Monday, November 12, 2012

Is the Future Catholic?

Admittedly not a question you hear often these days. But it might be true in, of all places, England. Matthew Taylor has written about a fascinating shift on the political Left in England towards Catholic social teachings. He has even produced a radio programme/podcast on the subject as part of the BBC Analysis series (well worth plugging into your iTunes feed). According to Taylor:

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.
Taylor - a former advisor to Tony Blair - is clearly intrigued, even if he's not entirely convinced. Partly because he has seen such fashions for 'new ideas' (especially among opposition parties) come and go; and partly because of the extreme wariness he notes on the part of the Catholic Church in England, who have historically been more used to being on the outside, intellectually speaking. Taylor, as Chief Executive of the RSA, is himself not shy about exploring and adopting new ideas. His recent annual lecture was a fascinating exploration of the need for hierarchy: an odd thing for a Left Liberal to argue for, but he's honest about the conclusions he has reached.

Perhaps that is part of the appeal of Catholic social teachings to the Left: it promises an antidote to corrosive individualism (e.g.: via teachings on solidarity), and to failing state centrism (e.g.: via teachings on subsidiarity). But it isn't just the Left who are open to Catholic social teachings, so also is the Republican Party in the United States. Even some Protestants are getting in on the act, recognising that the Reformation has gone too far - and that sola scriptura has landed us in a world of hedonistic nihilism: though that wasn't quite the plan.

But maybe Matthew Taylor is right to be cautious: political parties and politicians rarely stick to a set of principles or practices for very long. American Catholics voted much the same as everyone else in the recent election, and displayed many of the same gender and racial divides.

Here in Ireland, even though Catholics make up 84% of the Irish population according to the 2011 Census, I doubt that any political party will make Catholic social teachings an explicit part of their policy platform. Especially Labour, come to think of it...

Then again, Social Partnership was an Irish version of Catholic Corporatism: so we have adopted some related ideas in the past. Perhaps those looking for ideas to fill the gap left by Social Partnership's (welcome) demise might look across the water for inspiration?


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