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Tue Jan 15, 2013, 09:27 PM


Catholic Social Teaching: Not-so-secret anymore?

Is Catholic Social Teaching starting to capture the political imagination? Dr Anna Rowlands explores the increasing interest of UK politicians in the Church’s ‘best-kept secret’, and discusses many initiatives that are already underway to bring politicians and advocates of Catholic Social Teaching into conversation with one another.

15 January 2013
Anna Rowlands

It is increasingly acknowledged, indeed by some surprising sources, that Catholic Social Teaching offers one of the most persuasive and morally interesting responses to the recent financial crisis. Figures including Labour peer and Jewish advocate of Catholic Social Teaching, Lord Glasman, and Jon Cruddas, MP for Dagenham and Rainham and head of Labour’s policy review, have found themselves drawn to the resources of Catholic Social Teaching (CST) on themes as wide ranging as the dignity of labour, the right to a living wage and the vision of a civil economy. For these politicians, and a growing number of economic figures who speak of their interest in these ideas more privately, CST envisions a world of value, relationship and social creativity beyond the narrow confines of a framework couched primarily in the language of profit, marketization, choice and endless consumption. The opportunity to make the case for a Catholic vision of economic life is currently great: many of the alternative narratives have run into moral cul-de-sacs and there is a greater openness to a degree of reflection on the last three or four decades of policy-making, its social impact and the model of the human person at its heart.

This thesis was at the heart of an edition of the BBC Radio 4 public policy programme, Analysis, broadcast (perhaps ironically) on 5 November 2012. Matthew Taylor, former Head of the Number 10 Policy Unit under Tony Blair and not himself a Catholic, explained that he was intrigued that the secular Left was turning towards the resources of CST. For advocates on the Left it appears to offer a comprehensive vision of a politics that once again places a vision of the human person and an account of the human relationships at the heart of social institutions. It also offers a three-fold emphasis that is helping the Left to re-orient its politics: a set of reasons why talking about morality and justice in economic life is a necessity; the need for a constructive account of the role of the state that does not see the State as bearer of all responsibility for the common good; and finally a vision of broad-based participation to build a much stronger civil society – a base condition for social flourishing and political renewal. This was put in more straightforward and everyday language by Jon Cruddas: ‘You can’t park the way you live at the door of the office or business. It has to be maintained into all aspects of your civic duties: patterns of employment, the tax you pay and the way we care for the environment’.

When I was interviewed for the broadcast I was taken aback somewhat by the strength of concern regarding the capability of CST to interact in the public square. I was asked several questions (which were not aired) which explored the line of thought that promoting CST is really just a clever media ploy to cover up bad news stories about the Church. Following along these lines I was asked to explore whether drawing on CST now was an attempt to put forward the acceptable face of the Church. One accusation was that (to quote Taylor), ‘You’ve put all the controversial personal morality stuff in the naughty drawer, but at some point you’ll be asking these politicians and business leaders to take all this, too, as the price for the “gift” of Catholic Social Teaching’. The benefit of being interviewed by someone who stands in a very different space is that their concerns and thought processes are challenging: some people find the notion of a ‘Catholic’ social teaching very difficult to stomach, and it is important to understand how something that we consider to be a ‘gift’ can be perceived by others. Conspiracy theories aside, the deeper questions underlying this line of interviewing were actually about the fitness of CST to be a genuine partner in a context marked by plurality. This is not to be mistaken for a desire to relativise truth or morality, but it expressed (I think) a genuine concern for a form of dialogue that makes possible the negotiation of goods and truths in a truly complex age. This is an important and interesting question. Both Glasman and Cruddas had interesting thoughts on how we face this challenge. Glasman, influenced by the interaction of CST with community organising ventures (Citizens UK in particular) suggests that CST, in rejecting a revolutionary path, manifests a slow and patient theory of change. Whilst this takes time and can seem laborious, in fact it opens a space for change that can be genuinely plural: incarnated and practised into being within institutions, networks and organisations; and made more powerful and sustainable by its willingness to bridge and negotiate across groups and institutions. In turn, Cruddas suggests that we need to think about a gradual process in which ‘exiled traditions’ (of which CST is one) are brought back into play at all levels of political community. Such exiled traditions do not arrive to dictate the terms, but are speakers of truth and value, and embodiments of desire and virtue, necessarily set within a pluralist architecture of political practices – and, we might add, CST needs to be committed to speak, act and listen with humility as well as confidence. And of course, CST will not remain unchanged by this encounter.

Taylor concluded the programme with the challenging thought that two factors could inhibit the chances of CST contributing to the moment: firstly, that a desire for episcopal control would fail to let a necessarily complex and creative lay flowering of CST unfold across professions and sectors. Secondly, that politicians and economists would give in to the temptation to instrumentalise CST, picking the elements that suited and ignoring the ones that did not, thus undermining its fundamental coherence. On this latter question, Taylor seems to have had in mind the tendency of each political party to adopt sections of CST enthusiastically, yet struggle to treat it as a whole. The Labour tradition has tended to feel more at home with the structural elements of CST on work, wages and social solidarity. It has not done so well on war and peace, on protecting a space for civil society, and New Labour continued with a heavy dose of a procedural rights and duties liberalism without an equal focus on the relational character of the political.


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