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New series: Catholic Social Teaching

Saturday, April 26, 2014
As Christians, we are hopeful of the establishment of God's kingdom and that his will is done on earth, as it is in heaven. The Church has a rich compendium of social teaching that has been developed over centuries. This teaching examines the moral dimension of human relationships and interactions in society. Catholic Social Teaching does not present a blueprint of policies for running society, but it does provide the principles to ensure that society can be organised and run in conformity with the dignity of the human person. Our social teaching is therefore not in conflict with political authority nor does it attempt to restrict the legitimate freedom of people to act in society. Instead it gives insights on how society can better respect the wellbeing of all people through proper cooperation and respect for the common good of all.

But we perhaps have a potential problem on our hands in addressing our readers. Who wants to think too much about politics, death or religion? Or indeed all of these combined! What is so important about our social teaching, is that it has brought about positive change for all of us in modern Britain, and has achieved lasting effects that benefit us today. Catholic Social Teaching has been, and remains, a great inspiration to many involved in politics.

A bit of history as part of introducing the series - the 1891 Papal Encyclical Rerum Novarum, on the Rights and Duties of Capital and Labour, was the first major encyclical to address the condition of workers and the duties of the owners of the means of production. The Church recognised that employment conditions of workers were degrading to the human condition, and negatively also impacted the family as well as other fundamental aspects of life. Everything from excessive working hours and unjust wage deductions, to unethical industrial practices and hazardous working conditions were the issues that had to be addressed at the time. Rerum Novarum also sees the first use of the term 'preferential option for the poor'. Although some aspects of Catholic teaching might parallel socialist ideology, Pope Leo XIII condemned both socialism as well as unfettered capitalism. The solutions presented to remedy the chronic working conditions of the poorest in society, included promoting trade unions and collective bargaining. Catholic solutions to the problems of industrialised society were to be gradual and peaceful rather than the revolutionary agenda proposed by Marxism. Such an astounding encyclical for its time was distributed initially to a small number of priests and religious superiors. At least as a Church nowadays we have practically unlimited access to what the Pope posts on Twitter, never mind being able to read and discuss the latest Papal encyclical!

Although the Church has historically opposed state intervention, the reality was that Catholics involved in politics since Rerum Novarum, favoured state intervention to regulate industry and to provide welfare and national insurance for the poor. It should be noted that working class Catholics formed the bedrock of the Labour Party in British industrial cities, particularly from the 1920s until the post-war period. Legislation on housing, healthcare, education, unemployment, and ownership of industry, drew inspiration partly from the principles of Catholic Social Teaching. For some reason, historians and the media today, pay remarkably little attention to the huge involvement of many Catholic working class activists and politicians in building the welfare state. Perhaps what causes discomfort to historians and today's media, is the notion that Catholics still held on to a deep conviction in their religion rather than support an atheist socialism?

Oh, the problems of mixing politics and religion! Over-simplifying the issues is often the trap that we can fall into when putting into practice what our rich and comprehensive Catholic Social teaching proposes. So, over the next few months, the Godzdogz team will cover some of the key areas of our rich social teaching to try and inform the debates:

  • Economic justice and the dignity of the workers 
  • Health and public services 
  • Education 
  • Law, Order and Constitutional issues 
  • Stewardship of creation and the environment 
  • International issues 
  • Right to life 
  • Marriage and the Family 

Luke Doherty OP


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