Christian Hope and Secular Realities (1)
a plea for a 'spirituality of cultural resistance'[1]
by Fr. Ian Dalgleish


According to Fr. Wilfrid McGreal, the prior of the Carmelite priory in Aylesford, the Church's attempts to articulate the Christian message in modern society should never be something that tries to protect believers against a hostile world. Rather it should be "something to celebrate the fact that we have a message of hope and that we do trust in other people's willingness to dialogue".
Launching Cafod's new website at the Commonwealth Club in London at the end of January 2004, he claimed that the whole Church should take its cue from Cafod's approach, and went on:
"There is no private world for us to go to. Rather we have to contribute to the shaping of society and realise that the Church, Cafod, anything that is international, has a duty to the whole human race. We are not here in any sectarian way, but out of love for this planet so that it might be a place where human beings can live in the fullness of dignity".[2]
If these brief quotations represent the general tendency of Fr. McGreal's speech then I would like to think that I agree with him. The Christian community diminishes itself when it adopts a sectarian posture, reacting defensively to a secular culture perceived largely as a threat. It is not a stance worthy of a world Church. But there are still aspects of Fr. McGreal's remarks which leave me puzzled.
First of all I am wondering which forces within the Church he has in mind. Whatever we might think of the numerous conservative and traditionalist bodies within worldwide Catholicism, none of them can be accused of promoting a retreat to a private world. On the contrary, they are often distinguished by a very outward-looking, evangelical approach and a high degree of activism outside ordinary Church boundaries.
Think of the new movements like Communion and Liberation, the Neo-Catechumenate, Youth 2000. Far from urging their members to retreat into some past Golden Age they appear only too well-adapted to the current postmodern environment, and are often possessed of a youthful and energetic sense of mission.
By mixing traditional Catholic piety (Eucharistic Adoration, devotion to Our Lady, deference towards the papacy) with contemporary marketing methods and a willingness to appropriate elements of global youth culture, the new movements have provided a very effective means of religious expression for the more earnest sections of Catholic youth, who are, incidentally, simply not old enough to be caught up in, or remotely interested in, the debates and divisions of recent Church history.
Or think of figures like Michael Novak and John Richard Neuhaus with their right-wing Institutes, think tanks and magazines.[3] Again, whatever we might think of their polemics against traditional social teaching priorities and their unblushing defence of American capitalism, we can't accuse them of sectarianism. Their explicit aim is to insert their peculiar vision of Catholicism into public debate and to influence public policy.
Nearer home, think of the Christendom Awake movement of Aidan Nichols, O.P. and other prominent theologians and writers, with their radical critique of secular, pluralist society and advocacy of a new Christian social order, complete with a reconstituted "religiously sanctioned monarchy".[4]
In all, here are intelligent Catholics, fundamentally engaged with the modern world and its problems, but not perhaps in the way that Fr.McGreal has in mind. What distinguishes these new conservative currents in the Church is precisely that they do not seek to retreat to a private world of their own. They do exactly what Fr. McGreal suggests, but within their own terms of reference.
They recognise fully that the Church is part of society and ought to contribute to it. They too, like Cafod, believe that Christianity should be "out there", promoting a vision of social life in which "human beings can live in the fullness of dignity". But for them human dignity is usually conceived either in terms of a highly apolitical "spirituality" or else very definitely within the framework of capitalist (and therefore anti-socialist, anti-Liberation Theology) values.
To pose a dichotomy between a supposedly private, inward-looking, defensive faith on the one hand, and a progressive, outward-orientated and "dialoguing" faith on the other, is simply not an accurate or useful way to describe the present status of religious belief vis-à-vis the secular society. The real question for us now, in our circumstances, is not whether the Church should be engaged in the wider world - left and right are agreed about that - but how.
And as a matter of fact part of the irony of the present moment is that it is the resurgent conservative elements within the Church which have been most effective in embracing contemporary styles and methods of communication and presentation in order to promote their cause. It is the hapless "liberals", the erstwhile vanguard of post-conciliar revolution, who are doggedly inward-looking in their trivial, churchy, anti-clerical pursuits - and who consequently appear outdated and lost in the new environment.
This brings me to the other aspect of Fr. McGreal's remarks which I find puzzling. Assuming that I have understood him correctly, what makes him think, at this precise moment in time, that the Christian message will receive a more favourable welcome if it is trumpeted as a "message of hope"? In 2004 isn't this really the worst kind of positive-sounding, but empty, platitude? And on what grounds does he claim that "other people" (the non-Christian majority, presumably) are willing to dialogue with the Christian religion?
I would maintain that an accurate overview of current reality would draw very different and even opposite conclusions. Both among the population at large, brainwashed by the propaganda of consumer capitalism, and among the intellectual elites who pride themselves on their capacity to "think for themselves", Christianity is viewed with indifference at best, and at worst with hostility and derision. Who exactly should we invite to become our partner in dialogue?
First of all let us take the mass of the population. The lifestyle of the inhabitants of "Middle Britain" has no place for God. A materialist, worldly, self-involved attitude dominates the horizon: our house (and its decor); our car(s); our level of career success; the right school for our children; our hassle getting the ski-ing break booked over the internet. At what point in all this should the Church break out of its supposedly private world and announce its "message of hope"? Or once the implications of the Sermon on the Mount have been spelt out, how long should we realistically expect the dialogue to last?
Then there is the underclass, the remains, post-Thatcher, of the urban proletariat. Catholic bishops and church leaders have a proud record of saying right-on things about "our" duty to care for "the poor". The new and growing army of lay apparatchiks have also been quick to master the standard patter about "reaching out to the marginalised" etc.
But for all the talk, no one I hope is going to pretend that the Catholic Church in Britain is a church of the poor. Considered solely as a social group, the Church's tendency in the last fifty or so years has been all the other way, and it is now thoroughly bourgeois in its outlook, language and range of preoccupations.
It is probably a hundred and fifty years or more since Christianity had any serious influence on the values of the working-class in Britain, and indeed for people living today in the deprived post-industrial sectors of the country, the whole culture and vocabulary of church life - from the jumble sales to the grandiose re-structuring schemes - is completely alien and irrelevant. I think we would find "willingness to engage in dialogue" to be in very short supply within these social layers too.
Lastly, what about the "opinion-formers", the media pundits and assorted chatteratti who are so much a feature of contemporary culture? The first thing to say here is that in highlighting Cafod as an exemplar of the Church's larger mission I think Fr. McGreal has chosen far too convenient an example.
Many of the most vocal opponents of religion will nevertheless approve of churches sending material aid to famine-struck countries and campaigning for fair trade arrangements in the third world. From a secular point of view, this is the least contentious aspect of Christian mission, and the form of church activism most likely to gain support from non-believers. This is because it doesn't actually challenge their vague left-liberal convictions about economic and political justice and indeed dovetails with many similar secular initiatives.
But it isn't easy to see how the Church can "take its cue" from Cafod in relation to its larger mission to spread faith in Christ. Secular-minded people who are quite ready to approve the work of Cafod will nevertheless continue to maintain their deep antipathy towards the faith that inspires it.
Further, atheists who belong to such bodies as the British Humanist Society and the National Secular Society are not, on the whole, eager to "dialogue" with believers. Intellectually and morally, their outlook is irreducibly opposed to religion and often, it seems, to Christianity in particular. Religion in their view is illusory and oppressive. And so they campaign against it and try to persuade people to abandon it.
Logically enough, they compose naming ceremonies, and wedding and funeral services, to rival and replace prevailing church rites. At the end of 2002, the Humanist Society and the National Secular Society joined forces to lobby the BBC to include atheist contributors on the Today programme's Thought for the Day feature. More recently, various secularists have been striving to introduce atheism into school R.E. lessons, on the grounds (among others) that a religious upbringing is an infringement of children's rights.
If we consider these outspoken assaults on religion alongside the lazier anti-religious views of the population as a whole, then I think we are forced to admit that there is an element of naiveté and wishful thinking in the view that we need only talk about Christianity in hopeful terms, and show an openness to dialogue, in order to gain a favourable hearing and win converts.
I believe strongly that the time for such wishful thinking is past. In the second half of this article I would like to try to explain why I think so.


Notes and References
[1] I have appropriated the phrase "spirituality of cultural resistance" from John Francis Kavanaugh, S.J. who used it as the subtitle of his book Following Christ in a Consumer Society, published by Orbis Books, New York in the early eighties.
[2] "Church can learn from Cafod's approach, says Carmelite", p.33, The Tablet, 31 January, 2004.
[3] c.f. for example Michael Novak, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, New York, American Enterprise Institute/Simon and Schuster Publications, 1982, about which the late Charles Davis commented: "At a time when we are full of disillusionment and short on social vision, [Novak] denigrates what has been the chief vehicle of social idealism since the nineteenth century [i.e. the socialist movement], for Christians as well as for others, and offers in its stead an ideal which is nothing more than a heavily sanitised version of the status quo". Charles Davis, Religion and the Making of Society, Cambridge University Press, 1994, p.187. C.f. also Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, Appointment in Rome, Herder and Herder 1999. A convert from Lutheranism, Neuhaus is editor-in-chief of First Things Journal. More recently both Novak and Neuhaus have energetically defended the American invasion of Iraq along with other Catholic writers and intellectuals who belong to the same circle, twisting Just War theory to serve the cause of American imperialism in the same way that they have rewritten traditional social teaching to justify a capitalist economy dominated by western “enterprise” and “entrepreneurship”. Mark and Louise Zwick of the Houston Catholic Worker Community, Casa Juan Diego, provide an abundance of useful criticisms of this Catholic neoconservative tendency in e.g. "The Economic Religion of Michael Novak: Wealth Creation vs. the Gospel, as in using Catholicism to prop up Neoconservatism" at www.cjd.org/paper/wealth.html and "Pope John Paul: New America: Fr. Neuhaus should withdraw his Book" at www.cjd.org/paper/ecclesia.html.
[4] Aidan Nichols, O.P., Christendom Awake, T & T Clark, Edinburgh, 1999, especially perhaps Chapter VI, Reimagining the Christendom State. There is a website named after the book, dedicated to spreading the word.