Waiting and Praying for a Prophetic Church
by Cornelius Conwell


This article was written originally in 1996. Some of the references are therefore slightly dated but the main argument about prophetic Church leadership - and the lack of it - is no less valid. Even the brief description of the situation in East Germany is far from irrelevant, given recent mass protests against the Schröder government's programme of health, pension, labour market and tax “reforms”, and opinion polls indicating widespread disaffection in both East and West Germany over the consequences of Reunification.
In January last year the Sunday Times' Style magazine reported that in Britain 40 million working days are lost per year through stress, which also accounts for 60% of all absences from work. More recently an article by Roger Boyes in The Times described how stress-related psychological disorders like depression and anorexia, as well as breast- and colon-cancer, have increased in East Germany following the collapse of communism and the introduction of the market system.
"The most obvious new element in the equation is stress," Boyes writes. "Unemployment and competitive pressure have led to big increases in psychosomatic illnesses". At the same time the proliferation of new amusement arcades has led to a rash of addictive gambling, while children have started to smoke at an earlier age "thanks in part to advertising by Western cigarette companies", according to Boyes.
None of these things is surprising and in fact even amid the euphoria and capitalist triumphalism of 1989 they were completely predictable. The West German philosopher and social theorist Jürgen Habermas commented in a 1991 interview, "The structural collapse of [communist East Germany] will result in clear winners and losers. The price of admission into a market economy has to be paid in the currency of social inequity, entirely new kinds of social divisions, and in higher long-term unemployment...As is always the case in accelerated social transformation, crises get shifted onto the life histories, onto the psychic and physical health of individuals. The high suicide rate in the new states is a signal of this".
Fortunately such concerns also find a voice in the Church - sometimes. A year ago the Catholic Bishops in Portugal issued a forceful statement condemning the free market ideology of their government, which, they claimed, was "incapable of responding to human needs, or to those of social justice, and is the cause of serious discrimination". They cited long-term unemployment, job insecurity, rising crime and a growing underclass as evidence of the human cost of idolizing the accumulation of wealth. Parish priests met later in Fatima to discuss ways in which Catholic parishes might become more active politically.
Prophetic witness
These instances of prophetic leadership in the Church are rare but heartening. They carry on the tradition of the Old Testament prophets and of Jesus himself. If we read the Bible we find that it was the prophet's vocation to interpret the events of Israel's history and politics in the light of the Chosen People's Covenant with God, to warn of deviations and to call the community back to fidelity. The task of prophetic interpretation was informed by three basic commitments, each of which had a positive and a negative aspect:
- defence of genuine religious faith, and protest against idolatry;
- defence of the rights of the poor, and protest against greed and exploitation;
- defence of the truth - truthful language and truthful representations of reality - and protest against the lies and deceptions used by the rich to mask their exploitative practices.
Above all the tradition of prophetic critique contained in the Bible shows how these three phenomena usually coincide: whenever people worship idols, the idols demand victims and other people are used and exploited; whenever people are exploited, those who serve the idols attempt to conceal the truth of the situation with lies and deceit.
Where are the prophets now?
Would any rational, observant person see the leaders of the Catholic community in Britain as prophets? Do the above priorities and commitments occupy a prominent place in our bishops' understanding of their social role? Hardly.
Unlike their Portuguese counterparts, the Catholic bishops in this country are more concerned to avoid offending the sensibilities of free-marketeers, right-wing politicians and pundits, than they are to take sides with the poor and defend their rights. Whereas in Portugal the inevitable injustices of the market provoked concerted opposition on the part of the episcopate, in England the Catholic Church has provided a safe and comfortable spiritual haven for its propagandists.
Writing in the context of Latin America the liberation theologian Jon Sobrino remarks, "this continent has been subjected to centuries of inhuman and anti-Christian oppression, without Christology giving any sign of having noticed this and certainly without it providing any prophetic denunciation in the name of Jesus Christ". In similar vein, can we not ask why, in the context of modern Britain, people like Ann Widdecombe, John Gummer, George Gardiner, Charles Moore and other supporters and defenders of the profit system are welcomed into the Catholic Church without any sign of our leaders having noticed their ideological commitments, let alone providing any prophetic denunciation?
The truth is that Catholic bishops in this country accept the role allotted to them by the powerful and wealthy, and go along with their narrow, self-serving definition of morality. Critical statements about abortion, in vitro fertilization and other issues of personal and sexual morality are permissible. Taking sides with the victims of the market, and against their exploiters, is not.
No Catholic bishop has ever braved the government and tabloid ridicule meted out to David Jenkins, the Anglican bishop of Durham during the eighties, for daring to enunciate a prophetic version of the gospel. Rather the leadership of the Catholic Church accepts the ideological assumptions of capitalism, and the upheavals caused by constant "modernization", while trying to counter its negative effects by appeals to traditional moral and spiritual values.
Although they might issue the occasional moderately-worded affirmation of some politically-correct cause, reflecting as ever the priorities of chattering church activist types, they do not see the Christian religion as a source of radical prophetic protest against the injustices of the global capitalist economy.
Prophecy: always from the margins
Perhaps this is how things have always been. The Benedictine Thomas Cullinan wrote almost twenty years ago that prophetic vision, prophetic interpretation and prophetic action are functions within the Church rather than functions of the Church at large. The Christian community can never, as a whole, be engaged in reading the signs of the times, analysing the hidden motives of those in power, voicing God's historical option for the poor and exposing distorted versions of the gospel.
"The Church by and large is people by and large," wrote Cullinan, "and people by and large do not uncover reality nor locate injustice in their society as long as the goods are still being delivered". This uncovering of reality and locating of injustice is the role of the prophets, and history shows that prophets have always been - have always been compelled to be - marginal figures, in their own religious communities as much as in society at large.
As the corporations cast their net more widely across the world, infiltrating every area of human existence and increasingly freeing themselves from the moral and legal constraints of the past, let us pray for a renewal of prophetic consciousness in the Catholic community, for a new type of leadership, and for a more faithful commitment to a gospel which really is "good news for the poor".


Notes and References
References: Sunday Times Style Magazine, 8.1.95.; The Times, 8.8.96.; Jürgen Habermas, The Past as Future, Polity Press, 1994, p.55; The Tablet, 3.6.95., p.716; Jon Sobrino, Jesus the Liberator, Burns and Oates 1994, p.3; Thomas Cullinan, O.S.B., "The Church as Agent of Social Change - From the Edge" in Agenda for Prophets, eds Rex Ambler and David Haslam, Bowerdean Press 1980, p.137.