Catholic Social Teaching and the political left

By Bernadette Meaden
November 21, 2012

For Christians, and particularly Catholics, who believe that their faith is incompatible with right-wing political policies, these are interesting times.

BBC Radio 4 recently aired two programmes about Catholic Social Teaching, (CST) and how those on the left of British politics are beginning to see it as a valuable resource. Jon Cruddas MP, who is responsible for the Labour Party’s policy review, is said to find CST ‘inspirational’, with its emphasis on human dignity and the Common Good.

As if to reciprocate, in another encouraging sign for those on the left, the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales recently committed to paying the Living Wage, saying, ‘fair wages are essential to the common good of our society’.

Meanwhile across the Atlantic, there is a real struggle going on within the Church, as both left and right attempt to establish their claim to be the true reflection of CST

Prior to the US Presidential Election, much was made of the Catholicism of Mitt Romney’s running mate Paul Ryan, and his rather contradictory admiration of the philosopher Ayn Rand, founder of Objectivism.

Even more disturbing for those on the left, some Catholic Bishops caused a controversy when they more or less instructed their congregations to vote for Romney because of his conservative social policies, more in line with Catholic teaching, they maintained, than Obama’s social liberalism.

But the Left responded with ‘On All Of Our Shoulders’ a statement signed by many eminent Catholic theologians and intellectuals. It was a comprehensive repudiation of the selfish individualism and laissez-faire capitalism of Ryan’s Republicanism, and a reaffirmation of the central belief of Catholic Social Teaching, that we are all our brother’s keepers.

In another interesting development, this month the US Bishops planned to issue a significant pastoral statement entitled ‘The Hope of the Gospel in Difficult Economic Times; a pastoral message on work, poverty and the economy’. Publication has been stalled however, as some Bishops felt it to be singularly lacking in concern for workers’ rights, which were only mentioned in passing.

Notably it did not contain a single reference to ‘Economic Justice for All’ , a landmark pastoral letter issued in 1986 which has been a source of inspiration to many who work for social justice. The new document contained only one sentence on the rights of workers to join a union, whereas this right is seen as central in seminal documents like Rerum Novarum.

Retired Archbishop Joseph Fiorenza of Texas has been outspoken in his criticism of the document, and now the Catholic Labor Network, led by Father Sinclair Oubre, is mounting a grassroots campaign to support Archbishop Fiorenza’s stance. This is an intriguing and important battle for the political soul of the Catholic Church in the world’s leading Capitalist economy.


© Bernadette Meaden has written about religious, political and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is a regular contributor to Ekklesia.

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