Recently Fr Alexander Lucie-smith published an article in the Catholic Herald. Fr Lucie-smith is a Catholic priest, speaking mostly to Catholics, in a Catholic publication. But his message is one for all orthodox Christians (which should be all Christians), and so it is valid for us all.
This one caught my attention, not least because I admire Rees-Mogg considerably. So let’s take a look at it.
The Church cannot become just another branch of the liberal commentariat
Amen, nor the conservative commentariat, for that matter. The Church (indeed the churches) have a higher calling.
The first reading at Mass on Sunday contained one of the more arresting images from the prophet Ezekiel: “Son of man, I have appointed you as sentry to the House of Israel. When you hear a word from my mouth, warn them in my name.”
It would be a pretty hopeless sentry who did not keep an eye out for danger, and who kept shtum when he saw something dangerous coming. We all know, because we have heard it said so many times, that the Church is supposed to have a prophetic voice, and to take a counter-cultural stand against the errors and fads of the age. And yet, because the Church is in the world, it often tends to be formed by the world, so both currents are present in the Church: the countercultural, and its opposite, the conformist. The situation today is no exception.
Depressingly, the Church today (by which I mean the leadership of the Church) often seems to speak like just another branch of the commentariat. Take the whole question of climate change. It is very hard to distinguish between the content and tone of a Church document on this matter and an article in the secular press. The discourse in both is more or less the same. This is a pity, because it is a sign that the specific nature of Church teaching has been lost, towhit, the emphasis that environmental degradation is the result of personal sin, and personal sin is always the result of the personal choice of someone, somewhere, to do something objectively.
Personally, I think there is a somewhat different message that Christianity is to bear here. Too much of what passes as environmentalism whether from the various churches or secular sources comes perilously close to simply Luddism, an inchoate longing to return to our pre-industrial past, even if doing so is by violent measures and regardless of the fact that it will inevitably cause great harm to many (especially poor) people both in our own societies and in the rest of the world as well.
I think what we are charged with in regard to the physical world is stewardship, to manage our resources to maximise the results, with the least possible damage, to gain the most for the maximum number of people, and other creatures, as well as vegetation.
Climate change is, of course, real, as it has been for five billion years, I have seen nothing convincing that we are a major driver of it, no doubt we have some influence, and we should maximise our efficiency, in the name of stewardship, if nothing else. But what many want is to return to subsistence farming (likely with wooden plows) causing widespread death by starvation around the world. This is the message many in, and out of the church are carrying, and it is a false one.
Again, with the Church’s social teaching, and its teaching about the structures of sin that create poverty and prevent those born in poverty ever leaving it – has this idea really made an impression? Or does the Church’s talk about economic matters sound rather New Labourish (that is, several decades out of date) and indistinguishable from all the other virtue-signallers who care about the poor but don’t actually do anything about the state of the poor?
Has the Church’s teaching in these two matters degenerated from a matter of right practice to a matter of saying the right thing? Do people ever confess their sins against the environment? Do they ever accuse themselves in the confessional of crimes against the poor?
I don’t really disagree with his premise here, we are doing a poor job of caring for our neighbors. But much of the problem is this. Our churches have delegated inappropriately our duty to those less well off to the state, who has no particular duty in this area. The duty of the state is to ensure justice, from malefactors in our population, and from other states as well, doing so in a just manner.
The duty falls on us as individual Christians, and on our corporate churches to provide help for those less well off. Have we often failed in this duty? Yes, we have. But it remains our duty, and it is not one we can delegate. That our churches have acquiesced in allowing the state to take over our duty is of no account, it remains our duty, but in trying (very badly) to carry out this illegitimate duty, the state has made many of us poor enough that we can no longer effectively carry out our duty, either. Thus the churches have actively hurt the poor.
The one field where the Church does well in communicating a teaching that is certainly not pleasing to the world, but which the world hears and cannot help but hearing, is in the field of bioethics. The Catholic Church is pro-life, and the whole ecclesial pro-life movement stands as testimony to that, and has had considerable success in reminding the world of the terrible sin of abortion. This was in no small part thanks to the constant and energetic teaching of Saint John Paul II and Saint Teresa of Calcutta, to name but two. Here one sees the Church fulfilling its vocation to be a sentry to the House of Israel.
To say that we should wind down the talk about the protection of all life at all stages, because this talk is somehow alienating, would be mistaken. The hostility that the pro-life discourse arouses is a pretty good providential sign that here we are doing the right thing. Well done to Jacob Rees-Mogg and the many others who take a stand that must feel sometimes like that of Elijah on Mount Carmel: “I, I alone, am left as a prophet of the LORD, while the prophets of Baal are four hundred and fifty.” (I Kings 18:22) Elijah was a lonely voice, but he was the one who spoke truth. The prophets of Baal were a bunch of stooges and frauds who ate at Jezebel’s table – a rather good image, one calls to mind so many of the false prophets of today.
This I agree with wholeheartedly. In the pro-life mission, Rees-Mogg and all the others are carrying the authentic Christian (not just Catholic) message. If we don’t agree with him, we are misinterpreting what it means to be a Christian. This has been at the core of Christianity, in all times and all places, and everybody else marveled that Christians didn’t leave unwanted babies to die of exposure, as everyone else did.
It is, like stewardship, and like caring for the unfortunate, a core part of what our fathers in the faith taught, and did. We should pray to do as well.
And yes, I would vote proudly for Rees-Mogg, and I would be very pleased to be in a church with Fr Lucie-smith, as well. It’s doubtful that I would agree with either all the time, as this article shows, but both are excellent representatives of our faith, and our peoples.