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25 August 2017

Austen Ivereigh

Austen Ivereigh

Austen Ivereigh is a Catholic journalist, author and commentator who previously worked as director of public affairs for Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor. He founded Catholic Voices in 2010 aiming to give the Church a voice on contentious issues. Peter Lynas asked him about the Reformation, ecumenical relations and the challenges facing the Church today. 

Tell us a little about your work with Catholic Voices

Catholic Voices (CV) was founded in 2010 around the visit of Pope Benedict to the UK and has now grown to 26 countries.

The great learning from 2010 is that the media doesn’t exclude the voice of the Church, it’s just that contemporary society tends to make a series of assumptions about the Christian voice, which means that before a Christian opens his or her mouth, there are a set of assumptions that they will either reinforce and dig themselves into a deeper hole or they have to step outside.

CV teaches this process of reframing, and if you can demonstrate that the prejudice against the Church is derived itself from a distorted Christian value, then you can open up a discussion and change the way people think about the Church and actually the interview then becomes quite exciting and interesting and you get asked back, which is the key thing in media.

How do you find relationships between Protestants and Catholics in the public square?

A It is very important that all Christians raise their voice. There is a distinctive in the Catholic Church in offering a unified voice that wouldn’t be possible for example for Anglicans as teaching authority in the Church of England is very diffuse and it’s hard to have a single Anglican view.

Within the Catholic Church we fight with each other like cats and dogs, and have deep disagreements but we don’t ultimately dispute what is Catholic teaching because that is defined by the magisterium and the catechism. And that makes the task of communication much easier - because one of the essentials to communication is to have a clear univocal message.

So, in a sense the Catholic Church has an advantage in contemporary communications. Evangelicals have a much greater understanding of truth as being one, because of your understanding of biblical truth, but who is the Church, who are you speaking on behalf of? I do wonder sometimes whether Catholic Voices is transferable across the Reformation divide - I’m not sure.

Has there been a change in the working relationship between Protestant and Catholics in recent years?

Unquestionably in my lifetime there has been a major shift in relations between Christians. It has been brought about by secularisation. It has been brought about by diminishing numbers and the collapse of support for Christianity in law and culture which has been dramatic.

We have also, at a deeper level, all become less ideological. For a long time, you knew you were a Catholic because you weren’t a Protestant and vice-versa. That kind of ideological tribalism has effectively collapsed. We have moved to a place of celebrating the gifts that the Spirit has poured out on other churches. Pope Francis really embodies that - he is a charismatic ecumenist. He has little confidence in institutional dialogue but he says let’s witness together, work together and let’s care for the poor together.

If you profess Jesus Christ and are open to the Holy Spirit - that’s the only basis you need to be together. The rest of the differences which remain, and are massive, will be resolved over time but it won’t be our work, so much as the work of the Holy Spirit. 

What are your thoughts on religious freedom, particularly in the political arena in light of the Tim Farron episode?

A It was appalling that Tim Farron should’ve been hounded in that way over his personal religious convictions when he had made perfectly clear that his public policy convictions were completely in line with the liberal party and indeed liberalism.

The handling of Farron made clear it is no longer acceptable to hold Christian views even privately. Because equality has become a kind of civil religion and if you are perceived to be against equality you are perceived to be a heretic.

This is really a secular theocracy - in the sense that there is no distinction between public and private, civil and religious. Really what the Farron incident showed us was that you have to affirm the new orthodoxy, not just in terms of your policies, but you have to believe it in your heart. It is reminiscent of the worst of medieval theocracy or what one might call Islamic theocracy at the moment - but we don’t see it as such, because the values are considered to be good.

Democracy depends on the fact that we all have very different private convictions but we come together in the public sphere and we agree to respect each other in order to negotiate what is in the best interests of society. Once you start to say that your public and private convictions must be the same, then we really are undermining the basis of Western democracy.

How is the Reformation seen in the Catholic Church?

A I accompanied Pope Francis for an extraordinary day of celebration with the Lutherans this time last year. Francis also recently hosted many evangelical leaders in Rome to celebrate Pentecost. In 2014, he visited an evangelical pastor at his church in Italy and apologised for Catholic support of discrimination against evangelicals.

These gestures are very significant. They mark a growing charismatic ecumenism. They remind us that the Church intended by Jesus Christ is one, but it is taking us along time to get there and it can only become one when we realise the Holy Spirit has not restricted its activity to one Church or another. The Reformation anniversary will have little impact on many Catholics, but it has furthered these kind of meetings and furthered that journey.

Pope Francis talks about ‘reconciled diversity’. It means that we don’t have to be the same in order to be one. We can all be who we are and still come together - the Holy Spirit creates unity in diversity. What is stopping us uniting to care for the poor and so on? If we answer that question by pointing to differences in the Eucharist then we are admitting that we are ideological and not Christian.

How important is the current Pope to the way the Reformation is being marked?

There has been a missing element has been with the evangelicals and Pentecostals - practically, we didn’t know who to talk to. Francis has smashed through all that by meeting directly with evangelical leaders in his own residence and recently inviting them to Pentecost event Rome. I have interviewed evangelical leaders for my book and they say Pope Francis is filled with the Holy Spirit and he has said ‘yes’ to Jesus. And Francis takes a similar view. But we are a long way a way on the ground from doing what Francis is doing with these evangelical leaders.

Are there sections of the Catholic Church that remain as hesitant to dialogue as some parts of the Protestant Church?

Yes of course. When you engage in this charismatic ecumenism, it is deeply threatening to members of our churches. For those who are much happier with an ideology, an ‘us and them’ tribal mentality which gives them security and they feel saved and they feel righteous. You are not going to get much thanks for it, but that is not what God promised us. The people who recognise what Pope Francis is doing are often outside the Church whereas those inside are often huffing and puffing.

And 500 years on from the Reformation what are your hopes and fears for the future of the Church as a whole?

My hope is that we come to depend evermore on the free creative promptings of the Holy Spirit and that we open up spaces for that Spirit to work and not take refuge in our tribal ideologies, our distorted history and our sense of grievance. We must have greater trust in the Holy Spirit and deliberately create new spaces for the Spirit to work. My hope is that we find those spaces. 

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