Praying with the poor

Hands in prayerThere is a world of difference between praying for rather than with the poor.

The act of participation is at the heart of interpreting the Church’s insistence in its social teaching on ‘a preferential option for the poor” which the Brazilian Bishop Casaldaliga describes as “the mark of the Church, of discipleship of Jesus, of Christian spirituality”. Moreover, in practice the theologian Antonio Gonzalez stresses that the option for the poor is not mere theological posturing but entails removing oneself from the privileged and dominant classes and really sharing day to day life with the poor. It means taking up the cause of the poor and oppressed in ways which respect them as agents of their own liberation.

If then “preferential love of the poor represents a fundamental choice for the Church” we need to ask what this means in the 21st century context.

A society in Britain with over 13 million people assessed as living in poverty. A Britain that is part of an interconnected world in which over 1.3 billion people live below the agreed UN poverty line ($1.25 per day).

Two great watchwords of Catholic Social Teaching emerged in the 20th century; subsidiarity (first spelt out in Pope Pius X1 encyclical Quadragesimo Anno – “The Fourtieth Year” (1931), forty years after Rerum Novarum -“Of New Things” (1891), on ‘reconstructing the social order and perfecting it conformably to the precepts of the Gospel’ and solidarity, appearing in Guadium et Spes – “The Joys and Hopes” (1965), at the Vatican Council, in the encyclical Populorum Progressio “The development of peoples” (1967), and emphasizes in the encyclicals of Pope John Paul 11.

Subsidiarity was initially an insistence that the law must not undertake more, nor go further than is required for the remedy of evil and the removal of danger (Rerum Novarum, paragraph 29). Pope Pius XI went further spelling out that “it is an injustice and at the same time both a grave evil and a disturbance of the right order to transfer to the larger and higher collectivity functions which can be performed or provided for by less and subordinate bodies”(Quadragesimus Anno, paragraph 9). Decisions, in other words should be left to the appropriate levels, a principle notably adopted by the European Union.

More recently discussions in Britain on the development of the concept of a “Big society”, also stressing local action by voluntary organisations, has led to an examination of whether subsidiarity is a form of ‘top down’ decentralisation or the fostering of a ‘bottom up’ local community development in our neighbourhoods.

Surprisingly the catechism of the Catholic Church states that “the principle of subsidiarity is opposed to all forms of collectivism” (Quadragesimus Annoparagraph 1885) yet later in the text it turns to precisely those forms of ‘social enterprise’, collectivism and local mutual economic developments that are now attracting attention again in Coalition Britain.

Meanwhile, solidarity, a concept traditionally associated with social democratic, socialist and trade union politics (Solidarnosz in Poland in 1980s) has fallen into neglect politically and theologically.

Yet the concept of “international solidarity between all peoples” is central to Gaudium et Spes and Populorum Progressio. Pope Paul VI said that “there can be no progress towards the complete development of man without the simultaneous development of all humanity in the spirit of solidarity”.

He insisted that “the reality of human solidarity which is a benefit for us also imposes a duty” and that “same duty of solidarity that rests on individuals exists also for nations”. It is therefore both personal and political. Pope John Paul II went further to spell out in Sollicitudo Rei Socialis that solidarity is “not a feeling of vague compassion, but a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good, that is to say to the good of all and of each individual because we are all really responsible for all.”

Bishop Casaldaliga describes solidarity as “the tenderness of peoples” on “the effective and at the same time collective level”. He emphasises that solidarity is “away for different groups of people to help one another but in a way that makes them all grow at the same time because solidarity recognises the identity of the other”. Solidarity therefore involves “struggling together for the liberation of all” and “where justice fails to reach, solidarity makes a point of reaching” . He adds “solidarity is not compassion (unless we give com-passion back its original meaning of suffering with) but communion in commitment”. Neither is it almsgiving or charity but “a community of goods”.

Johan Verstraeten in “Rethinking Catholic Social Thought As A Tradition” (2000) points out that solidarity in therefore bearing “radical witness to our love of our neighbour” goes far beyond any form of enlightened self-interest and includes “relationships of community, sociability, conviviality, civility, fraternity, civic friendship, social consciousness, and public spirit” and he argues that without solidarity any understanding of other values such as justice, human rights, freedom and subsidiarity in Catholic thought is impossible.

In our self-centred individualist consumer society in which the government’s plan for the Big Society is advertised as helping the “small individual become bigger” and in which the economic demands of the global so-called free market rule, tackling poverty remains a case of waiting for ‘trickle down benefits’ or adopting individual personal responsibility for ones plight.

Moreover we live in an increasingly judgemental society in which each of us actually holds a list of those we would not be willing to accept as our immediate neighbours. The greatest challenge therefore is to reintroduce the concept of solidarity from the Church’s social teaching.

At the same time it is crucial to insist that both subsidiarity and solidarity must always be joined together – as hands in prayer – to ensure that local action is complemented by structural justice to tackle poverty and exclusion of the poor.

We must make sure that the poor are not left subject to charitable giving. Insisting that subsidiarity and solidarity must always go together and that they are not to be regarded as in separate silos of policy or time zones implies also that we may need to practice differently how we live as a Church praying with the poor and not just for them.

John Battle, former MP and Social Justice Activist

Photo: Hands in prayer. [Photo credit: Constantin Bejenani]