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Authentic Catholicism

I don’t suppose the news story below (from Ghana ) will have made any headlines in the US or in Europe, but in Africa, it is of sufficient importance to have made a national news agency, and from there to my Google News service for the Catholic Church. This is entirely appropriate, because this story and what it represents, neatly illustrates an important part of what authentic Catholicism is all about:

Catholic Church provides boreholes for

deprived communities in Upper East

The Navrongo-Bolgatanga Diocesan Development Office (NABOCADO) of the Catholic Church has drilled 13 boreholes valued at GH¢ 176,198 for 13 communities in its jurisdiction.

The beneficiary communities are Saboro/ Kawenia in Nakong, Kayoro-Wumbeo, Nayagnia, Mirigu-Nabango-Nyanga, Kandiga-Lemizongo all in the Kassena-Nankana West District, in Upper East Region.

The rest are Jimbale, Soghaam, Kufuk, Gingbane, Tambok and Kinkangu also in Bunkpurugu-Yunyoo District, in the Northern Region.

Commissioning the facility at the weekend at Nakong, in the Kassena-Nankana District, the Administrator of the Navrongo-Bolgatanga Diocese, Monsignor Thomas Anamooh, said the Catholic Church was following the foot steps of Jesus Christ by attending to the social needs of the people.

According to him, people could not assimilate the word of God on empty stomachs and so the Church could only effectively win more souls for the Church when it gave critical attention to the needs of the people, especially the poor.

Msgr. Anamooh indicated that, it was based on this conviction that the Church decided to provide the boreholes to the communities to provide potable water for them because it was one of their pressing needs.

Full report at Ghana News Agency.

In the Western world, we use water carelessly, without a thought. We shower or bath daily, sometimes more often. We use it freely in our dishwashers and washing machines. We wash our cars, and in drier or hotter climates we water our gardens and fill our swimming pools. Water definitely makes our lives more comfortable and pleasant, yet we hardly give it a thought. In rural Africa, water is not about comfort – it’s a daily grind for survival.

Across huge swathes of the continent, piped domestic water simply does not exist. For many people, securing household water means daily walking miles to a local river, there and back, the return journey burdened by the weight of water. This labour falls largely on the women, but also on the children, often taking them out of school to do so.

Consider the implications of this exhausting daily chore. The trip may takes hours out of the day, leaving reduced  time or energy for other chores (or schoolwork). There is an obvious limit to the quantity that may be brought home daily, so that the household is severely limited in the amount available for cooking and cleaning – in a dusty living environment where the need for cleaning is far greater than in comfortable Western homes, so protected from the elements. If the family hopes to grow vegetables to supplement the cash budget for food, the need for watering will put further strain on the water available for other purposes.

Now think of the quality of the water. Coming from African rivers, it will likely be infected with any number of possible tropical diseases. It cannot be safely used for food preparation, and possibly not even for washing, without sterilization – perhaps by boiling. But boiling the water simply increases the need for fuel – probably to be had only by collecting firewood, which is another major daily chore – and which is constantly contributing to deforestation across Africa.

Without piped water, there is no possibility of proper sanitation either. Without sanitation, the environmental health conditions are poor. So to add to the heavy burden of daily collecting firewood and fetching water, African women and men are permanently at risk of avoidable disease attributable to poor water and sanitation. With poor health, men may lack the strength or energy to work to full capacity, children struggle to concentrate at school, and pregnant women in poor health themselves are at greater risk of maternal or infant mortality, or of delivering babies in poor health.

All the standard indicators of health, from infant, child, and maternal mortality, through child malnutrition and life expectancy, are significantly worse in Africa than in other parts of the world – and are dramatically worse in rural areas than in the cities. Poor health can easily create a poverty trap from which people who are already desperately  poor, find it nearly impossible to break out. The simple provision of reliable water, close to the village homes, can literally be a lifesaver for many villagers. It will certainly be a life changer.

Why is this so big as a Catholic issue?

To judge from either the most outspoken voices of the Catholic right, or from the anti-Catholic opposition, you could easily think that Catholicism’s most distinctive features are an insistence on blind obedience to the Pope and Catechism, and puritanical sexual ethics.  The empirical evidence from actual research, shows a very different picture.

Duigan McGuinley, in “Acts of Faith, Acts of Love“, reviews some research on Catholic “identity”, Catholics’ own perceptions of what it is that makes them Catholic. For example, a 1999 survey by the sociologists, Hoge, D’Antonio, Davidson and Meyer, found

substantial agreement across a wide range of Catholics…regarding what is most central about being a Catholic. Topping the list is the sacraments, followed closely by a sense of spirituality, concern for the poor, and the spirit of community.

What is notably absent from that list is blind obedience, to either Pope or Catechism.

Two earlier studies from 1997 and 1999 showed similar results. One summary of the 1997 study identified three sets of factors constituting Catholic identity, conceived as three concentric rings.

  • The most important, central, factors were the core beliefs of Catholicism: the Trinity, the incarnation, the Real Presence, and Mary as Mother of God.
  • The next set were the Church’s social teachings and responsibility to the poor.
  • The third circle concerns rituals, such as attending Mass and receiving communion, which are commonly represented as “practicing Catholics”.

Once again, I do not see in there any reference to automatic obedience, still less to compliance with “official” sexual ethics. But in both these characterizations of Catholic “identity”, a sense of social responsibility and concern for the poor ranked high- which is what the Ghana contribution to clean water is all about. Let’s take a closer look at this.

First, it’s a relatively small cash amount, spread over a number of villages. In each community, a little money goes a long way ( in total contrast to Vatican splendour) . Second, it’s in “Upper East” province, a long way from the metropolitan hubs that generally catch the news. This is something the church has done because it’s right, not for soundbites or news clips. Third,  this local project is replicated right across Africa, with a major part of the funding coming from people like you, in the rich world.

It’s not only water: similar projects help out with alternatives to firewood for fuel, or local irrigation projects.  For over fifty years in South Africa, I was acutely conscious of the extraordinary impact of rural Catholic schools, which supplied countless young people with a quality of education that was simply not available through the state system. An entirely disproportionate number of influential Africans holding leadership positions in politics and government, in business, in the professions, in the universities or the development agencies, owe their succes in part to their Catholic education.

The pattern is repeated in medicine. Three of my five sisters were delivered in a Catholic maternity hospital. Like most South African women, my mother has always sworn that the quality of care she received there was far superior to that in any other she was in. In the rural areas, the discrepancy  in standards is even greater.

It’s also not just Africa. Adjusted for local needs and conditions, the same pattern applies across Asia and South America.

So: for all my frustrations with the Catholic Church, over incomprehensible reasoning on sexual ethics, or an entirely inappropriate mode of governance, totally out of touch with the modern world, this is one of the reasons I continue to proclaim that I am indeed a Catholic: from the broadest possible perspective, on the things that really matter, with the power to fundamentally change and improve human lives, the Catholic Church really is where it’s at.

(There are many excellent books on the problems of development facing Africa, but the three which totally transformed my thinking, and showed me for the first time the deep interconnections between clean water, sanitation, and economic underdevelopment, were all by Paul Harrison. The first I found deeply worrying, describing the sad state of development worldwide. The second was a little more optimistic about the chances of progress in Asia and possibly Latin America but not Africa. The third, focusing exclusively on Africa, described a number of important new indications that real progress was possible.

Since then, progress has been significant in economic progress and some other areas, but there remains a huge challenge to be faced, especially in the rural areas and urban slums. The rapidly expanding middle classes are rather better off.)

Harrison, Paul: Third World Tomorrow: A Report from the Battlefront in the War Against Poverty

Harrison, Paul: Inside the Third World: The Anatomy of Poverty; Third Edition (Penguin politics)

Harrison, Paul: The Greening of Africa. Breaking Through in the Battle for Land and Food

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4 Responses

  1. Terence,

    A wonderful reminder of how much good can be accomplished, and is accomplished, through the Church. It puts into perspective the significance, for both the right and the left, of the hot button social issues that seem to divide the Church.

  2. Thank you for sharing this. When I tell people why I am Catholic, I tell them it is 1) because of the liturgy and 2) because my local church takes social justice seriously, not for the sake of converting people, but because we believe that is what Jesus called us to do. This is a great story I will share with others.

  3. I’m glad you liked it, David & Regina.

    It’s far too easy to slip into the habit or muttering about what’s wrong with the church. When we ignore what is right, we create two problems: we develop a negative view of the church as a whole, and we create a distorted picture of where the balance in the church truly lies.

    I am grateful to David for an earlier comment, in which he reminded me of how much we are neglecting here. So when I saw the story that was the lead-in, given that I have some knowledge of African conditions, I knew I just had to share it.

    Thank you David, for the prompt.

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