Page Text

THE TABLET

THE I NTERNATIONAL CATHOLIC WEEKLY F O U N D E D I N 1 8 4 0

ANGLICAN BISHOPS’ VISION

CHRISTIAN CONSENSUS ON SOCIAL

TEACHING

The bishops of the Church of England are entirely right to say that the general election campaign this year lacks any sense of vision for the future of Britain. Their pre-election statement entitled “Who is my Neighbour?” exposes the moral bankruptcy of modern politics and pleads for something better and more noble, to reverse the trend of cynicism and selfish individualism, and restore a sense of engagement, community and public service.

At least from the Conservative side, their intervention has not been well received. It is striking how remarks that would have seemed platitudinous 30 years ago are now regarded as provocative. But one thing is very different from what the established Church was saying in the 1980s. Then, its social doctrine was largely derived from Archbishop William Temple, an architect, though he did not live to see it, of the postwar consensus. “Who is my Neighbour?”, on the other hand, is infused with ideas originating in Catholic Social Teaching. This document marks the arrival of an official Anglican social doctrine that is fully congruent with, and largely inspired by, such papal encyclicals as Caritas in Veritate of 2009. Human dignity and the common good are at its heart; solidarity and subsidiarity are in the air it breathes.

For example “Who is My Neighbour?” picks two critical moments from recent political history as being Clement Attlee’s election victory in 1945 and Margaret Thatcher’s in 1979. The first represented the idea that it was the intervention of the state that could bring about national salvation; the second, the idea that salvation lay in free-market forces. Either way, it has not worked out. The bishops observe that we have begun to resemble the Britain deplored by the Victorian Conservative leader, Disraeli: “Two nations between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings as if they were dwellers in different zones or inhabitants of different planets. The rich and the poor.” It is hardly surprising the Tories are uncomfortable with the bishops’ message.

This binary choice between state and market is a false one, the bishops say, not least because it leaves out civil society, which is where communities become more humane and individuals more virtuous. Or as Caritas in Veritate puts it, “The exclusively binary model of market-plus-state is corrosive of society …” These ideas are all now part of a new broad Christian consensus. This is indeed an important moment, at least as significant as the publication of “The Common Good” document by the Catholic bishops in 1996.

A text of just over 11,000 words cannot dot every “i” and cross every “t” and it is necessarily light on policy. But policies follow from the vision: they do not create it. And the principles of a good, just and fair society that the text sets out are themselves that vision.

This is where the document is more devastatingly a critique of Labour’s approach to the election. It should have been doing in opposition what the Anglican bishops have done now. It seems to have forgotten, as the Authorised Version tersely puts it (Proverbs 29: 18): “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”

LIMITS OF AUSTERITY

E.U. MUST NOT DRIVE GREECE TO THE WALL

Greece’s continuing crisis in its relations with the European Union is clear proof, if any were needed, that there has been something fundamentally wrong with the architecture of the common currency ever since the euro was adopted in 1999. It was assumed that monetary union, which now applies to 19 of the EU’s 28 members, could work smoothly without the need for political union. Instead of moral and political choices being made by politicians in the best interests of their electorates, market forces would automatically find the right balance. Without political union though within the Eurozone, Greece remains a sovereign nation which elects its own government. The current one elected in January stood on an anti–austerity ticket, claiming not just that EU–imposed austerity was causing pain way beyond the people’s threshold to endure it, but that the policy was driving the Greek economy ever further away from the goal of economic recovery.

But Greece lives on borrowed money, and the bailout loan will shortly expire. To renew it, the Greek Government is told it has to continue and even increase the austerity programme. It refuses to do so, saying it was elected to do the opposite. So the EU piles on the economic pressure by refusing further funding, presumably hoping to break the Government’s will. It is becoming a bitter struggle between rich and poor, incidentally calling in question the moral and democratic foundations of the whole EU enterprise.

Had there been political union as well as monetary union, there would be no sovereign government in Athens but a superstate ruled from Brussels. Resources would routinely be transferred to where they were most needed, just as, for example, the federal Government in Washington steps in to smooth out the most glaring inequalities between different parts of the United States. With political union, it would be routine for prosperous Germany to help out impoverished Greece, and unthinkable for Greece to be driven to the wall. But Europe was not ready for political union, for obvious reasons. So a divorce between politics and economics was arranged: economically, the Eurozone is one entity, politically it is still 19 separate entities. So there are 19 different electorates voting for what they regard as their own best interests.

It cannot work. Arguably the austerity programme was misconceived from the start: to persuade an economy to grow, you do not suck money out of it but pump money in. Greece was victim to the fashionable economic orthodoxy of the time. But what if – a question the founders of the euro never appeared to ask themselves – the electorate of one member country votes to reject economic orthodoxy? They seem to have believed that free markets plus monetary union were so sure to bring prosperity in their wake that the issue would never arise. But it has. Europe’s moral duty now is to accept that it has been complicit in Greece’s plight from the start – and to help it out of the mire, not drive it further in.

2 | THE TABLET | 21 FEBRUARY 2015