THIS SUNDAY’S GOSPEL READING opens with the words of Jesus: ‘Do not be afraid. For everything now hidden will be made clear. What I say to you in the dark, tell in the daylight; what you hear in whispers, proclaim from the housetops.’ This might be a good reading for whoever is likely to be taking part in the public enquiry due to be held into the fire at Grenfell Tower in Notting Dale: it is essential that such an enquiry should bring into the open all the back-ground to this terrible event. I lived and worked in the area for a few years as a student in the early 80s: what has been striking has been the extent to which local churches and religious groups in particular have been at the centre of the relief effort. The strength of these churches (grounded in sound theology), and their levels of co-operation are partly because of the big Christian input, over many years, in the Notting Hill Carnival, started decades ago by Trinidadian Catholics.
Much has been written about what any enquiry may conclude about responsibility for what happened. For Catholics, there are guiding principles which help us to evaluate both critically and with compassion every aspect of this. Some are fairly obvious, such as truth-telling; others less so. One such principle is what is called the preferential option for the poor. This concept originated in what is known as ‘Liberation Theology’ in Latin America in the 60s and 70s, and was brought into mainstream Catholic thinking by St John Paul II and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI.
What does it mean? In 1987 St John Paul gave this definition: ‘.. the option or love of preference for the poor. This is an option, or a special form of primacy in the exercise of Christian charity, to which the whole tradition of the Church bears witness. It affects the life of each Christian inasmuch as he or she seeks to imitate the life of Christ, but it applies equally to our social responsibilities and hence to our manner of living, and to the logical decisions to be made concerning the ownership and use of goods..’.
So putting the poor first is how we imitate Our Lord, and it is about lots of things: charity, our lifestyle, and political decisions about the ownership and use of goods in society. If a key issue which the Grenfell Tower enquiry is going to look at is housing policy and decisions about ‘social housing’ – and the issue needs to be looked at not only in Kensington and Chelsea but all over the country – then the Catholic will want to apply the preferential option for the poor. How far do councils take decisions which put the needs of the poor first? What are their priorities in terms of housing need?
The Catholic Church and other churches have repeatedly challenged politicians about this, for as long as I can remember. Blessed Paul VI taught in 1971 that ‘the more fortunate should renounce some of their rights so as to place their goods more generously at the service of others’ Are local or national politicians saying this? Just to ask these questions shows us how far dominant political culture is from Christian moral teaching as proclaimed by the popes. As we evaluate what will be made clear about this fire in the months ahead, we need to keep these questions clear in our minds. It would be good too if politicians who claim to be Christians could do so too.
Many have asked how to donate gifts and money to help the victims of the fire. We’ve been advised to refer people to the website of the Westminster archdiocese, www.rcdow.org.uk