The catholic left and prophecy – Rosemary Haughton (1967)

Rosemary Haughton

[Originally published in Slant’s #13 Feb/Mch ’67 issue.]

I was one of those present when the Downside group voted (by a majority of one) that the symposium on the ‘Problems of a Common Culture’, planned for this year, should not be held under their aegis. This seemed to me to be a tragedy both for the group and for the symposium, but it seems worthwhile to make use of this occasion to discuss certain notions of mine connected with the catholic left, in the hope that my doubts will prove to be groundless. They may well seem extremely naive to readers of Slant, but since I am both sympathetic and fairly intelligent my misconceptions could provide a useful opportunity for clarification.

I was saddened by the decision of the Downside group, because it seemed to me that these people who had been really thinking at a time when most catholics were merely acting as ecclesiastical ticker-tape, would provide a stimulus to the development of the catholic left as a christian thing. The whole tendency of their previous work seemed to be in the direction indicated by this kind of concern. The vision of human solidarity, of the Church as God’s people, in which power is articulated throughout the whole body for the service of the world, seemed to be implicit in what had gone before and to find a clearer and more far-reaching form in exploring the church-world relationship in the terms that are in process of definition and extension by the new left movement. Their failure to take up the implicit challenge, whatever the reasons given, seemed to me a failure to follow their own vocation, a failure of vision, and no amount of charity, sincerity and goodwill—which were shown at every turn—can fully compensate for that. So I mourn this decision for the sake of the Downside group, whom I greatly admire, but I regret it also for the sake of the catholic left, and this regret I think Slant readers will find harder to understand.

The reason is that it seems to me increasingly important that the catholic left should have an opportunity to discover itself and define its own nature as christian. The work of the movement, as developed in Slant and in the books published by members, has been marked by a shared vision of what human life is about and therefore what the church is about. Emphases vary widely, but the common conviction is clear—the response of christians to the demands of Christ in the contemporary world situation should be in terms of that vision of social relationships which carries the ‘left’ label. But it has seemed to me and to others that there is an area in the description of this commitment where accounts of it seem to ‘go soft’, so that people altogether convinced of the rightness of their commitment still seem unable to ‘place’ it as a christian thing. And the demand that they should is increasing, among those who are ‘instinctively’ sympathetic, feeling a whole but undefined conviction that this is the proper christian response, but finding it hard to discover the credentials of the movement within their understanding of the christian tradition. It may be difficult for those already involved in the movement to realise the extent to which its essentially christian nature may be unclear even to people of goodwill, but even for the most convinced there can surely be nothing but gain in extending study and definition in wider terms and even in other terms than these that seem most obviously useful, if this extends the area of relevance of what is being said.

I am interested (if that is not too mild a word) in the catholic left movement as a christian, because I think it is a christian thing, of a recognisable kind, a traditional kind, and I want to know whether I am wildly off the mark or whether what I am saying means something to ‘the Slant people’. 

The voice and function of prophecy

It seems to me that the catholic left movement has the nature of prophecy. The prophet’s function is to call attention, loudly and stidently, to things about itself that his particular community has forgotten. He points out what the community is, its origins, its raison d’etre, and the likely penalties of forgetting these things. The prophet is one of the community, he is involved in its hopes and fears and mistakes and sins. He does not come in from outside but out from inside, and in this way he can speak both for and to the community. The voice of prophecy is the word of God, but it is that because it is the word of this community, in a language it can understand. It is its own, authentic voice, and that is why it és the voice of God, and of course why it is so infuriating and provokes such opposition. 

After the prophets are dead we build monuments to them. In retrospect they are a respectable, acceptable part of our way of thinking—a good one but not a disturbing one in the way they once were. But, at the time, each in his own time, the prophet is offensive and troublesome, a sword of division, a judgement. Christ was all this, and he still is, because unlike the older prophets his voice is not muted by history, but is as challenging now as when it first sounded. I don’t mean just in the gospel accounts—I mean whenever and wherever the word is taken up and proclaimed in terms that speak the message authentically, in any cultural context, in any age since then. And this is what the church is supposed to be doing—acting as prophet to the world, reminding people of what they are, and therefore what they are failing to be, what they should be, can be, and will inevitably suffer if chet are not.

The necessity of prophecy

But since the church is, historically, a huge, unwieldy secular organisation of a very ambiguous kind, it requires to have its own prophets to remind it of its nature and vocation, and what will happen if it is false to itself. So there have been, at intervals throughout its history, people and movements that challenged the inertia and smugness of the official church that was busy claiming Abraham for its father, and saw no need to do more. Later on we canonised them, but at the time they were a menace to peace and order. It is only in retrospect that they look so quiet.

But the church of the middle ages, if authoritarian in outlook, did respect eccentrics and give them room to gesticulate. St. Francis and St. Catherine were not excommunicated, as they might well have been after the reformation, though St Francis’s revolutionary teaching was tamed and officialised, and his prophetic work was to some extent undone, but not wholly. Later on it was not individuals so much as groups that kept the revolutionary character of christianity alive at a time when the official church was beginning to die on its feet. The Filles de Charité, for instance, had to be smuggled into the church set-up by a bit of near prevarication about their status, but there they were, challenging christians to remember the christian vocation. 

Over and over again it has been non-official groups that have kept the real tradition alive, and mostly it was religious orders that did it. (There are two reasons for this: one is to do with the revolutionary character of the ideal of virginity, with its eschatological reference, the other is the long-undeveloped state of the theology of marriage, which made lay-people regard themselves as religiously incompetent.) But with the rise of a new awareness of the phrase ‘people of God’ really means there has come the possibility–indeed the likelihood–that the laity, as well as the religious orders or similar groups, who will be able to keep alive the tradition, the prophetic tradition. So it’s not surprising if it’s lay-people who now find a need to remind the church forcibly of its forgotten vocation. And since this prophetic voice is the voice of the people as well as speaking to them it must speak a language that makes sense to people now, a secular language, a political language.

If this curious arrangement is to work properly it must do so by a dialectical relation which is the dynamic inter-action of the church as prophet and the church as world. The prophet makes demands in the name of God. He makes them in and to the church, as world. And the church, as prophet, makes the demand to the world, which is also itself, for the church as a body of people is a secular reality. (This demand has no other validation than its own voice as prophetic, that is, as God’s word, otherwise it is false prophecy, which is the kind that tells people what they want to hear.) And the world (which is also the church) responds in terms of a theoretical formulation of the demand and a practical execution of its implications. So the response is in fact the only way we have of realising the demand, but all the same it is a response to a demand, and the two are distinct, though not separate or separable. (If anyone says this is cartesian–the latest swear-word–I merely reply that it isn’t, and that to say that it is is an example of mystification.) 

Prophetic demand and the ‘left’ response

The reason why it is important to make this distinction is that when it is not made the results are destructive. At present this distinction is not made by the official church, and the result is a habit of explaining the necessary response to the prophetic demand as part of the demand. As if the secular structures which the historical church has developed were themselves a necessary part of the prophetic, proclamation, rather than having the nature of all secular activity which should be, when it can hear the prophetic demand, the ‘world’ term of the prophet-world dialogue. When the institution fails to be what no institution could possibly than those who can see only the institution can find no further reason for its existence. 

It is essential that at this time the voice of prophecy in the church should be clearly heard, recalling the people of God to a recognition of their vocation, in the terms that belong to the particular historical situation in which the church exists. The revolutionary character of the church is intrinsic, but it is inevitable that it should often be lost to sight in the mass of necessary practical concerns that involve it with whoever happens to be Caesar at the moment–especially if the Caesar is an ecclesiastical one. But if the primacy of the ‘things of God’ is to be maintained then there must be no confusion the other way either, and it has seemed to me that the catholic left has behaved as if the prophetic demand were simply the theoretical formulation of the response. In that case the nature of the movement as prophetic is naturally obscured or even repudiated. Yet there clearly is a response to a real and felt demand, a demand realised in reaction to the monstrous disproportion of wealth, in the exploitation of and callous disregard for human life, in fact in the whole familiar catalogue of horrors. This demand is prophetic, and the response is the ‘left’ one. In the present world situation this is surely the properly christian response. If the catholic left cannot see this and loses (or decides it never had) any character as a specifically christian phenomenon, then it may indeed contribute something to the new left, which is to a great extent a prophet for the world already. But will not do so with the certainty of the value of the christian vision, which, in its consciousness of the eschatological dimensions, completes and transcends what can be envisaged in terms of human politics (as Brian Wicker indicates in the January New Blackfriars [Haughton is probably referring to Brian Wicker’s article The New Left: Christians and Agnostics, which can be found here]). Without this dimension, the movement shrinks, as Raymond Williams seemed to think it should, to a mere ‘emphasis’, a desirable but inessential extra to a secular vision already complete in its own terms. It would be a pity, to put it mildly, if that happened. The catholic left is the most hopeful thing that has happened to the church for a long time. But if the hope is to be realised it needs to happen to the church, and for the church so that the church may carry out its real work. What I want to know is: is it happening to the church, for the church, or just to its own members, for the sake of their own consciences, in relation to mankind? That’s good, but still in relation to mankind, thing that is needed is a really new life–life in Christ. Can the catholic left bring to the church and the world a new awareness of this life? Or is the Downside group right–is the catholic left a peripheral, if admirable, form of commitment?