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.

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Project Manager (HR)- Bristol - Upto £400 p/day

£350 - £400 per annum + competitive: Orgtel: Project Manager (specializing in ...

HR Business Partner (Maternity Cover 12 Months)

£30000 - £34000 Per Annum 25 days holiday, Private healthcare: Clearwater Peop...

Project Manager (Procurement & Human Resources)

Unpaid: Cancer Research UK: If you’re a professional in project management, lo...

Geography Teacher

£85 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: We require a teacher of Geogr...

Day In a Page

Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

Spanx launches range of jeans

The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
10 best over-ear headphones

Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

Commonwealth Games

David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star