As a Glasgow Lay Dominican, I take a vow to the Order every three years. The last time was in St Dominic’s cell in Santa Sabina in front of the Master, Timothy Radcliffe, apart from anything else, an old friend. For some reason, I was bit nervous and said solemnly: I renew my vow for three days! Timothy bent down and said: That’s not much of a commitment, Duncan.
I hope that my coming here shows my commitment to this community which believes in God talk, in the search for truth and the search for peace with justice. The English Dominican theologian, Herbert McCabe, says of Dominicans that we are a community that specialises in talk. So it is a great pleasure, as a member of a lay Dominican community from Glasgow, Scotland, to talk to you today. I always enjoy being with my fellow Dominicans, whether at Santa Sabina, sipping gin on the Master’s terrace overlooking the Tiber or on the few occasions I manage home to Scotland being with the members of our particular Lay Dominican group. Remembering our father Dominic once sold his books to feed the poor saying that he could not study on dead skins while people were dying of hunger, we hope, through a mixture of prayer, study and dialogue, to undertake actions which will advance the preferential option for the poor. That is our particular charism, our particular angle on being Dominican which dominates the way we try to lead the Christian life.
I want to relate the theme of `Messengers?’ to my own work in Catholic relief, development and justice agencies for nearly twenty years, presently as Secretary General of Caritas Internationalis which is a Confederation of 154 Catholic relief, development and social service agencies working in 198 countries and territories. We try to be focused on the poorest and most marginalised and are changing from an assistentialist and charitable focus to one which sides with and empowers the poor and gets involved with tackling not only the symptoms of dehumanising poverty but also the deep-rooted causes. So we are getting more and more involved in justice issues, peace-building and reconciliation and advocacy work to change public policies towards the poor. This is a switch supported by the Holy Father who wrote in his Peace Letter in January 2000, `for the Catholic faithful, the commitment to build peace and justice is not secondcary but essential “.
I thought the most useful thing I could do is lay out what we in Catholic agencies think the messages are in order to take the option for the poor seriously in this Bush and Berlusconi world and suggest maybe some ways we as Lay Dominicans could react to them to make us messengers of hope and truth.
I want to address three issues – poverty, peace-building and our role in civil society
At the end of World War II, the world was dominated by three issues in international a.í~airs. The first was East versus West, the Cold War and the fight over ideologies. The second was how not to blow up the world and the third was the international political economy and the whole issue of how to get rid of poverty.
Qf those three, the common wisdom is that the Cold War is, if not over, then changed utterly and the nuclear threat has been significantly lessened. The last one, the nature of the economic model which will solve the problem of endemic pó rtv, is the issue which above a11 the international community has still to tackle.
The poverty I mean is not the positive poverty of the Dominican vow but dehumanising poverty. The kind you see when you visit the Korogocho slum in Nairobi where cats were bought for people suffering from leprosy so that rats would not gnaw their numb limbs while they slept. The kind you see in the Glasgow slum of Barrowfield where mothers try to keep their kids drug-free in a situation where the third aeneration is unemployed and all hope has gone. It is the kind of poverty which crushes people’s God-given humanity, undermines their dignity and is sinful to maintain.
But the ultimate cause of this poverty is structural. It is rooted in the way we have organised society economically and politically for the gain of the few to the detriment of the many. And market capitalism, which has now triumphed as the economic model, has not only not discovered a way to reduce the horrendous poverty figures for all but, in its extreme form, even adds to it. It is also recreating the kind of poverty of Jesus’ time – a poverty ivhich excluded people from participating in the society which controlled their lives.
It is admitted that we have the technological means to eradicate dehumanising poverty but we lack the political will. Redistribution of wealth is one of the best ways to combat poverty but the market does not regard this as its province while at the same time it makes it more difficult for states to adjust markets. Market capitalism has a political agenda to reduce the state so that the free market forces will determine policies in both the economic and social spheres. The Market then becomes the organising principle of society. Applying the principles of Catholic Social Teaching to economic globalisation, the American bishops, in their economic pastoral letter, articulated that the economy existed for the person, not the person for the economy, that a fundamental moral measure of any economy was its effect on the poor and vulnerable, that justice should be the cornerstone of economics and that all economic life should be shaped by moral principles which serve the common good, not the common greed.
There are two ways we can tackle this situation. One is proposed by Herbert McCabe – capitalism is at heart anti-Christian because it pits one human being against another and is the source of human antagonism and therefore we have to reject it – and the other is to accept it won’t go away and try to change it. I must admit that, after a life of activism, I think the latter will get us further.
But ethics are not enough. We need the information, the training and tools to be advocates for public policy change and to empower the poor to speak for themselves. Being a Good Samaritan today means being a political lobbyist for the poor, working towards restraining market capitalism and making it more humane. And that applies to other areas of life – human rights, AIDS, the plight of refugees and displaced people and so on. In Geneva, where UN bodies abound, Caritas Internationalis has joined up with Franciscans International and the Dominicans to produce good analyses and reports for use by our members to advocate with their governments. Recently, our Caritas in the European region produced a report about lifting the economic sanctions against Iraq sanctions which kill half a million children every year – and we are using that evidence from the grassroots in Geneva and in New York to work for change.
It may seem odd to praise our Franciscan brothers and sisters at a Dominican gathering but it seems to me that with their extensive international lobbying system through e-mail, and through e~ctensive presence in the UN centres of the world, organising the friars, sisters and lay people as trained advocates, they provide a model for what our Order could achieve. If we are not all that well organised, then we have to work out a way together to achieve that.
Peace-building and Reconciliation
In the past six years, over 4 million people have been killed in wars, 90% of them civilians. There are now 18 million refugees ( a six fold increase since 1970) and 24 million internally displaced – a doubling since 1985. And old wars still eat away at the social fabric of many societies.
The difference with conflicts nowadays is not only that the majority of victims are civilians but that two-thirds of the conflicts which beset our planet are caused by identity rather than territorial ambition. In Caritas, we have seen many of the development projects supported over the years in ruins as one ethnic, linguistic or religious group attacks another. For that reason, we now want to analyse our work through the lens of peace-building and reconciliation. Just as many of us take a gender perspective in our long-term development work, since women are at the centre of any community development, so we now want to take a reconciliation perspective in our relief and development work to use mechanisms to bring people together rather than set them apart.
I am just back from Croatia where Caritas Croatia and the Franciscan Institute for Peace have begun a process to reconcile the Croats not only with their own past but also with living in harmony with the Serbs again. At the conference party at the end, Serb and Croat sang and danced together. It is a beginning.
The Dominicans, being close to the people, are in an ideal position to give early warning signals of potential conflict and encoura~e `peace-building from below’ – to help establish peace committees, counteract false information, reduce stereotypes which reify people, promote human rights and use mediation techniques. All these belong to the creation of a peace mentality which we have to build into all aspects of our work. There is also a personal aspect. The Buddhists say if you want to work for peace, learn first not to slam doors. We also have to look at our language. Words, as Timothy says, can offer resurrection or crucifixion. Words which lie contribute to violence. We have to watch how we speak to one another. To speak truthfully is itself an act of justice. What could be more Dominican than that? Yet we need Dominican training programmes in peace-building and reconciliation for all of us, including lay people. Maybe that should be at the heart of our renewed commitment.
The last element I want to deal with is civil society. If we fail to take our message of justice and peace out of the chapel and into mainstream society, then we have failed. As the former Prior of St Albert the Great in Edinburgh, Euan Marley O.P., once stated, perhaps the most important part of mass is really the commissioning at the end – the Mass zs ended. Go to love and serve the Lord because that is when we should take what we have prayed about in the liturgy into the world. Civil society includes trade unions, non-governmental organisations and, of course, the Church. In fact, the Church constitutes one of the oldest segments of civil society, bringing a different vision centred on the dignity of the human person, taking advantage of its global structure and capillarity, stretching from the parish to the diocese to the bishops’ conference to the international Holy See level and revealing its sense of community – a particular view of how we should live together on this planet. We should not be coy in exercising our muscle in civil society fora. Let me give a few examples.
In Bolivia, the bishops and Caritas are pushing for a social control mechanism which will oversee the use of funds from debt relief. In Rome last year, in conjunction with the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, we held a training session for church leaders in Africa and Latin America on the World Bank’s new Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers so that they will have the knowled~e and tools to put their ethics into practice with their governments, World Bank officials and the rest. And in Scotland, the churches were in the forefront of ensuring that civil society had a voice in the newly resurrected Scottish Parliament – and that it was different from the bear pit of Westminster. How can we use the worldwide Dominican family, friar, sister, layperson, to take a more consistent and coordinated part in civil society, to be more vociferous in the public debate to change public policy towards the poor?
As you may have guessed, I am a bit of Radcliffe groupie. Most people I know who know him are! So I want to end by quoting him again. He was once asked what he sought in a potential friar or sister – a solid prayer life, piety or what? His answer was: a passion for life. Passion is a word we Christians are often afraid of. It can mean being unruly; rocking the boat, knocking over our cosy views. Yet what he means is that he looks for people who, in the words of the Psalmist, want to say, my heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God, who want to see life and society reflect more exactly what Jesus taught, lived and died for. It means getting involved in the messiness of life and, as St Dominic puts it, `putting on truth’, a truth that calls us to justice, peace-making, hope, love and change. We Dominicans should be brimful of such passion. But we need coordination, structure, strategies for that passion to be more than a cliché or platitudes. We must remember that those who believe in the culture of death are well organised, so those of us who believe in the `civilisation of love’ had better get our act together. That is the challenge I leave us all with.
Durncan MacLaren, Rome, May 2001
Secretary General, Caritas Internationalis