A talk by Frank Turner at the Caritas Europa meeting

I am honoured to be invited to join you today. To introduce myself: throughout my years as a Jesuit priest, I’ve worked in the area of faith and justice. I was a university teacher of ‘political theology’ – that discipline that takes politics, not only as the object of theological reflection, but as a source of theological reflection. But for the last thirteen years I have worked mainly in international affairs. I know Caritas Europa and CIDSE through my work here in Brussels, where the Jesuit European Office works on political affairs of the EU. I have also been on the Board of Trustees for CAFOD since 1998: and one Africa-related advocacy project of our office receives funding from CAFOD and SCIAF – and soon, we hope, from Misereor. So Caritas is important to me!

I am given an immensely broad subject, since the title suggests a triple focus: (1) Caritas Europa’s own identity; (2) the world of today and its challenges; (3) how these two terms (Caritas/World) are related – therefore a reflection on the nature of the Caritas mission. To be so general is inevitably to be abstract, but I will try to offer illustrations of the abstractions.

IDENTITY > COMMUNITY

We tend to assume that we know what we mean by ‘identity’ – till we think about it. If someone asks me ‘Who are you?’ I can’t answer them sensibly without wondering what exactly they want to know. Do they want to know my profession or nationality, who my parents are, my marital status, or only whether I know anyone they know? ‘Identity’ is not a single definable fact. It is contextual.

In 2008, the new General Superior of the Jesuits, P. Adolfo Nicolás, said this:

I don’t care whether I am Spaniard, or French, or Japanese. I am who I am. If you like me, we will be friends; if you don’t like me, look for somebody else. The identity of who I am is my communication with people, with situations. So . . . I feel comfortable about just being in flux, in a process.

Clearly P. Nicolás is not saying that he has no identity, or that identity does not matter: we elected him as General Superior, not someone else, and the choice seemed important. He is expressing a sense of identity that is (a) fluid, and (b) relational. What could be an ‘I’ that was unrelated to others, separate from what my parents gave me, or from the relationships that now sustain me?

On the other hand, we need some clarity abut identity, however fluid. To say that I am English is already complicated (for example it is different than saying I am British, and it’s not always easy to choose one description rather than the other). But it signifies at least that I am not Pakistani, or Belgian. Unless we have some sense of who we ourselves are, some sense of being ‘bien dans sa peau’, comfortable in one’s skin, as the French say, we cannot relate confidently to others. Because what we are anxious about is something we cannot easily let go!

There is a basic rhythm of identity and relationship. Neither exists without the other. Without some sense of a centre to our lives we have no stability, no sense of what is important to us, we are at the mercy of every passing opinion, every campaign of political propaganda, every claim on us made by other people. But unless we can ‘de-centre’, unless we can ‘give ourselves to other people, to events and principles beyond ourselves, we cannot grow. If we are too rigid, too conscious of the need to defend ourselves and our identity, to let other people affect us (and we never know, in advance, how much they may affect or change us) we can learn nothing and give nothing.

The key point here: in the Gospel, there are always two levels of life: a deeper life/identity is received only by letting go of the more superficial identity: the one who seeks to ‘save his life’ will lose it: the one willing to lose life (‘for my sake and the sake of the Gospel’) will save it.

Moving to the level of groups, this notion of the fluidity of identity is even more important. The Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen argued that the causes of barbarity and violence are as much distorted and exclusive identities as vicious intentions. An exclusive account of identity defines us over against all who are different – whereas what we have in common with them may be far more important than what divides us, as in the case, say, of ‘Catholics’ and ‘Protestants’. In Rwanda in the 1990s, for example, Hutus massacred Tutsis when they no longer saw themselves also as Rwandese, Africans, labourers, human beings.

If we turn to Caritas Europa, the starting point is that Caritas Europa commits itself, by its very title, to being not just an ‘umbrella organisation’, but a community. (I’ll come back to this point.) Institutionally, there are national offices of very different sizes, with different operational priorities, in different local cultures. So Caritas presumably needs to struggle with all the challenges of complexity: such as the difficulties of achieving good mutual communication, so as to overcome possible misunderstandings; planning that is coherent while respecting the variety of gifts and needs. Beyond that, though, Caritas needs to grow in unity, at the fundamental level of shared mission and values. It dares to define itself by caritas, agape, New Testament love – the effective commitment to the good of others. It places itself at the heart of the Church, in existing not for itself but for others, especially for others who are suffering from the many forms of poverty and exclusion. And in defining ourselves by love, we place ourselves under judgement.

How does a ‘network’, an umbrella organisation, become a ‘community’? What would it mean for Caritas to be ‘comfortable – though not too comfortable – in its skin’? I suggest that a sense of gift is the transforming factor. Pope Benedict writes about this in Caritas in Veritate. He refuses to oppose charity to justice (as some theologians have done). We are committed through justice – to charity:

Charity goes beyond justice, because to love is to give, to offer what is ‘mine’ to the other; but it never lacks justice, which prompts us to give others what is ‘theirs’. . . The earthly city is promoted not merely by relationships of rights and duties, but to an even greater and more fundamental extent by relationships of gratuitousness, mercy and communion. (§ 6., my emphasis.)

In the light of our discussion of identity, it is interesting that this passage puts the words ‘mine’ and ‘theirs’ in quotation marks. Nothing is simply and exclusively mine – or, totally not mine! The logic of gift, which transcends morality, is what marks the Church, and Caritas, as opposed to, for example, business or government:

Solidarity in relations between citizens, actions of gratuitousness, stand in contrast with giving in order to acquire (the logic of exchange) and giving through duty (the logic of public obligation, imposed by State law). (§ 39)

We always have to hold the two virtues together. ‘Love’ is more than the moral virtue of justice, but requires justice, and the mission of justice remains essential to Caritas. For example, even in the midst of the financial crisis, the world’s ‘economic problem’ is already solved, at least within Europe. We know pretty well how to provide enough food, water, health-care for everyone. There is no fundamental economic problem, but there is a massive moral problem.

One reason why I quote Caritas in Veritate is to remind us also that Caritas, at the heart of the Church, is rooted in a coherent tradition of thought (‘Catholic Social Teaching’). I have spoken about this before, in detail, in Caritas circles. For the moment, let me simply note that it has immense potential, but also certain problems. For example, it is precisely ‘teaching’, and places us in the teaching mode rather than in the mode of dialogue and service, or indeed of learning. It needs careful handling to avoid alienating others, since the wider world does not especially desire to be taught by the Church. Paul VI famously said, ‘Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses’. The title of this Encyclical indicates the Pope’s insistence that there is no true ‘love’ without truth. But it is just as important that there is no truth without love. CST is empty if the Church itself is not self-giving: and like every other organisation the Church can sometimes focus on serving itself.

THE WORLD OF TODAY’

I don’t need to stress the importance of social analysis, trying to be alert to the specific ‘signs of the times’ and so on. Each Caritas office inhabits a different world, faces different external pressures, different realities that demand our response – a response of both understanding and action. However it is not my task to analyse that today. Instead, I want to make a couple of philosophical and biblical points about the notion of ‘the world’.

Firstly: the phrase ‘the world of today’ sounds as if it is something ‘out there’ to which we must respond: ‘Yes, and No’.

– Yes: the world is objective, it constantly calls us to respond to it. Our minds need to be receptive – and that needs discipline, to pay attention to other people and situations and not just see what we expect or want to see (or to ignore what is convenient to ignore). A small example: I have lived here in Brussels nearly six years. For about the first two years I ‘saw’ advertisements for a beer called Jupiter. But there is no beer called Jupiter. There is, though, a beer called Jupiler. Only when I heard the word – or maybe when I tried to order a Jupiter in a bar – did I discover my mistake. I had seen what I expected to see, not the reality.

Sometimes, creating this false perception is deliberate. In his book of 1978 A Guide for the Perplexed, the philosopher E.F Schumacher tells this story:

On a visit to Leningrad some years ago, I consulted a map to find out where I was, but I could not make it out. I could see several enormous churches, yet there was no trace of them on my map. When finally an interpreter came to help me, he said: ‘We don’t show churches on our maps.’ Contradicting him, I pointed to one that was very clearly marked ‘This is a museum,’ he said, ‘not what we call a “living church”. It is only the “living churches” that we don’t show.’ (p.9.)

That Moscow map of the 1970s was not an attempt to represent the external world, but was an ideological statement designed to show that religion was a thing of the past, to define it out of existence. People still do that in Europe today.

Always, we need to examine ourselves, both individually and equally as Caritas/Church. I add a reflection that struck me only this morning, in looking at the liturgical readings for today – a powerful coupling of Genesis 2: 18-25 with Mark 7: 24-30. Genesis 2 shows us the creation of woman; without her, ‘the man’ is miserable, incomplete. (‘It is not good that the man should be alone.) She is ‘bone or my bones’. flesh of my flesh’. This story, is before ‘the Fall’. Afterwards we find that she is often reduced to a superior type of possession. Even in the Decalogue, the supposed revelation of God’s will for the people’ ‘your neighbour’s wife’ is not be coveted, just as ‘your neighbour’s goods’ are not to be coveted. There is no Commandment not to cover ‘your neighbour’s husband’. Why not? The Decalogue is God’s will as interpreted by the narrowed perception of a people who scarcely regarded women as autonomous agents, let alone equal. We are a long way from ‘flesh or my flesh’.

In Mark 7 (an astonishing story), Jesus first rejects the poor pagan woman who seeks his help: in response he uses an insulting image – he will not give to dogs what is intended for children. Even leaving aside the harshness, what looks like a crushing insult, his vision of the vision of his mission as restricted to Jews is far narrower than that of, say, Isaiah 60, in which Israel’s vocation is to be a light for the nations. But she is the only person in any of the Gospels who argues with Jesus and wins: he changes his position, is taught by her. (Most others in his position would not exert their social power and doubly reject her. But we should ask, Who is it that Jesus allows to teach him?)

The point of this Scriptural digression: the Church has for centuries usually been symbolised in feminine terms: as ‘she’ – as in the quotation from Evangelii Nuntiandi, below – even as ‘the Bride of Christ. Yet key consequences of this symbolism go unexplored. Women are rarely treated by the male Church as ‘flesh of my flesh’, their authority is commonly undermined, they are easily reduced to objects of the pastoral service of a Church actually embodied as male. It is so easy for us not to see this. Yet we begin every Eucharist confessing ourselves as sinners, which implies making the Scriptural prayer ‘Lord, that I may see’.

In other spheres, too, we may ask: What does the dominant world seek to erase from our consciousness? If we think about, focus on, only what can be measured (in the economic sphere Gross Domestic Product, or the profit figures of international corporations) we are not looking at ‘reality’ but at a very poor version of reality that hides deeper realities from our view, such as the lives of those who lose from the economic system. (In Ireland, the recent rescue of the banks ‘forced’ the government to lower the legal minimum wage by a full 12% – or about 15% allowing for inflation – from €8.65 an hour to €7.65! The government claimed ‘There is no alternative.’ Yet corporation tax in Ireland is maintained at a uniquely and controversially low 12.5%.)

To feel comfortable about ourselves, we are inclined to turn our attention away from such uncomfortable realities. (Look for this Irish minimum wage statistic in the Economist, the bible of economic liberalism, and you probably won’t find it.) This self-blinding happens especially when we have suspect that our own lifestyles contribute to the hardships of others. What, whom, do we pay attention to? The poet William Blake wrote, ‘The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way.’ To attend receptively to ‘the world’ – that is most of all to the people of the world – is to make the difficult attempt to be alert to world’s beauty, and also its suffering.

– But our minds are not only receptive, they are creative: they construct a world. If you are a pickpocket, what you will notice in the people around you is pockets! We choose what to attend to – and therefore that becomes our world. So I suggest that a key task of Caritas Europa is to construct and express, a ‘world’ that is more ‘real’ than the world others recognise: those who think that a kilo of butter is ‘real’ but a loving action is not: the world of those who define the success of a country by its GDP. (As the American theologian Joe Holland put it, ‘The economy is doing fine, it’s just that the people are having a hard time’.) We have to discover – and as ‘co-creators’ help build, that world of which God said ‘It was very good’. So we aspire to have hearts that are open and minds that are intelligent. And this task is a daily challenge to our laziness, our small convenient dishonesties.

The second point. The world is certainly there. We need self-awareness, but that is not self-obsessed. So what are we as Caritas, called to attend to? I suggest – very briefly, three aspects:

– Attend as closely as possible to the people you serve through your core mission: people who are in need, marginalised, or oppressed. This is your world, though it may not be the world of the successful business executive after a third whisky. Without serving these, Caritas is useless. A relationship with them means that you are genuinely touched and affected by them, as well as well as they by you. In focusing on them, we are ourselves and fulfil ourselves.

– Attend also to those who are not themselves ‘poor’ but who look to Caritas for a sense of integrity and leadership, a focus on what really matters in our societies – and what matters in the life of the Church. This is where advocacy and communication are so central. The people you serve in a family programme may never themselves read your documents – but you cannot support them effectively unless other people also trust you, and understand what you are doing. You have to cultivate that trust and continuously earn it

– Thirdly, attend to what we know only too well, the powerful ‘world’ out there which works towards objectives that contrast strongly with ours – or at least diverge sharply from ours. A transnational mining corporation may not deliberately seek to worsen poverty in Honduras or Congo, but it may have little patience with those who try to defend local people by restricting its operations. We speak of social structures, ideologies, of far-reaching decisions taken in rooms to which Caritas will not be invited. But Caritas has to relate to this world: to respect the people who inhabit and govern it certainly (‘love your enemies’), but to be as clear-sighted as possible about what is actually happening. I say ‘as clear-sighted as possible’, since we will never understand fully. Even the top managment of the international banks did not fully understand the practices of the star mathematicians they employed to calculate their complex credit swaps, etc. Be aware of our limits – but try to stretch them.

To sum up this section on ‘the World’, I refer to the double character of that concept in the New Testament. On the one hand ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life (John 3: 16:). If we do not love ‘the world’ – the divine creation the people, the earth, etc. – we have nothing to offer it. On the other hand, in the same Gospel of John, the word ‘world’ often means all that opposes the effective presence of God’s Spirit. ‘He was in the world, and the world came into being though him; yet the world did not know him.’ (John 1: 10.) This ‘world that rejects the living Spirit is everywhere around us. Still more difficult, it is also within us – so ‘changing the world’ is costly to ourselves. (See above on ‘losing one’s life’.)

RELATING THE TWO TERMS: CARITAS EUROPA AND ‘THE WORLD OF TODAY’

COMMUNITY > MISSION

Actively relating the two terms (‘Caritas’ & ‘The World of Today’) is what we mean by Mission. I have proposed that Caritas is at the heart of the Church. Without love of God and neighbour, the Church would be no more than a powerful, quite rich, possibly alienating institution. Paul VI’s great definition of the Church’s mission in Evangelii Nuntiandi (1975) is as follows:

The Church evangelises when she seeks to convert, solely through the divine power of the message she proclaims, both the personal and collective consciences of people, the activities in which they engage, and the lives and concrete milieux which are theirs.’ (Sec 18)

Paul VI’s proposes a mission to the world and rejects the methods of ‘the world’ (‘solely through the divine power of the message’). Caritas’s mission is accomplished by service in solidarity with the people we serve – and by presenting a vision to the wider community. In this way we challenge ‘personal and collective consciences’ and ‘social milieux’ especially those where serious power is exercised, locally or globally. That is why advocacy (not ‘lobbying’ for organisational interests but advocacy for justice) is central to Caritas. Here I’m making a double claim:

– There is no authentic advocacy without the credibility that comes from local presence and from direct service that is truly useful to people: otherwise we are just talkers, and it does not take people long to sense empty talk, without responsibility and action.

– But no less important, in the long run there is no effective service that is not also an attempt to help change the structures in which systemic poverty is rooted.

We carry out this complex, multi-dimensional task as a community. That is, as a network of institutions that is united at a deeper level than can be shown on any organisational chart, united by our mission and our lived values. In a community no can, or needs to, do everything, and no one has every gift that is needed. If we are united, what you do best transforms and multiplies the effectiveness of what I do best. We rely on each other – which means that we also sometimes need to be corrected by each other. In fact, on condition that we are united at this deeper level, the more diverse we are the better – because we can understand more, and achieve more. (I hope this discovery, of the richness of diversity in unity, will be a fruit of this Forum for you.)

A last word: I spoke of the moral task, but also of a vision that reaches beyond morality. Jesus very rarely said, ‘Do this, Do that’ – although John the Baptist did, risking his life by insisting on justice to the soldiers of an occupying army, ‘No extortion, be satisfied with your wages’ (Luke 3: 14). Rather, Jesus made present what God does in us and in the world – hence we are essentially receivers, and sharers, of life, gifts, joy, inspiration, not followers of moral rules. However, Jesus did say, quite often, ‘Stay awake!

Subscribe to our mailing list