Episcopal thinking should be rooted in empiricism rather than anecdote

Having once spent a long evening over dinner with Cardinal Turkson I do not believe him to be a prejudiced man nor a man with an instinctive dislike of Islam. However, the very idea that this great West African prelate might even have contemplated using a video at the current synod which linked population decline to the suggestion of a putative invasion of the west by an Islamic horde is shocking for two reasons. First, it suggests that even the president of the Pontifical Council of Justice and Peace, with its grave global responsibilities, does not have access to expert advice of real quality especially when it comes to social research. Second, it unearths not a one-off lapse but actually a growing and unfounded narrative within widespread episcopal thinking.

On the first point it is striking that, of the published list of lay and other “experts” for the synod, not one is a professional sociologist of standing or emanates from one of the world’s top 100 universities. Discussion of “the new evangelisation” needs philosophers, theologians and activists but it also needs those who have assessed cultures as diverse as indigenous Indians and the habits of diaspora Chinese, so as to be able to put claims about any particular “Christian culture” in context. There are also profound inter-disciplinary challenges at stake in planning a forward path for mission where “sin” or “lack of obedience” can be grabbed as easy-to-seize totems when the real problem has been the ecclesial adoption of pedagogies proved to have failed in almost every field in which they have been tried. The flight from any encounter with empiricism leads to a theology of anecdotes. For example, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor has claimed that a programme seeking to re-energise the Arundel and Brighton diocese was a great success. But when surveyed those involved reported that those already active had simply ended up doing twice as much, actually as a prelude to burn-out and a decline in interest rather than renewal. A cardinal of Peter Turkson’s standing should have had the unfactual nonsense in his video stripped bare by an expert before it was aired. Likewise the bishops now in Rome need insights drawn from world-class sociology too.

Second, Cardinal Turkson will have found many sympathetic viewers of his video at the synod for the “green peril” of Islam has been a feature of episcopal gatherings since at least the centenary of Rerum Novarum. At a recent European bishops’ conference I witnessed the majority of those present applauding as speaker after speaker claimed that Muslims would fill the population void created by Europe’s “contraceptive culture”. After one particularly trenchant presentation from a Spanish think-tank, an adviser to a cardinal pointed out that German emigration was actually occurring faster than inward migration and that that may have something to do with population change too. The presenter responded with some fury, suggesting that “facts”, outside the morally superior prism of theological reflection, had no meaning. This “positivistic” obsession, he said, would only distract from the moral crisis, which was about birth control.

And so there we had it: in the second case an episcopal advisor gained huge applause for railing against “the facts” while in the first case a great cardinal was embarrassed because no expert advisor had engaged with the facts as a sociologist of standing would and so protected Cardinal Turkson from his public fate. Without throwing the theological baby out with the intellectual bathwater the Church needs to put this right at the highest level or else any synod on any topic risks becoming legendary in its own mind describing and responding to a social reality and mission context which never has nor never will exist. That will not unlock any form of evangelisation that will be successful on a large scale.

Francis Davis is a former advisor to the UK Secretary of State for Communities and a columnist at www.radicalcentre.co.uk. He previously taught at the universities of Cambridge and Oxford.