Ensuring that all citizens are protected from destitution and receive basic care and subsistence when in dire need has typically been seen as the core purpose of the welfare state. When Cardinal Nichols spoke out in the Daily Telegraph he was addressing, from the pastoral perspective of the Church, the failure of the welfare state to live up to this vision.
Now, we should pay very careful attention to what the Cardinal actually said. He didn’t challenge the right of a government to change its welfare policy. Nor, as some politicians indicated did he say that there was no safety net at all, rather that there were such gaping holes in its structures that the welfare state no longer offered an effective safety net. Drawing from the pastoral experience from presbytery front door to Foodbank to Catholic social agencies, Nichols rightly exercised episcope or oversight: he made visible a controversial truth.
This is a humdrum truth. It is the story of those ‘sanctioned’ for missed benefit assessment appointments because of medical treatment, of failing to manage the complex forms, of disengaging from the Jobcentre process, of the crushing reality of being assessed as fit for work in the face of the advice of medical professionals and the practical intelligence of the family members who care for them. Then there is the Kafkaesque intersection of the immigration and welfare systems: you are a destitute migrant who has fallen out of the bottom of the asylum system, unable to return ‘home’ and yet with no further recourse to law here. Not entitled to support or to work, destitution becomes not a brief blip but a way of life. Ask the Jesuit Refugee Service. When the Church fills these gaps in provision she becomes witness, an overseer of a wider social truth: the failure of a legal and welfare system to act with prudence in the cases of some of the most vulnerable. It would be distasteful for Christian charity to act as a cover for an absence of social virtue in systems of governance.
So, Cardinal Nichols described a pastoral reality: it IS possible to exist in Britain today without access to any form of support, and even for those who are entitled to support the system feels in the grip of an administrative culture of fear and distrust. Bureaucracy does not run as a neutral operation, and current shifts towards applying sanctions further skews bureaucratic decision-making. It seems that the worst thing that could happen is that someone ‘undeserving’ is given support rather than that someone ‘deserving’ might be left destitute. These priorities are wrong.
Here the Cardinal has a theological not just a pastoral hinterland to fall back on. Scripture tells us to seek our own welfare, the welfare of our neighbour and the welfare of the city. This is tied to the idea of shalom. In the truest sense our welfare is found in salvation, and a relationship of communion with God and the saints. This reality of salvation has consequences for the ways we conduct our social life in the here and now. Thus Christian approaches to welfare are guided less by a notion of radical autonomy and more by attempting to discern what makes for healthy interdependence. It is precisely because economic poverty seems to drive isolation, frustrate social participation and increase harmful dependencies that the Church seeks to both accompany and transform such conditions.
Some people argue that priests should not get involved in politics. This position is mistaken. It is reasonable for priests to point out injustices, to explain fundamental principles and also to note the reality they see on the ground. Certainly priests should avoid party politics, except in very particular circumstances, and they should be careful not to go beyond their competence when it comes to specifics or to prudential matters. When clergy make definitive statements on matters that can reasonably be disputed it can divide part of the flock from the clergy. Speaking out rashly can also undermine the clergy’s authority when they teach on objective areas of faith and morals. After all, as Pope Francis said, we don’t want the Church sounding like an NGO.
In my view, the Vatican Justice and Peace Commission quite often over-steps the mark in this regard. For example, it recently made specific recommendations with regard to international financial regulation apparently oblivious to how such regulation concentrated risk and made the financial system more opaque in the run-up to the crash. I am not convinced that Cardinal Turkson has the required expertise in this area. The laity’s role in these matters should be valued and Catholic lay persons are to be found in parliaments and central banks making judgements, hopefully in the light of their faith.
But, what about Cardinal Nichols? In fact, he was careful not to say too much about the specifics of welfare reform, whilst using his experience, as Anna Rowland has pointed out, to chide the government for allowing people to slip through the net. That is fair enough.
Perhaps he was intemperate in some of his language – truculent might aptly describe his comments.
The Cardinal said that the safety net had been torn apart. He did not say that the safety net had holes in, but that it no longer exists. This is simply not true. People may be falling through the net; however, with £200 billion being spent on cash welfare benefits – never mind health and education - the net is large and many people are being supported by it.
However, we need to move on to a wider debate. Here, I suspect Anna and I will disagree on details, even if we agree on important principles.
Vincent Nichols implied that charity should be a marginal activity and providing the safety net should be the primary role of the state. I do not agree with that. In the Mass we pray for the world to be brought to the fullness of charity. In Deus caritas est, Pope Benedict discussed how the sharing of goods by early Christians was a great example to non-Christians. Charity should be part and parcel of our Christian mission. It is important that a just economic system exists to ensure that as many as possible can thrive materially and otherwise. However, charity is a key way in which we should help the poor – currently it is marginal.
Yes, there is a role for the state, but its ways are often bureaucratic, unfriendly and coercive. It is, indeed, astonishing that the state spends nearly 50 per cent of national income and yet we have the problems Vincent Nichols identified. We are all children of God and we should consider more seriously our obligations out of love to our brothers and sisters in Christ rather than assuming that the state should be the first port of call whilst charity fills in the odd gap.
Pope Pius XI asked a rhetorical question ‘Should we meet socialism half-way?’ He answered, powerfully: ‘If they truly wish to be heralds of the Gospel, let them above all strive to show to socialists that socialist claims, so far as they are just, are far more strongly supported by the principles of Christian faith and much more effectively promoted through the power of Christian charity.’
The state should ensure justice; and it should assist other institutions within society in their welfare functions. The state should also step in where human dignity and the common good are not sufficiently served by other organisations. But, surely the pendulum has swung too far, away from society and charity and towards the state. The state is dominating and not supporting. It is not clear to me that Cardinal Nichols appreciates that fundamental point.
This debate was originally published by the Catholic Herald.