Bishops keep out of the headlines by talking common sense!

Philip Booth in the Catholic Times on the Catholic Bishops' pre-election advice

Recent attempts by Bishops’ conferences to get involved in political debate have not always met with success. This is true not just in the UK but in the Western world more generally. A superficial approach to Catholic social teaching often becomes reinforced by a desire to step into technical economic and political debates and the documents end up generating more heat than light. Instead of challenging Catholics and uniting them behind a Christian approach to public policy, local Bishops’ conference documents have often divided people of goodwill along pre-existing party lines.

Unfortunately, such documents have been complemented by the pronouncements of Catholic agencies who try to pass off failed economic paradigms as Catholic social teaching. If there is a problem the suggested solution is that the government should spend more. But, next year the state will spend over 50% of national income. In other words, the government will spend more than families will spend. If solving poverty is just about government spending when will it work? When government spends 52%, 54% or even 70% of national income? In fact, there are people arguing from both a free market and a more left-leaning point of view that whole new approaches are needed – approaches that are more authentically rooted in Catholic social teaching than the simple attempts to grow the welfare state in the pursuit of a widely-misunderstood concept of solidarity. The agencies need to catch up.

The recent document produced by the English and Welsh Bishops suggests that leadership may be developing from that quarter. Choosing the Common Good is a welcome breath of fresh air. The document 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. Perhaps this is a reflection of the fact that it is a sober, well-written document that does not take the Bishops beyond their competences on technical economic matters. 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”.

It is not necessary for the Bishops to produce long tracts about the relationship between solidarity and subsidiarity and what this means for public spending and taxation. Most of these issues are matters for prudential judgement in any case and it is not necessarily the Bishops who are in the best place to advise on such judgements. But Bishops can, very usefully, do two things. They can draw out the links between virtuous behaviour and the development of a good, healthy, thriving society. They can also point out where public policy is in danger of over-stepping the mark and being in direct contradiction to Catholic social teaching. And the Bishops’ general election document does just that – and does it very effectively.

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.
There are welcome warnings about the inability of the state to solve our problems which are surely inoffensive even to the left. For example, the document states: “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 a