Catholic teaching: The new zeitgeist for Britain's businessmen and academics both left and right

Seriously, no kidding:

A new zeitgeist is capturing business people, academics and political players from both the Left and Right, looking for an ethical alternative for our time. Their inspiration? Catholic teaching.

In many ways these are difficult times for the Catholic Church. Congregations in England are still in decline, child abuse scandals around the world have cast a long shadow and in many areas of policy - from euthanasia to gay marriage - the church’s fixed positions make it sound outdated and out of touch.

Yet in the last couple of months I have received some intriguing invitations from Catholic friends: one to an event on business ethics organised by Catholic bishops and featuring some of our most high-profile corporate leaders.

Another to a discussion of the progressive values after the credit crunch with prominent Labour advisors and Catholic theologians.

The common thread running through these events is a set of ideas going under the name “Catholic Social Teaching”.

Compassion for the poor

I set out to understand more about these ideas, to find out why they are engaging so many different groups of people right now, and whether their current influence is likely to make any substantive difference to policy or politics.

The challenges of today’s economic struggles echo with the origins of Catholic Social Teaching
Although its roots can be traced back not just to the Bible, but to the ideas of Aristotle, rediscovered in the 13th Century by St Thomas Aquinas, the modern expression of Catholic Social Teaching came in an encyclical - the highest form of papal teaching - titled Rerum Novarum and issued in 1891 by Pope Leo XIII.

The Pope offered the “gift” of Catholic social thought to a troubled world.

He called on the one hand for compassion for the poor and respect for the dignity of labour and, on the other hand, for respect for property and the family - all held together by the core idea of the common good.

The encyclical can be seen as the Church both realigning itself towards the concerns of the urban working-class, but also seeking to find a path of reform as an alternative to the growing threat of revolutionary unrest.

These origins offer one explanation for the current revival of interest in these ideas. For today too we live in a time of rapid change and social unrest.

Just this week a report from the Resolution Foundation predicts a further decade of stagnant living standards in the UK - a pattern shared with the US and most of Europe.

With austerity also stalking these countries, it is not surprising that various forms of anti-capitalist sentiment - of which the Occupy movement is the most high profile - have moved from the margins to the mainstream.

For Jon Cruddas, Labour MP for Dagenham and Rainham and the man charged by Labour leader Ed Miliband with writing his party’s general election manifesto, his focus is on the philosophical and ethical critique of free market in the wake of the credit crunch:

“When the music stops in autumn 2008… you sort of search for different traditions to reintroduce them. Different bodies, frameworks, ideas,” he explains.

“One of which is Catholic Social Teaching, which I think is a rich theme in order to analyse the contemporary situation.”

But as Cruddas also recognises, the issues raised go wider and deeper.

‘Hornet’s nest’

In questioning not just the power of the market, but also the reach of the state, Catholic Social Teaching - updated in the light of the financial crisis in Pope Benedict’s 2009 encyclical Caritas in Veritate (charity in truth) - plays into a new strand of communitarianism reflected in the rise of Maurice Glasman’s concept of Blue Labour, Philip Blond’s advocacy of Red Toryism and even aspects of David Cameron’s rather troubled Big Society programme.

Catholic Social Teaching is not just about the ends of social reform, it is also about the means. Its emphasis on change, from the community upwards, means its influence reaches down to street level.

The Archbishop of Westminster is cautious about the role Catholic teaching can play in politics
One of the new enthusiasms of the political class is for the old tradition - now updated in organisations like Citizen UK - of community organising.

Neil Jameson, a Quaker, is executive director of Citizens UK and he told me Catholics participating in campaigns on issues like the Living Wage and migrants rights were uniquely inspired by their church’s social teaching. He even described their attitude as “joyful”.

Here lies a tension which may be as crucial to the impact of Catholic Social Teaching as the inhibitions of the political class. Prof Linda Woodhead has just led a £12m government funded research programme on religion and society.

She argues that the Catholic Church is going through an “uncomfortable process” with "semi-democratisation in their own institutions, the clergy ceding much more control to laypeople, to the ordinary rank and file.

“But the clergy have still got their very traditional role of being the spokespeople and being the leaders,” she adds, “so how do they let the laypeople help them develop Catholic social teaching, for example, or reform businesses or whatever and not cede their own authority?”…

I think what bothers me the most about this article is how… surprised he seems by all of this…

It is the BBC. The UK is not the US. Trust me, this is surprising if you live in Britain.

How could it not be surprising for many that in a “secularized” people are beginning to get the impression that the Catholic Church, vilified in the press, might hold answers for the problems that are afflicting mankind in the modern world. People have the conception of the Church as this antiquated, out-touch institution. To then hear that its social teaching is being increasingly listened too by academics and politicians, could very well make some people go :eek:

I guess I just never admitted to myself how bad it was over there… It’s depressing to think that our nation is headed in that direction as well.

Turning the Church is like turning a supertanker - it takes a huge cirle before it’s going in the right direction. Benedict IS turning her in the right direction, and articles like this are straws in the wind of what is to come. Many people are beginning to notice and to think again about the Chruch. But it’s going to be a long, slow haul.

What do you mean “turning” the Church? I think you mean “Turning society,” The Church is on the straight path, it’s society that’s veered away.

Jon Cruddas speaking about politicians adapting Catholic Social Teaching certainly makes one go :eek:. Rather strange bedfellows in view of the former’s voting record on social morality and/or ethics. Unless of course he is referring to the Catholic Social Teaching as practised by some liberal agencies of the Catholic Church in England and Wales.

Here is a link to the BBC Radio 4 broadcast about this, speaking particularly about the “secular left’s” interest in Catholic social teaching in Britain:

He is essentially saying that left-wing (and right wing), British secular politicians (ie Labour. Tory) think that Catholic social teaching is an economic philosophy (direct quote from speaker) “whose time has come” and who want to enact it widely in the UK. Our social teaching is becoming a new “intellectual fashion” or “school of thought” among these politicians. I find this very surprising but welcome, of course.


Left Turn to Catholic Social Teaching?

First broadcast:Monday 05 November 2012 - Catholic Social Teaching embodies a tradition of thought which goes back to Aristotle; yet its proponents say that it offers the sharpest critique of rampant capitalism in our present time. Charting a course through the dichotomies of capital versus labour, the free market versus welfare state, public versus private, its aim is to redraw the social and political landscape and put human dignity and virtue back at the centre. Matthew Taylor, former policy advisor to New Labour, ponders the tradition and asks what it might offer to post credit crunch polities which are looking for ways to regenerate.

There is no doubt that it has captured the policy zeitgeist. A whole programme of public lectures, seminars and events is rolling out to feed the demand for more information. Business people, academics and players from both Left and Right are attending, looking for an ethical alternative for our time.

So exactly what do its core principles, which include ideas like ‘solidarity’, ‘subsidiarity’, and the ‘common good’, offer practising Labour party politicians which they cannot find elsewhere? Jon Cruddas, currently responsible for the Labour Party’s policy review, and Labour Peer Maurice Glasman, say they find Catholic Social Teaching ‘inspirational’. On the Right, free marketers like Professor Philip Booth of the IEA, also point to its prescience. Is this more than a political fad? And will political enthusiasts for Catholic Social Teaching inevitably be forced to engage with issues such as abortion and euthanasia?

It seems that this new love-affair with the church’s social teaching may eventually make British secular-minded people “re-think” their attitudes to abortion, that is, also study the church’s moral doctrines.

Its kinda hard to adopt an institution’s policy with joyous enthusiasm in one area and utterly reject it on other issues. It might click in some peoples’ brains, “well, hey, if the social doctrine is such a godsend - perhaps I should take those other doctrines more seriously as well and look into them?”

It will be interesting to see how this develops. I don’t think its a “fad”. I think there is something simmering here.

I should add that the audio also explains how this interest in Catholic social teaching could transform politics in Britain by bringing natural law back into the equation and the idea of a divinely ordained universe. Apparently the Labour Party is looking to renew itself and is increasingly finding Catholic social teaching to be the best source of thought for its next manifesto, that is the “something” it needs to take the party and politics in the UK in a new, fresh direction.

Hey! It’s not that bad over here :stuck_out_tongue:


I am not familiar with the fellow, but the article does say that he is less than eager to embrace the Church’s teachings on private morality, which are less open to interpretation.

This is highly surprising.

Jon Cruddas is one of our 68 (70?) Catholic MPs. Unfortunately, he misunderstands that social morality, similar to personal morality, has its foundation in God’s law and is not open to personal interpretations.

Let’s add the US of A to that group. American progressives are heavily into their own interpretation of what Catholic SJ teaching is, and not at all hesitant to color it with a dash of Marxism here and there.

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