catholic, Nationalist, Republican, and migrant. Yet moving beyond these labels is what is needed to overcome prejudice and see ‘the other’ as truly human. Attitudes are based upon perceptions until real relationships exist. The churches often contribute to such patterns through their own siloed understanding of their role in society and the creation of what one evangelical minister described to me as a ‘turn or burn’ culture, which often holds people of faith back from challenging behaviours that are contrary to gospel teachings.

Where we’re going

But before we can decide or even suggest how to change things, we must envision what a society free from political polarisation looks like—as Francis puts it, ‘to rethink the future of the world’. As a pastor from a deeply divided rural area asked me, ‘if we don’t know what we’re trying to achieve, how can we get there?’

So, here is a very brief outline of my own vision, which is based upon the gospel, Catholic social teaching, and dialogue with religious and secular actors who are working to overcome political polarisation and build a peaceful society.

The dignity of every human person is recognised, meaning that politics is no longer viewed as a venue for competition, but as a means of service to society. As a pastor at an inner-city church said to me, we need to ask ourselves:

‘What does it mean to be made in the image and likeness of God? We need to go back to realising that everyone is made in the image and likeness of God.’

Political and social policy needs to be founded upon the principle of human flourishing; ‘our focus needs to be on enabling people to achieve their God-given potential’ (Street Pastor). Relationships need to be based upon acceptance rather than tolerance. Tolerance is just a way of co-existing, while acceptance is a way of living communally. Finally, churches need to take a lead (and many have already done so) in building a more peaceful society. The minister of an affluent suburban congregation put it this way:

‘Peacebuilding and reaching out across divides should be an expression of the life of the church.’   

What will/should that journey look like?

So, now we have a destination, how are we going to get there? The first thing that we need to do is treat the causes as well as the symptoms of political polarisation. For example, the social and economic deprivation that is leaving communities vulnerable to the identity politics creating political polarisation needs to be addressed at all levels of society through, for example, grassroots-motivated community development work as well as government policy. Everything needs to be adapted to the local social ecology. The work of The Resurgam Trust in Lisburn has shown how a community can transform itself by working in partnership with everyone, from the most marginalised to statutory bodies. As churches and faith-based organisations, we must engage in self-reflection and discernment, rather than assuming that we have all the answers. We must also understand our own broken relationships and seek to fix them through dialogue and relationship building. As Thrive Ireland proposes, we need to listen to God, listen to the community and listen to each other to determine what a community needs. Diane Holt, the Director of Thrive Ireland, suggests that we must:

‘listen with the intent of understanding so that the fears can and will be dealt with; but (this way of listening) also allows people to find out things for themselves.’

Prayer can also be a useful tool in challenging political polarisation, as it changes the person praying as well as the person being prayed for and can shape people’s knowledge and understanding of a situation Such a process of listening and understanding can only occur where strong relationships exist. Most of all, however, we need to remember that this is a long-term process, we won’t necessarily see the final product.

To come back to Pope Francis, political polarisation can be overcome if we take the time to rethink the future of our world and our place in that future. Not only can we provide a vision of that ‘alternative possible future’, but we must also have the resources to guide us on the journey. We need to do this both as individuals and collectively, through our faith institutions, and as a society. But one question must be at the heart of all of this and should animate any action that we take: ‘What is God’s vision for the world?’

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Review of ‘Coming Home: Christian Perspectives on Housing’ edited by Malcolm Brown and Graham Tomlin

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Maria Power praises the new edited volume ‘Coming Home’ for its much-needed theological reflections on housing and homelessness.

Over the past 18 months, the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting lockdowns have taught us just how important our homes are. For those of us who live in cities, our proximity to our neighbours, along with our constant presence at home, has led us to get to know them well. When the first lockdown began in March 2020, we were thrown into a crisis situation with people that we might previously have been on ‘nodding terms’ with. Whilst this has been trying in some circumstances; in others it has been a blessing, and relationships and friendships have formed that have created a new sense of community and a greater sense of place. Through the experience of the pandemic, we’ve come to realise that our homes aren’t just boxes that we retreat to at the end of a long day at work, but rather part of a wider whole. Home is now somewhere we work, educate our children, spend our leisure time, socialise, eat, and rest. More importantly, they are an essential element of our identity—an identity which is not just formed by the physical presence of the building and the way we choose to live in it, but the relationships we form because of it and the ways in which we use it as a base from which to go out into the wider world and build community.

The issue of housing and home, then, has a fundamental impact on our wellbeing. If all is well in our homes, we can flourish. If not, then everything becomes a struggle. Just having an address allows you to do so many things: securing employment, accessing healthcare and educational opportunities, opening a bank account, applying for social welfare, and using the local leisure centre and library, for instance. Homelessness (be it couch surfing, living in your car, or sleeping rough) is much more than the indignity and trauma of not having a place to eat and sleep; it cuts you off from society.

Given the importance of housing and home to our sense of well-being and identity, I have always been perplexed by the lack of theological reflection on the issue. With the notable exception of the work of Tim Gorringe on the built environment, those of us seeking to understand the role that housing and home plays in human dignity and flourishing have little to rely on. That is why the work of Malcolm Brown and Graham Tomlin in editing Coming Home: Christian Perspectives on Housing should be so gratefully received by academics and practitioners alike.

This collection contains ten essays written by contributors who include academics, chaplains, PhD students, and those who have made the theme of housing a fundamental part of their ordained ministry. It ‘deliberately combines contributions from established and well-known theologians and practitioners, and some younger emerging voices.’ (p. xv) Coming Home is one of the outcomes of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Commission on Housing, Church and Community which was established in 2019 following the publication of Welby’s Reimagining Britain in 2018. The goal of this commission and the subsequent publication is worth quoting fully:

The challenge was to think clearly about what a Christian approach to housing might look like. Might it be possible that the light shed by Jesus Christ, the light of the world, into the dark places of housing injustice and poverty, could help us to reimagine what good housing looks like and shine new light on a crisis that has defeated the best efforts of many governments and specialists over the years? Our hope was that a Christian view on housing would inform our further proposals to government, the wider Church and diocese and to the local church. (p. xvi)

This collection of essays, therefore, has laudably high aims. And, for the most part, it achieves those aims. Between them, the ten essays included in this book begin some much-needed theological reflection on the issue of housing and home–though they represent a starting point rather than an end point in the discussion. Two essays in particular stand out.

The first, by theologian Tim Gorringe, offers ‘Theological Priorities for Housing’, which ties the issue at hand to the very foundation of faith—the Bible. In this essay, he starts by showing us how crucial the issue of home and the built environment is to Christian faith. The fundamental importance of home therefore has implications for the built environment. And he lists six theological priorities for the building of houses: sustainability, justice, community, empowerment, beauty, and life. The most striking argument he makes is also the most obvious, but it bears repetition nonetheless:

We have to ask what vision of society we want our buildings to embody, and what materials we ought to use. The question “how should we build?” implies a vision of society as a whole. Human ecology is part of planetary ecology. This means that questions about building cannot be divorced from questions of culture, politics and spirituality. (p. 20)

The key here is the issue of imagination and the creation of alternative possible futures, not only for ourselves as individuals but also for society as a whole. Such work cannot be left to policymakers alone; Christians, too, ought to become more involved in shaping society. Only through such involvement can the kingdom become a reality.

The second essay, by Niamh Colbrook, considers ‘The Integrity of Creatureliness: Materiality, Flourishing, and Housing’. As a PhD student, Colbrook is one of the emerging voices referred to by Brown and Tomlin in their introduction. Her essay is a model of good public theology, offering a blend of insights from the social sciences with theological reflection through the lens of creaturely integrity. She concludes with suggestions to help Christians discern their response to the housing crisis. Her argument relating housing to flourishing is particularly helpful:

The housing crisis, then, brings us face-to-face with the systematic inequalities that impede flourishing both in the short- and long-term, and their emergence in and through our relationship with our material environments. (p. 110)

This is an accessible and inspiring collection of essays, which encourages us to take responsibility for developing solutions to the housing crisis. I hope that it is widely read and considered, both by policymakers and by local parish communities.

Dr Maria Power is a Senior Research Fellow in Human Dignity at the Las Casas Institute for Social Justice, Blackfriars Hall, University of Oxford. She is a Senior Research Fellow at the William Temple Foundation. Maria is currently researching the role that housing and urban regeneration can play in peacebuilding in Northern Ireland.

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Review of ‘The Ethics of Encounter’ by Marcus Mescher

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Dr Maria Power, honorary Senior Research Fellow at the Foundation, finds much to recommend in Marcus Mescher’s recent contribution to Catholic social teaching.

When Francis succeeded Benedict XVI as pope in 2013, Catholics understood that we were witnessing the start of a new era in the church. Francis, although of Italian heritage, is a Latin American Jesuit who is deeply embedded within the theological traditions of the region. He is also a man of agile intellect who draws upon his experiences of ministering to some of the most marginalised people in the world in the preparation of his teachings. For many conservatives Francis has been a frustrating, and even alienating, pope. He has set about reforming the church with gusto, most notably appointing women to key decision-making roles. Furthermore, he has oriented the church firmly towards a theology of mercy, for instance in his most recent encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, declaring the death penalty to be contrary to church teaching. In Marcus Mescher’s The Ethics of Encounter, we have an excellent example of how Francis’s teachings should be put into practice.

Whilst Francis’s institutional reforms have been gratifying for mainstream Catholics, it is his development of the church’s Catholic social teaching that has given the most cause for hope.  In doing so he has energised the faithful by moving away from the academic, and at times dry, approach of Benedict XVI and Saint John Paul II, to a style of teaching which clearly shows Catholics how they are expected to live. Gone is the idea that the afterlife is the main focus of Catholic faith. It is now made clear to Catholics that the creation of the Kingdom on earth is just as important as salvation. Consequently, one of Francis’s most important teachings has been the ethics of encounter, and in Mescher’s book we are provided with a superb contextualisation of this concept for the United States of America. Whilst we need monographs outlining the content of the teachings, we now need to be shown how to live them; and this book is an excellent demonstration of how Catholic social teaching should be used by Catholics and studied by academics.

Mescher defines the relevance and importance of encounter thus:

Each encounter is […] an opportunity to become more attentive and responsive to God who is both transcendent […] and immanent. […] Coming face-to-face with another person is an encounter with someone “wonderfully made” in the “image and likeness” of God. In this way, encounters are sacraments – visible signs of God’s grace – such that encountering another person not only reveals the sacred in our midst but also bears an inexhaustible potential for greater discovery. […] When we encounter others, we encounter God. […] Every encounter involves a choice: to engage or ignore, to accept or reject. (p. 11)

In five substantive chapters, he guides us through the practice of the ethics of encounter. He starts, as Catholic social teaching expects, by defining the problem, showing how American society is more divided than it has ever been—in part as a result of the ‘networked self’ resulting from digital technology. The second chapter, in common with Fratelli Tutti, offers a meditation on the Parable of the Good Samaritan. This parable guides us through the theology of neighbour that underpins the ethic of encounter. Mescher shows us how we can use the religious or prophetic imaginary to discern how to meet Christ in the other. The third chapter takes Gustavo Gutiérrez’s emphasis on friendship as its basis because ‘Gutiérrez’s emphasis on friendship provides a practical framework for assessing the moral demands of solidarity’ (p. 22). Chapter four deals with the virtues necessary to practice the ethics of encounter. These include courage, mercy, generosity, and humility. The final chapter uses the case study of Father Greg Boyle SJ’s Homeboy Industries to show how individuals and communities can be transformed by encounters which acknowledge the God-given dignity of every human being. Through the use of such a case study we are shown how even those believed to live on the extreme edges of society can be transformed by God’s love.

The Ethics of Encounter is everything writing on Catholic social teaching should be. It is grounded in the gospel, the Magisterium, and the lived experience of the kind of mercy that can truly transform lives. This book provides a method that can, and should be, replicated in other contexts, such as the United Kingdom. Many people mistake the encyclicals for guidebooks or roadmaps. This is not the case. Each encyclical has to be contextualised for a particular situation. Unfortunately, much of the current literature on Catholic social teaching fails to do this. However, The Ethics of Encounter takes one of the most important church teachings of the 21st century and demonstrates how people of good will should integrate it into their lives. In doing so, Mescher has provided us with what I’m sure will become a classic in the field of Catholic social teaching.

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Review of ‘Catholic Social Teaching’ edited by Gerard V. Bradley and E. Christian Brugger

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Dr Maria Power, Honorary Senior Research Fellow here at the William Temple Foundation, reviews this recent collection of essays on Catholic social teaching and mourns the way that the Catholic culture wars in the US have polarised debate, preventing a focus on forgiveness and compassion.

As the burning of the Guy every year demonstrates, the stereotypes surrounding Catholic belief that have existed in Britain since the 16th century persist. First, that Catholics are a monolithic block; second, that we are all controlled by the men in black who issue edicts from the Vatican telling us how to behave and what to think; and third, that we never ever criticise the pope.

In reality, the Catholic Church is made up of a series of churches, each with their own way of practising the faith and each with their own ‘take’ on the teachings of the magisterium which can, and often do, erupt into conflict with one another. As a church, we have a series of fault lines which are different in each country. In England and Wales, these are expressed through class and ethnicity, with, for example, the English Catholic Church showing its distaste for the Irish Catholics in its midst during the republican hunger strikes in the early 1980s. Most of the time, such matters are not relevant to the manner in which people practise their faith. Instead, they seek to tune into what’s important: the love of Christ and the message of the gospel. However, as Stephen Bullivant has shown in his recent book Mass Exodus, the picture is vastly different in the US: here, the fault lines are to be found in a stand-off between progressives and conservatives who seem to have missed the gospel messages of forgiveness and reconciliation.

This book of essays on Catholic social teaching is a stark reminder of these US fault lines and at points illustrates just how rancorous the Catholic ‘culture wars’ have become. The volume originates from a conference held at Notre Dame in October 2013 as an attempt to redress what the editors see as an imbalance in writing on Catholic social teaching towards the polemical and non-scholarly. The acknowledgements state:

We believe that a fresh set of rigorously scholarly essays on the key documents and issues, as well as on the thought of popes starting with Leo XIII, will help Catholics and non-Catholics alike understand, and act upon, the perennial moral truths which undergird any just social order. (p. xvi)

The essays contained within are from (mostly male) scholars such as John Finnis, Samuel Gregg, Patrick Lee, and Daniel J. Mahoney and deal with both key documents—from Rerum Novarum (1891) onwards—and central themes—including attitudes to globalisation, government, immigration, and finance—in Catholic social thought.

As Christians, we have a temporal as well as spiritual mission. For me, it is not an either/or, it’s a both/and. The one thing that underlines everything is love and compassion for everyone. But I struggled to find either in this edited collection, which, although it contains essays by scholars that I very much respect, felt ideological and lacking in the compassion that lives at the very heart of Catholic social teaching. Take, for example, this phrase which uses language reminiscent of 19th century attitudes: ‘The poor as a sociological category can be selfish, rapacious, and prone to manipulation by demagogues’ (p. 221). Although this sentence is followed by a less colourful critique of the wealthy, it shows that the myth of the ‘underserving poor’ is alive and well in some sections of the American Catholic Church.

The volume’s attitude to various popes also serves to demonstrate the rancour of some authors towards the direction of the contemporary Catholic Church. The essay on Pope Francis’s social teaching feels like an outright attack on his papacy—mainly, it would seem, because the author doesn’t agree with his approach to leadership and his anti-capitalist rhetoric. Pope John Paul II, on the other hand, is described numerous times as ‘saintly’ and any criticism of his papacy is much more muted.

Many of the authors, and the essays by the editors in particular, lament the bifurcation of the Catholic Church, arguing that the culture wars between progressives committed to social justice and conservatives who concentrate on matters relating to sexuality, are harming the Church. This collection is presented as a ‘corrective to a lopsided body of literature.’ And, whilst it does contain some ideas worthy of further reflection—such as a change in the framing of the issues included in the Catholic social cannon—the overall tone and approach of several of the essays will sadly prevent a serious dialogue from emerging.

More blogs on religion and public life…

Review of ‘Reimagining Mission from Urban Places’ by Anna Ruddick by Greg Smith

Review of ‘The Enchantments of Mammon’ by Eugene McCarraher by Tim Howles

A touch of love or a touch that kills? by Sarah Hills

Brandishing the Bible: division amongst evangelicals in Trump’s America by Rosie Dawson

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Review of ‘Love in Action’ by Simon Cuff

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Dr Maria Power, one of our Senior Research Fellows, reviews Simon Cuff’s recent book ‘Love in Action: Catholic Social Teaching for Every Church’.

Had I written this post before 12 December 2019, it would have been a very different review. It would perhaps have been a reflection on interest in Catholic Social Teaching (CST) from outside the Catholic Church and how this pushes the boundaries of theology and doctrine further. It was, however, with a sense of hopelessness and dejection that I returned to this book in the week after the UK general election with a renewed understanding of Cuff’s work as a CST manual. And it was with this in mind that I re-read it, viewing it as an activist rather than as an academic whose entire career has focussed on exploring CST in context. My conclusion was that Love in Action is a strong introduction for those coming to CST for the first time, translating some of its more ‘Catholic’ elements very deftly for an audience wanting to use its teachings in everyday life. Cuff does a good job of explaining sometimes difficult concepts such as subsidiarity—the idea that each person has the right to shape their own destiny rather than being subject to external forces—and the common good into an accessible form that I could see parishes being able to use in study groups. I was also pleased to see that Cuff chose to keep the language of solidarity—the teaching that we are compelled to take account of the impact of our actions upon others—and explain it fully, rather than change it to something like community and participation with a resulting loss of meaning.

By writing this book, Cuff alludes to the foundational element of CST: that through his death on the cross, Jesus holds us all responsible for the creation of a society made in the image and likeness of his teachings, not just those appointed as our spiritual leaders. Therefore, we all bear a responsibility for changing society, and, as St Paul teaches in his first letter to the Corinthians, we have all been given different gifts so that we might work together to create the conditions necessary for human flourishing. Nonetheless, the Bible was written for a particular context and time. Christians can’t go to it expecting a fully developed roadmap to lead us out of the current situation. Instead, we must, as both the Old and New Testaments teach (and the Second Vatican Council reminded us), ‘read the signs of the times’ in order to create the kingdom within our particular context. But, as most of us are not biblical scholars, we need help and guidance to undertake this task. And, rightly or wrongly, the responsibility for this in the UK has in the last 20 years fallen to Catholic Social Teaching in spite of a very rich tradition of Christian social ethics emerging from within the Anglican and Dissenting traditions. Much of this is the result of the accessibility of CST. CST is also practically constructed through a dialogue with context; it is a lived and ongoing experience in which people read the signs of the times to determine the best course of action—an element which Cuff does not place enough emphasis on.

Love in Action follows this pattern, commencing by listing the ‘canon’ of CST from Leo XIII’s 1891 Rerum Novarum to Francis’s 2015 Laudato Si’. Such an introduction is adequate, but it would have been even more useful for the intended audience if Cuff had used the space to explain how CST is developed and the other means by which it is promulgated, such as the yearly messages on matters including peace, food, the poor, and refugees and migrants, which allow the laity, and theologians and ethicists, to work within their own particular context. These yearly messages are, on the whole, more accessible and generally reflect current thinking within the Church. In other words, CST is not static but in constant conversation with the Bible, the poor, the vulnerable, the marginalised, and practitioners and academics producing the research necessary for the signs of the times to be determined.

The penultimate chapter, ‘See, Judge, Act’, is in some ways the most interesting for me as a Catholic theologian as I was able to discern how someone who is not Catholic but who is enthusiastic about CST sees its use with society. Nevertheless, whilst examples such as the abolition of payday loans are interesting, they somehow miss the point. CST is a lived experience, indeed an empowering one. It is not about massive campaigns (although these are important and can change lives) or community organising; it is about the life-long work for peace of women like Pat Gaffney and Marie Dennis, through Pax Christi for example. One cannot just read a book and spring into action to change the world. Through the Magisterium we are given guidelines which must be prayerfully reflected upon in a spirit of service. It is only then that such dry documents can be brought to life and filled with the joy of the gospel. Only then will we be given the humility and grace required to challenge a damaging status quo and determine what normal should look like in the kingdom of God on earth.

Cuff’s book, therefore, is a useful introduction to CST for every church and a resource which is very much needed as Christians seek to find solutions to the massive problems facing society and their local communities.

More blogs on religion and public life…

Nobody is perfect: in the West, we are all climate hypocrites now by Tim Middleton

Aftermath and resistance – how the next decade will be won or lost (Part II) by Chris Baker

Aftermath and resistance – how the next decade will be won or lost (Part I) by Chris Baker

Artificial Intelligece in the Image of God? by Ryan Haecker

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Review of ‘Zucked: Waking up to the Facebook Catastrophe’ by Roger McNamee

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William Temple Foundation Trustee Maria Power reviews ‘Zucked: Waking up to the Facebook Catastrophe’ by Roger McNamee. The concerns are real and valid, she suggests, but can we do any better with our solutions?

In The Great Hack, Carole Cadwalladr tells us that: “We literally can’t have a free and fair election in this country and we can’t have it because of Facebook.” Brexit, the 2016 US Presidential Election, and the elections in Trinidad and Tobago, were all manipulated by digital media, and any attempts at regulation are met with avoidance tactics devised by teams of lawyers. Oil used to be the world’s most valuable commodity but in recent years data has taken that crown. Whilst we’re very alive to the damage that our thirst for oil has done to the planet, are we yet to wake up to the dangers present in our hunger for data?

In the last couple of years, the digital has been experiencing something of a ‘techlash’ with a series of polemics appearing which focus on the downsides of technology. These books frequently appear in non-fiction best seller lists and offer an insight into where the popular debate is heading. These have covered: big data, for example Invisible Women; the potential of AI; the racism inherent in algorithms; and the risks associated with the large-scale use of social media. Whilst these books function as polemical tracts, and in some cases as mea culpas of early funders of this technology, they have the power to trigger a debate about the place of the digital in our lives, and the control (or potential control) that it has over us.

For me, the most striking of these books was Zucked, written by Roger McNamee, one of the earliest funders of Facebook. As one of the former champions of social media who described himself as a ‘tech optimist’ and cited the Arab Spring as an unmitigated success, McNamee has since experienced a ‘Road to Damascus’ moment in his attitude to social media—and Facebook in particular. His book, part memoir, part polemic, claims that the organisational culture created at Facebook poses a fundamental threat to democracy through the microtargeting that is the foundation of its business model.

McNamee’s fears centre upon Russian influence in the 2016 election, which he estimates cost the Russian government  $100,000, the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and the role that Facebook played in the fake news that brought us Brexit. Zucked claims that the company’s motto—move fast and break things—means that users are not people but metrics, and that the company feels no sense of civic responsibility. It was, according to McNamee, the perfect platform to allow such acts of espionage to occur.

However, the most interesting aspect of this book is the cult of personality surrounding Mark Zuckerberg, the corresponding insight it gives into Facebook’s organisational culture, and what this means for users and their relationship to the state and its democratic processes. This book tells us of an organisation run by a man who has lost the ability to see beyond the bubble in which he found himself, leading to a mindset focussed entirely upon growth and the harvesting of user data.

For example, users of Facebook can quickly find themselves stuck within a filter bubble. Facebook is carefully curated to keep us hooked, and to appeal to our baser instincts, which are then carried over into our offline interactions.

“Once a person identifies with an extreme position on an internet platform, he or she will be subject to both filter bubbles and human nature.” (p.93)

The basic premise of the argument is that the more outraged you are, the more content you will share with your friends in the filter bubble, thereby creating hysteria that is mostly fuelled by fake news. It also creates a safe space in which like-minded people can ‘find’ one another:

“Expressing extreme views in the real world can lead to social stigma, which also keeps them in check. By enabling anonymity and/or private Groups, the platforms removed the stigma, enabling like-minded people, including extremists, to find one another, communicate, and, eventually, to lose the fear of social stigma.” (p.91)

Facebook’s main aim is user engagement; to keep us on the site as long as possible, leading to profit for shareholders. The means of achieving this are deliberate:

“It starts out giving users what they want but the algorithms are trained to nudge user attention in the directions that Facebook wants. […] When users pay attention, Facebook calls it engagement, but the goal is behaviour modification that makes advertising more valuable.” (p. 9)

Facebook therefore uses our ‘lizard brain’ emotions to trigger anger and fear which means we’ll consume more content. Facebook is the fourth most valuable company in the US and, according to McNamee, “its value stems from its mastery of surveillance and behavioural modification” described above. (p. 9) It has very little motivation to change.

 McNamee has a habit of proposing rhetorical questions, offering answers that fail to look outside the ‘filter bubble’ of Washington and regulation that he has found himself in. My favourite is:

“Now that we know that Facebook has a huge influence on our democracy, what are we going to do about it?” (p. 103)

The only solutions offered by McNamee are regulatory and focus on the top-down control of social media. This is where so much digital ‘ethics washing’ goes on, and, as he frequently points out, it is unlikely to work because companies employ lawyers whose sole purpose is to circumvent regulation. I came away from Zucked with far more questions than answers. And I was left pondering the following: How do we convince tech firms to programme a meaningful sense of civic responsibility into their algorithms? What should this civic responsibility look like? How can grassroots faith activists respond to this challenge? And is there a value in creating a theology of digital ethics?

More blogs on religion and public life…

Review of ‘The Age of Surveillance Capitalism’ by Shoshana Zuboff by John Reader

Do not despise the day of small things by Gill Reeve

Blinded by grace? by Val Barron

How to debug theology? by John Reader

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Malvern Q&A | Maria Power

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Ahead of the forthcoming consultation Faith, Belief and Nation-building, we’re asking some of the participants a few quick-fire questions to give you a flavour of their interests and thoughts…

Today we talk to Dr Maria Power from the Institute of Irish Studies at the University of Liverpool.

What have you been working on recently?

I’ve been working on a project looking at the role of public theology during the conflict in Northern Ireland as well as another exploring the peace teachings of the Popes since 1962.

Why did you accept the invitation to Malvern 2017: Faith, Belief and Nation-building?

Malvern seemed to be an innovative event, and just what we need in these times of uncertainty. I’ve been becoming increasingly concerned by the lack of theological discourse, or indeed at the very least commentary, coming from the leaders of the Anglican and Catholic churches since 2010, and think that those of us working in the field need to have a conversation about how we can start a process of speaking truth unto power.

What are you looking forward to about the conference?

Some of the most interesting conversations will take place outside of the formal sessions, so I’m looking forward to those. But mostly, I’m just looking forward to the time to think through these issues in a structured and supportive environment.

As you know, the consultation takes its name from the conference of 1941, instigated and convened by Archbishop William Temple…

What do you think has been the most positive change in British society since 1941?

I know it’s a cliché but the NHS.

What do you think has been the most negative change in British society since 1941?

The advent of neo-liberalism, the decline of meaningful debate within the Labour party and the growth of New Labour, and similarly, the disappearance of Disraeli’s style of conservatism.

Why is it important that the role of faith and belief be a part of the conversation about nation-building?

Beyond the fact that most people are nominally members of a faith or belief group, such groups have a body of teaching that can be used to meaningfully inform these debates.

Thanks Maria!

You can find out more about Maria here, and more information about Malvern 2017: Faith, Belief and Nation-building by following this link.

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