The Cardinal and the Pope

1 August 2003

LEON-JOSEPH SUENENS (1904-1996) was one of the most influential Cardinals present at Vatican II. He called for the church to re-examine its condemnation of contraception and at the Council he warned that the church must “not have another Galileo case.” If his views had prevailed the Church and the very poor would have been saved a lot of trouble.

Thirty years ago, he came to explain Vatican II to us in London. The large hall was full. For 30 minutes, we heard about the theological developments. Then questions. One had an electric effect. I forget the words, but it was about the great divide between the rich and very poor. The packed audience fell completely silent. A pause, then: “That is a mortal sin.” As this emotional language registered – and this subject is dealt with in very emotional language in the gospels – the profound silence become expectant. Then: “But, I’m not an economist, I don’t know what to do about it.”

At the time, the disappointment in the audience was intense or, at least, it seemed so to me. Nowadays I can see the value of his attitude. When religious people with little or no economic expertise “speak out” about international finance, misleading a generation of Catholics in the process, then the good sense of “I’m not an economist, I don’t know what to do about it” becomes evident to me. It may not do much good, but it doesn’t do any harm.

ALBINO LUCIANI, (1912-1978) Pope John Paul I (the 33 days Pope) at the 1971 Synod, when he was Patriarch of Venice, proposed that the rich churches of the West should systematically give one per cent of their income to the poorer churches of the third world. This never caught on. Giving away someone else’s money – as in the debt campaign – is much more popular and this approach has won the day: money flows from government to government and often enough does as much harm as good. The one per cent from parish to parish would have been much better. (One per cent is about ten times too little, but the then Patriarch of Venice knew a lot about human nature.)

All in all, it is a consolation for me to find a Pope and a Cardinal expressing the views of the Zambia Group Newsletter all those many years ago: views which, in part at least, have already been put into action by the Nottingham Diocese’s connection with Zambia.