Understanding the world differently: Catholic Social Teaching and the charisms of social action in Northern Ireland

Maria Power explores how a social action approach to Catholic Social Teaching can be used to transform society through the charisms of prayer, immediate action, accompaniment, and structural change.

The Second Vatican Council and subsequent social papal encyclicals brought a great responsibility to bear upon Catholics, and in particular the laity. The Church taught that the Kingdom of God was a reality to be worked towards, and this endeavour was a necessary expression of faith. But how is this goal to be achieved? Using Northern Ireland as a case study, this article will outline the idea of ‘charisms of social action’ through which everyone can contribute to the realisation of the Kingdom.

The context: Contemporary Northern Ireland
To most people looking from the outside into Northern Ireland, the ‘Peace Process’ is a successful one. The political elites that negotiated the Good Friday Agreement now make a living flying around the world advising others on how to achieve the successes that were celebrated in 1998, and groups travel to the region to learn lessons that can be implemented in their own conflicted regions. The Northern Irish Peace Process has become a byword for ‘good practice’. ‘Conflict tourism’ offers employment to large numbers of people, particularly in Belfast. Writing a message of peace and encouragement on the 30-foot-high wall that separates the Falls and Shankill Roads is now on many ‘must do’ lists for those visiting Northern Ireland. Bible verses are frequently to be found amongst the messages graffitied on this wall – this, in itself, demonstrating the popular misconception that the conflict in the region was primarily fuelled by religious enmity. The picture offered to the world of post-conflict Northern Ireland is one of hope and success; a place where the ‘peace dividend’ has delivered prosperity and normality. But as the peace theorist Johan Galtung suggests, ‘one may object that frequent use of the word “peace” gives an unrealistic image of the world’.1 This is certainly the case in Northern Ireland. Those who bore the brunt of the worst elements of the conflict experience a different reality to that described above. The lived experience of the majority of the population can only be termed a state of ‘negative peace’, where the military-style2 violence associated with the ‘Troubles’ may be over but the causes of the conflict remain. As the April 2021 riots demonstrated, the potential for violence lingers just below the surface.

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