The document, branded as supporting Tony Blair's New Labour party, is an unprecedented foray into British politics for the Catholic Church.
In it, bishops back a statutory minimum wage, demand a more positive attitude to Europe and suggest the country needs a Bill of Rights or other strengthening of civil liberties. All are proposals which coincide with Labour policy or instincts.
Though it begins by insisting that it is not an attempt to instruct the nation's 5 million Catholics to vote for one particular party, the document acknowledges its detailed pro- posals will cause controversy.
"The broad thrust of it is something that will warm the hearts of most Anglicans," said Dr Andrew Purkis, the Archbishop of Canterbury's secretary for public affairs, one of the few outsiders to have seen the 13,000-word document. "It is a wonderful exposition. We'd see ourselves as completely at one with its approach."
It may receive backing from other churches, too. One leading Methodist has described Catholic social teaching as "the only show in town".
The document comes amid debate about the role of religion in politics, with the Prime Minister speaking for the first time of his "simple" faith. John Major's remarks follow Tony Blair's identification earlier this year of New Labour with Christianity.
The document constitutes a full-blooded attack on the legacy of Thatcherism. Tory policies, the bishops say, have unacceptably widened the gap between the rich and the poor, created a contract culture in which redundant workers are treated as commodities, and have undermined the public service ethos and sense of vocation in social services.
More specifically, the bishops suggest that internal markets have proved inappropriate in health and education, where they penalise the sick and the vulnerable.
But the bishops go further to the left than New Labour when they call for laws to force employers to recognise trade unions in the workplace.
The document has been issued with full authority of the Bishops' Conference of England and Wales and has the backing of Cardinal Hume. It is being sent to the 3,500 priests in their jurisdiction, strongly urging them to preach on it every week for six weeks in the run-up to the election.
The teaching is not optional; it is an integral part of Catholicism, the bishops say.
The bishops also want study groups to be set up in every parish to consider the document, and have sent out detailed study packs to facilitate this.
"The timing is significant," said the Rt Rev David Konstant, Bishop of Leeds, who is chairman of the conference, conceding that the aim was to in- fluence debate in the run-up to election. "But it is sufficiently distanced [from the voting] to allow people to consider the issues properly."
Entitled The Common Good and the Catholic Church's Social Teaching, it draws on a century of social doctrine which, the bishops insist, places them above party politics. Asked whether others, especially Tory politicians, might disagree, Bishop Konstant replied: "I'm sure that is the case".
The report insists that the Government must concern itself with relative, not just absolute, poverty. The creation of an "under-class" as the by- product of running the economy to benefit the majority is unacceptable.
Unemployment, contrary to Norman Lamont's suggestion, is never a price worth paying. Nor is it morally acceptable to allow wages to fall below a decent minimum as a strategy to fight unemployment
Other veiled criticisms of the Government are contained in sections which call for the decent treatment of refugees and a demand to reverse cuts in overseas aid.
The document is also a wide-ranging critique of contemporary society, attacking every- thing from the modern ideology of consumerism to the media which promote it. Broad- casters are criticised for an irresponsible acquiescence in an incremental decline in standards of decency. National newspapers are condemned for a reckless cynicism, and their editors are accused of lacking moral substance; allowing bad journalism to drive out good; and leading, rather than following, public taste in a downward spiral.
The Church's own anti-abortion campaigners are unlikely to be pleased with the document, which insists that parliamentary candidates should not be voted for because of their stance on a single issue.
Celebrity converts, page 3
Should bishops tell us how
to vote? page 14Reuse content