Ideology or Faith – Which Comes First?

Reprinted from The Common Good, No 61, Pentecost 2012

Jim Consedine

I must say that it has been an area of fascination for me to observe as I have got older the widely differing positions practicing Catholics take on the myriad of social questions that face us every day.

We are a Church founded on Christ and supported by the twin foundation stones of Scripture and Tradition. The command of Jesus that we should ‘love God and love our neighbour’ is central to our faith. We should be able to measure our practice of faith by the litmus test of how well we lived these teachings. Yet from the time of the Reformation onwards into the middle of the 20th century, we downplayed the role of Scripture in our daily lives and put Tradition on ice.

Vatican II

The Second Vatican Council dealt to those positions by re-evaluating the role Scripture should be playing in our spiritual journeys and encouraging us to see the theology of Tradition through fresh eyes. In particular, what we taught in relation to ‘love your neighbour’ became a source of great development. We had, so we thought a bit smugly, the ‘best set of social teachings’ of any of the Churches. Mention any social issue, and the Church had evaluated it and proposed ways forward to live what this dimension of ‘love your neighbour’ should mean for the practising Christian.

Issues relating to poverty and hunger, violence, war and peace, monetary policy, corporate capitalism, communism, sexual ethics, issues around birth, marriage, social relationships, community, heath and illness, death and marriage, all fell under the judicious eye of the Church’s senior teachers and often ended up in what we called ‘social encyclicals,’ written by the Pope of the day.

Since the 1960s, when television brought the crisis in food distribution, world hunger and war into our evening lounges, Church social teaching has often returned to the problems thrown up by capitalism, and its modern incarnations, corporate capitalism and global finance. This is the monetary system that dominates the lives of most on the planet today and perpetuates, indeed expands, the division between rich and poor.

Social Teachings

The Church has responded by setting out very clear guidelines for the practice of monetary policy based on justice and the dignity of people and promoting ‘the common good’ as the basis for the use and distribution of wealth. This was a doctrine first developed in detail by St Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century and fine tuned ever since. It recognizes that the resources of the world belong to all and not just those with power, education and political influence. It highlights that Jesus came to ‘bring Good News to the poor’ as a primary goal of his mission and that of the Church.

Much of the Church’s social teaching has remained concealed for too long, bound in volumes, stuck on dusty shelves, propping up pot plants. Someone once said that ‘the Word became flesh and didn’t remain newsprint.’ That’s true. And it was that wandering French philosopher, Peter Maurin, co-founder with Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker, who wrote, ‘Scholars have taken the dynamite of the Church, have wrapped it in nice phraseology, placed it in a hermetic container and sat on the lid. It’s about time to blow the lid off’ (The Common Good, Spring 1996).

For a couple of decades after Vatican II there was a flowering of fresh teaching. Scripture groups popped up all over the place, justice and peace groups sought to best present the social teachings, prayers groups rooted in local communities flowered and the Church became a place of real spiritual nourishment and heightened expectation. The ‘dynamite’ was taken out of the dusty tomes and used as it was meant to be. Sad to say, those halcyon days appear to be over.

The Dominance of Ideology

One issue however that was never resolved properly was the issue of ideology. What part does it play in our faith journeys?

I well remember the first time I raised the issue of the negative effects of the ideology of capitalism in a sermon. It was Palm Sunday in 1979. It was in front of a packed ecumenical service in the Anglican Cathedral in Christchurch. I was reflecting on the teachings of scripture about the need for Christians to reach out to the poor and how the economic structures of the time impeded that process. By the time the homily had concluded, about one third of the congregation had left. They simply got up and walked out.

I was surprised and dismayed. That day I learnt a valuable lesson. The full teaching of the Gospel of Jesus placed in a modern context will have people walking away. Jesus had the same problem in his time. ‘They walked no longer with him.’ Christianity, properly understood, contains a dangerous and subversive message.

Since then I have often reflected that one of the main reasons why social justice (‘love your neighbour’) is preached so rarely in parish churches is that congregations are wedded – consciously or otherwise – to the dominant culture of consumer capitalism and its benefits for them. They are not prepared to hear how exploitative and sinful and dangerous it can be for billions of people. Seemingly, few preachers are prepared to remind them.

In Aotearoa/NZ, some of the very worst social legislation ever passed (some negative effects are still with us) came at a time when Jim Bolger, a practising Catholic, was prime minister and Ruth Richardson was finance minister. Their faith seemed to make absolutely no difference to social policy. Ideology ruled, not faith. Both the economically poor (as in beneficiaries) and the trade unions, the chief protectors of workers’ pay and conditions, were wacked by individualistic ideology and punitive law changes. It was all done in the name of freedom of choice, but it undermined the Church’s social teaching on labour relations at every turn.

Having several Catholics in the current Key Cabinet over the past four years seems to have made little positive difference to social policy. Beneficiaries again have been scapegoated as the country tries to weather the economic crises engineered by the rich and powerful. Currently, unions are again being targeted as a means of further controlling monetary policy.


So what takes precedence in our thinking, faith or ideology? Sadly, ideology is winning in a landslide, as the poor and disenfranchised are disappearing into garages, back sheds and overcrowded tenements. The Church’s social teachings run a very distant second.

If you think the case is overstated, ask yourself – when was the last time you heard the mission of Jesus ‘to bring Good News to the poor’ highlighted in a homily? Or growing levels of poverty preached in relation to the crisis in capitalism? Or the non-violence of Jesus preached? Or the evils of war?

Need we wonder why our churches are in decline when ‘the dynamite’ of the Church’s social teaching remains wrapped in hermetic containers? As Peter Maurin said all those years ago, we need to blow the lid off.

Jim Consedine lives in South Brighton and is a member of the Christchurch Catholic Worker.

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