Two Cheers for the Bishops of England and Wales

What a difference 15 years can make.

Back in 1996, the Catholic bishops of England and Wales issued a document, The Common Good and Catholic Social Teaching, to address political issues facing Britain at the time. Leaving aside the incoherence that characterized much of that text, a distinctly skeptical tone about market economies pervaded the document – almost to the point of being an anti-Thatcherite screed.

The 1996 document was written with a view to informing Catholics’ consciences before Britain’s 1997 General Election. Shaping Catholic consciences is, after all, part of a Catholic bishop’s job. But it was very difficult to read the 1996 text as anything other than a less-than-subtle appeal to vote for the then-opposition Labour Party.

Fast-forward to 2010. With a General Election imminent in Britain, the Catholic bishops of England and Wales have issued a new document, titled Choosing the Common Good. To the joy of many, it is a remarkably sound text. Characterized by a focus on principles, sobriety of expression, and avoidance of tedious policy-wonkery, the English and Welsh bishops have authored a document that repays careful reading.

Choosing the Common Good’s strength is that it speaks to what the Church is best qualified to discuss when it comes to social and political questions: the moral-cultural dimension. In this regard, three dominant themes pervade this concise text.

The first is the limits of politics. “Have we allowed ourselves,” the bishops write, “to be seduced by the myth that social problems are for the government to deal with?… No government can solve every problem, nor make us more generous or responsive to need.”

That’s a marked departure from much of the post-war British political consensus about government’s role that not even Margaret Thatcher could overturn.

A second theme is the centrality of truly free associations (as opposed to NGOs). “Local institutions,” the bishops state, “expressing good citizenship and neighbourliness, which are not beholden to government, form a vital part of civil society.” These networks of solidarity embody valuable social capital, the vitality of which “requires our society to rediscover the centrality of personal responsibility and the gift of service to others.”

This linkage between personal responsibility and concern for our neighbor (rather than delegating it to the state) underpins the bishops’ emphasis on trust. Trust’s significance as a force for genuine social cohesion is underscored by social and economic research. According to the bishops, the undermining of trust as a living force in much of contemporary Britain has proved costly, including in the economy.

While stressing that the causes of the financial crisis are complex, the bishops argue that a decline of trust helped facilitate the financial sector’s meltdown. It follows “that new and sweeping regulation [will not] of itself solve these deep-seated problem.” “[S]ystematic flaws in the economy,” they add, “cannot be repaired unless it is recognized that they stem from, and contribute to, equivalent flaws in our wider society.”

Yes, many irresponsible choices were made by people working in the financial industry. But, as the bishops observe, there was plenty of irresponsible behavior on the part of others – including politicians and ordinary folk – that contributed to the meltdown. Regulation in itself cannot solve this problem: indeed it can significantly worsen matters.

Then there is the theme of the indispensability of virtue for any decent society. Here the bishops really hit their stride. “In place of virtue”, they insist, “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.”

The bishops then detail how the classical virtues of prudence, justice, courage, and temperance have real and practical consequences for economic and social life. That’s an important argument which many on the British left and right presently seem incapable of articulating. It also makes a welcome contrast to those – including some Catholics – who invariably reduce morality to whatever happens to be the latest fashionable lefty cause.

Naturally there will be quibbles with any document on social-political issues produced by Catholic bishops. Choosing the Common Good’s section on the environment, for example, is not especially convincing. Others will wonder about its “seamless robe” reference.

The bishops themselves, however, emphasize that their statement does “not comprise a detailed political programme.” They also stress that Catholics are free to argue among themselves about those issues that are truly prudential matters (i.e., 90 percent of political questions).

In recent years, reasoned discourse in British politics – and elsewhere – has been increasingly supplanted by “activism,” an obsession with message, a near-slavery to political correctness, and avoidance of substance. By contrast, Choosing the Common Good shows that it is possible to articulate arguments that are simultaneously clear, substantive, and grounded in a rich two-and-a-half thousand year-old ethical tradition that dwarfs 1960s progressivism and its nefarious off-spring.

For this alone, all Britons should be grateful.

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