Catholics for a Changing Church

 Winter of Destitution

Applicants for Admission to a Casual Ward, 1874  by S Luke Fildes (1844-1927), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

By Frank Regan 

I have just watched the Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng as he presided over the ‘fiscal event’ of September 23. This was followed by commentary by political pundits and economic experts. 

 The government had just arisen from a two-month coma choosing a new party leader and unelected Prime Minister followed by the death of Queen Elizabeth with its period of mourning. The Chancellor repeated several times that he was doing something new, i.e. borrowing huge amounts of money to kickstart our slow economy into new growth. There were lots more, including tax cuts in amounts not seen since 1972. 

 The pundits were nothing more than cautiously hopeful. They agreed that the government was gambling on a ‘trickle down’ model of economic policy, a model with a dubious track record. 

 We live in an era in which things important to a healthy polity are in decline, not to say, fast disintegrating: ecosystems, standards in public life, equality, human rights, decent pay, secure work conditions etc. Elections come and go. Nothing seems to change. The gap between rich and poor, powerful and powerless has deepened and widened. Government—be it here or elsewhere in the West—functions at the behest and the meddling of social media owned by billionaires, giant transnational corporations and vested interested of various sorts, personal or institutional. 

Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown prognosticates a “winter of destitution”, promoted by “the removal of the bankers’ bonus cap, corporation tax cuts and the rejection of a further windfall tax”. He foresees the food bank as a core element of social welfare and economic survival. Charity will be the principal motivating factor. Five million children could tumble into poverty. Poverty has become a sort of fifth horseman of the Apocalypse which unveils the cruelty and viciousness of an economic model which puts at risk the lives and well-being of millions. 

Sadly, our political culture has been corrupted by power and greed. The “Lie” has been ensconced at the core of our political discourse. The word “ethical” has been expunged from the Parliamentary code, with barely a word of objection raised. We are witnessing the rise of an international Oligarchy—not just billionaires making money, but a caste with access to the seats of power and with sufficient clout to suggest appropriate legislation. 

Jesus of Nazareth who wandered about with no place to lay his head inherited the vision of Isaias of a God doing ‘something new’ (65: 17-25). God will create a new Jerusalem to be ‘Joy’ and his people to be ‘Gladness’. There will be no more weeping over an infant recently born who dies within days nor over an old person who does not run the full course of days. 

Jesus belonged to a legal tradition which framed a law of Jubilee. The law decreed the liberation of slaves and indentured servants, the forgiveness of debts, the restoration of lands lost by failure to pay creditors and a year’s rest for land exhausted by constant cultivation. This recalibration of society is a challenge to us trapped in the quicksand of an economic model which, for instance, will grant to earners of one million pounds a tax rebatement of £55,000, equivalent to the average yearly pay of two workers. 

The one thing I learned from my experience of Peru (1967-1989) and Liberation theology is that the primary aim of politics is the protection of the vulnerable. A political leadership whose economic goals are growth and the enhancement of personal and corporate wealth is a hollow entity which will crumble to sawdust when faced with the death and destruction it has wrought.

In the political context in which we live a Church striving for renewal and revival cannot content itself with a longed-for synodality. The Church must engage prophetically, seriously and critically with an unjust society. The rampant evil is not the product of serious maladjustments which lend themselves to tweaking and reform. The evil is systemic. This requires laity which can think systemically, beyond church structures for the dispensing of charity. We need a politically savvy laity, inside and outside of our party system. Only thus might we avoid an apocalyptic calamity. “Whom will I send?” asks Yahweh of Isaias.

What about ourselves? Does our inner ecology relate healthily to outer ecology? So many of us feel—especially young people—disconnected in several realms of living: the physical, the psychological, the social, the economic, the technological etc. We have lost a sense of harmony. Has COP 26 been a sign that maybe there will be a planetary effort to restore that harmony? We can hope. 

It says somewhere in the Book of Wisdom that the hope for the salvation of the world lies in the greatest number of wise people. Where are they?

Who Will Eat Our Sins?

by Frank Regan

Bread and Salt
Rye bread and salt

Back in 2018, there was an archaeological dig near Birmingham which uncovered for re-burial, several bodies which had plates on their laps. One of the team remembered a custom from the nearby Welsh Marches: the village sin-eater.

While lying in repose, a plate with bread and salt was placed on the deceased’s lap. Just before the closing of the coffin, the village ‘sin-eater’ was summoned. He arrived and proceeded to eat the bread and salt. The belief was that the sins of the deceased passed into the bread through the salt, thus freeing the deceased from any punishment in the hereafter. To dispose of the sin, the sin-eater ate the plate’s contents, and so ate unto himself the person’s sins. For this service he received a few coins, glasses of ale and a modest repast.

The sin-eater’s existence was a sad one. He was destitute and usually elderly. He was shunned by the community and lived isolated and lonely. It is startling to realise that the belief and practice existed within the purview of the local church, usually Anglican. The last known sin-eater died in 1906.

I came upon the sin-eater story during Holy Week. There is a lot of Holy Thursday and Good Friday about the story. The act of sin-eating has an undeniable religious dimension to it. It testifies to the transcendent beyond the horizon of existence. And the act has consequences: social ostracism, shunning and segregation. I reflected inevitably on Isaiah 53; ‘He was despised and rejected' (v 3), ‘forsaken because of our sins' (v 5); ‘he was cut off from the land of the living' (v 8). The sin-eater, in his own way, was a victim of sin. He was also a suffering servant of the community, a victim of the community’s sin and its scapegoat.

My attention was also drawn to John 13. After the washing of the feet, John asks Jesus who was the traitor. Jesus replies that he will dip his bread and give it to the traitor. We can imagine the loving gaze of Jesus pleading with Judas that he not do what he intended. But he could not change his mind. The demon was in charge. He partook of the morsel, eating his sin unto himself, and left. It is the only act of sharing bread that John records in the five chapters he dedicates to the last evening Jesus spent with his followers and friends. It was a moment of communion, of spiritual intimacy and a moment of rupture, of severance. The bonds of friendship were shattered.

The sin-eater is not a Judas figure. He eats of the sins of his neighbours and suffers the consequences of the sins. He is a saviour figure. But who will save the saviour? Judas ate the bread of his own sin and betrayal. It might have become the bread of forgiveness and reconciliation. But it was not to be. Judas became an outcast from his own community. He was not to hear the words later spoken by Jesus in John 15: ‘You are my friends because everything the Father has told me I have shared with you so that your joy might be complete’.

The modern sceptic might look askance at the practice of sin-eating and label it bizarre, gruesome, even macabre. It seems to me much more than that mistaken perception. The sin-eater is a bellwether who reminds the community that it has missed the mark; it has not lived up to the standards it has set itself. The sin-eater brings upon himself the guilt, the pain, the estrangement the sinner has created for herself. The sin-eater breaks through the barrier between the sinner about to embark and the smooth passage to a brighter beyond she hopes to have. He is a saviour-figure, a redeemer who pays a heavy price for his fellows’ well-being and redemption.

At this point we might ask if there is a role for sin-eaters in our midst. Who, for example, would eat the sins of our institutional Catholic Church? As an institution we are guilty of the sins of clericalism, the dark side of priesthood and Church; of misogyny which has kept women defenestrated, silenced and abused; and homophobia which has kept men and women of a different sexual identity living in fear, in self-hatred and despair.

Who will eat the sins of the Patriarchate of Moscow, which has blessed Russian arms in Syria and Ukraine, and encourages the faithful to support the re-integration of Ukraine into ‘Holy Russia’ at the cost of thousands of lives and displacement of millions?

We live in a war zone. It is a mere 20-hour drive to the Poland-Ukraine border. We send medicines and armaments. We send diplomats and delegations—so far to little avail.

We live on a planet where from Mali in the west all the way across Africa to Ethiopia and beyond to Syria and Kurdistan, violent death and destruction, terror and torture, famine and disease and environmental collapse are a daily occurrence.

These days it is not the elderly destitute who are the sin-eaters. Today they are mostly young people who have organised themselves into movements like Black Lives Matter, Extinction Rebellion, Youth Climate Swarm et al. Their leaders are prophets of the calibre of Greta Thunberg and, in some instances, Pope Francis. Many have dropped out of careers or advanced studies. Many have been arrested and have done jail time. They are indeed eating our sins in different ways and formats.

Of course, our Paschal Faith has related us to a life and death which presents itself to us through the symbolic act of eating. It was a festive and a sad meal, foreboding a death and pointing to a future banquet. But for now, we are in times of Pasch. We follow the paschal Christ, who ate our sins and made us his body to be transformed and transfigured in Christ, a new humanity and a new creation.

More information about the practice of sin-eater