Sunday, 26 January 2014

The Light of Faith in Secular British Society

From Lumen Fidei

A light for life in society
54. Absorbed and deepened in the family, faith becomes a light capable of illumining all our relationships in society. As an experience of the mercy of God the Father, it sets us on the path of brotherhood. Modernity sought to build a universal brotherhood based on equality, yet we gradually came to realize that this brotherhood, lacking a reference to a common Father as its ultimate foundation, cannot endure. We need to return to the true basis of brotherhood. The history of faith has been from the beginning a history of brotherhood, albeit not without conflict. God calls Abraham to go forth from his land and promises to make of him a great nation, a great people on whom the divine blessing rests (cf. Gen 12:1-3). As salvation history progresses, it becomes evident that God wants to make everyone share as brothers and sisters in that one blessing, which attains its fullness in Jesus, so that all may be one. The boundless love of our Father also comes to us, in Jesus, through our brothers and sisters. Faith teaches us to see that every man and woman represents a blessing for me, that the light of God’s face shines on me through the faces of my brothers and sisters.
How many benefits has the gaze of Christian faith brought to the city of men for their common life! Thanks to faith we have come to understand the unique dignity of each person, something which was not clearly seen in antiquity. In the second century the pagan Celsus reproached Christians for an idea that he considered foolishness and delusion: namely, that God created the world for man, setting human beings at the pinnacle of the entire cosmos. "Why claim that [grass] grows for the benefit of man, rather than for that of the most savage of the brute beasts?" "If we look down to Earth from the heights of heaven, would there really be any difference between our activities and those of the ants and bees?" At the heart of biblical faith is God’s love, his concrete concern for every person, and his plan of salvation which embraces all of humanity and all creation, culminating in the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Without insight into these realities, there is no criterion for discerning what makes human life precious and unique. Man loses his place in the universe, he is cast adrift in nature, either renouncing his proper moral responsibility or else presuming to be a sort of absolute judge, endowed with an unlimited power to manipulate the world around him.
55. Faith, on the other hand, by revealing the love of God the Creator, enables us to respect nature all the more, and to discern in it a grammar written by the hand of God and a dwelling place entrusted to our protection and care. Faith also helps us to devise models of development which are based not simply on utility and profit, but consider creation as a gift for which we are all indebted; it teaches us to create just forms of government, in the realization that authority comes from God and is meant for the service of the common good. Faith likewise offers the possibility of forgiveness, which so often demands time and effort, patience and commitment. Forgiveness is possible once we discover that goodness is always prior to and more powerful than evil, and that the word with which God affirms our life is deeper than our every denial. From a purely anthropological standpoint, unity is superior to conflict; rather than avoiding conflict, we need to confront it in an effort to resolve and move beyond it, to make it a link in a chain, as part of a progress towards unity.
When faith is weakened, the foundations of life also risk being weakened, as the poet T.S. Eliot warned: "Do you need to be told that even those modest attainments / As you can boast in the way of polite society / Will hardly survive the Faith to which they owe their significance?" If we remove faith in God from our cities, mutual trust would be weakened, we would remain united only by fear and our stability would be threatened. In the Letter to the Hebrews we read that "God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them" (Heb 11:16). Here the expression "is not ashamed" is associated with public acknowledgment. The intention is to say that God, by his concrete actions, makes a public avowal that he is present in our midst and that he desires to solidify every human relationship. Could it be the case, instead, that we are the ones who are ashamed to call God our God? That we are the ones who fail to confess him as such in our public life, who fail to propose the grandeur of the life in common which he makes possible? Faith illumines life and society. If it possesses a creative light for each new moment of history, it is because it sets every event in relationship to the origin and destiny of all things in the Father.

I live in Oxford and do some work with the Order of Malta for the homeless community in the city (though I've been a bit slack on that front of late). On the stretch of road upon which my faculty is situated, we are richly blessed in having no fewer than nine Catholic religious communities: Jesuits, Oratorians, Benedictines, an Opus Dei Community, De La Salles Brothers, Dominican friars and sisters, the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham and two diocesan Churches at the far ends of the road. Looking at this list in isolation one might easily be forgiven for thinking that Britain’s secularism has yet to sweep beneath the dreamy spires under whose watch Blessed John Henry Newman’s conversion to the Faith caused such a great wave of scandal not a hundred and fifty years ago and which saw the execution of many martyrs in the 16th and 17th centuries. To an extent this is true. By and large the student community at the University the Church founded are not hostile to the practice of the faith or our work in the city. There tends to be a willingness to address our views on public issues with the light of reason and will usually give us fair-minded consideration. Indeed, from this contact with students involved with their faith, there has been a noticeable trend during my time for atheists and members of other faiths to get involved in the work of the Order of Malta with the homeless.
This is usually the first time that these students have come into contact with those living on the streets and as a result, I’ve seen the most erudite student stunned to silence by what they see. The problem in Oxford, as elsewhere in the UK, is not that the people with whom we work are hungry, but that they lack shelter, skills and have slipped through our social safety net. We go out on soup runs to them not because we think they need food, but they need human company because the rest of society leaves them outside its boundaries. We’re not actively trying to convert them, nor are we in a position to do a great deal about their plight beyond advocate for them to the Council and broader government, we’re there to make sure that they know by our presence that we count them as a valued part of our society, even if no one else does.
Meeting with these people, people who are in a genuinely vulnerable position within our society, but generally excluded from it, has been a formative experience and has given definition to my reading of the four paragraphs in Lumen Fidei which Pope Francis devotes to faith as “a light for life in society”. These four paragraph really chart their pedigree back to Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum, which reflects the growth of Catholicism as a political force in the late nineteenth century he began the codification of Catholic Social Doctrine[1]. I use that word very carefully over the more normal phrase “teaching” because in fact Leo presents us with the message of Christ, authoritatively interpreted by the magisterium. I’m no ultramontanist and I have too much of an addiction to reason to be a fideist, but when Jesus tells me something, my choice is to believe him or deny his divinity. I have no intention of doing the latter.
In Rerum Novarum this Social Doctrine is defined in its relation to the responsibilities of labour and capital, and of government and citizen. Leo XIII rejects communism as a heresy, but we seem to have forgotten that he also rejects capitalism in just as strong terms. Indeed it is capitalism he condemns first, bewailing that “men have been surrendered, isolated and helpless, to the hardheartedness of employers and the greed of unchecked competition” and that under the guise of the nascent financial system in 1891, “rapacious usury” was “still practiced by covetous and grasping men” resulting in the same injustices as had been condemned previously by the Church[2].
Socialism came in for the same treatment from Leo’s eloquence. He notes that in fact, under that political system the “working man himself would be among the first to suffer”[3]. This balancing act is the result of the balance between a person’s rights as a worker and responsibilities as a member of the society in which he lives[4]. The value of the person is greater than that of the state whose purpose is to protect them and it is that which lies as the fundamental fault of socialism[5]. The middle way he proposes was given the name “distributism” in the first half of the 1920s and affirms the rights of property which are derived from work but also recognizes the need for a more equitable distribution of wealth. We are as far away today from an equitable distribution of wealth as we were in the 1890s.
In 2007, the top one percent of American earners held thirty four point six percent of the country’s wealth[6]. The bottom forty percent held 0.02%. The top ten percent owned 1730 times as much as the bottom forty percent did. Leo XIII is right, wages are the just remuneration for work[7], but they need to be just wages. Are we really suggesting that the top ten percent of Americans worked one thousand seven hundred and thirty times as hard as those in the bottom forty percent? If we’re not, that’s not justice.
This injustice certainly isn't caused by a lack of money in the system. In 2007 the net worth of households in America was 65.9 trillian dollars[8]. Even at the worst point of the recession is was still 48.5 trillion dollars[9]. There were 78,425,000 household in the US so if there were total equality per household, each would earn about $840,000[10]. Isn’t that amazing? Can you imagine if every household earned $840,000? That’s more than eighteen times what the average actually was[11]. Though statistics for the UK aren’t as detailed in their breakdown, we can take the US as a fairly extreme example of wealth distribution in the occident. That being the case, Leo XIII’s observation that “a small number of very rich men have been able to lay upon the teeming masses of the laboring poor a yoke little better than that of slavery itself” could have been written this morning[12].
In the capitalist system, we’re all damned, and in its opposite but equal evil, socialism, we’re each damned. Capitalism has no regard for society and Socialism no regard for the individual. They are both "products of the European Enlightenment and are thus modernizing and anti-traditional forces.”[13] What the Church proposes on the other hand is “to subordinate economic activity to human life as a whole, to our spiritual life, our intellectual life, our family life"[14]. So we take the best bits from each and leave the rest to the devil. From Capitalism we take the incentive to work (that is, its remuneration) but from Socialism we take its desire for a just distribution of wealth. The thing that would be most harmful for this situation is a small number of capitalists, the situation we have now. Really we want everyone to be a small capitalist. There are however responsibilities even to this more naturally just accruement of wealth and that is the further justice of making sure those who are not as wealthy as oneself are, at the very least, safe.
In the UK (in theory at least), I believe we have quite a good system of wealth redistribution compared to other capitalist countries. It slows down the rampant immorality of the disparity in wealth inevitable in a capitalist society such as ours. In the UK, the social responsibility inherent in wealth is not an option. We pay taxes. The more wealthy we are, the more tax we pay. These taxes are then put into the welfare state and thus we knit a social safety net. There are of course problems with this system. And actually, my experience of working with the homeless is of the opposite problem we’ve been hearing about from the “Murdoch” press and the likes of The Daily Mail. It’s not that too many people are getting benefits to which they’re not entitled, it’s that when you hit real rock bottom and no longer have a postcode, suddenly the mechanism for receiving your benefits grinds to a halt.
As our economic woes have grown, we’ve been desperately searching round for a scapegoat and settled upon the benefit fraudster. From 2010 to 2011 we as taxpayers lost £1.2 billion to benefit fraudsters. That accounts for 0.7% of our benefit spending for that year[15]. Yet at the same time it’s worth remembering that we managed to lose £0.7 billion (that’s 0.4% of our benefit spending)[16] to the errors of the benefits system administrators. Put into their proper perspective, these are very small amounts of money. If truth be told, I can bear that little money going down the drain. I’d rather it was less, indeed I’d rather it was nothing at all. I don’t mind spending a little money enforcing our laws about benefit fraud. But at the moment, the whole system is being put on the line because our press is obsessing over a minute fraction that is going wrong within a system which is working wonders. £1.2 billion might sound a lot, but compare it with the £159 billion that was spent on benefits last year and suddenly it seems quite affordable, considering the roll of things that large figure pays for, including state pensions, housing benefit, disability living allowance, income support, rent rebates, incapacity benefit, jobseekers allowance, sick pay and maternity pay, amongst other things[17]. When the £159 billion we spend on benefits is compared with the £694.9 billion our government spends in total[18], I actually think that us tax payers get a pretty good deal in terms of fulfilling our social responsibilities. 
From the understandable position of scapegoating the benefit fraudster, we have since moved into a situation where anyone who receives benefits is worthy of our ire. If the person concerned is in a tracksuit all the better, because they look like how we imagine a benefit fraudster would look. For the sake of the loose change, we’re about to abandon the transaction. Maybe a better scapegoat would be the one we settled on initially when the recession hit: the bankers. To service the debt we incurred as a country mopping up after their profligate laissez faire capitalism, we spent £48.2 billion pounds last year[19]. I’d rather get that back that the meager £1.2 billion we lost in benefit fraud. People go on and on about how important to our economy the financial sector is: well just remember who got us into this mess in the first place.
Swinging ourselves back to Lumen Fidei, we see Pope Francis touching on this situation. “Modernity, he says, sought to build a universal brotherhood based on equality, yet we gradually came to realize that this brotherhood, lacking a reference to a common Father as its ultimate foundation, cannot endure.” No wonder we are not equal because there’s no reason we should think ourselves equal in a secular society. In the UK, morality and taste often seem indistinguishable and it’s considered tasteless to believe that the wealthy are more valuable than the poor, but actually, without the light of faith, they are more valuable. We live in a post-Christian-Christian-society, so we no longer have any need to believe that there is such a thing as equality but we instinctively want to. This of course will not last. As the society we live in loses its links with its Christian past through the growth of secularism, we will simply be a post-Christian society, and in that society it will no longer be tasteless to believe the wealthy more valuable than the poor.
Pope Francis teaches us something about the nature of the economy too. At the top of the hegemony of our heretical capitalism, we tend to find ourselves justifying our wealth by the notion of a trickle down economy: that because I spend money, at some point in the vague future probably, my wealth will naturally redistribute itself into a more equitable arrangement whereby the poor are better off. Pope Francis points out the fault in this and it’s the same fault Leo XIII found with socialism: that regard for the economy was put before the regard for people’s “dignity as human beings”[20]. The truth is that the trickle down economy is the wrong way up. “Faith teaches us to see that every man and woman represents a blessing for me” and it is from that standpoint that I can start to assess my economic position, not the other way around. He addressed it more pointedly in his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium. He points out that we have made the economy our god, in whose questionable miracle of trickle down magic we have faith without evidence, because we have “a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system”[21].
The post-Christian-Christian-society in which we operate cannot understand why it’s all going wrong because they’ve failed to realize that even though they are post-Christian they still have a basic ten-commandment morality that they want to stick to even though they’ve forgotten why. Christianity on the other hand holds that our “biblical faith is God’s love, his concrete concern for every person, and his plan of salvation which embraces all of humanity and all creation, culminating in the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.”[22] Secular society has no concept of why the human person should be the point of the economy, so they hold up a mirror and transfer the importance onto the god they see within it. Our response to the banking crisis is one of existential crisis. We don’t know what we care about any more. Is it the individual? Is it the “big society”? Is it the economy itself? Do we even think about the poorest of the poor in these calculations? Do we even think about the human person?
We have lost our place in the universe. We have been cast adrift in nature. We either renounce our proper moral responsibility or else presume to be a sort of absolute judge upon those we scapegoat, manipulating the world and our neighbors around us[23]. This is why we need those nine Catholic religious houses on the stretch of road between Folly Bridge to the Wolvercote Roundabout. These are the centers of faith situated within our society which would like to reject its faith. For so long as we persist, the secular society will never be able to twist itself into the nonexistence of selfishness because, even if they don’t remember why, those within it will have a vague idea somewhere in the back of their minds, inspired by a Samaritan on the road to Jerusalem stopping to look after someone who could not look after himself, even though it cost him to do so. We cannot reject the society that rejects us, and that is the profound message of these paragraphs of Lumen Fidei.

[1] Adams, Ian. Political Ideology Today. Manchester University Press. 1993. p. 59-60
[2] Rerum Novarum 3
[3] Rerum Novarum  4
[4] Rerum Novarum 5
[5] Rerum Novarum 7
[6] Wolff, Edward N. Recent Trends in Household Wealth in the United States: Rising Debt and the Middle-Class Squeeze—an Update to 2007. Levy Economics Institute of Bard College. March 2010.
[7] Rerum Novarum 5
[8] US Federal Reserve. Net income and worth per household 2007-2008.
[9] Ibid
[10] U.S. Census Bureau. Current Population Reports. From Statistical Abstract of the United States. 2008.
[11] The true average being $45, 113. US Census Bureau. Median income per household member. 2008
[12] Rerum Novarum 3
[13] Storck, Thomas. "Capitalism and Distributism: two systems at war," in Beyond Capitalism & Socialism. Tobias J. Lanz, ed. IHS Press, 2008. p. 75
[14] Ibid
[15] Department for Work and Pensions. New benefit fraud and error campaign: 'Benefits. Are you doing the right thing?' 2014
[16] Ibid
[17] Department of Work and Pensions. Annual Report 2012-13. International Financial Statistics 2014.
[18] Ibid
[19] Ibid
[20] Rerum Novarum 36
[21] Evangelii Gaudium 54
[22] Lumen Fidei 54
[23] Lumen Fidei 55