Pope Francis, Catholic Social Teaching, and UK politics

By Bernadette Meaden
September 23, 2015

As Pope Francis arrived in the USA his biographer, British journalist Paul Vallely tweeted, "The Pope said on the plane what I said last week in politico.com - and what he said after Evangelii Gaudium “It’s not Marxism. It’s classic Catholic social teaching, as developed by previous popes.”

Catholic Social teaching, taught by the Church for decades, but proclaimed with particular passion by this Pope, may not be Marxism, but it could be equally, if not more challenging than Marxism, for those who benefit most from the economic status quo.

As Meghan J Clark wrote in the New York Times, "Francis is not interested in judging the economy from the perspective of the rich. Following the Gospel, he challenges capitalism from the perspective of its victims. A radical identification with the marginalised permeates all aspects of this papacy."

As Vallely reports, this makes many conservatives, even conservative Catholics, very uneasy. The Pope has spoken of "the economics of exclusion" in which "the weak, the old, the unemployed and the unborn are cast on the scrapheap where they are deemed surplus to society's requirements or of no worth in the global economy." He has attacked the idolatry of money and proclaimed inequality as "the root of all social ills".

This has triggered a backlash from "an unholy alliance of red-blooded conservatives, free-market philosophers, oil industry apologists, fracking enthusiasts and climate change deniers." Despite this, says Vallely, "Francis will not let the rich world off the hook on imbalanced unjust economics and social inequality."

Here in the UK, Catholic Social Teaching should surely provide a challenge to austerity, and policies designed to shrink the state. A state which shrinks to provide only the most essential public services is perfectly acceptable to the rich. It keeps their taxes down, and what the state doesn't provide they can buy for themselves, be it health or social care, education or transport.

Meanwhile, the poor and disadvantaged see the support which makes their lives bearable slowly but surely stripped away. We arrive at the point where disabled people are told to use incontinence pads because we can't afford to help them get to the toilet, or where cancer patients are told that their extra £30 per week in ESA is a 'perverse incentive' which discourages them from getting a job, when in reality it may just pay their travel costs to get to hospital for treatment. On the world stage, George Osborne boasts of Britain becoming the wealthiest of the big economies, whilst at home he takes money from disabled people and the working poor.

There is a continuous effort, as highlighted by Steve Richards, to redefine the language of British politics, a move to redefine hard right policies as 'centrist' and 'modernising'. We must beware any similar move to represent Catholic Social Teaching (CST) as something cosy and consensual, something which will not disturb the wealthy. Like the Gospels, it should be disturbing to all who benefit from an unjust economy.

Catholic Social Teaching may not be articulated in terms of left or right, but it must surely provide a scathing critique of policies which further marginalise the poor and disadvantaged. Consensus is good, but the dignity of the human person is non-negotiable. CST must comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. As Paul Vallely tweeted, "Wait till Pope Francis quotes this - the most revolutionary Church document ever!"

"He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,

and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty."

Paul Vallely's new book, 'Pope Francis: The Struggle for The Soul of Catholicism' is now available.

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© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden

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