Paul Goodman asks if the Church's social conservatism is at odds with David Cameron's model of conservatism

Almost a year ago there seemed for a moment to be a meeting of minds between the old man who is the Pope and a young man who is Prime Minister. As Pope Benedict left Britain after his visit he said that he had been grateful “to have the opportunity… to share some thoughts… about the contribution that the religions can offer to the development of a healthy pluralistic society”. Only a few moments before David Cameron had responded to those thoughts as follows: “I believe that we can all share in your message of working for the common good and that we all have a social obligation to each other, to our families and communities.”

The common bond of which the Pope had spoken, he said, had been “an incredibly important part of your message to us. And it’s at the heart of the new culture of social responsibility we want to build in Britain. People of faith – including our 30,000 faith-based charities – are great architects of that new culture.” The Prime Minister was careful to keep two words out of his remarks: Big Society – the slogan which, more than any other, summarise his localist-flavoured, grassroots-dependent, traditionally-moored One Nation ideal of what his Government should be all about.

He would have done so in order not to drag the Pope into party politics, but was evidently seeking to manoeuvre British Catholics in that direction. The Conservative Party, he was indicating, no longer holds that “there is no such thing as society” – Margaret Thatcher’s words, and ones that inflicted a slow-burning and decade-lasting reputational damage on the Tories. We believe, he was suggesting, in solidarity – just as Catholics do.  And we believe in subsidiarity, too: that power is best exercised when devolved down to the most local level. Your values and instincts are as ours.

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All this gives rise to a lot of questions. Did Cameron really mean it? If so, was he right? And what should the Church’s response be in any event? Perhaps the best place to start is by searching the Prime Minister and his team for any background in or sympathy for the Church’s social teaching. There is always a sprinkling of Catholics at the top of Britain’s political parties, the most obvious one in the Conservatives’ case being Iain Duncan Smith, their first Catholic leader, since then triumphantly reinvented first as founder of the Centre for Social Justice and now as Work and Pensions Secretary.

The work of Duncan Smith has been directly inspired by the teachings of the Church to which he converted. But from Thatcher through Tony Blair to Cameron himself, political parties have become increasingly centralised: the best place to look when weighing up a leadership isn’t around the Cabinet table but in the private office – among the tight-knit teams who plan and execute political strategy. None of the men (and, yes: it is almost entirely men) who make up the Prime Minister’s inner circle have ever shown much of an interest in Catholicism – George Osborne, the Chancellor; Steve Hilton, the Prime Minister’s ideas guru; Andrew Cooper, the newly appointed head of strategy; and Ed Llewellyn, the chief of staff.

Merge Team Cameron into one individual, and you’d have someone rather like the Prime Minister himself: privately educated, metropolitan, liberal-minded, and if inclined to religion at all then drawn to a reserved Christianity with a distinctly Anglican flavour.  (The Prime Minister, according to Boris Johnson, has compared the difficulties of believing in God to the difficulty in picking up Magic FM in the Chilterns.) But to establish that no member of Team Cameron has ever dived into the deep waters of Catholic social teaching is the start and not the end of the story. For that team has two utterly different reactions to it – or, rather, to what it seems to think it is. The first is suspicion; the second, enthusiasm.

The suspicion is founded on the view that Catholicism’s social conservatism is at odds with the age’s social liberalism. This is drawn from experience. Section 28, civil partnerships, gay adoption: party discipline broke down in the voting lobbies over these issues, and the lesson Cameron’s circle draw from this is that to align oneself with Catholicism, especially over any matter relating to homosexuality, is to consign oneself to division and defeat. The enthusiasm is based on the conviction that building the Big Society will be impossible without the faith communities, including the Catholic Church, the second-largest institutional player. It is based on reflection – on considering the range and depth of the Church’s contribution to society.

The Church can never become the property of one political party: indeed, its teaching is wide enough to condemn only those ideologies that make gods of class, race, capital or anything else. But there is enough overlap between the Prime Minister’s Big Society vision and its own for cooperation to be possible: that his Downing Street team has no emotional investment in Catholicism is irrelevant, and that its view of the Church is conflicted is a fact of modern political life. Dimly and hesitantly, it’s possible to see the outlines of a settlement between the Government and the Church.

For its part, the Government would revisit its support for recent legislation, tearing up the rules and regulations that prevent the Church from providing even more hospices, homeless shelters, employment programmes, projects for people with substance abuse problems and mental health difficulties, advice centres for those who are in debt, counselling for people who’ve lost family members and so on. And for its part, the Church would review its attachment to the 1945 settlement, bidding to run some hospitals – which, after all, are institutions with Christian origins – setting up a domestic equivalent of Caritas Europa and encouraging its schools to become academies (if Michael Gove will give some ground over the inclusion of religious education in the Baccalaureate).

The devil would be in the detail, figuratively if not literally: at a time of spending constraint it isn’t easy to see how all this would be financed. But if there are questions about Downing Street’s commitment, there are questions about the institutional Church’s response, too. The Catholic Education Service is skilled at lobbying on behalf of its interests. But the machinery of the bishops’ conference is small-scale, and its staff have mostly been there for some time. Continuity is often a good thing, but in so far as Downing Street has a collective view of the Catholic Church in Britain – and whether it has a fully formed one is doubtful – it finds the Church bureaucracy timid and, in the literal sense of the word, reactionary.

Responding to a big idea like the Big Society requires, in the first instance, a lot of small competences: reading the relevant Government documents, knowing who the main players are, lifting one’s eyes beyond the ranks of familiar Catholic MPs.  Although the Archbishop of Westminster has given the scheme as warm a response as is prudent, there is no sign that the conference is grappling seriously with such a programme of work. All the indications are that while a few leading figures in the Church are willing to look forward and test the Prime Minister on the ideals he championed as the Pope departed, more are inclined reflexively to look back – towards the familiar comfort zone of the 1945 settlement.

Paul Goodman is executive editor of ConservativeHome and former MP for Wycombe

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