Page 3, 4th February 1983

4th February 1983
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Page 3, 4th February 1983 — News Analysis

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News Analysis

Publish and be for

George fredericks charts the history of recent Church reports and asks whether the latest offering to the bishops will suffer a similar fate.

ST THOMAS AQUINAS, whose feast day we celebrated last Friday, said at the end of his life that the one gift for which he gave especial thanks to God was having understood every page he had read. But then, St Thomas never had the Opportunity to peruse reports from the advisory commissions of the Bishops' Conference.

There is something a little uncomfortable about the timing of the latest report of the Catholic Commission for Racial Justice, called Racism in British Society. For a start, its publication coincides with the expulsion of two million or so "illegal immigrants" from Ghana. It couldn't happen here; or at least hasn't yet.

Then, it is only a couple of weeks since the splashdown of the radioactive report from the Laity Commission on the role of women in the Church. Of course, the press wilfully misunderstood and mischievously misrepresented it. They would, wouldn't they? Yet the valuable thing about the press is that it acts as a sort of British standard elbow to test the temperature of public susceptibilities. The way the press reacts to a document is the way a moderately intelligent, rather careless reader would take it.

And it is just one year since the same Catholic Commission for Racial Justice (CCRJ) proposed that Rastafarians should be invited to share, if not Catholic churches, at least Catholic church halls. At one stage it looked as if Bishop Leo McCartie, the CCRJ's episcopal president, would be egged on to make a prophetic stand by encouraging the Rastafarians' "sacramental" use of ganja

(marijuana) on Church property. He was far too sensible to try that one, though.

So, here we are, another year, another report, and no sign of anyone having taken the blindest bit of practical notice of the last one yet. Still, as the CCRJ points out on the front of its new report, it is "an advisory body of the Roman Catholic Bishops of England and Wales, established to assist the Church in developing its ministry within a multiracial, multicultural society." While it still exists in its present form, it must get on advising.

The present report seeks "to define racism, describe some of the forms it takes, and examine strategies for overcoming it." It also has a bone to pick with Lord Scarman, who, in his own report, denied that there was such a thing as "institutional racism" in Britain. Not so, it says. But on the whole, Scarman is a goodie, he wears a white hat, if you will forgive the unconscious prejudicial stereotype.

The definition of racism that the report proposes is unclear, and an uncertain basis on which to build a little system of ethics. It is seen as a combination of these three ideas: i) "Belief in the superiority of a particular race; theory that human abilities are determined by race". i) "A pattern of behaviour whose consequences, intended or not, are to reinforce present racial inequalities".

iii) "Racism is prejudice plus power".

The CCRJ report holds firmly on to certain principles, which it feels it could not admit even possibly to be false, if its goal of racial equality is to be preserved. So it denies, for example, that culture, even at the level of use of tools or gestures, could be genetically transmitted.

A key assertion is "a generalisation about the superiority of one culture over another is not possible." This assertion could easily be challenged by instancing the culture of the Third Reich, or of Bethnal Green's Jago area in the 1870s. But perhaps those objections are trivial. The problem comes for the CCRJ, since it is supposed to be a Catholic body, with the position of religion within culture.

As in the report on Rastafarians, it is firmly stated that religion is a constituent part of culture. If, then, no culture can be held to be superior to any other, how is the Christian to respond to a Christianised culture? Should he applaud the spread of faith while it changes the culture it is imposed on?

Specifically, how are Catholic schools to teach children in a non-ethnocentric way, a culturally indifferent way, in a multi-cultural context?

This last question is not asked in the present report. Indeed, it is sceptical about the value of education in removing prejudice. It does propose that "racial attitudes and discriminatory behaviour are as common among church people as among other groups in society."

The chief burden of this report is the development of a theoretical basis for a call to the Church to combat racism. Unfortunately, the scope for developing this theory in six pages is limited.

Talking of popular attitudes in British society in the recent past, the report says: "In this context, black people whose skin colour was a constant reminder of their former status as slaves were given a place at the bottom' of the social ladder". This surely can't refer to those who came from the former Indian Empire, the largest group of immigrants to Britain. It is hard to see how such unmanageable generalisations can be much more helpful than the misconceptions they are designed to replace.

No one can deny that Catholics ought not to be racist (and it is worthwhile noting that the Irish community in this country, solidly Catholic, has been, and to some extent remains, discriminated against).

But who is meant to read this report? How much time will each bishop give it? Perhaps it will serve mainly to reinforce prejudices.

Racism in British Society. Notes. and Reports, No. 12. CCRJ, 1 Amwell Street, London Ed. Price 30p.

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