Theologians

9 September 2002

In 1970, I was helping out in a practice in Wimbledon where the assistant was a young Indian woman doctor from Calcutta. This Indian doctor was a friend of the then Archbishop of Calcutta – I think he had a name like Petachy. The Archbishop had come to visit the doctor in south London. Thinking of my heroine at the time, I said, “Does he look after Mother Teresa?” Turning to me with a engaging smile, she replied, “Oh no; she looks after him.” I put this in just to show that it’s easy to get things wrong.

This doctor had lived in Calcutta in the 1950’s and 1960’s, when the very poor lay, just like Lazarus, almost directly outside the church door. I’d always been puzzled by the fact that in the many hundreds of sermons I had heard, all of them to congregations made up of the rich or very rich, I’d never had the feeling that the congregation was being told that their moral situation was poor, about as poor as a moral situation could be, and that there were troubles ahead if they did not watch out.

I thought this was partly due to the fact that in England the really poor are several thousand miles away. However, this young Indian doctor told me that the situation as regards sermons was just the same in Calcutta as in England, even though the very poor were almost at the door of the church where the well-to-do went to Mass. I asked why this was and she indicated that she thought that if the teaching were put across as in the gospels, there would be no congregation left. I suspect the same applies to England. Sermons are not much good if there is no congregation.

It was probably much the same in our Lord’s time, and that when he talked about the rich/poor divide, using the vivid and emotional language which we all know, his audience would be nearly always made up of the very poor.

Indeed, when the listeners were not all poor – for instance, when the story of the camel and the needles eye came up – the disciples were shaken, and remonstrated, and managed to get the outlook for the rich modified by the remark, “with God all things are possible”.

Many years ago I had a nice letter from an abbess – I think the only letter I have ever had from an abbess. She had read a letter of mine that indicated, perhaps too colourfully, that I was puzzle by the lack of interest of some bishops in the rich/poor divide. In a very winning way she gave me a most useful tip, which went something like this: “Judge not and you will not be judged.”

I’ve often thought to hand on this useful bit of information to the Justice and Peace Commission, or to the readers of Vocation for Justice, to re-enforce the story of the mote and beam, and the story of the tax collectors and sinners, but I’ve always thought it would do more harm than good.

And that is the catch with all these quotations given directly. No one takes any notice of them. If we all clubbed together to provide every theologian with a plaque for his or her desk inscribed with that heartfelt sentence: “I thank you Father, Lord of Heaven and Earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and learned and revealed them to mere babes” would it have any effect? I doubt it.

And for moral theologians going on and on about contraception “You put on the backs of the poor burdens too heavy to bear.” They will feel that this does not apply.

And for those theologians who think the pill is a grave moral problem, whilst having untroubled consciences about living like Dives, whilst Lazarus and his millions of brethren lie outside the gate: “You strain at a gnat and swallow a camel.” Now, now, they will say, “a pill that prevents ovulation is not a gnat, it’s a grave moral problem. Why it is we do not know, but it is”.

This has hardly touched the series of misfortunes that theologians have brought upon the Church, and the poor, and more especially God’s own beloved people the Jews, but keeping the abbess in mind I’d better say this about theologians: they have done more good than harm, we can’t do without them, we’d love to meet them more often, but as Mr Churchill said about scientists: “We want them on tap and not on top”.

In the 1950’s it was possible to believe that the Church would be a major contributor to solving the great rich/poverty divide with the Church’s deep roots both in the rich northern world and in the poor southern world. Practical help from many missionaries supported by individual contributions from individuals has in fact done a very great deal, so that in Zambia, for instance, a knowledgeable non-catholic doctor 30 years in Zambia could say, “without the Church the country would collapse – the medical side of it anyway”.

Unfortunately, this great good has been nullified, or worse than nullified, by the theories of theologians derived from who knows where, probably the Greeks and Karl Marx, certainly not the gospels, so that non-Catholics have come to believe that far from helping the poor the Church is always an obstructive force – obstructing any attempt to control population, and putting the blame for poverty onto an economic system which – in the Far East, at least – has improved the lot of the poor more rapidly than any other system in history.

Again, Zambia, in its first 30 years of independence, is a good example. Zambia did what the theologians believed in – it did not bother with population, and it avoided capitalism. Now, despite borrowing huge amounts of money to keep going, it has become so deeply poverty stricken that generations will pass before it is back on its feet.

Are theologians and their followers impressed by all this? Not in the least. But when historians review this drama, some theologian – they are not all hopeless – will produce a book which will give less prominence to the teachings of the Greeks and the Marxists, and more to the teaching we can read about in the works of St Matthew, St Mark, St Luke, and, with a few reservations, St John.

Gerry Danaher

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