Faith in the public square

LYNN JOLLY. Open House’s literary editor interviews Duncan MacLaren, who has spent most of his working life contributing to international development.  What inspires him and how does he view current approaches to international development and politics?

It’s a dreich lunch time in Glasgow when I meet the former Director of SCIAF and Secretary General of Caritas International; lifelong supporter of and campaigner for Scottish independence; and sometime contributor to this journal, Duncan MacLaren.  We find a snug corner of a west end eaterie, order our Friday fish, and settle down to what turns out to be another imaginative encounter for your interviewer.  (If you paid me to do this I’d have to give the money back).

Duncan was installed recently as a Knight Commander of the Order of St Gregory the Great by Pope Francis in recognition of his work in international aid and social justice for SCIAF and Caritas.  It’s a papal gong to you and me and is the latest in an impressive list of awards and accolades recognising a lifetime’s service to international development, academic research and teaching.  This includes his adjunct professorship at the Australian Catholic University and his role as co-ordinator of a tertiary education programme for Burmese refugees on the Thai-Burma border.  His CV reads like the life history of at least three overachievers who still have a lot to do.  Linguist, poet, and current PhD scholar at Glasgow University, he seems to embody something essentially ‘renaissance’ and ‘catholic’ and I make that my first question: absolutely determined this time to follow the answer.

What does it mean to you to be Catholic?

Since I began at SCIAF, through all my work there and later with Caritas, and at the Australian University, my Catholicism has always been public.  That’s the only way in which it makes sense to me to live out my faith.  It can never just be a private thing.  I’m very suspicious of a piety that doesn’t spill out into daily, public life.  I’m puzzled for example by the idea that you can be someone who never misses Mass but objects to the welcoming of refugees.  That’s just a basic contradiction.  That said, I see the personal aspect of faith as something that requires nurturing and development and is the bedrock of that public expression.  My long and very personal association with the Dominican Order is a source of prayer, community and, in every sense, religious life.  They are a huge influence and resource for me and were among my first encounters with what it meant to be catholic in the world.  I wasn’t brought up as a Catholic or in any religious tradition and they’ve always demonstrated to me that essential openness and inclusivity that being catholic really means.

Have you seen ‘Silence’? ( Scorcese’s adaptation of Endo’s novel about the Jesuits in Japan, currently in the cinemas.)

Yes!  It demonstrates a lot about that very question.  What does it mean to ‘go public’ with your faith?  What should the cost be?  Does it matter what you say so long as you do the right things?  Those are all challenges I think and in our corner of the world we’re not very obviously faced with them.  Elsewhere though, people are.  All the time.  In fact, Endo said something about Catholicism that expresses very well what it means for me to be part of it. He called it a ‘symphony’.  Whereas other  traditions are ‘good tunes’, Catholicism is the whole, complex symphony of life and faith.

But what of those who don’t find themselves included in this ‘symphony’?  The poor, refugees are certainly embraced and profoundly so by the current Pope, but what of gay people who may hear themselves condemned or, um….women….for whom it can still be a very qualified welcome?

Well, I see that as the church rather than faith. Faith is all inclusive. The church struggles with its own human aspects: prejudice, power, self-interest.  I think the current Pope is challenging those too in as creative a way as he can.

(We move on.)

Staying with the theme of global poverty and social justice, what changes have you seen since your days with SCIAF?

I suppose in a way the most obvious one is the professionalising of the aid and development world.  When I became director of SCIAF in the early 80s I was SCIAF’s first full time employee.  Until then the whole thing had been done on a voluntary basis and staffed entirely by volunteers.  A lot of great work was done but there was still a sense of an old fashioned charity mentality; those of us who were comfortable ‘bailing out’ those who were in need, rather than a developmental approach which enabled people to realise their own potential and establish sustainable ways of supporting their own livelihoods.  That became the aim of SCIAF and that is now the accepted way in which overseas development organisations think about their work.  I see that as a major positive change.  However I do find it worrying that there are signs of the old mentality creeping back in some places.  It’s easier to tell people all they have to do is give a small amount of money to feed a child.  That allows them to stop thinking about it.  It’s much harder to get people to give the money AND begin to change how we think and live in order to create a more just world.

That world is going through some very significant changes right now.  Before SCIAF you were Press Secretary for the SNP and have always supported Scottish independence.  How do you see modern Scotland emerging from this new world order?

Well I know how I’d LIKE to see it emerging!  I am, as you say, a supporter of Scottish independence and firmly believe that is the best future for Scotland, politically and economically.  My basis for that is not principally that I think we would all be so much better off financially, though that may be a consequence, it is even more that I believe that’s the way to being a more just nation.  For example, Scotland has benefitted hugely from being in the EU.  Not just economically.  We are a more generous, more welcoming, more expansive country because of that association and that may well now be taken from us.  Clearly a majority of people in Scotland don’t want that.

That’s a personal thing for me as well as a political one.  I feel European.  I studied German and Celtic Studies as an under graduate.  I’ve lived in Rome, London, Germany and Switzerland and visited most other European countries.  I’m very angry at the idea that we can be taken out of Europe because of an insular kind of nationalism.  That’s not how I see Scottish nationalism at all.  It is inclusive and outward facing.  I think if we ran the indy ref again now, the outcome would be different.  People feel lied to.  I know the polls aren’t showing that but I do think there is an underlying feeling that isn’t being reflected there.

Through your variety of experience then, and you mention the significance of Europe, who has influenced you most?

That’s very difficult to answer.  There are so many people in so many areas of life.  My own family would have to be first.  My maternal grandfather was a big influence on me. He was a shipyard worker and very involved in the trade union movement.  I think I got a strong sense of social justice from him. My father was also a trade unionist in the printing industry.  My paternal grandfather from Highland Perthshire encouraged me in my love of the Gaelic language.

I mentioned my study of German and I would say Goethe and his works have been a great influence.  He really embodies for me what it means to be European: scholarly, creative and intensely human.  At university here in Glasgow I was very influenced by the Jesuit Gerry Hughes who was Chaplain and in theology it would be Rahner and Aquinas.  Timothy Radcliffe too of the Dominicans who is a friend as well as a spiritual and theological influence.  In literature I love the poetry of Sorley MacLean, Edwin Morgan, Norman MacCaig…so many….my favourite book is The Confessions of  a Justified Sinner by James Hogg, which I think beautifully sums up the risks of small mindedness in religion, politics and personal life.

At this point we are interrupted by the woman at the next table who alerts us to the fact that my table napkin, carelessly disgarded earlier, has been set alight by the candle.  Such was our absorption neither of us noticed.  It seems a good moment to put a final, focussed question:

If there was one thing you’d like to see happen in 2017 in church, state, and in your own life what would they be?

Well, in my own life that’s easy.  I’d like to have completed my PhD…or at least be able to see the end of it.  In church I’d like to see this Pope remain healthy and vigorous enough to see through some of his programme of renewal.  As he says, the church is still of ‘huge relevance in a fractured world’.  I want to see his ‘poor first’ commitment have further impact.  In the nation?  No Brexit!  I don’t think it will happen but I’d love to see it all halted.  At the very least, failing that, that the ‘deal’ gets returned to parliament for real scrutiny.

On that sombre note we depart.  No easy answers, as seems to reflect a life still dedicated to a long struggle.  I’m reminded as I leave of Martin Luther King’s famous ‘arc of the moral universe’ quote: it’s long, it’s arduous but it leans always towards justice.  It serves to underline the direction and energy of this one life and makes me think it no accident that something was set on fire.

Feb/Mar 2020

In June 2019 Open House held a conference exploring possible new directions for the Catholic Church in Scotland. See conference papers.

Open House also held a conference on the role of lay people in the governance of the Catholic Church in November 2013. See conference papers.