No lasting Catholi-city

catholiBridie Stringer

At a time which seems to truly exemplify Marshall McLuhan's aphorism 'The medium is the message,' this reflection explores the contemporary messages given out by Catholic organisations and the means of their transmission.  Bridie Stringer has worked in both healthcare and educational settings as employee and freelance facilitator and currently lectures in pastoral theology at St Mary's University, Twickenham.

This reflection is the result of seemingly unconnected situations which, when explored more closely, actually point to the same issue - Catholic identity in organisations which carry the name 'Catholic'. I have borrowed my title from the Letter to the Hebrews 13.14: 'For here we have no lasting city, but we look for the city that is to come'1 What does it mean to be a Catholic organisation today and how does such an organisation express its values and mission in a world which is largely averse to accommodating confessional faith in public and political life?

As can be readily seen in news bulletins, due to the extremist violence of some who attest to faith systems, it is sometimes argued that the only way to re-establish social stability and cohesion is to eradicate faith-based thinking entirely. This objective might be pursued in simplistic ways which are as oppressive as they are crass, e.g. banning certain types of swimwear from the beach, swimwear which is actually more seemly and decent than that of other sunbathers whose clothing, or lack of it exhibits (and I use the word intentionally) a disregard for what is generally termed 'modesty'. Another example is the prohibition of religious symbols at work, either in modes of dress (head scarves) or in jewellery (crosses on chains around the neck). There have been several instances of NHS employees being the subject of disciplinary hearings in this regard, with the most high profile case being adjudicated in the Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg in 2013.2 In this case, the court upheld the decision of the hospital managers not to allow a staff member to wear a cross and neck chain at work, on the grounds of health and safety. In contrast, in the same judgment, a member of British Airways staff was found to have been unfairly treated through being denied the right to wear her cross and chain at work. The original justification for the British Airways' ban had been in the interest of projecting a certain corporate image. The European Court of Human Rights ruled that the 'domestic court' had accorded this justification more weight than was appropriate and found in favour of the staff member. In these examples, both staff members were identified as Christian, rather than Catholic, but the dilemma could apply equally to Roman Catholic staff members.

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