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Archbishop of Dublin explains role of faiths in development

November 16 2006:

Speaking notes of Most Rev. Diarmuid Martin, Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, Primate of Ireland for his presentation at Religion, the Environment and Development: The Potential for Partnership?, a conference brokered by ARC, and held in Oslo, November 2006.

"In one of the early discussions between leaders of the World Bank and the Vatican on partnership with religious bodies in development programmes, one senior World Bank official was asked what the overall aim of the World Bank in such partnerships was. The answer, part in jest and partly serious, was: “We at the Bank are the world’s leading wholesaler in development theory, and you guys have a magnificent worldwide retail outlet system”.

It is certainly in the interests of all that people who are working for the same goals should work as closely as possible together. But the challenge is not quite as simple as matching wholesaler and retailer in order to get it right.

1. Partners with their Own Identity

The first thing that any partnership must understand is that partnership is the work of two partners, each with its own identity and specific contribution. There is a tendency for governments and international agencies – for legitimate and well intentioned reasons - to want to use religious bodies. Religious partners have their own identity and are not simply useful outlets for the products of others. Their identity is intimately part of their activities. To continue using the market analogy, their outlet is an integral part of their product. That is why their outlets are so effective. Changing the brand could mean smothering the entire operation.

Partnerships must be marked in the first place by profound respect for each partner, which means looking sensitively at the originality of each contributor and being aware of the fact there may not be perfect synergy between both partners. This means being prepared to work together where that is possible and at the same time to respect differences where these exist.

The term creation defines not so much the mechanics of the origins of the universe but more the relationship between humanity, the creator and the rest of creation. If the world is created, then the world and all that is in it is not our own private possession... Recognising that all creation is gift is a fundamental call to accountability about the way we use resources of any kind.
Religious bodies are just that and are not easily harnessable into the patterns of others. Indeed, the message of religious bodies may be opposed to the thought patterns of secular organizations. Religious bodies are there to bring a message of faith, a message about the transcendent, which will not always be manageable within utilitarian categories or in plans to get things done quickly and efficiently.

Take an example of the Christian message which preaches a God whose love is gratuitous and superabundant. The terms “gratuitous” and ”superabundant” are hard to fit into in a market context in which everything has its price and you get just what you pay for. Yet it is the concept of superabundant generosity which is the secret of the success of many Christian and many other religious projects in health care and education. Dialogue between international agencies and religious bodies needs rigorous evaluation. But that evaluation must also be able to look at the contribution that religious bodies bring in contexts which are not so easy to measure in traditional mathematical or monetary terms.

2. Accountability

Saying that religious bodies are not easily harnessable does not of course mean that they should ask to be or allowed to be unaccountable. It should be the opposite, particularly in the area of the environment.

The very first religious concept which springs to my mind when I think about the relations between humankind and the environment is that of creation. The term creation defines not so much the mechanics of the origins of the universe (creationism tries to do that), but much more the relationship between humanity, the creator and the rest of creation. If the world is created, then the world and all that is in it is not our own private possession. It is gift, which must be used in accordance with certain intrinsic principles which cannot be interpreted just according to our own private whim. Recognising that all creation is gift is a fundamental call to accountability about the way we use resources of any kind.

The world is not ours to use just as we please. It is given to us in stewardship, for the present but also for future generations. It is not ours to be used just for our advantage. Creation has its own laws and its own integrity. Human intervention in any part of creation will have its effects, positive or negative, in other parts. Our life-style as individuals and as a human family must be such that we use the things of the cosmos as they should be used, for the benefit of ourselves and for what Pope John Paul II in Centesimus Annus (n.47) calls “the earth’s own requisites”.

“As regards the ecological question, the social doctrine of the Church reminds us that the goods of the earth were created by God to be wisely used by all. They must be shared equitably, in accordance with justice and charity." Second Vatican Council.
The goods of creation should be used according to the design of the God who created them. There is an inner integrity within creation, an integrity which respects humankind within the cosmos, but which also requires humankind to respect the integrity of the cosmos, to respect the earth’s own requisites.

3. Scale and structure

Another factor which has bedevilled partnerships between Churches and development organizations has been the difference in scale. Churches are extraordinarily decentralised, even the Roman Catholic Church. When I worked in the Vatican I was constantly visited by people trying to enlist the support of the Pope for this or that project. They felt that should the Pope just once mention their plan or organization a whole mechanism of Roman Catholic collaboration around the world would simply click into action and they would be on the road they desired. Churches and faith communities are rooted locally and partnerships have a much better chance if they begin with solid local relationships.

Things rarely work well from the top down. Most Church development projects are local and in terms of scale can be miniscule compared to the mass thinking of international organizations. And one of the ways to destroy the creativity of an innovative local environmental project is to flood it with funds or to flood it with external experts. The functionaries and experts who deal with millions of Euros or dollars each year can very often only think in "macro" terms. They appreciate the originality of local projects but they want them immediately replicated elsewhere. These grass roots organization are however essentially local, linked with particular circumstances, with the nature of particular community and its values. They have grown over time, very often with a particular notion of time.

International functionaries can get frustrated with projects which cannot be easily inserted into their time scale. But so often the knowledge of the local and the rhythms of the local which have been observed over time constitute the added value to be attained in working with the local community. In environmental and development policy you ignore the local at your peril.

There is equally a temptation for governments and large international organizations to deal with the like minded. Large development agencies are easier to work with because of their scale and their broad outreach. They may not have the direct access to the local community based groups, but they can talk the international talk and fill out the forms well and they somehow belong to the same fraternity.

Taken collectively, however, the scale of the involvement of small religious based activities is extraordinarily broad and effective even though this may be difficult to measure because of its wide diffusion.

I am aware that I am presenting these factors in a caricaturised form. There are many examples of successful collaboration, but over my own years of experience in international development questions I have seen many promising forms of partnership break down by misunderstandings of this kind.

4. Offering an integrated view

Another difficulty that emerges is in understanding the underlying philosophies of religious groups. For me the major factor which grass roots religious organization offer is an integrated vision of development, because it springs from an integrated view of life. Religious groups can provide an integrated view of three dimensions which should belong to any integrated vision of development: respect for the dignity of the person, a realisation that humankind is created as a family and the fact that humankind lives within the integrity of an environment which is both its sustenance and home.

If we do not get the right balance between these three dimensions: individual dignity, responsibility for all, integrity of creation, then we end up on the wrong path. In the past religious groups have been accused of bring too anthropocentric, looking on the environment primarily as resource for people. Today, as the recent Catholic Compendium on Social Teaching notes, there is a much greater awareness of the fact that “the environment as ‘resources’ risks threatening the environment as ‘home’”.

Establishing the correct balance means that we must use and treasure the cosmos just as we might use and treasure our own home. We would not burn the roof or the doors of our own home, making it uninhabitable. But home does not mean just the roof over our heads, but home is also the complex network of relationship with people and generations, between our needs and the needs of creation in its own integrity.

All environmental reflection must also be anthropocentric, not in sense that the environment is there simply as resources for humankind, but that the environment will only be protected when human dignity and human potential are fostered, where human capital is shared responsibility and where the environment becomes a true home for all with the exclusion of none.

Religious language contains much of the wisdom which has been refined through a dialogue on the deeper questions of humankind over the centuries. Religious insight can lead to an understanding of the human condition which can be readily recognized and understood even by the non-believer.

Using religious language in speaking about the human situation is not a question of imposing religious belief on anyone. Neither, however, should discussion of the human condition in a modern pluralist society disenfranchise the believer from bringing his or her specific contribution to social and environmental reflection, springing from a mediation of religious concepts to the challenges of the world in which we live.

5. The universal destination of the goods of creation

One principle of Catholic social teaching which is particularly interesting here is called the universal destination of the goods of creation. The Second Vatican Council put it this way: “God intended the earth and all it contains for the use of all persons and all peoples, so that created goods should flow fairly to all, regulated by justice and accompanied by charity”. The Compendium notes that “as regards the ecological question, the social doctrine of the Church reminds us that the goods of the earth were created by God to be wisely used by all. They must be shared equitably, in accordance with justice and charity."

The Catholic Church has always spoken of respect for private property but it has never elevated private property to the rank of an absolute principle. All possession brings with it social responsibility, a “social mortgage”, which conditions which behaviour is to be judged moral and which immoral. Traditionally this principle was applied to questions of ownership of land and natural resources.

Today one would apply this principle also in a qualitative manner. It is not just about a just distribution of the goods of the earth in a measurable way, but also about the qualitative dimensions of such distribution. We have the responsibility to use the resources of creation, human and environmental, in such a way as to enhance the overall integrity of all of creation. Development is about specific quantifiable goals, but it is above all about producing harmony and integrity. No one aspect of development should have priority, leaving the other totally aside. That is why in developmental policy we must strongly reaffirm that the fight against poverty and the fight for the protection of the environment must go hand in hand.

Today therefore we would also have to say that there is an “ecological mortgage” on all private property, physical and intellectual, and thus on all economic development. This has been expressed in a slightly different way for example by Klaus Töpfer when he said, in the context of Germany, that we need to add an ecological dimension to the idea of social market economy.

The way we may use the goods of creation should be conditioned by the effects that our behaviour has on the environment. This is not an optional extra for use on the occasions in which it can suit us. It belongs to an integral understanding of the relationship between the individual person, the human family and the environment which is both our nurture and our home.

The universal destination of the goods of creation must also apply to equitable access to the decision making processes which concern the future. The more imbalances emerge among States in the international system, the more even valid international norms become lopsided in their application, with the result that the family of nations becomes a dysfunctional family. Development policy must enhance capacity, both the capacity of persons and the capacity of communities and nations. Development will only be sustainable when it generates voice, ownership and relations that are harmonious and responsible.

6. The future of partnership

Partnership with local religious communities must therefore enhance their capacity to negotiate their place within the wider environmental constellation and enable them to defend local environmental interests in the face of powerful economic interests. Communities must be enhanced to become active and participatory communities.

The ecological question must not be faced solely because of the frightening prospects that environmental destruction represents, rather it must become above all a strong motivation for an authentic solidarity of worldwide dimensions, which will guarantee a future of hope for all. Religious messages contain certain reference to dimensions of human activity which go beyond the measurable and the rational. The human person is however not just rational and intelligent. The human person and society need to rediscover values should as hope and goodness and truth and beauty. Religious bodies with their openness towards the transcendent can open people to horizons which bring them beyond themselves and such hope – not a measurable commodity – can curiously produce measurable results in the way in which people interact with nature and with each other.


Archbishop Diarmuid Martin was for many years directly involved in development policy on an international level, in his work at the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.

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