Yesterday, the Catholic Bishops issued a document Choosing the Common Good which is intended to guide Catholics in the run up to the general election and beyond. Unlike its predecessors such as Taxation for the Common Good and The Common Good and the Catholic Church’s Social Teaching it has not hit the headlines. This is because, in contrast to the other documents, it is sober, well written, does not take the Bishops beyond their competences on technical economic matters and does not misrepresent aspects of the tradition of Catholic social teaching through a partial and selective analysis. There is nothing like the ghastly suggestion that tax is like the string that binds society together that appeared in Taxation for the Common Good (perhaps that document should have been followed by one on regulation that could have stated that “regulation is like the red tape that binds society together”).
Instead, the basic message of the new document is that if you want a good society then people need to behave virtuously – in their business lives, social lives, when they participate in civil society and in their public lives. These virtues, the document argues, need to be practised at all times and the paper does a good job of outlining what the traditional virtues are and why they are important.
In my view the Church should be sceptical of a state that spends over 50% of national income and which completely dominates the welfare scene. But it is better for the Bishops to put such warnings in nuanced terms or to leave it to the laity and other intellectuals to fight these battles than go beyond their competences in suggesting economic reform. I would not particularly want the Bishops to produce “The Free Market for the Common Good” written in the same terms as Taxation for the Common Good. Nevertheless, there were warnings about the ability of the state to solve our problems which were welcome (and inoffensive even to the left). For example:
“Have we allowed ourselves to be seduced by the myth that social problems are for the government to deal with? Politics are important but there are always limits to what any government can achieve. No government can solve every problem, nor make us more generous or responsive to need. The growth of regulations, targets and league tables, which are tools designed to make public services accountable, are no substitute for actions done as a free gift because the needs of a neighbour have to be met.”
“In place of virtue we have seen an expansion of regulation. A society that is held together just by compliance to rules is inherently fragile, open to further abuses which will be met by a further expansion of regulation. This cannot be enough.” And,
“Families have a right to a life of their own, and governments do well when they interfere as little as possible while supporting parents in the exercise of their responsibilities.”
Are there any criticisms one would make? Possibly, but these would be constructive criticisms rather than the tearing apart that some authors of Catholic Social Teaching and the Market Economy thought was necessary of previous documents. Perhaps the following could have been considered:
1. In the section on the environment, people were reminded of their responsibilities. It might have been useful to mention that, in terms of public policy, these responsibilities can be met in a number of ways (for example, direct regulation or the better definition of property rights and the use of the price mechanism) and we should not just vote for a party that says it is going to address environmental problems directly by regulation because we think that is the Christian thing to do. I say this not because the likely author of the document (Archbishop Vincent Nichols) is likely to think in such a way but because Catholic agencies in the West – who have a very high profile amongst the laity – do think like that whilst passing off their old, tired, subjective political views as objective moral thinking (more on this next week).
2. It could have been made clearer that individuals, families and the community through voluntary activity have the primary responsibility for looking after the poor rather than the state.
3. Possibly the only thing which missed the mark altogether was at the end where the document talked about the benefits of the state/Church partnership in education. This is really not where Catholic social teaching leads us. The primary responsibility for education lies with the parent and the family. The state should aid the family (for example, with finance if necessary) to educate their children – as should the institutions of the Church. It is not for the state and Church in partnership to build the schools, design the curriculum, determine the terms and conditions of employment of almost every teacher in the land and tell parents where to send their children to school. There has been interesting movement on this issue, in fact, in the Catholic hierarchy in the last few weeks – perhaps since yesterday’s document went to print!
4. Something could have been said about structural budget deficits. These have not been widely discussed (as far as I am aware) in Catholic social teaching since the sixteenth century. However, without getting into the technical issues about deficit reduction in a recession, the Bishops could have mentioned that lasting structural budget deficits can be a reflection of selfishness on behalf of the electorate that is trying to transfer resources from a future generation who have no representation. This is clear in the Greek case but becoming more pertinent in the UK.
This document should have been big news. “Bishops fail to put their foot in it” should be regarded by editors as genuinely newsworthy when it comes to statements on economic and political matters – both in the case of the Catholic Church (since the 1970s) and the Anglican Church. But this document goes further. It does not just avoid past mistakes but provides excellent food for thought.