One of the things I’ve quietly discussed with sympathetic colleagues every now and then is how much faith and religion is neglected in the international ‘development’ scene in a bid to improve the lives of the most vulnerable and marginalised. It stems from both from day-to-day experience working within communities and cultures where that is such a natural and fundamental determinant of daily decisions and ways of looking at the world for so many; and a basic intellectual argument that even if in the West we seem to pride ourselves on our secularism, we’re hardly going down a great path and there’s a heck of a lot of value to be found in faith and religion vis-a-vis ‘development’. And yet all the ‘strategies’ and ‘programs’ lump religious and faith concerns in with just ‘social’, ‘cultural’ and ‘psycho-social’ issues…all important categories but none of which really encompass the importance of faith and religion. ‘Leveraging’ the power of faith and religion to help ‘improve’ the lives of the poorest of the poor at the very least shifts the conversation in a positive direction that begins to explore the fact that even the word ‘improvement’ is indeed defined very differently by different peoples, cultures, faiths and between communities ‘benefitting’ from development and organisations undertaking development work. That perhaps ‘suffering’ is not as clear cut as we might think.
Ok, I know this is not specifically Catholic, but similar to my post about the guard outside my house…to hope to get Catholic (catholic?) conversation back into the public sphere (and ‘international development’ is a critical public sphere), any conversation that welcomes a religious perspective is a healthy start…
Hence I was pleased to see a new Barefoot Guide to Mobilizing Religious Health Assets for Transformation
Here’s a few good quotes that I’m happy to see coming out…
“The connection between religion and public health is important. This is not just an opinion but a fact. For example in Africa, depending on the country, anything between 20-70% of public healthcare is delivered through religious institutions or groups.”
“Health has never been just about medicine….Science, engineering, or public health is still only half the story! Just as important – maybe more – is how people act towards each other. With each other. Offering all kinds of care and support. Not only as individuals, but for the sake of all who lived in the city. For the sake of the public, we can say. For many people, this comes from their spirit, their faith, their deepest identity.”
“Public health at its root — like religion in its deepest foundations — is not just a set of specialized ideas and practices, but a way of seeing and working on the health of the whole people, the public.”
“…if we understand health quite broadly–as about full human (and natural) well-being – then health is actually
right at the heart of deep religious ideas in many traditions! It’s about a whole, healed world, where unnecessary suffering and pain is done away with, where people live in peace with each other, and with the earth and its creatures. Actually, that’s also what the World Health Organization calls health! It’s not just the absence of disease, the WHO says. It’s the presence of a full and healthy life for all!”
“Health is about the whole of life, and it includes our relationship to others, to the environment, to everything. That’s where it overlaps with religion. And that’s why many religious people get involved in the health of the people. They do all sorts of things, some you can see or touch, like starting a hospital, a clinic or a project, some you can’t, like give care, compassion or emotional support. In that way, religion works as an asset.”
“BAD IDEA #1: “Religion will disappear as reason grows.’
Many social scientists used to think that religion would fade away – or should even be done away with – as society ‘advanced.’ The thought people would see that their beliefs were ignorant and not rational, an illusion, unreal, merely an ideology. A truly modern society and enlightened person would not need religion. Some of those same social scientists now realize they were wrong. Even if they personally aren’t religious, they see that religion remains important to many people and societies. It must be taken seriously, and given proper attention.”
…Cue Fides et Ratio from stage left…as Catholics, we know that not only are faith and reason not in opposition to one another but they’re essential to one another…we can’t have one without the other!
“BAD IDEA #2: “Religion will be merely a private affair.”
Some of those social scientists also argued that in a modern plural society, where people hold many different beliefs, religion would create confl ict in public life. So people should keep their faith to themselves and those who agree with them. It is their private affair. Also, no one religion should be privileged by the state. Because the state is meant to serve everyone whatever their belief, it actually makes sense to separate the state from any particular religion in a plural society. Still, this does not mean that people should not draw on their religious convictions in debating the norms and values that shape life together. That’s what it means to be a citizen. Then religion does have a public place.”
“BAD IDEA #4: “Health is about individuals.”
If some people think religion or faith is an individual’s business only, many people who work in health think really only about individual health too. Actually, many religious leaders are not much better – they also can’t see how health is really a public issue. So we find lots written about a person’s spirituality or religiousness and their health, how prayer, for example, helps people recover from serious illness or operations. But this does not help us think properly about the health of the public. We need something more.”
“BAD IDEA #5: “Body and spirit are separate.”
Scientific and religious thinking often get this wrong. Science, because it focuses on the material world, and its methods work best there, tends to ignore spirit. Take biomedicine; it’s heavily invested in understanding the body as a ‘thing,’ separate from spirit. Some religious ideas go the other way. They see ‘spirit’ (‘soul’?) as what’s real; the body is less important, or even regarded as inferior, a trap from which spirit must free itself. But persons-are-bodies-are-minds-are-spirit! The whole person is important to health. Both science and religion need to pay attention to the whole.”
…in other words, a HYLOMORPHIC ANTHROPOLOGY…one of the philosophical foundations of a Catholic mindset, that we are not just body or just soul, but an ‘embodied soul’ and that our soul apart from our body is not fully us (which is why we look forward to the resurrection of our bodies and souls at the end of time…those souls in heaven are just hanging out to be reunited with their bodies)…do you have any idea how much blood, sweat and tears throughout history have gone into debating the question of whether ‘who we are’ is body, soul, or both.
None of this is revolutionary rocket science for us at Catholics and it echoes Catholic Social Teaching in many ways. The language may be a bit differnt as well as the motivation for engaging with religious perspectives…but point is, it’s a step in the right direction I reckon.