Faith &Reason: Private interests - public welfare?

`The Market where possible, the State where necessary,' said John Smith. The Rev John Kennedy, a Methodist, thinks that the Catholic bishops have missed their target.

Three months ago the Roman Catholic bishops of England and Wales produced their statement, The Common Good. It is much the best piece of political theology to have appeared in Britain in many years. But it works better as a judgement on the past than as a guide to the future. A little mild dissent seems in order.

The bishops rightly condemn the scolding rhetoric of greed that the British have endured in recent years. They protest that there is more to life than money, and that our lives and our values have been too thoughtlessly hurled into the marketplace. They insist that there is a common ground on which we can build a shared, moral, public life. They proclaim that in Christ God has made all humanity one flesh, and that all social relationships should be shaped accordingly.

All this is becoming familiar, and much praised. The document is drawn from the strong tradition of Catholic social teaching, and the bishops are modestly proud that these ideas have helped shape the current consensus in the European Union. But this consensus is now in trouble. The Common Good is surprisingly parochial in this regard; it takes almost no account of current European realities. Two examples make the point.

Just as The Common Good was launched, nearly half a million Belgians took to the streets of Brussels in protest against the ills of their society. Jan Kerkhofs, the eminent Belgian Jesuit, reported this "White March" in the Tablet. He revealed a Belgium which is cosily corporatist, relatively Catholic - and deeply corrupt. The Common Good implies continually that there is something specially immoral about a Britain more caught up in the toils of the marketplace than Belgium. This is unwise.

Second example. The Germans are justly proud of a society which has sustained both profitable businesses and an elaborate system of social belonging. Making money and doing good worked together. The German churches have created political theology around this Social Market; they have been much clearer than the Catholic bishops that the pursuit of self-interest serves the common good. Now that social order is in serious disarray, and the German churches are deeply involved in a fierce debate about Germany's future. The whole system is under great stress, but the Germans have a great advantage over us - they can't blame Margaret Thatcher.

The crisis does not arise from government imposition of market values. Nor is it just a matter of paying for the integration of the former East Germany. It arises from the sheer difficulty of maintaining commercial success and social cohesion in a fast-changing world.

The Common Good might well create a debate in Britain as robust as the one started by the German churches. But its attitude to the ethics of self-interest is too uncertain. The bishops refer loosely to the evils of "laissez-faire capitalism", but fail to acknowledge that British levels of public expenditure are not greatly lower than European averages. At one point they appear to accuse poor old Adam Smith of idolatry, dogmatism and superstition. This is rather parochial; the Germans have long seen Smith as the morning star of the Social Market, who first suggested that a market economy can enhance rather than undermine social cohesion. The bishops make much of structural sin, which is fine; but they attach the idea almost wholly to the market, barely at all to the Church, nor to public bureaucracies in general.

This weakness is evident in one of the document's proclaimed strengths. It describes at length the impressive engagement of the Church in welfare provision in Britain. But Catholic involvement in commercial activity is unmentioned. There is a great crowd of Catholic entrepreneurs in my part of London who simultaneously serve their own interests and the common good. They are not adequately celebrated in this document. It just is not true that private interests harm the poor, and public welfare helps them. Poor people do better as customers of Kwik Save than as supplicants to Hackney Borough Council.

How then shall we be saved? The English and Welsh bishops might consult two Scottish Smiths. They might first reread Adam, who comes close to immolation in this document. They might also recall John Smith, who years ago insisted that a tougher world economy demands sharper attention to the moral validity of self-interest. He put this succinctly in a speech at Southwark Cathedral back then - "The Market where possible, the State where necessary."

Tony Blair's Christian Socialists may soon have the opportunity to implement this Gospel according to John. They might usefully talk to the German churches about the market - and to the Belgians about structural sin. The Common Good provides a fitting epitaph upon the cruelties of Thatcherism. But it is not yet an adequate moral guide to the future politics of Europe.

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