You could write the news coverage of the Pope Francis’ visit to Ireland in advance. Three stories: the Pope’s treatment of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, the Irish abortion referendum and the Pope’s attitude to homosexuality. The latter to spice up reporting the Pope’s meeting the Taoiseach. You would be lucky to learn more about Catholicism and its social teaching.
Take People before Profits, for example, a current political slogan that happens to be Papal teaching. Not much of that in the Murdoch Press despite his getting a papal decoration. Catholic Social Teaching features very infrequently in any newspaper. It bobs up in the news when someone prominent, and not a Catholic, mentions it. This usually coincides with moments of despair about British politics. The Archbishop of Canterbury tellingly draws on it in his recent book Re-Imagining Britain: Foundations for Hope. Lord Maurice Glasman championed it when David Cameron was talking about the Big Society and Britain was still reeling from the 2008 financial crisis.
For a world religion to consciously promote since the 19th century an organic tradition of thought about the desirable shape for society, international relations and economic structures, is both ambitious and difficult. Yet many, though not all, members of the three Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, Islam and Christianity, would like aspects of their faith to be reflected in how we live in the world together, in their vision of politics. And it helps to have signposts and authoritative guidelines.
The Catholic Church’s social teaching is little discussed amongst Catholics and the Church has a poor record for promoting it. For a faith at the communitarian end of the individualism-collectivism spectrum you might think the opposite would be the case. But it is the Church’s counter-cultural individual morality, notably about beginning and end of life, and sexuality, which is newsworthy. The social position of bishops, archbishops and cardinals, more so in the past than now, has left Catholic social teaching in the category too difficult to handle, discomforting the advantaged and comforting the disadvantaged. Today in Europe it is more a question of fearing accusations of meddling in politics and creating divisions in parishes that keeps sermons and pastoral letters on the safe ground of personal spiritual formation and morality.
Catholic Social Teaching developed in response to the condition of the industrial working class, revolutionary threats, the rise of Marxist analysis, and then Communist Parties and States. Early in the 19th century some Catholic social thinkers denounced the treatment of workers, while the hierarchy slowly recognized that it had to engage with the working class or it would lose it. In his 1839 pamphlet On Modern Slavery, the remarkable French Abbé, Félicité de Lamennais, later to leave the priesthood under Vatican censure, placed the abject dependence of the proletariat on Capital at the centre of social concern. His use of the term proletariat, and its pivotal significance, was already emerging whilst the young Marx was still studying the history of philosophy and – successfully - courting an aristocrat, Baroness Jenny von Westphalen.
In June 1869, the Bishop Wilhelm von Ketteler of Mainz preached a famous and resonant sermon to 10,000 workers at the Liebfrauenheide pilgrimage chapel in Hesse denouncing “anti-christian liberalism” and advocting the idea of worker associations along the British trades union model. The sermon was part of his continuous detailed engagement with core social democratic issues and contemporary political debates. Ketteler’s teaching anticipated the key themes of later Vatican social pronouncements: he introduced a Calvinist idea of church order to Catholic Social Teaching, termed ‘subsidiarity’. In his words: “Each lower limb moves freely within its sphere and enjoys the right of self-determination and self-government. Only when the lower limb is no longer able to achieve his aims himself or independently to avert the danger threatening his development does the higher limb enter into force on its behalf”.
There are clear continuities, from the passionate ferment of Lamennais’ social thinking, through Ketteler to Pope Leo XIII who read Lamennais on social justice and who in 1891 published Rerum Novarum (Rights and Duties of Capital and Labour), the first in a series of papal documents that continue until today with Pope Francis on the threats to the environment. In Britain with its poverty-stricken Irish migrants, Cardinal Henry Manning influenced Pope Leo XIII on the ‘worker question’, openly sympathized with striking workers and mediated between unions and employers in the 1889 Dock Strike. The foundations of a living tradition able to develop in new and different socio-economic contexts were laid.
Why this apparent diversion into the 19th century? Merely to say that that the Catholic Church has been engaged in a long-running conversation with socialism for over 175 years, and a Vatican level for 150. From engagement has emerged a number of clear positions: firstly a commitment to uphold the value of work, vocational labour, and worker rights sometimes honoured in the breach, at other times, for example in the case of Solidarność, in a dramatically interventionist fashion; secondly what Germany calls harmonious co-determination (Mitbestimmung) - since 1976 management and workers sharing decision-making with almost equal representation on boards of company directors; thirdly a clear distinction been productive and savage Capitalism. In short the priority of People over Profit so Labour over Capital, are at the heart of this tradition, originating in the thinking of a French former priest, a German bishop, an English cardinal, and an Italian Pope.
The Catholic Right in politics can, and does, live with, and sometimes promote, particular elements of Catholic Social Teaching selecting biblical verses and papal phrases which fit the reader’s prejudices (text without context is pretext I was taught) and often ignoring the rest. But generally the tradition is threatening to them. The social conservatism of Catholics on the Right includes both political conservatism and sexual morality. The Church finds unexpected allies in those on the Left who do not usually tick the Vatican approved boxes on individual moral issues, beginning and end of life, and sexual morality, but share a critique of Capitalism.
The vision which Catholic social teaching proposed informed the early days of the European Union whose founding fathers were disproportionately Catholic. British Catholics, whether they like it or not, are a little bit European. Not the best identity for drawing an interested audience in a Britain both officially Protestant, and secular, and historically distrustful of Europe, and with a majority of voters in favour of BREXIT.
In my next blog I will discuss the significance of Catholic Social Thought in this time of political turmoil. Any port in a storm.
It is possibly too late for reasoned argument about BREXIT. But earlier last week BBC Radio 4’s Today programme began describing clearly for listeners what one possible option for staying in the single European Market after BREXIT might mean: the path taken by Norway. The BBC is fulfilling its Reithian role to inform and educate a public otherwise badly served by the studied vagueness or strident argument of many politicians and their supporters. The other sources of constructive thinking and good governance are the Bank of England and Parliamentary Select Committees, notably Exiting the EU and Home Affairs.
The British public has almost never heard inspiring accounts of the values that the EU tries to embody, nor the benefits that have accrued to the UK from its membership, nor the Security, workplace and human rights protections afforded EU citizens. There has rarely been any thoughtful analysis of the nature of sovereignty in the modern world, nor has immigration been discussed dis-aggregated into asylum seekers, economic migrants, future NHS and social care staff, seasonal agricultural labour and students. Nor has the way the different European Courts relate to EU member states and our own judicial system been adequately explained. The field has been left to tendentious, generalized and usually inaccurate assertions on issues of great concern for Leave voters.
Indeed even delving into such matters is likely to identify the interlocutor as a member of ‘the elite’ wishing to impose their undemocratic dominance on hard-working British people, and conspiring to thwart the popular will. Any presentation of data or attempt to inform becomes “an affront to democracy”. Yet, in reality, the greatest threat to democracy comes from the relentless push for BREXIT at any cost.
Democratic political systems offer citizens the greatest freedom of expression, personal liberty and responsibility consonant with public order. Democracy is also the least bad way of getting rid of governments that fail to work for the Common Good. There is much more to sustaining a democratic culture than organizing elections and counting votes. Unfortunately for democracy to work for the Common Good, there must be an informed electorate; it’s unfortunate because the forces at play to keep electorates misinformed are now more diverse and powerful than ever. The British print media are probably no better, no worse today than in the past. But they are apparently the most mistrusted in Europe and it is hard to believe newspapers such as the Daily Mail, Sun, and Daily Express do not amplify and contribute to xenophobia and the growing deepening divisions within British society, not least about BREXIT.
Before, during and after the Referendum campaign, politicians have thought nothing of promoting unconscionable propaganda: Turkey was about to become a EU member state and would decant its population into Britain; BREXIT would bring hundreds of millions of pounds into NHS coffers; old ladies were being denied emergency medical treatment because of the flood of immigrants, and so on. Or, from the other side, there would have to be an immediate emergency BREXIT budget following a Leave victory. This REMAIN contribution to misinformation did not impede George Osborne becoming editor of the Evening Standard. BREXIT has not been the cause of what is now widely described as a crisis of democracy. In this country it has merely revealed and contributed to the crisis.
The deterioration in the tone and language of public discussion is telling. The anonymity of social media has been a contributory factor leaking extremist and violent language into public discourse. Twitter postings from members of the ‘Metropolitan Elite’ now frequently abusive. Brexiteers call the judiciary traitors and public enemies when their judgements do not meet press barons’ approval. Pro-Brexit politicians invoke the Will of the People meaning only the 52% who voted Leave in a referendum debate shaped by outrageous propaganda. Have the 48% who voted Remain ceased to be the People? Aren’t these little tricks with words indicative of an indifference to growing social divisions? Lurching into populism, repeating this mantra, is apparently fine with the Prime Minister and the Cabinet.
Social media allows many good things but it creates silos and echo-chambers of non-communicating prejudices and cleverly targeted misinformation. It is still too early to determine if Russian cyber-interference played any part in the referendum but it is obvious that breaking up the EU – and NATO - is one of Putin’s major foreign policy objectives. It is likely that were there a second referendum he would indeed intervene.
If there is a second referendum, a logical and reasonable requirement after the known defects of the first, it should be the last. We have a representative democracy and a parliamentary system that, with all its flaws, works. Referendums are a recent addition to our electoral system and they do not enrich political life. We were pushed into this most recent referendum, by David Cameron who believed he could defeat the ultra-nationalists on the Tory back-benches, and by British anti-EU feeling dating back two decades. Cameron was wrong and now we are seeing the result.
It is too late and too difficult to back-track. Exploring and negotiating a Norway-type option – with the obvious national differences and potential disadvantages for the UK – may offer a consensual position that might plausibly represent the will of the British people and might minimize damage to our economy. It now seems the least damaging way forward. What we have at the moment is a hopeless fudge that was designed to hold the Tory Party together but will more likely break the country apart.