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16 November 2012

Heresy of the week: Catholicism is the future of conservatism

Britain is unusual in having a mainstream Conservative Party. In most other European countries the conservative political forces of the 19th century became thoroughly discredited by their defence of the pre-democratic order or by their subsequent collaboration with fascism.

The failure of the right should have enabled the left to completely dominate the post-war politics of continental Europe. And yet, apart from the unfortunate nations where Stalin imposed Communism, this did not happen.

The reason why is because the shattered remains of continental conservatism where swept-up and replaced by a new alternative to socialism – a set of ideas often referred to as ‘Catholic Social Teaching’ or CST.  Writing for the BBC, Matthew Taylor explores its history:

  • “Although its roots can be traced back not just to the Bible, but to the ideas of Aristotle, rediscovered in the 13th Century by St Thomas Aquinas, the modern expression of Catholic Social Teaching came in an encyclical – the highest form of papal teaching - titled Rerum Novarum and issued in 1891 by Pope Leo XIII.
  • “The Pope offered the ‘gift’ of Catholic social thought to a troubled world.
  • “He called on the one hand for compassion for the poor and respect for the dignity of labour and, on the other hand, for respect for property and the family – all held together by the core idea of the common good.”

With various adaptations, CST provided an intellectual foundation for centre-right politics in democratic Europe – and a source of inspiration for dissidents in communist Europe.

Britain, as so often, was an exception. Whereas continental conservatism was poisoned by the reactionary teachings of Joseph-Marie de Maistre, British conservatism was infused by the humane philosophy of Edmund Burke – not to mention the practical compassion of William Wilberforce and the 7th Earl of Shaftesbury. Thus, providentially, the major European country where Catholicism had the least influence was in the least need of Catholic Social Teaching as an alternative to socialism.

But there’s a twist in the tail – because, according to Matthew Taylor, it is the British left that is now turning to CST for inspiration:

  • “For Jon Cruddas, Labour MP for Dagenham and Rainham and the man charged by Labour leader Ed Miliband with writing his party's general election manifesto, his focus is on the philosophical and ethical critique of free market in the wake of the credit crunch:
  • “‘When the music stops in autumn 2008… you sort of search for different traditions to reintroduce them. Different bodies, frameworks, ideas,’ he explains.
  • “‘One of which is Catholic Social Teaching, which I think is a rich theme in order to analyse the contemporary situation.’”

Obviously, the Labour Party doesn’t have much time for traditional Christian teachings on personal morality – but could you say much different for David Cameron’s Conservative Party?

Furthermore, can the Conservative Party afford to ignore what the Church has to say on issues of collective morality? CST originally emerged as a non-socialist response to problems of capitalism at the end of the 19th century. Today, at the beginning of the 21st century, capitalism is again in crisis – and it should be the centre-right, not the centre-left, looking for the non-socialist response.


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