Why we Still Need Catholic Social Teaching in an Age of Brexit

An exclusive guest post by Simon Cuff , tutor and lecturer in Theology at St Mellitus College

I don’t envy the Prime Minister. We’ve all seen just how difficult a task it has been to get a deal through Parliament, following the vote of the United Kingdom to leave the European Union. If the referendum result was clear about anything, it was that the United Kingdom is a divided society. 52 to 48 speaks loudly of the division within our society over the future direction of our nation.

Subsequent opinion polls, debates, and the difficulty of finding a means to leave the European Union that garners widespread support continue to demonstrate that if there’s one thing we can agree on, it’s that we are a nation divided.

Brexit is not the only division in society. We are divided by wealth, geography, opportunity, colour, gender, age and more besides. Leave and Remain, rich and poor, north and south. We are divided even within our divisions. Division between generations appears on the rise. Calls for intergenerational fairness have gathered pace, as millennials and succeeding generations struggle to buy homes and appear to be the first cohort to earn less than the parents at the same age[1].

Within Scripture, S. Mark’s Gospel reminds us: ‘If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand’ (Mark 3.24-5). Divided communities, divided nations, divided churches are not able to stand. Divided communities, divided nations, divided churches are not able to flourish and be those cradles of human flourishing God calls them to be. A deeply divided society is not a society living life in all its fullness. A deeply divided society is not a society in communion with God and with neighbour, practising that love which overcomes divisions and tears down the walls we put between ourselves.

In the midst of such divisions, Catholic Social Teaching has much to offer to all Christian communities seeking to play their part in overcoming divisions and putting the Christian faith into action. The principles of Catholic Social Teaching derive from more than a century of thought and praxis within the Roman Catholic Church about how to overcome such divisions and social ills.

Division in society is not new. Widely recognised as the foundational document of Catholic Social Teaching, Rerum Novarum, the 1891 letter of Pope Leo XIII knownwas written in part in response to such divisions, and to offer practical solutions to the worsening living conditions of the urban poor at the end of the 19th Century.

Less well-known is his letter Aeterni Patrisof 1879, in which the Pope observes and rejects the various solutions from communism to authoritarianism being proposed to these worsening social situations. Instead, he writes: ‘Domestic and civil society even, which, as all see, is exposed to great danger from this plague of perverse opinions, would certainly enjoy a far more peaceful and secure existence if a more wholesome doctrine were taught in the universities and high schools – one more in conformity with the teaching of the Church, such as is contained in the works of Thomas Aquinas’ (§28).

Observing a divided and broken society, he recommends a healthy dose of St Thomas.

I’ve always thought Pope Leo was a little optimistic to think that society would be more peaceably ordered if everybody was reading medieval theology. (From my limited experience trying to teach the thought of St Thomas, it initially raises the level of discontent rather than soothes it, as students grapple with the question and answer method he adopts in his great theological text book, the Summa Theologica.)

Once you begin that grappling, however, you start to see the truth in what Pope Leo had to say, because central to the thought of St Thomas is justice. Justice is what will put an end to the social ills and divisions that ravaged society then, and continue to ravage society now.

For St Thomas Aquinas, justice is a kind of relationship. A relationship which brings with it certain rights and duties, which preserve this right relationship. Herbert McCabe, the Dominican theologian, puts this simply: ‘Justice, for Aquinas is the stable disposition to give everyone his or her due; it is concerned with maintaining an equality between people. Justice, then, is essentiality about a relation to another and its criteria are objective’.[2]

Justice, for Aquinas, is the restoration of a relationship that has broken down, the restoration of someone to their rightful place in society.

This is precisely the justice we hear proclaimed by our Lord in St Luke’s Gospel (4.16-20): good news to the poor; release to the captives; recovery of sight to the blind; the oppressed go free, the year of the Lord’s favour – the year of jubilee and the release from debt which jubilee brings. These are the contours of justice, the return to right relationship willed by the Lord.

This is the justice we hear about in Mary’s song (Luke 1.46-55), the Magnificat, too – the proud humbled, the mighty brought down, the lowly exalted, the hungry filled, the rich – those who rest content with excess, whilst others remain in poverty – sent away empty; right relationship restored.

This is the justice we see Jesus bringing about throughout the Gospels. The outcast and the marginalised are brought back into their proper relationship in society, the poor, the widow, the leper, the sick, the women, the divorcee at the well, the adulterer – all encounter Jesus and are restored to right relationship, with God and with their neighbour.

This is how Jesus always brings about justice. Jesus is God’s means of bringing about justice for the entire human race. God becomes one of us to restore us to right relationship with him, to take humanity to himself, to reconcile us in Christ.

This justice, this restoration of relationship, is at the heart of Catholic Social Teaching. Catholic Social Teaching, as Archbishop Welby has reminded us, is nothing other than an ‘applied outworking of the good news of Jesus Christ in terms of social structures and social justice’.[3]

Catholic Social Teaching offers a set of principles which help us to live out the justice of the Gospel as we seek to restore the broken relationships of injustice, and overcome the divisions in society which are a violation of this right relationship God intends.

The principles derived ultimately from Scripture and which Catholic Social Teaching has distilled are: the inalienable dignity of the human person, the common good, solidarity, subsidiarity and the preferential option of the poor.

These principles teach us that an action will be in keeping with the demands of justice if it recognises each human being as created in God’s image and as being chosen by God in Christ. Any action which instrumentalises a person is rejected as a violation of the principle of inalienable dignity. Any action which benefits one group whilst harming another is rejected as a violation of that group’s dignity and the solidarity between individuals which arises out of our shared humanity and relationship in Christ. Christian action must seek that which benefits the whole of society, the genuinely common good. The principle of the common good also asks difficult questions about how we use our property to benefit not just ourselves but our community and society at large.

The principle of subsidiarity encourages decision-making to be made as close to the person impacted by a decision as possible. It also encourages a vibrant society with healthy small and medium-sized institutions, faith-groups, charities and trade unions, where individuals can grow in the confidence and skills needed to participate fully in society and enjoy a life of truly human flourishing and relationship.

Finally, and most importantly, the preferential option for the poor requires an awareness of how each and every action will effect the poorest and most marginalised in our society. It remembers God’s special concern for the poor not only as objects of charity, but as an indictment on human society. The preferential option for the poor calls upon every Christian community to be alert to the mechanisms of marginalisation and poverty which give rise to human impoverishment.

Living according to the principles of Catholic Social Teaching restores relationships across society, and helps to bring about the justice which will overcome the most entrenched divisions between us.

Finally, it is obvious that division is as rife in the Church as in society at large. Christian unity sadly remains a distant, if often prayed-for dream. The Roman Catholic Church too has its own divisions and tensions between liberals and conservatives, progressives and reactionaries, traditionalists and social reformers.

The principles of Catholic Social Teaching have emerged in the context of such division, out of the Catholic Church’s experience of seeking consensus across the range of opinion which is included in such a large and diverse organisation. John Carr calls this process of finding consensus and discerning truth between extremes in ‘often ideological and polarised’ debates “the Catholic AND”, which ‘brings together complementary ideas and values into a more coherent and integrated framework’[4]. He gives the examples of Catholic Social Teaching’s emphasis that private property exists as a right, but one that brings with it responsibility; and that human work is a duty, but a duty that must be properly remunerated with decent wages and working conditions.

As the divisions in our society seem no closer to being overcome in the course of the Brexit debate, and consensus on what sort of future we want for our nation seems no closer to being achieved, this might be the most valuable contribution that Catholic Social Teaching has to make. It is a lesson in consensus according to red lines which safeguard the dignity and image of God in each and every human being, and brings together opposing groups around a hopeful vision of the common good.

Whatever Brexit means for the future of our society, the principles of Catholic Social Teaching might be a good set of red lines to build a more just and harmonious society. A society which is shaped according to this ‘applied outworking of the good news of Jesus Christ’. A society which has come together to overcome division, to live in right relationship with God and with each other, to put that love into action which is the heart of the Gospel according to which we as Christians order our lives.

Published in February, Fr Simon Cuff’s book Love in Action: Catholic Social Teaching for Every Church offers an accessible introduction for Christians of all denominations to Catholic Social Teaching and its importance well beyond the Catholic Church. Pre-order now and get 20% off.

[1] See Cuff, S., ‘Prodigal Daughters and Sons: Millennials and Generational Fairness’ in Crucible (forthcoming)

[2] McCabe, H. On Aquinas (London: Continuum 2008) 150

[3] Welby, J. Reimagining Britain: Foundations for Hope (London: Bloomsbury 2018) 35

[4] Carr, J., ‘Moving from Research to Action: Some Lessons and Directions (from a Catholic Social Ministry Bureaucrat)’ in Finn, D. (ed.) The True Wealth of Nations: Catholic Social Thought and Economic Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2010) 341 – 349, 346


One thought on “Why we Still Need Catholic Social Teaching in an Age of Brexit

  1. As a Methodist Minister I have always Explained to people how close we are to our sisters and brothers in Christ within the the Roman Catholic Church. Since as Methodists we believe God’s Love is for the whole of the Created Order of the world and as Methodists Our principles of Justice and Peace Aims to reflect the Saviour’s Mission as he announced Love, joy and Peace in the name of the Father to whomsoever He was addressing. Thank you for this splendid reflection. CN

    Sent from my iPhoneCarole



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