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Paul Vallely: Guardians of the common good 

02 March 2018

Catholic social teaching has won surprising adherents, Paul Vallely discovers


“HOW do we balance selfishness and community?” a leader in The Guardian asked this week, before offering an answer that must have shocked many of its secularist and atheist readers. It proposed that “a Christian tradition of ethical reasoning offers a helpful perspective.”

Goodness. In a surprisingly philosophical article, it suggested that most progressive thought presupposed the answer offered by Catholic social teaching: that we should all be working towards the common good.

There is a great deal of this around just now. Reimagining Britain, the new book by the Archbishop of Canterbury (to be published next week, News, 16 February), which sketches the outlines of what will make Britain a fairer country, is clearly derived from Catholic social teaching, The Guardian declares.

In the United States, the far-right French politician Marion Maréchal-Le Pen has just been hailed as embodying Catholic social thought, after a speech in which she decried multiculturalism, globalism, gender theory, and uncontrolled individualism.

In the UK, Jacob Rees-Mogg MP, addressing a group of young people at Downside Abbey on Catholic social teaching last week, declared that “capitalism is the best way to construct a secular society” — and it would be better if popes refrained from getting involved in politics.

And, in the Vatican, the Chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, caused a stir by declaring that, in today’s world, Communist China was “the best implementer of Catholic social doctrine” — since it realised that politics should determine human values, and everything should not be left to the market, as happened in the United States.

Can any corpus of social teaching seriously encompass all this?

I have not yet seen Archbishop Welby’s new book, but, in the past, he has said how much he values the way in which, over the past century, modern popes have developed a social gospel rooted in St Thomas Aquinas’s fusion of Aristotle and the Christian insistence on cultivating virtues that enhance the well-being of others as well as enoble the self. In contrast, those who purport to detect that balance in the politics of the French and British extreme Right appear to have a confused understanding of the tradition.

It is possible, of course, to mine Catholic social teaching selectively for bits that accord any political philosophy. But those tempted to do so need to study a tradition that has two fundamental polarities: human dignity and the common good. These can be complementary, but they can also be in tension. So can the two chief processes that it articulates to achieve the right balance between the individual and society: solidarity, a word whose everyday meaning is close enough to its theological one, and subsidiarity, which simply means that all political decisions should be taken at the lowest level possible.

So The Guardian is right. This is a tradition of ethical reasoning which can help contemporary citizens to find a balance between self and society. But they may need to do a bit of brain work in the process.

Read our columnist Andrew Brown on how the book was covered by the press


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