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.