THE INTERNATIONAL CATHOLIC WEEKLY FOUNDED IN 1840
THE WRONG REPORT
Asingle abusive experience early in one’s life can cast a deep shadow over the rest of it. If a Black teenager feels profoundly humiliated the first time he or she is stopped and searched in the street by police, that bad experience can sour that person’s attitude to the police henceforth, as well as altering their attitude to themselves in terms of identity and self-image. And if the perpetrator represents an institution such as a police force, then the person abused will understandably blame that institution as well.
This is what gives credibility throughout British Black communities, especially among young AfroCaribbeans, to the enduring charge of institutional racism. The accumulation of anecdotal evidence reaches a point where it becomes part of that community’s collective knowledge. That is why the dismissal of institutional racism in British society by the government-sponsored Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities caused such fury. It seemed to be denying the reality of the Black experience of structural racism. This was labelled a left-wing invention, designed to stir up resentment. That rejection felt like a further dose of racism in itself.
The commission emphasised personal responsibility, individual character and family background. This is commonly labelled a right-wing position, designed to deny any structural problems. A more constructive approach would have been to transcend these left-right divisions rather than further polarise them. Racism is both structural and personal.
The Black perception of police attitudes and behaviour could have been contrasted until recently with the majority White perception, where the police (usually unarmed) were generally seen as benign and welcome – and almost invisible. But this general sense of trust has come under great strain since the arrival of the Covid pandemic and the severe limitations on personal liberty that were deemed necessary to control it. It largely fell to the police to enforce these often confusing rules, which brought with them the risk of antagonising a much larger section of the population than they would normally have dealt with. Whites, in other words, had become the new Blacks.
The danger of irretrievable damage to police-public relations is compounded by the clumsiness of the government’s response, particularly that of the home secretary, Priti Patel. She has brought forward legislation which would significantly expand the powers of the police to control the civilian population, for instance giving them the right arbitrarily to ban protests and demonstrations which were viewed, by the police themselves, as potentially annoying.
The government is facing a revolt in parliament, and even the police themselves sense they are being dealt an unplayable hand. What they really need is to be allowed to use their discretion, and to be trained in how to apply it wisely and sensitively in order to maintain – and in the case of sections of the Black population, gain – general public consent. British police are being pushed further in the wrong direction. Britain mustn’t be allowed to become a police state.
SYNODALITY AND THE LAITY
ASK THE PEOPLE
WHAT THEY THINK
Scene: next year’s international Synod of Bishops in Rome, on the subject, ironically enough, of synodality. The speaker: a spokesman for the Catholic bishops of England and Wales. A question from the floor: “What do the Catholics of England and Wales think about giving the Church some synodal structure, so they can participate in decision-making?” Answer: “We don’t know, we haven’t asked them, because we have no way of doing so.” Audience: general laughter. Unless they rapidly change course, this is where the bishops’ conference of England and Wales can expect to find itself in the autumn of next year.
The Second Vatican Council decree Lumen Gentium, paragraph 37, or indeed Canon Law 212, §3, states (referring to the laity): “According to the knowledge, competence and prestige which they possess, they have the right and even at times the duty to manifest to the sacred pastors their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the Church and to make their opinion known to the rest of the Christian faithful, without prejudice to the integrity of faith and morals, with reverence toward their pastors, and attentive to common advantage and the dignity of persons.”
Lumen Gentium 37 (referring to the laity and bishops) states: “They should openly reveal to them their needs and desires with that freedom and confidence which is fitting for children of God and brothers [and sisters] in Christ. They are, by reason of the knowledge, competence or outstanding ability which they may enjoy, permitted and sometimes even obliged to express their opinion on those things which concern the good of the Church. When occasions arise, let this be done through the organs erected by the Church for this purpose.” Why did Vatican II think this was a good idea? “A great many wonderful things are to be hoped for from this familiar dialogue between the laity and their spiritual leaders,” it said. “In the laity a strengthened sense of personal responsibility; a renewed enthusiasm; a more ready application of their talents to the projects of their spiritual leaders. The latter, on the other hand, aided by the experience of the laity, can more clearly and more incisively come to decisions regarding both spiritual and temporal matters. In this way, the whole Church, strengthened by each one of its members, may more effectively fulfil is mission for the life of the world.”
So The Tablet, obliged as it is “to express an opinion on those things which concern the good of the Church”, and indeed “with reverence toward [its] pastors”, has to ask its bishops on behalf of its readers: where are the structures which deliver these “wonderful things” that the Church can hope for once they are in place? Is it adequate that communication between leaders and led should be confined to an occasional pastoral letter from individual bishops which may or may not be read aloud at Sunday Mass depending on whether the parish priest agrees with it or not? And is it adequate that no channel for feedback exists, even less for sustained conversation? Where is this “familiar dialogue” that the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church formally demanded when it was promulgated by Pope Paul VI, 57 years ago?
2 | THE TABLET | 10 APRIL 2021