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There is no ‘liberal’ Catholic social teaching

Catholic care for the poor is a bit older than the Enlightenment. By a couple of millennia

By on Monday, 18 March 2013

Poverty: we care a lot (AP)

Poverty: we care a lot (AP)

Will Hutton, the famous thinker and writer, has written a piece for the Observer, in which he ponders on the spread of enlightenment values, and in a wide ranging survey, has this to say about the recent election of Pope Francis:

Jorge Mario Bergoglio is pope because he embodies – at least in Catholic eyes – the best of the western Catholic tradition. He may defend core values on marriage and sexuality, however irrelevant and unjustified they now seem in secular Europe and America, but is avowedly liberal on social issues and poverty. Catholic social policy, with its commitment to justice, fulfilling work and the necessity to enfranchise every human, is one of the better components of the religion’s tradition.

This social policy was an outgrowth of the Church coming to terms, over the 19th century, with the Enlightenment. If it is so survive in the 21st century, it will have to come to terms with the Enlightenment’s view that sex is not immoral and sexual preferences should not be stigmatised. Pope Francis might also come to regret his alleged compromises with the Argentinian junta that may dog his papacy. But nonetheless he is the best the Roman Catholic church can offer in holding an impossible line – and might prove to be one of the last who tries to do so. Soon, there will be no part of the world, not even the Catholic church, not touched by Enlightenment virtues.

Reading this, one experiences several “yes, but” moments. There is no such thing as “Catholic social policy”; there is something called Catholic social teaching or magisterium, which is rather different. It is interesting to note how Hutton substitutes a political word for a religious one. But, and it is an important but, the Church is not a political party, and religion and faith transcend political belief.

Next, Hutton assumes that the Church’s social teaching is somehow “liberal”; this too represents a serious category error. It is indeed liberal in the old fashioned sense of generous, but it would be reductionist to see it as liberal in the political sense; and what does liberal mean anyway? But far more seriously astray is the idea that the Church’s concern for the poor is somehow the fruit of the Enlightenment. Rerum Novarum is more or less as far as you can get from the programme of, for example, the great reforming ministries of Lords Grey and Melbourne; far closer to the social programme of the Emperor Napoleon III, who was a liberal, of course, but of a very different mould. Social reform in Britain, such as the various Factory Acts, were often sponsored by Tories and opposed by Liberals. Suffice it to say that the label “liberal” is misleading when applied to Catholic social teaching.

If one wants to label Catholic social teaching, how about calling it “evangelical”? And here we expose the nonsense of its Enlightenment roots. The Church’s concern for the poor goes back to the fifth chapter of Saint Matthew’s gospel and the words of Jesus about the blessedness of the poor in spirit. That predates the Enlightenment by at least 1,600 years.

Again, just as the term liberal is wide one, we need to be aware that there were several Enlightenments, starting with the Scottish one. It is perfectly true that some people in the eighteenth century, who considered themselves enlightened, would have agreed with Hutton that “sex is not immoral and sexual preferences should not be stigmatised.” These peoplke were known as libertines. Oddly, though, hardly any sensible person agrees with this position nowadays, as far as I can see. Whatever Hutton means by the phrase, it is surely the case that responsible people believe that some sort of sexual restraint in at least some circumstances is desireable, and that certain forms of sexual expression are immoral. Incest is immoral, surely? So is rape. So is sex in public places. And so on. Indeed, some sexual preferences should be stigmatised and still are. The acting out of quite a few sexual preferences in Britain today remains illegal.

So, I am not quite sure what Huitton means when he refers to the Enlightenement “view” of sex. The Church’s teaching makes good sense to me. Now, I cannot possibly provide a complete vindication of Church sexual teaching in an article of this length. But what I will say is this. Hutton implies that sexual desire is somehow immune to moral scrutiny. In the same article he implies that it is quite correct that economics should be subject to ethical scrutiny. This seems like a contradiction. In our dealings with our neighbour in financial matters, and also in sexual matters, we are subject to the same law of charity established by God, though, clearly, as economics and sex are so different, in different ways. But why should our consciences, or the Church, or the Pope, be excluded from the bedroom, but not the marketplace?