During an inter-governmental conference on trade and development held in Geneva in 1964, two speakers received a standing ovation. One was Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, Argentinian hero of the Cuban revolution, radicalized as a medical student by the poverty of Latin America while touring; the other was Louis-Joseph Lebret, a Dominican priest reared in a small Breton fishing community, radicalized by the poverty of the fishing community in St. Malo.
Planned as a one-off event the conference established a new UN agency, UNCTAD, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. Che Guevara went on to be summarily executed by CIA-backed forces in Bolivia and became, for the Left, the political equivalent of Marlon Brando, and finally a wall poster. Jean-Louis Lebret went on to help Pope Paul VI write his most far-sighted encyclical, on trade and development, Populorum Progressio, the progress of peoples, which over 50 years later stands the test of time.
So a hundred years after Marx was writing Das Kapital and the Bavarian Bishop, Wilhelm Ketteler, was publishing his The Worker Question and Christianity, competition between Socialism and Catholicism still saw each converging around a complex of socio-economic questions related to poverty. But for a variety of reasons, poverty was the dog that didn’t bark during the reformist Second Vatican Council. The shift in the context in which thinking about poverty took place was moving to the developing world, notably Latin America where change was supercharged by reaction to the pressures of military dictatorships and oligarchies supported by the CIA.
Out of this revolutionary hotbed came renewed interest in the Bible and the birth of Liberation Theology. The priority of Labour over Capital was widened to ‘a preferential option for the poor’. Projected politically by the Right as infiltration of the Church by communism, Liberation Theology was a continuation of social teaching outside Europe, and a tacit admission that the Reformation had much to teach the Catholic Church about the centrality of the Gospel. In Nicaragua’s Sandinista revolution and in the rise of Lula’s Workers Party in Brazil a new political vision was adopted by the Left; themes in a rooted theology found purchase and were implemented politically beyond vague generalities.
Some of these core themes of Liberation Theology, though critiqued by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, were adopted cautiously by Pope John Paul II, no stranger to bureaucratic communism in Poland. That the poor should ‘make their own history’, rather than be its collateral damage, that seeking justice was no less the Church’s mandate than charity, with solidarity with the poor a central Christian virtue, were ideas that entered the bloodstream of the global Church. The Bible and the life and practice of the early Church in the first centuries offered an endorsement. What remained unacknowledged was the level of conflict that had to be endured to obtain justice. Implementing these ideas in practical action and policies in Europe was more complex.
How to implement Catholic Social Teaching is the wider problem. Higher level propositions and axioms require down-to-earth detailed policy prescriptions to take on socio-economic life. Post-war Germany had a crack at it: subsidiarity reflected in a federalism with considerable devolution to the Länder, and in regional and local banks, non-conflictual industrial structures of co-partnership between employers and Labour, respect for skilled work, and appointment of city integration commissioners for immigrant communities. The political theorist, Lord Maurice Glasman, sings the praises of this German Christian Democrat dispensation as an example of Catholic Social Teaching in action.
He presents the importance of civil society organisations, mediating institutions between State and Market, as a distinctive contribution of Catholic Social Teaching. True for Latin America where civil society had a strong Catholic component that could act as a counter to dictatorship and oligarchy. Less true for the USA and Europe where the fear was that capitalism would fail in post-Soviet Russia through lack of a connecting infrastructure of civil society organisations to buttress a social market. Enter Civil Society stage right to audience applause, soon to be strangled by a kleptocracy of former KGB agents and their cronies.
Civil society was that which the Soviet Union lacked. When I spoke to Gorbachev’s religious advisers as rapid change was afoot in 1990, they were acutely aware of the coming vacuum. “Our communist ethics are dead”, they bemoaned, “Christianity will have to provide the moral cement for society”.
Glasman is right to present virtue ethics as sewn into the fabric of Catholic Social Teaching. This is an understanding of ethics which approaches moral development as the acquisition of special skills that require practice. Since the 13th. century, both ethics and social teaching have been connected through Aristotelian thinking via Thomas Aquinas. “A symphony and harmony of voices dwindle if everybody sings the same tone”, he wrote. Apposite as a warning to Communism in the Soviet Union and encouragement for multi-culturalism in democracies.
But Catholic Social Teaching is not some holistic how-to-get-yourself-out-of-political-bankruptcy card when playing Monopoly Capitalism. As post-war Germany illustrates it can give a direction to a society and economy. Though, after military defeat in the 1940s, like Japan, Germany had the advantage of starting with an almost clean slate. Britain’s economy, skewed towards finance capital, stuck with the dominance of the City of London as the byproduct of Empire, remains in a more intractable situation. “The denuding of the country and its people of their institutional and productive inheritance by the higher rates of return in the City of London”, Professor Glasman writes, “is the story we confronted in 2008”. Indeed it remains so even though the story most told is about bad, or foolish, bankers behaving badly.
One of the ironies of our time is that our great intermediate institutions - the NHS, the Churches, the international development agencies come to mind - are persistently under fire for the individual moral failings of a few. The damage is amplified institutionally by an inability to understand that reputation, like character, relies on the virtue of prudential judgement: on truth and trust.
The Church needs to focus on teaching its social thought. If we are to have a national curriculum for religious education - and from a Catholic perspective this is a retrograde step towards uniformity, privileging a fear of subsidiarity - it should include virtue ethics. And, without being presumptuous, it should include Catholic Social Teaching.