Acton PowerBlog: Two Cheers for the Bishops of England and Wales
In today’s Acton Commentary, I review a new statement titled Choosing the Common Good (download it here) from the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales. In the introductory video linked above, The Most Rev. Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster, introduces Choosing the Common Good and discusses the key themes in Catholic Social Teaching “as a contribution to the wide-ranging debate about the values and vision that underpin our society.”
Here is the text of my commentary: ...
... Choosing the Common Good’s strength is that it speaks to what the Church is best qualified to discuss when it comes to social and political questions: the moral-cultural dimension. In this regard, three dominant themes pervade this concise text.
The first is the limits of politics. “Have we allowed ourselves,” the bishops write, “to be seduced by the myth that social problems are for the government to deal with?. No government can solve every problem, nor make us more generous or responsive to need.”
That’s a marked departure from much of the post-war British political consensus about government’s role that not even Margaret Thatcher could overturn.
A second theme is the centrality of truly free associations (as opposed to NGOs). “Local institutions,” the bishops state, “expressing good citizenship and neighbourliness, which are not beholden to government, form a vital part of civil society.” These networks of solidarity embody valuable social capital, the vitality of which “requires our society to rediscover the centrality of personal responsibility and the gift of service to others.”
This linkage between personal responsibility and concern for our neighbor (rather than delegating it to the state) underpins the bishops’ emphasis on trust. Trust’s significance as a force for genuine social cohesion is underscored by social and economic research. According to the bishops, the undermining of trust as a living force in much of contemporary Britain has proved costly, including in the economy.
While stressing that the causes of the financial crisis are complex, the bishops argue that a decline of trust helped facilitate the financial sector’s meltdown. It follows “that new and sweeping regulation [will not] of itself solve these deep-seated problem.” “[S]ystematic flaws in the economy,” they add, “cannot be repaired unless it is recognized that they stem from, and contribute to, equivalent flaws in our wider society.”
Yes, many irresponsible choices were made by people working in the financial industry. But, as the bishops observe, there was plenty of irresponsible behavior on the part of others – including politicians and ordinary folk – that contributed to the meltdown. Regulation in itself cannot solve this problem: indeed it can significantly worsen matters.
Then there is the theme of the indispensability of virtue for any decent society. Here the bishops really hit their stride. “In place of virtue”, they insist, “we have seen an expansion of regulation. A society that is held together just by compliance to rules is inherently fragile, open to further abuses which will be met by a further expansion of regulation.”
The bishops then detail how the classical virtues of prudence, justice, courage, and temperance have real and practical consequences for economic and social life. That’s an important argument which many on the British left and right presently seem incapable of articulating. It also makes a welcome contrast to those – including some Catholics – who invariably reduce morality to whatever happens to be the latest fashionable lefty cause. ...