Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Clifford Longley and the problem of Catholic social teaching...***updated

This week in Canberra the St Thomas More Forum features as its speaker UK Tablet Columnist Clifford Longley on the subject of "Catholic Social Teaching under the papacy of Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI".

That's unfortunate in my view, as on the face of it, there seems to be little actual catholicism underpinning Mr Longley's views. 

He has, for example, in his columns for the Bitter Pill and pieces for BBC, argued in support of 'pro-choice politicians', in support of gay 'marriage' and adoptions, against the concept of intercession and the miraculous in the context of the canonisation of saints, and much more.

Social teaching: solutions or principles?

According to the blurb for his talk, Mr Longley believes that Catholic Social Teaching 'has developed to a point where it has started to offer useful solutions to real political and economic problems'.

Actually, I rather thought it had reached that point some considerable time ago. 

But I take it that this is really code for justifying some particular set of solutions favoured by the liberal left, particularly given his general views on two of the three popes whose teaching will come under discussion (just to clue you in, his write up at the time of Pope John Paul II's death appeared in the Guardian under the sub-heading 'So Pope John Paul II's reign is over. It was magnificent - but was it really Christianity?').

There are many areas of Church teaching at the moment that are much debated, even in areas that really are not open to debate, at least by believing Catholics! 

The Church's social teaching, by contrast, is one of those areas where there really is a lot of legitimate scope for debate since in the main it is a body of principles: how they should be applied in practice really is a legitimate topic for discussion.

Unfortunately, like so many areas of Church Teaching, just what is and isn't set down seems poorly understood by both ends of the spectrum.

Conservative hard-heartedness

At the conservative extreme, particularly in the US, it is certainly hard to find anything that much resembles Catholicism, in my opinion at least, in some of the positions advocated by the tea party conservative Catholics.

Some seem to think the principle of subsidiarity means Federal level (or indeed any) governments should never act.   And back that up by a stress on voluntary action as opposed to mandated measures.

A good example of this is Thomas Woods' book, The Church and The Market, which devotes several pages explaining why he dissents from the conclusions of pretty much every pope who has written on the subject of social teaching before launching into his defence of the free market, untrammelled by regulation, from the perspective of Austrian economics.

Woods' unequivocal support for the free market, unhindered by any serious scope for Government action, was echoed recently in a speech by Congressman Paul Ryan to Georgetown University, who contrasted the virtues of the free market with what he describes as 'a government centered society' that dares to worry about the impact of the banks going bankrupt, the poor having access to health care, and so forth.

Tea party politics

Now don't get me wrong - the Congressman's argument that the massive US Government debt harms the poor is absolutely valid. And I'm not suggesting for a moment that President Obama made the right calls on how to handle the Global Financial Crisis or in many other policy areas.

But in the face of such a massive debt, does cutting taxes so that people can decide how to spend more of their hard earned money themselves really make a lot of sense?

And at a time of massive unemployment and hardship, how can you justify a budget plan that cuts programs that help the poor to eat!

No wonder the US Bishops Conference give his proposed budget a fail on moral grounds.

And no wonder our own bishops continue to give both Australian political parties a fail when it comes to the treatment of (genuine) refugees.

Left-wing moral relativism

But equally, at the opposite extreme, personified by Mr Longley, the identification with left wing causes seems too often to come at the expense of any grounding in moral absolutes such as the most basic right of all, the right to life. 

Personally I find it breathtaking that someone can be more worried about, say, to take just one current campaign of the left in Australia, the level of the unemployment benefit than at the mass slaughter of the next generation. 

Of course things like the level and conditionality of unemployment benefits are important, and shouldn't be ignored. 

But those who won't even acknowledge and support the most basic rights we can have, namely to life itself, undermine the credibility of the causes they do espouse: things like unemployment benefits, after all, are only relevant if we get the chance to enjoy the protection against job loss they afford by being born in the first place!

Similarly, some of the left seem incapable of understanding that coercion is sometimes needed to get people to do the things that are in their own bet interests in the long run; that economic and other incentives can have a positive effect; and that encouraging ongoing dependence on government is not in the interests of the poor.

The happy medium

The Church's Social Teaching, of course, properly sits between these two extreme positions. 

Pope John Paul II, that wild socialist as he was, for example, did actually suggest that subsidies for unemployed workers and their families were appropriate (Laborem Exercens18); similarly Pope Leo XIII taught in Rerum Novarum that the state had a legitimate role in ensuring an equitable redistribution of income (Leo XIII Rerum Novarum). 

The Church has rejected the notion that the market alone can ensure all goods are properly shared.  Pope Benedict XVI's encyclical Caritas in Veritate, for example, provides an extensive analysis of the limits of the free market, noting the need for other mechanisms to ensure distributive and social justice.  He notes in particular that, contra Congressman Ryan:

"...grave imbalances are produced when economic action, conceived merely as an engine for wealth creation, is detached from political action, conceived as a means for pursuing justice through redistribution."

The scope for debate

There is clearly considerable room for debate on the nature and extent of the problems in our society, and the best possible solutions for them.

Catholic Social Teaching for example, does actually support the idea of maternity benefits.  But does that mean we must support Mr Abbott's more costly options for this, or is the Government's more modest minimum wage based proposal perfectly adequate?

It supports the right to form Trade Unions, but surely not those as dysfunctional as Mr Thompson's Health Services Union!

But you'd have to say its a long time - in fact not since the Keating era - since this country had a serious debate on what strategies and reforms are needed to genuinely advance social justice.

The current and previous Rudd Governments have noticeably failed to do more than mouth empty rhetoric about being against multi-billionaires, for example, managing even to stuff up the selling and implementation of what should have been a no-brainer (from an economist's point of view at least!) resources rent tax on mining profits. 

Nor is it helping itself with its current relentless, high economic risk, pursuit of a budget surplus at precisely the wrong point of the economic cycle, and at a time when Australia's Government debt levels are minimal (projected to rise to 6% of GDP next financial year, compared to the US' 85.5% by 2015!).

The Opposition Leader, Mr Abbott, just looks embarrassed (as you would be!) when the multi-billionaires, on whose behalf he has been advocating in their opposition to the mining super-profits tax, actually front up and want to run for Parliament as part of their team (for the record, would-be LNP candidate (and potential owner of the Titantic Mk II, a lifesized replica of the original!) Clive Palmer is estimated to be worth between $3b and $6b.  A bitter opponent of the mining tax, his own main company, despite the mining boom, has paid no tax at all for the last three years.  His last publicly recorded charitable contribution, according to Philanthropy Australia which tracks these things, was in 2008).  Hmm maybe Gina Rinehart would like to run too?

There are things we ought to be talking about in relation to the Church's Social Teachings.

Current richest man in Parliament and Opposition spokesman for Communications, Malcolm Turnbull's refreshingly honest critique of the last years of economic policy under the Howard Government being one of them.

But somehow I fear Mr Longley will not be talking about them this Wednesday.

Instead expect Green-esq advocacy of more international government, and soft liberalism.

**And on the subject of heretics....

On the subject of heretics, or 'dissenters' as we fudge by calling them, do read Fr Ray Blake's great commentary on the sting in the parable of the Good Shepherd.

The reason the shepherd is depicted carrying the lost sheep on his shoulders, he argues, is because at the time of Our Lord the normal practice was to break one of the legs of a sheep that wandered off, in order to prevent it from happening again.

And of course the need for active correction of false teaching propagated from within is more in keeping with the tradition than the current policy of tolerance he argues....

***Further update

There is a useful statement now out from the head of the Pontifical Academy for Social Sciences, Professor May Ann Glendon pointing out that Catholic Social Teaching does not espouse the idea of world government.


A Canberra Observer said...

So why does the (Canberra) Thomas More forum keep dishing up speakers of it seems a very variable pedigree?

PM said...

An admirably balanced account of social teaching - I hope you're not flamed as eurocommie scum!

Kate Edwards said...

Anon - I've rejected your comment.

Firstly you haven't provided an identifying name, which is a requirement for commenting on this blog.

But secondly, I'm certainly prepared to have a vigorous debate with those interested in genuine engagement.

I will not however provide a platform for anti-Christian propaganda.