Faith or Ideology – What Takes Precedence?

Jim Consedine

I well remember being present in Syracuse in upstate New York in the summer of 1991 at the trial of four Catholic Worker peace activists. Calling themselves the ANZUS Ploughshares, the group included New Zealander Moana Cole and Ciaron O’Reilly from Brisbane, Australia. The accused had cut through a wire fence surrounding the Griffiths Air Force Base and poured their blood symbolically over and hammered on a B52 bomber bound for the first Iraq war. They took as their mission the words of the prophet Isaiah, ‘they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not raise war against nation; they will train for war no more.’ (Is 2/6)

One of the more intriguing things I discovered at the trial was that practically every official in the court was Catholic. The judge, both prosecutors, the four defendants, their two lawyers – all Catholic. Most of the jury appeared also to be Catholic.

But this surplus of Catholicism appeared to make no difference to anyone, especially the prosecutors and the judge. They ruled out any reference to God, scripture, to the morality of the war, and particularly to the death of innocents in Iraq that this peaceful action was trying to prevent. In other words, they ruled out context. Instead they insisted that only the letter of the law be taken into account. Such has been the ruling by judges in nearly every one of the more than 100 Ploughshares trials since the first in 1980. The court was to consider only violation of the laws/ideology of the sacredness of property. Violation of people or God’s law was not an issue. Ideology not faith ruled.

I mention this example because at a recent bible study, we spent some time reflecting on the Beatitudes in Luke and asked the question – what is it that makes Christians different from those without faith beliefs? Was being baptised and ‘being Catholic’ enough? Do our values vary markedly from those of the prevailing culture, the dominant ideology, or are they essentially indistinguishable?

Research Pointers

We were mindful of the fact that research done at Massey University (1992) in New Zealand and since updated shows that in many areas concerning social justice, there is little if any difference between the values and attitudes of church-going Christians and the remainder of the population. For example, in areas pertaining to the environment, nuclear weapons, apartheid, the role and status of women and Maori rights, there was no significant difference. In fact in some areas – nuclear weapons and racism were two – Christians were less committed to social change than non-religious people. It was almost as if the Gospel didn’t exist. In other words, the values of the dominant culture prevailed for a sizeable majority of Christians, despite the fact that widespread injustice has been evidenced in all of these social areas.1

We drew the obvious conclusion that ideology plays a very important role in how we live our faith and in many instances – consciously or otherwise – dominates how we live our lives.

Devotional Catholicism

We looked at deeply religious societies where injustice is institutionalised yet the prevailing religion is Christian, indeed often Catholic. The whole of Central and Latin America. Parts of Africa. Traditional Europe. We noted that in the Pacific – Fiji, the Solomon Islands, East Timor, Vanuatu, Tonga – where there has been huge instability and injustice for decades, the leaders all profess to be deeply committed Christians. We recalled that General Franco, the dictator who ruled Spain for 40 years after fighting his way to power through a bloody civil war, was regularly at Mass and Holy Communion. That Augusto Pinnocet, the brutal and corrupt Chilean dictator who overthrew the elected government, inaugurated his regime in 1973 with a Mass in the cathedral attended by the cardinal archbishop. That President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo of the Philippines is a practising Catholic yet presides over a regime that is rapidly deteriorating into the brutality and injustice that marked the regime of Ferdinand Marcos, another Catholic, a generation ago.

The list goes on. It now includes Erik Prince, self professed conservative Catholic and founder and CEO of Blackwater USA, the principal mercenary security provider in Iraq and a former US Navy SEAL, who has ‘an ideological commitment to the foreign policy of the Bush Administration.’ Blackwater has been at the centre of numerous allegations of murder and violence against Iraqi civilians and is under investigation by US authorities.

All the evidence appears to be that in as much as the Church in these countries and these leaders practiced a private devotional Christian faith, it left little imprint on how they conducted their public lives. Yet devotional private religion is clearly not enough. The Kingdom of God signposted through the presence of justice, development and peaceful co-operation was little evidenced in how these people lived. Yet the proclamation of such a Kingdom in our midst was central to the message of Jesus.

He sent me to bring good news to the poor; to proclaim liberty to captives; and to give new sight to the blind; to free the oppressed and announce the Lord’s year of mercy…Today these prophetic words come true even as you listen. Lk 4/18-20

The question arises – is it primarily faith that guides people or ideology? To what do we give precedence?

Church Social Teaching

The influence of ideology on faith has been a key concept of Papal encyclicals over the past 100 years. As early as Rerum Novarum (1891), Leo XIII was reflecting on the impact of social ideology on workers and wages in an industrialised society and clearly setting out signposts as to how faith should be lived in the midst of an oppressive ideology. Pius XI developed those teaching further in his encyclical (1931) when he spoke of his alarm at the rise of ideologies of totalitarianism, and critiqued the ‘capitalist regime.’ Three decades later, The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World of Vatican II focused on the relations between social systems and faith and outlined some clear demarcation points and directions for the future. ‘The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the peoples of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these too are the joys and the hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts.’ (1)

But it was Paul VI’s encyclical Populorum Progressio (1968), which spelt out in more depth the implications of the teachings of Vatican II and the relationship between ideology and faith. In claiming ‘development is the new way to peace’, the Pope clarified essential elements of Christian faith and planted them clearly in the soil of social justice, development and peacemaking. The Pope spoke specifically of action for social justice as ‘a moral obligation’ and as ‘a duty of solidarity’ for followers of Christ. If ever justice was seen in the past as an optional extra, this is no longer the case, a fact hammered home in the Bishops’ Synod on Justice (1971) which proclaimed that ‘justice was a constitutive dimension of living the Gospel.’

Seventeen years later, John Paul II went even further. In Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (1988), he talked about ideologies and faith and in the context of the Cold War and spelt out his alarm at the huge injustices of both major ideologies, corporate capitalism and state socialism, calling them ‘structures of sin’. A world which is divided into blocs, sustained by rigid ideologies, and in which, instead of interdependence and solidarity, rigid ideologies hold sway, can only be a world subject to structures of sin (36). That is powerful stuff.

He highlighted the dominating role ideologies were having on the practice of faith worldwide and warned Christians to be aware of the dangers of becoming captive to either of the then dominant ideologies, capitalism and Marxism. He did not deny that ideology plays a part in peoples’ lives. The key issue was to determine what part it played and to be aware of it. He later went on to note that taking a position of solidarity with the needy and the wretched of this earth, and identifying with the Church’s preferential option for the poor were two of the appropriate ideological positions for followers of Christ. This love of preference for the poor and the decisions which it inspires in us cannot but embrace the immense multitudes of the hungry, the needy, the homeless, those without medical care, and above all, those without hope of a better future. It is impossible not to take account of the existence of these realities. To ignore them would mean becoming like the rich man who pretended not to know the beggar Lazarus lying at his gate. (Lk 16/19-31) (42)

Justice – An Optional Extra?

The question in our study group was, is social justice in effect an optional extra? Does the Church here in Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific sit so comfortably with the prevailing ideology of global capitalism that few are prepared to challenge it? Why are sermons on justice so rare in our churches? And when they are preached, why do so many get upset? Is it that when we speak of injustice, we often challenge aspects of the prevailing ideology? Why do so many of us want a devotional or simplistic faith that doesn’t impact on the way we live our communal lives and doesn’t challenge our prevailing social beliefs? Are these things not the core of scriptural content? Did Jesus not speak mostly about issues affecting the relationships between and among the people – that is, issues of justice? Does not justice sit at the very heart of the nature of God? Why then do we keep avoiding talking about it? And why do we still keep stoning the prophets of social justice?

I remember being in Ireland a while back and in the course of a year listening to Sunday sermons at the local church, never once heard the words ‘social justice’ mentioned. Not once. If one took what the priests were saying, one would presume the Gospel contained no mention of social justice.

We wondered whether there is a built-in aversion to a paradox of the Gospel whereby in genuinely seeking to deepen our life in Christ inevitably we are bought closer to the Cross? That insight led to a tough question – do many of us, lay people, priests and religious, spend our energies avoiding spiritual growth so as to avoid being drawn closer to the Cross? Because whatever understanding we have of the Gospel is central to how we will live it. If it contains no major component of social justice, then that will be reflected in our lives.

It is only when we recognise how dominant ideology is in our everyday thinking that we can take steps to separate out its influence. The worry is that where ideology is the prevailing force and not recognised as such, many will reshape their faith to suit its needs – thus attempting to reshape God into a new image. St Paul warns us about this particularly in relation to materialism, pinpointing greed as one such idol (Col 3/5). Many argue that in recent years western culture has often merged Christian faith and ideology into a false idol of materialism, affluence and comfort, backed by a warrior god. Nothing could be less biblical.

A recognition of the current total pervasiveness of the global consumer culture that dominates western ideology helps explain the Massey University survey quoted earlier which shows the lack of substantive difference between those who believe and have faith, and those who have no faith. In a majority of cases, ideology is obviously the more dominant influence, not faith.

Three Questions

In our study group, we suggested there were three questions which were crucial for believing Christians to be able to answer in order to face this problem of faith and ideology. ‘Whose God do we worship?’ is a vital first question. We suggest the god who sits comfortably with corporate capitalism and war is the antithesis of the God of biblical justice. The second question, ‘Who do you say I am?‘ asks how we see the Risen Christ working in our lives. The answer to this is central to how we live our faith. And thirdly, ‘how do we understand scripture in the light of what is happening around us today?‘ Where there is no analysis of ‘the signs of the times’ (as Vatican II stated) then there is usually only a simplistic understanding of scripture lacking critical depth. This is evidenced often in devotional, evangelical and fundamentalist interpretations. We asked whether this is an issue for churches today, including many Catholic parishes?

How we answer those three questions largely determines the values we believe and live, or not. Grappling with these questions may help answer the question posed earlier – is it primarily faith that guides us, or ideology?

1 Webster and Perry, What Difference Does it Make? Alpha Publications and Massey University, 1992

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