Paul Vallely: We need the Pope's modest voice of conscience

The Catholic church helps millions of the poor and the abandoned, and the man who leads it has been unstinting in warning of the dangers of casino capitalism. That surely gives him the right to a fair hearing, argues Paul Vallely
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It's easy to work up a steam of indignation about the Pope. British Catholics do not need any lessons from secularists on that. Many of us have spent our adult lives disregarding papal teaching on contraception. We have challenged the Vatican's unchristian insistence that our gay friends are "intrinsically disordered". We have protested against the way it undermined liberation theologians working among the poor in Latin America. We have asked how it can be "pro-life" to say that a married couple cannot use a condom when one of them has Aids. And we feel not only outraged at the behaviour of paedophile priests and, perhaps even worse, the scandalous cover-up, we feel ashamed and betrayed.

Having said that, many Catholics are saddened by the assumption of the shriller secularists that the church has nothing to say to the society in which we live. Look at the largely unsung good work Catholics do. The volunteers of the St Vincent de Paul Society last year put in a staggering million hours of one-to-one work with people in need in Britain. Catholics raised £47m for the aid agency Cafod, which works in partnership with people of all backgrounds. Britain's Catholic schools, despite ill-informed claims that they are socially divisive, are often what bring people together in fragmented, alienated inner-city areas; the school in my old parish of Moss Side in Manchester had 42 different nationalities, among whom a sense of community was created that spilled out well beyond the church building.

But Catholicism offers more than practical work for the common good, as the Pope's speech to politicians and civic leaders in Westminster Hall on Friday showed. It centred on how governments should balance the freedom of individuals with the best interests of the whole society. And it warned of the danger of applying short-term, politically pragmatic freedoms in complex social and ethical situations. The Pope cited the global financial crisis as a central example.

"The lack of a solid ethical foundation for economic activity has contributed to the grave difficulties now being experienced by millions of people throughout the world," he said. Governments should apply the same money and energy that went into rescuing the banks to creating policies on how to provide food, water, healthcare, education, jobs and support to families, especially migrants, in the developing world, he argued.

There is nothing necessarily religious in that insight. But Catholicism has been one important source of such corrective thinking for more than a century now, since 1891 when Pope Leo XIII published the first major encyclical in what has become known as Catholic social teaching. Called "Rerum Novarum" (Of New Things), it was heavily influenced by the work of Cardinal Manning, who was a fierce champion of the rights of the working classes in Victorian England. Its subtitle was "The rights and duties of capital and labour". A series of popes have made important contributions to the tradition, most recently Benedict himself, whose encyclical "Caritas in Veritate" (Charity in Truth) last year insisted that "every economic decision has a moral consequence". Governments, he insists, have an overriding duty to safeguard the unique dignity of every citizen. In the stampede to greed that preceded the financial meltdown, his was one of the few cautionary voices.

"If the moral principles underpinning the democratic process are themselves determined by nothing more solid than social consensus, then the fragility of the process becomes all too evident," the Pope said on Friday. The majority are not always right, though it is usually not popular to say so. But as he knows from personal experience, the majority of the German population were complicit in Hitler's persecution of the Jews, just as opinion polls show the majority of the French today are in favour of President Sarkozy's shameful policy of expelling the Roma. Religion should be a corrective, however unwelcome, to coercive majoritarianism.

For all the bombast of his critics, there was an engaging modesty about Benedict in Westminster on Friday. If politics needs the insights of religion, the opposite is also true, he admitted. Religion unconstrained by reason produces sectarianism and fundamentalism, he said. The mutual need of faith and reason for one another is one of his familiar themes. But in London he looked specifically at the place of religious belief within the political process and showed how the world of secular rationality and the world of religious belief need one another.

Not all his philosophising this week has been helpful. Jargon about the "dictatorship of relativism" is far too broadbrush. And it disguises his insight that modern society cares too much about rights and not enough about responsibilities. But his insistence that some of our freedoms can be self-destructive was thought-provoking; he could usefully expand on that idea.

There was one other striking feature, though the media largely missed it. Pope Benedict chose to focus on two British figures who could each be dubbed the patron saint of conscience. On Friday he paused in Westminster Hall at the floor-plaque marking the spot where St Thomas More was sentenced to death for refusing to acknowledge Henry VIII's breakaway from Rome and the formation of the Church of England. More, he said, "is admired by believers and non-believers alike for the integrity with which he followed his conscience, even at the cost of displeasing the sovereign, whose 'good servant' he was, because he chose to serve God first".

And today he will beatify Cardinal John Henry Newman, who made a famous toast that he would drink "to conscience first, and to the Pope afterwards".

No doubt the Pope wants to strengthen the purpose of those English Catholics who might want to oppose British laws that contradict his teaching. But when an informed conscience is king it gives Catholics, in good faith, the duty to discern where the Pope is right and where he is not. If that is relativism, it strikes me not as a dictatorship but a liberation.

Paul Vallely is editor of The New Politics: Catholic Social Teaching for the 21st Century