Belief, disbelief and beyond belief

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Card-carrying Catholics

Catholics are being encouraged to carry a 'faith card'. Could it catch on?

I'm intrigued by the proposal, revealed yesterday by the Telegraph's Martin Beckford, to issue all one million regularly practising Catholics in England and Wales with credit-card-sized "faith cards". One side carries a quote from the recently beatified John Henry Newman, while the other lists six things that good Catholics ought to do (number one is to share the faith, incidentally) and carries the injunction, "in the event of an emergency please contact a Catholic priest."

I assume that this refers to a medical emergency, rather than to a sudden crisis of faith or to a difficulty encountered while trying to explain the finer points of the doctrine of transubstantiation to an incredulous atheist.

Launching the scheme, Bishop Kieran Conry put the card in the context of modern society, in which it is common to carry cards "which reflect something of our identity and the things that are important to us." But it would surely have appealed to the fifteenth century Franciscan preacher St Bernardino of Siena, who used to carry around a plaque inscribed with an IHS logo, the better to impress congregations with reverence for the name of Jesus. He's now the patron saint of advertising.

According to the bishop, the card will remind Catholics of their faith and encourage them to share it. It isn't, though, a membership card. There's no suggestion that it would be necessary to show it before receiving communion in an unfamiliar church, for example. Perhaps they're missing a trick, there. Given the complexity and specificity of the rules surrounding who is and isn't permitted to receive the sacrament, it might be considered surprising that the system continues to function largely on trust. A smart card would provide an excellent way of keeping track of which Catholics were in good standing with the Church, as well as preventing Anglicans from surreptitiously availing themselves of communion, as Tony Blair used to do while he was prime minister.

Nor is it, yet, a loyalty card, although I can imagine enterprising Catholic-friendly businesses offering discounts to its bearers. It's not uncommon, after all, for some clubs and societies to negotiate discounts on behalf of their members, or universities on behalf of their alumni, while many businesses spontaneously offer discounts to students, pensioners or local residents. At a time when the Catholic Church is seriously worried about falling congregations (the pope himself warning the other day that "in large parts of the world the faith is in danger of dying out like a flame that has no more sustenance") some such incentive scheme might prove useful.

More seriously, it was interesting that bishop Conroy chose to make the point about identity. The Catholic Church doesn't have an obvious marker of faith identity, like the hijab, turban or the Jewish skullcap. There's the crucifix, of course, but not all cross-wearers are Catholic, or even Christian, and wearing one has never been a religious requirement. The bishop claimed that carrying a faith card "takes courage, it signals to others, every time you use your wallet or purse, that you believe in God, that your life has a purpose." But unless you choose to wave your wallet in front of people's noses, the message is only being communicated to the bearer. Or to a thief.

It's as a spur to evangelism (or evangelisation, as Catholics prefer to say) that the "faith card" is most likely to make an impact. I was somewhat reminded of the five-point pledge cards that the Labour Party distributed at the time of the 1997 election. Indeed, there's a space on the card in which the believer is supposed to inscribe his or her name, turning the front of the card into something of a to-do list. In that context, it's worth noting that "love my neighbour as myself" is at number four, behind not only sharing the faith but also praying and attending the sacraments. Jesus himself put it second, just behind loving God (which on this list is nowhere).

And why six principles of Catholicism? Perhaps just to go one better than the Muslims, who since the seventh century have made do with Five Pillars of Islam. They would fit nicely on a card, come to think of it. Now all we need is something for card-carrying atheists to carry.