Page 16, 11th April 2008

11th April 2008
Page 16
Page 16, 11th April 2008 — You can't sum up the Church in a soundbite

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Organisations: World Bank, Catholic Church
Locations: Rome


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You can't sum up the Church in a soundbite

By Anna Arco

Achance encounter with an old acquaintance brought something home to me. We bumped into each other near Victoria Station in that way that one glimpses a familiar face in a crowded street, starts and says hello. Neither of us were due anywhere so we settled on a Pimlico pub for a quick pint and a catch-up. When I had last seen him, we were gunning for finals at university, dressed in gowns in a grubby cafe, swotting up on the last desperate bits of knowledge we could cram into our already overfilled brains. It had been a bit of a cross-purpose conversation then. As a geographer. he was talking about tectonic shifts and I, an English student, was rabbiting on about John Donne's apostasy. Now, with four years' worth of gaps to fill, I expected it to be the same.

He was working in the charitable sector, had spent some time working at a big-named place like the World Bank and had travelled a great deal. What was I up to these days?

I had prepared my spiel carefully, as I tend to, but muttered and mumbled, finally stuttering in a vaguely defensive way: "I work for a Catholic newspaper." I met his eyes and silently dared him to challenge me. His reaction came as a complete surprise.

"That's fantastic," he said, with genuine enthusiasm. "The Church does a great deal of good."

Here was an agnostic, telling a practising Catholic that the Church did a lot of good and she was shocked.

"Wait," I said, still reeling. "You're not going to ask me whether I actually believe in God? You're not going to bring up contraception, Aids. abortion, paedophilia, the HFE Bill or use the words superstitious, fundamentalist or mumbo-jumbo?"

"Hey.he shrugged. "I don't agree with all the Catholic Church's policies and we all know the Church has its problems, but on the whole, yes, it does a lot of good. Don't forget it's the world's biggest charity."

While it may seem strange that I was so flabbergasted by a positive reaction by a non-Catholic. it pointed to something else: outside the wider Church these days, I always expect to be challenged for what I do and by association for my faith.

One downside of working for a Catholic newspaper is that one spends a lot of time reading about people who hate the Church and everything it represents. A daily diet of newspaper articles from around the world, blogs and the whiny content of newspaper read ers' commentary on the intemet can give one a skewed perception of the Church's place in the world and public opinion. If many of these clamorous voices are to be believed, the Church is an evil, outdated institution, creaking under the weight of its inglorious history; it has caused mankind a great deal of harm, has held back progress and still keeps innumerable people enslaved under the thrall of unenlightened superstition.

One encounters a real hostility to everything one holds most holy and sometimes it can be difficult to remember all the good things the Church has done and is doing in this world, not just the next. On the other hand, writing about the Church, its strengths and

its problems can sometimes make it feel as though one is working in a hermetically sealed cosmos, which operates on its own terms, has its own hierarchy. political structure, internal laws, snobberies and disagreements, and exists as something distinct from the world. It is a false dichotomy, but one which is easily constructed.

Outside the wider Church, a hostile and dangerous world beckons and threatens. The loud voices of a determined few can drown out the quiet hum of many going about their daily lives. I have to remind myself that not every non-Catholic hates the Church and our faith should be lived in the world, not isolated from it.

That. at least, is one challenge we face. I have caught myself slipping into the sort of divided world view I have just described more and more in the last two years. I've found myself backing away from having to explain or justify my faith to others, perhaps also to avoid the ridicule I anticipate or because of a fear that my faith is not strong enough to survive a confrontation with scepticism, "rationalism" and militant atheism.

Call it vanity. diffidence or cowardice: the fact remains that I am reluctant to face my faith, engage with it in the world outside the Church, bear witness to it and, worse still, attempt to evangelise.

Discussing Christianity, let alone Catholicism, rationally is never easy as emotions run too high on both sides. It is often most difficult to explain to lapsed Catholics or Catholics in Name Only (CIN0s) because they have left the Church because of hurt that has been caused by someone in it, or because of poor catechesis or because there has been a disconnect in an individual's relationship with God. Whatever the case, there is often bitterness, anger or disappointment involved. In the case of ideological atheists, who seem to be growing in number, there is a convicfion that anyone who believes in God is ignoring empirical evidence, must by defmition be wrong and is most probably mad.

In a world where attention spans are extremely short, Catholicism suffers because it is not a religion that can be reduced to a soundbite, even if the temptation is strong. There's the "Come home, come to Rome, 2,000 years of being right" variation or the "It's all OK. Jesus loves you" type of slogan, neither of which is very helpful in getting across either the wealth of thought and tradition that the Catholic Church draws on or the simplicity of the original precept that is at the heart of our faith. .

But it is precisely this inability to sum up Catholicism in a pat phrase that is also its strength, even if it renders the laity speechless and leaves it sometimes struggling to explain the faith beyond the Nicene Creed. In a world where there are so many competing and reductive narratives we are offered something all-encompassing, coherent and expansive. Our Church is rich in theology. philosophy and love; it encompasses our entire cosmos and gives us strength. Being a Catholic means constantly becoming one.

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