Choosing the Common Good: the emergence of the Conservative Catholic Fellowship
The answer, of course, is most definitely ‘no’.
And yet it is also ‘yes’.
They have not because they would not be so bold as to enter the party political fray in England. In Scotland, quite possibly; in Northern Ireland, most definitely; but not in Mary’s Dowry – that is simply not their style, whatever the personal politics or religious hue of the Archbishop of Westminster. Of course, one only has to look at Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor and observe his very close relationship with Tony Blair to know he was New Labour to the core.
But it was never articulated other than symbolically.
And he also read The Tablet.
The present incumbent, Archbishop Vincent Nichols, appears to prefer more crusty daily bread. And he gives the impression of being a little more to the right in his politics.
Choosing the Common Good presents key themes of Roman Catholic social teaching as a contribution to the debate about the values and vision that underpin our society. The Bishops argue that finding a shared vision for society is more urgent than the detail of particular party policies. They remind us: 'Where there is no vision, the people perish' (Prov 29:18), and argue that social issues cannot be left only to government to solve, but are the responsibility of all.
In taking of a ‘just society’, the document makes the point that this must be preceded by the desire for love and truth, which is innate in all people. While there has been a fracturing in trust in institutions and in each other, the Bishops argue that it is up to all in civil society to lead the re-building of this essential trust. Central to that task is the understanding that we are not self-contained individuals but inter-dependent, where human flourishing lies in the quality of our relationships and the practice of virtue: 'The virtues form us as moral agents, so that we do what is right and honourable for no other reason than that it is right and honourable, irrespective of reward and regardless of what we are legally obliged to do. Virtuous action springs from a sense of one's dignity and that of others, and from self-respect as a citizen. It is doing good even when no-one is looking.'
Archbishop Vincent Nichols, president of the Bishops' Conference, said: 'We encourage everyone to read this document and participate in the wide-ranging and necessary debate about the values and vision by which we seek to construct a just and civil society. Ultimately, Choosing the Common Good is about human flourishing. It does not offer a direction on how to vote, but forms a back-cloth to the more particular issues which may well dominate the election itself and offers an invitation to the political parties on how best to respond in all of our joint efforts to build a better society.'
The application of the key themes of Roman Catholic social teaching leads to some consequences which are summarised. They include life itself; poverty and inequality; care of the elderly, community relations and migration; the global community and ecology, marriage and family life and the role of faith communities. The Bishops argue that the Roman Catholic Church has a distinct role in building a society which allows for the flourishing of all, and warns against the privatisation of religion:
'The right to religious freedom means the right to live by faith, within the reasonableness of the common good, and to act by faith in the public forum. This arises from the fact that the human person is, by nature, a spiritual being, with a longing for love, truth, for beauty, for happiness.'
The Bishops conclude by urging confidence in the challenges ahead, quoting Pope Benedict XVI in his encyclical Caritas in Veritate: 'The complexity and gravity of the present economic situation rightly causes us concern, but we must adopt a realistic attitude as we take up with confidence and hope the new responsibilities to which we are called by the prospect of a world in need of profound cultural renewal, a world that needs to rediscover fundamental values on which to build a better future.'
According to John Smeaton of the SPUC, the document is inadequate on many levels, but in particular on the ‘pro-life perspective’, and because it ‘fails to give voters clear guidance how to make the best choice when voting’.
And yet, for Cranmer, these are two of its strengths: the Bishops have found a very sensible via media which is rather hard-hitting where it needs to be (as with the unequivocal condemnation of the loss of virtue in public life). And yet it permits both Labour and Conservative voters to claim it as an endorsement of their decisions (His Grace has no comprehension of how a Roman Catholic of any hue could ever vote Liberal Democrat).
The reality is that this document is positioned precisely where the Roman Catholic Church has always been – socially conservative and economically socialist – but David Cameron’s emphasis on social issues such as marriage, education and care for the elderly, have had the inevitable effect of making the Conservative Party appear to be more family-orientated and ‘compassionate’.
There is no endorsement for the Conservative Party’s silence on religious freedom, at a time when secularist campaigning is on the rise as never before. And it clearly warns that David Cameron’s more liberal attitude to certain social issues, such as ‘gay equality’ and ‘gay adoption’, threatens to alienate many Roman Catholic swing voters in an election where the religious vote (of all faiths) will be crucial to the outcome.
The Roman Catholic Bishops of England and Wales produced a similar document in 1997 entitled The Common Good. At the time, after almost two decades of Conservative government, it was widely interpreted as being pro-Labour because it urged voters to make up their minds based on traditional concepts of Roman Catholic teaching, such as ‘social justice’ and solidarity, themes which Tony Blair exuded through every pore. Indeed, he said in one speech that it was his objective to re-cast the Labour Party in the mould of continental 'Christian Democracy'.
Perhaps Choosing the Common Good appears to be less clearly on the side of Labour because they are now perceived as the Conservatives were in 1997 – tired, incompetent, out of touch, out of ideas, aloof, arrogant, without a vision and mired in ‘sleaze’.
Or is it that the Conservative Party has shifted?
On some social policies, like the decision to support marriage in the tax system, undoubtedly so.
But perhaps it is the influence of Phillip Blond and ‘ResPublica’ and the work of Iain Duncan Smith and his ‘Centre for Social Justice’ which have brought the Conservative Party more in tune with Roman Catholic social teaching than ever before.
And that may strike the right chords of compassion; it may be the right symphonic mood music to help win a general election. But it makes no economic sense at all.
Perhaps His Grace might assist Their Graces with a clearer message: Why Christians should think thrice before voting Labour.