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 always limits to what any government can achieve.” Virtue is more important than regulation, argue the Bishops: “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.” And there is a warning about state interference in the family: “…governments do well when they interfere as little as possible while supporting parents in the exercise of their responsibilities.”
This is precisely the advice that Bishops should give. Let us take the last of the three statements. The first part of it is a simple statement of the principle of subsidiarity. The second part acknowledges that the state may need to support parents. But that is where it stops. Somebody of the left might argue in favour of comprehensive provision of child benefits and state-financed services for all families. Somebody of a free-market perspective might believe that the state’s role ends with providing finance for education for poorer families. These are issues that should be left for prudential judgement and on which Bishops have no particular expertise. But the Bishops have laid out the principles – the state is there to serve the family and not the other way round, and that is what they should do.
It is to be hoped that the Bishops do not see the lack of media coverage of their statement as a sign of failure. It is a sign of success – they have not put their foot in it. But there is now an onus on Catholic laity and local priests to promote the document. Much of it is based on an understanding of human nature that would be shared by all people of goodwill: it is therefore not just useful for the Catholic community.
Having praised the document, do I have any reservations? I have a few. When discussing the help that the state provides for the elderly and so on, it could have been made clearer that individuals, families and the community through voluntary activity have the primary responsibility for looking after those in need rather than the state. There needs to be a revival of voluntary charity along the lines discussed in Deus caritas est. But this is a quibble.
Possibly the only part where the document missed the mark altogether was at the end where it discussed 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 - with finance if necessary - to educate their children; and the Church should help families obtain an appropriate education too. But, it is not for the state and Church “in partnership” to build the schools, design the curriculum – including sex education, determine the terms and conditions of employment of almost every teacher in the land and tell parents where to send their children to school. The Bishops’ Conference is a bureaucracy and it is too tempting for bureaucracies to think that education is something that should be provided for all families by a Church bureaucracy working in partnership with government bureaucracy.
Current approaches to education policy are not in harmony with Catholic social teaching and we have also found in recent years that the more powerful bureaucracy always has the whip hand! As it happens, in the last few weeks, Bishop McMahon made a statement on education that suggested a different approach that sees parents as sovereign.
But let’s not be negative. There is much to applaud in this document. It is always best for Bishops to say too little rather than risk saying too much on political matters – except where objective moral principles are at stake. But this document goes further. It provides excellent advice on how to build a better society – not by building a bigger government but by building a society of better people.