Wednesday, 5 May 2010

The Catholic Bishops and the General Election

(This is a quick post, in response to a request for comment by Albert.)

The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales (CBCEW) has issued a leaflet entitled “Some issues and questions for Parliamentary Candidates.” It bears the instruction “Please refer to this guidance when canvassers or candidates call,” and says
“Here are some issues and questions which may help inform your decision on who to vote for. They are open questions with no single ‘right’ answer. But from the responses given you may form a better idea of how far any particular candidate will be addressing the needs of the common good. You may well, of course, have other questions of your own to ask. This list is not exhaustive.”
It covers five areas, and in each it makes statements, and then follows them up with questions for candidates.

1) Firstly in valuing life. That means opposing abortion and euthanasia, and life-cramping poverty, and the neglect of the elderly.

What does respect for life mean to you? Do all lives have the same value? Older people and the infirm … the severely disabled … the unborn?

I know what it means to oppose abortion and euthanasia. It means to ban them - though obviously there are questions about exactly how such legislation would be framed. However, I do not know what it means to oppose “life-cramping poverty” and “the neglect of the elderly”? Clearly, it doesn’t mean banning poverty. It also begs the question “What exactly is the role of the state here?”

I find it interesting, by the way, that there is nothing about valuing people’s property. I guess that the CBCEW doesn’t think that it is a political issue at the moment - though nor, to the best of my knowledge is neglect of the elderly.

2) Families are the basic building block of any stable society. Marriage provides the best context for bringing up children and must have the clear support and encouragement of Government.

What will you do for marriage and the family? What practical measures will you take to encourage and support stable family life and the institution of marriage?

I agree with the first two statements, but not the third. I cannot see why marriage must have the clear support and encouragement of Government. Christians often make this assumption, but when I think of people I know whose marriages have broken up, I don’t honestly think that anything the government could reasonably have done would have helped at all. Why should the state be involved in marriage?

3) Migration is not about numbers, it is about human beings. Wherever the Government sets the boundary on who can or cannot live here, it must apply its rules with fairness, decency and respect for the individual.

What beliefs and values underpin your approach to migration? And how will you show them in practice?

I completely agree with the statements, and I think that all libertarians would. As stated in my previous post, libertarians believe in the free movement of people - but take the view that this is just not realistic at the moment while Britain a large welfare state which provides generous automatic tax-payer funded benefits to those who are granted asylum. (LPUK policy is as here.)

I think it is interesting that migration is perceived by the CBCEW as one of the 5 major issues in the election. The focus is broader than just the question of the treatment of asylum seekers.

4) Our care for each other is also shown in how we support the development of the world’s poorest people, and how we use – or abuse – the environment we share. We must be good stewards of God’s creation, not selfish exploiters of it.

What do you think is our responsibility to the poor, in this country and overseas? What is our responsibility to safeguard and protect the environment?"

I completely agree with the statements. With regard to the first question, my answer is “Individuals have a moral responsibility to help the poor, both in this country, as does the church. The state has a duty to ensure that its policies do not directly discriminate against the poor. The state likewise has a duty to ensure that those who pollute the land, air and water of others should make appropriate recompense."

5) Our faith is at the heart of our lives. Religious belief is not just something private: it helps create a society that wants to see everyone flourish. It has a contribution to make and must be allowed to do so in accordance with its teachings.

What do you think is the place of religion in society?

This is an interesting one. The phrasing (“and must be allowed to do so in accordance with its teachings”) indicates that the CBCEW believes that religious freedom is under threat - something which I think is true, but which Church of Scotland leaders like the Rt Rev William Hewitt and the Rev. Ian Galloway do not seem to be concerned about. (That apparent lack of concern is interesting, and worth noting.)

I agree that faith is at the heart of people’s lives, and that religious belief is not something private. However, defining religion is somewhat difficult. (So for that matter, is defining the word ‘faith’.) I do not agree with the statement that religion, per se, helps create a society that wants to see everyone flourish. I take the view that Jesus Christ is the eternal, incarnate Son of God and that his teachings are objectively true, and that where people try to put them into practice, it is a good thing. I also take the view that religious beliefs which go against the teaching of Jesus Christ are not helpful to society.

Libertarians believe that people should be allowed freedom to express any opinions, whether those opinions are right or wrong. Libertarians believe that people should be free to bring up their children according to their own belief, as long as that does not involve physically harming their children. Libertarians believe that people should be allowed to practise their religion as long as such practice does not involve the initiation of violence against other people. Human sacrifice would be banned.

Summary: All in all, I think that the bishops’ questions are reasonably well balanced. They reflect, of course, the emphases that one would expect the Catholic Church to have: the place of religion in society (which, I suspect, is basically about the freedom of Catholic schools to operate as the Catholic Church wishes), marriage and the family, and abortion - which, while not a major issue as far as the mainstream media are concerned, is very important for the Catholic Church, and for others who regard Britain's abortion laws as seriously flawed. The environment, poverty, and immigration all get a mention as well. There is nothing about the economy, but that does not surprise me much.

The statements and questions are kept fairly vague - keeping to general principles, rather than specific policies, which is probably very wise of the bishops. The words are carefully chosen so as to avoid controversy. And I note that the words “freedom” and “liberty’ are absent!

16 comments:

Albert said...

Thanks Mr B, I've really enjoyed reading this. The Church's social teaching is not something I've specialised in, and the document is quite properly vague (it asks questions rather than offers answers), so I don't have a string of responses to your points. Let me pick up on one thing though:

I cannot see why marriage must have the clear support and encouragement of Government. Christians often make this assumption, but when I think of people I know whose marriages have broken up, I don’t honestly think that anything the government could reasonably have done would have helped at all. Why should the state be involved in marriage?

I'm not completely sure how far the state should be involved in marriage. But I think it should be involved because marriage is a public thing which aims at certain essential goods in society, not least for children. If the state had no hand in marriage, the religious groups would be okay, but in a secular society, how could others benefit from the institution? I'm simply not clear on that.

I suppose the real problem though is that under NuLabour the state has made life harder for married couples (and other couples in fact - except perhaps homosexual ones). This contributes to fathers living apart from their children, so the state is actively responsible for creating a culture of instability in the home. This is bad for society and ends up with us all being expected to pick up the pieces - thereby limiting our freedom.

I think people should be encouraged to marry, as it would appear to result in greater stability for children (and adults) and therefore free people to contribute more effectively to society (rather than be a drain on it).

The question for this election is not I think "When will the state support married couples?" but "When will the state stop hindering the goods of marriage and discriminating against the married?" This is a real problem for our society, because it seems that when the Government ceases to be interested in something (say religion, say marriage) one way or another it ends up disadvantaging those involed in those things. The idea that the state can provide a neutral sphere of equality, seems ill-thought through at the moment and therefore contradicted in fact.

I don't think that religious freedom is just about Catholic schools btw, I think it stems from the Church's fundamental understanding of justice and the human person. The fact that some other denominations are not worried about this is interesting. I cannot comment on the CofS as I know nothing about it, but my impression is that the "mainstream" Protestant groupings are so assimilated to secular society as not to notice (or care) about the religious freedoms that are being lost. It also raises questions about whether they have an adequate theologies of the human person, society and justice. (Of course, as a Catholic I regard the Protestant failure in this area as concomitant upon its theological errors, which undermine nature in order to make space (as it thinks) for grace.)

Thank you for writing such an excellent piece - enjoy tomorrow.

Stuart said...

Yep, I agree with Albert, another cracking piece Young Mr Brown.

Cross-posting.

indigomyth said...

I read the full document from the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales (it is available through their website). I was highly unimpressed - it is explicitly socialist and communitarian in its outlook. That could be something to do with the fact that I reject the idea of the common good being "the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to
reach their fulfilment more fully and more easily" - I believe that competition and conflict, in terms of market forces, are a fundamental prerequisite for a good society. Competition means that fulfilment must forever be more difficult to attain. Indeed, in an ideal circumstance, it should be the case that it never gets easier to get fulfilment - to make it easier is to demand less, to lower one's standards.

On that basis, the rejection of the definition of common good (and indeed a belief in the almost complete reverse) means that the rest of the document is mostly rendered morally and ethically incomprehensible.

indigomyth said...

For example, this extract:
"LIFE ITSELF
The principle of the common good requires that the essential dignity of every human life is upheld because our life is not
our property to dispose of but a gift to treasure. When this
principle is abandoned, then a zero has been introduced
into the calculation of the common good. The abortion
of the unborn, and euthanasia even when voluntary, are
a fundamental denial of this principle, because both are
concerned with exclusion from the human community,
both are contrary to the common good. Both issues make
clear that defence of the immeasurable value of human life
is part of a ‘seamless robe ‘, which requires all such threats
to be taken seriously and opposed. Opposition to abortion
requires a commitment to the alleviation of child poverty
and high infant mortality; opposition to euthanasia demands
concerted effort to remedy the social and economic
conditions which lead to neglect, isolation, ill-health, and
in poorer parts of the world low life expectancy among
the elderly. The reverse is also true: a commitment to the
alleviation of child poverty should logically be accompanied
by opposition to abortion, for what form of poverty is greater
than being deprived of life itself? There are strong links
between life ethics and social ethics."

I have tried analysing this, and it doesn't fit inside my head, as an ethical, or liberal, concept. I don't understand, how someone ceasing to exist in society, by death, damages the common good? I was wondering if you YMB, can shed any light on this, because I don't understand it.

Albert said...

Good evening Indigomyth! The Catholic world-view is built around human dignity. Do you disagree with this?

I'm also wondering about this statement of yours:

Competition means that fulfilment must forever be more difficult to attain. Indeed, in an ideal circumstance, it should be the case that it never gets easier to get fulfilment

How are you using the word "fulfilment"?

indigomyth said...

Albert,

Hello again!

//The Catholic world-view is built around human dignity. Do you disagree with this?//

Yes, I do disagree with it. My entire world view is built around human liberty and freedom, which necessarily requires that people be allowed to act completely undignified, indeed, to be able to act repulsively if they so wish it, provided that they do not initiate aggressive violence against other people, which would restrict other people's liberty.

Also, there are different types of "dignity". There is the dignity that one feels, and that which other people perceive. Someone can feel undignified, and yet be perceived as dignified, and one can feel dignified and yet be perceived as undignified. Neither type is a "right". No one has a right to be perceived as being dignified, and no one has a right to feel dignified.

//How are you using the word "fulfilment"?//

Satisfaction, happiness, contentment. To say that these things should be made easier to attain, is to say that there ought to be a fixed level of happiness that people expect. In reality, people should always demand more of themselves, to work harder, and strive more for happiness/satisfaction/fulfilment. It would be absurd if the same level of fulfilment was the same now as it was in the middle ages, or that the same level of fulfilment should exist in impoverished Africa as in Islington. For that sort of constant effort, you need competition and conflict, as exemplified in free market environments. The Catholic document made no mention of conflict or competition as a positive attribute of society or economics.

Perhaps you can explain, what is the Catholic view of competition and conflict? I view non-physical aggressive conflict and competition as a vital good. (It is interesting to note that the Catholic church does not seem to be very good at competition and conflict - it seems that if people are given a choice, and are not under threat of violence, then they tend to leave the Catholic church. It would therefore be understandable that the RCC is against competition).

indigomyth said...

A further thought occurs to me:

Suppose Person A decides to sell an item for Value X, and the selling of this item is necessary for their fulfilment (perhaps they need to buy food, water, medicine etc). Now suppose Person B decides to sell the same sort of item for Value Y, which is lower than X. Competition has entered the market. But it is clearly true that Person B has made it more difficult for Person A to achieve fulfilment. Based on Catholic ethics, is it correct that Person B ought to be allowed to offer the item for less than Person A, given the fact that Catholic ethics demands that fulfilment be made easier for people to achieve? Indeed, ought Person B be forced to charge the same amount as Person A, so that they have an equal chance of selling their item? Or, should Person B not be allowed to sell their item at all, so that Person A's chances of selling their item is the very easiest?

I don't understand how fulfilment can be made easier to achieve? Indeed, what if fulfilment is the triumph over adversity and the defeat of competition? In that sense then, maximisation of fulfilment requires a society based on competition?

Sorry to ask so many question, but communitarian and Catholic ethics are impenetrable to me.

Albert said...

Indigomyth,

it seems that if people are given a choice, and are not under threat of violence, then they tend to leave the Catholic church. It would therefore be understandable that the RCC is against competition

I'm just wondering what your source that would be. As a Catholic (who freely submitted himself to the Catholic Church in conversion) I would not say that that reflects my own experience, or that of those around me. The congregation I belong to is enormous and growing, but there's no coercion to be at Mass.

what is the Catholic view of competition and conflict?

More positive than you might think. The Church has accepted the legitimacy of some sort of evolutionary account of biology since the time of Augustine (4/5th cent), and it is clear that God has himself instituted such a system.

Catholic doctrine develops precisely through competition and conflict. Similarly, in economic structures, the Church's role in the development of modern economics is often over-looked (forgive a lack of source on that - the book I'd refer to for details in is my baby son's bedroom where he is asleep). I'd be thinking of the contribution of religious houses and thinkers like Thomas Aquinas to the development of capitalism, the rise of Catholic city states like Venice etc.

The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church speaks very positively of the role of the free market (notice in para 531 "Solidarity without subsidiarity, in fact, can easily degenerate into a 'Welfare State'"! - Similarly, if I recall, death taxes are regarded as immoral in themselves). However, it naturally regards the free market as subservient to the goals for which it is intended. I would assume you would agree with that, even if you might disgree on which goals and how they should be met.

My entire world view is built around human liberty and freedom, which necessarily requires that people be allowed to act completely undignified, indeed, to be able to act repulsively if they so wish it, provided that they do not initiate aggressive violence against other people, which would restrict other people's liberty.

There's probably greater agreement here too, because the Church's doctrine of the dignity of the person is not intended to mean morality must be made law (St Thomas Aquinas, if I recall thought that though prostitution is gravely sinful, it should still be allowed). The key thing of dignity in relation to law is really to do with how we relate to others, and this too is not so different from what you would want to say "provided that they do not initiate aggressive violence against other people". Though, as I recall from last time, there would of course be serious differences once one moves beyond these initial principles.

Sorry to ask so many question, but communitarian and Catholic ethics are impenetrable to me.

As it is to me, to be honest, as this kind of social doctrine doesn't interest me that much! I can't answer your question as a result. But I do remember this scenario in Aquinas:

A village has been starving through famine for a long time, people are dying etc. A merchant appears with lots of bread. Inevitably, the price of the bread will be very high. However, he knows that there are dozens of bread merchants on their way with just an hour or so to go. Is the merchant obliged to tell the people of more bread to come (so they can haggle for a lower price) or can he just sell at the higher price?

St Thomas answers that he is under no obligation to inform them of the other bread merchants, and can therefore sell at a high price.

Albert said...

Sorry Indigomyth, the reference to the Compendium was supposed to go to paragraph 347 and following. The link wasn't as clever as I hoped!

Still, it gives you access to the most obvious source to understanding the teaching of the Church on this point.

indigomyth said...

Albert,

//I'm just wondering what your source that would be. //

I merely observe that there exists Muslims, Protestants and Atheists, and there seem to be a fairly large proportion of these.

//However, it naturally regards the free market as subservient to the goals for which it is intended. I would assume you would agree with that, even if you might disgree on which goals and how they should be met.//

I do disagree, because I do not really believe the free market serves any goals other than those that the individuals taking part agree on. Markets being free is ethically correct, on the basis that it is wrong to restrict free trade between sovereign individuals - the free market does not have to serve a higher function in order for their existence to be moral.

//The key thing of dignity in relation to law is really to do with how we relate to others//

Well yes, but I believe that people have the right to the freedom to work towards their own version of dignity. Not for it to be imposed.

It depends it you think someone has to be dignified, or regarded as dignified, in order for them to not be physically aggressed against. I do not. For example, I regard Communists (and socialists to a lesser extent) as undignified - yet I still understand (some might say "respect") their right to freedom from aggressive violence.

If you are correct about Aquinas' view of prostitution, then that would be mind blowing to myself, especially considering his views on the legality of homosexuality.

//As it is to me, to be honest, as this kind of social doctrine doesn't interest me that much! I can't answer your question as a result. //

That is a pity, as you are a temperate devout Catholic, and are open to discussion.

//St Thomas answers that he is under no obligation to inform them of the other bread merchants, and can therefore sell at a high price.//

Well, thank you for telling me that! Aquinas is obviously more complex than I had given him credit for.

P.S.

I don't think you should be too down on true liberals, like me and YMB. As you could probably see, I am very liberal, and I agree with you in regards to the restrictions on speech that are occurring to Christians, the closing of Catholic adoption agencies, and the prosecution of B&B owners for merely choosing who can and cannot stay in their house. It is just that I extend my liberalism universally.

Albert said...

Indigomyth,

I merely observe that there exists Muslims, Protestants and Atheists, and there seem to be a fairly large proportion of these.

There being a large proportion of these would not of course demonstrate your original proposition: "it seems that if people are given a choice, and are not under threat of violence, then they tend to leave the Catholic church." Muslims in particular tend to come from cultures which have never been Catholic, or became or remain Muslim through tacit or explicit violence. I don't mean of course, that there aren't sincere Muslims, only that the suggestion there would be more Muslims were it not for contemporary religious violence seems odd.

Protestants? I don't accept that if there had been no violence in the Reformation there would have been more Protestants. England for example, the most important Protestant country, would presumably have remained Catholic, were it not for violence. Atheists, well, there aren't as many of them as one might assume given the noise they make. Are there lots of atheists cravenly remaining in the Catholic Church for fear of Catholic violence today? I have too much respect for my atheist friends to accept that. So I stick to my original position: the proposition does not match my experience, and does not seem to follow from the evidence.

I do disagree, because I do not really believe the free market serves any goals other than those that the individuals taking part agree on.

Actually, that's all I meant: the market may be value free, but it is not autonomous, but is subservient to the goals of those who play that game.

I believe that people have the right to the freedom to work towards their own version of dignity. Not for it to be imposed.

This is interesting, because last time we discussed things, I kind of thought that you often assumed that because I thought X is wrong, I also believed X should be illegal. I don't see that as following. I don't think dignity needs to be imposed on anyone, though I do believe the dignity of others should be protected to some degree. The key difference here though (as ever) is that I don't think dignity is something subjective (though doubtless, you'll find that meaningless!).

If you are correct about Aquinas' view of prostitution

I can't think where I read that, but what I recall is that Aquinas thought there was a use to prostitution: he said every town needs a sewer. On the other hand, he thought that "the unnatural vice" is the greatest sin among the species of lust taken in themselves. So perhaps his position is comprehensible on its own terms.

Well, thank you for telling me that!

I will try and source that for you tomorrow.

I don't think you should be too down on true liberals, like me and YMB.

I'm not as such. My objection is to the kind of liberal who is simply illiberal - e.g. the B&B etc. I'll defend a homosexual person's rights to offend me as a Catholic, and I think he should do the same (Peter Tatchell to his credit seems to agree): we do not have the right not to be offended by each other. I think such behaviour is often not good or appropriate, but I don't think it should be illegal. So I think there's a kind of hypocrisy in much liberalism - but not in you. Your position seems consistent, but I disagree fundamentally with your anthropology and therefore which some of your conclusions.

Albert said...

That is a pity, as you are a temperate devout Catholic, and are open to discussion.

Thank you for saying that btw. That is what I would aim to be. As a Catholic I believe firmly in the role of reason, and with the Holy Father, think the separation of reason and faith has diminished both. You too are quite different from many, perhaps most of the secularists one meets these days - you know, the kind who on a brief reading of the God Delusion thinks they know the answer to every religious position. But you are not like that (Deo gratias!), which is why I suppose I bother to discuss things with you!

P.S. I'm not normally up this late!

indigomyth said...

Albert,

//This is interesting, because last time we discussed things, I kind of thought that you often assumed that because I thought X is wrong, I also believed X should be illegal. //

Yes, I am sorry about that.

//I'll defend a homosexual person's rights to offend me as a Catholic, and I think he should do the same (Peter Tatchell to his credit seems to agree)

I was quite surprised by Tatchell's remarkably liberal response. He does have a tendency to come across as very authoritarian.

//Your position seems consistent, but I disagree fundamentally with your anthropology and therefore which some of your conclusions.//

Well, that is understandable! But then, most people would seem to disagree with my political views.

Albert said...

Indigomyth,

//This is interesting, because last time we discussed things, I kind of thought that you often assumed that because I thought X is wrong, I also believed X should be illegal. //

Yes, I am sorry about that.


Well, as an orthodox Catholic, if I did think that, there would have to be an awful lot things that I would think should be illegal! In fact, I prefer governments not to interfere with people unless necessary. I think that society is better served by culture than by law etc.

Albert said...

Indigomyth

St Albert the Great (teacher of St Thomas) said "goods are worth according to the estimation of the market at the time of sale."

As for St Thomas, see articles 1 & 4 here. Article 3 gives the example of the bread merchant.

Here (article 11) St Thomas refers to Augustine defending the legality of prostitution.

There are probably better references, but as I say, I'm no expert in this part of Catholic teaching.

Young Mr. Brown said...

"YMB, can shed any light on this, because I don't understand it."

Hello, Indigomyth!

I've not yet read the document, much less mulled over it. I'm afraid I'm not going to be able to give you (or Albert) my point of view on this one in the next few days.

Just as well Albert is hanging around here so that you have someone to chat to!