BY ED WEST
THE BISHOPS of England and Wales have called for a wholesale reform of public life.
In a major intervention ahead of the general election, expected on May 6, the bishops addressed the crisis of trust in Britain’s institutions following the financial meltdown and the MPs’ expenses scandal.
Choosing the Common Good, a 10-page statement issued on Wednesday, argued that Catholic social teaching offers a solution to the country’s most pressing problems.
The bishops did not endorse any of the parties contending possibly the closest election in years. But their call for politicians to “recognise and support marriage” was widely seen as a boost for the Conservative Party, which has promised to give married couples tax breaks if it is elected.
The bishops said that one of the key challenges facing the next Parliament was to restore trust in Britain’s battered institutions.
“Few need reminding of how major institutions have failed to live up to their calling,” they wrote. “Members of Parliament have been pilloried for their use of expenses and allowances. Bankers have earned astonishing bonuses and brought the world economy close to collapse. The Catholic Church, too, has had to learn in recent years some harsh lessons in safeguarding trust. We understand the damage inflicted when trust is betrayed. But from our part we value enormously the individuals who meet our needs with patience, compassion, skill and often great generosity.
“The challenge for society is to build up our structures and institutions so that they command the same respect and trust as the individuals who represent them best. We know it can be done, but it requires a new sense of service to others at the heart of our institutions.” The bishops said that trust could not be restored by increased regulation, but rather by an expansion of virtue.
They wrote: “Our society will rediscover its capacity to trust by the recovery of the practice of virtue, and through an ethically founded reform of many of our social and economic institutions. This will itself begin to restore the economy to a path that is both sustainable and just. In this way trust will be re-established.
“We believe that this is what the vast majority of ordinary British people instinctively want. They want to belong to a world in which people care for one another. They are alienated by a selfish society. At a profound level they care more for social capital as we have defined it than for financial capital, for quality of life than for the value of property.
“Yet the structures and values built into the way society works often frustrate them. Ways need to be found to liberate the generosity of the people not only when an ex treme emergency arises, but routinely.” The document also touched on contentious issues such as the defence of human life, poverty and inequality, migration and community relations, the environment, marriage and family life and the role of faith communities.
The bishops described abortion and euthanasia as a “fundamental denial” of the common good.
They called for renewed efforts to support older people on low incomes, tackle persistent poverty and promote equality of opportunity.
They said the debate about immigration should not be reduced “simply to a matter of numbers”, but must clearly distinguish between the different types of mi gration. Immigration policy, they said, should start from a recognition of migrants’ human dignity and the inalienable rights that follow from it. They also deplored politicians who “whip up fears, prejudices and anxieties” about immigration.
The bishops urged leaders to “work to protect the environment from permanent damage, for instance through climate change”.
They also highlighted the “tragic personal, social and economic costs” of family breakdown. Government should promote stable families, they said, without usurping the rights of parents. And they called on all political parties to support marriage as a key building block of a stable society. The bishops wrote: “The future of society passes by way of the family. Families, for better or worse, are the first school of life and love, where the capacity to relate to others, to develop moral character, is founded. The tragic personal, social and economic costs of increased family breakdown are unmistakable.
“Whilst we recognise and applaud the many parents who, despite family breakdown, provide a loving and stable home for their children, we have also as a society to accept that the promotion and encouragement of family stability must be a high priority if this trend, so damaging to the common good, is to be reversed.
“Families require financial as well as relational stability, access to affordable housing, and fair conditions of employment that respect family responsibilities. Families have a right to a life of their own, and governments do well when they interfere as little as possible while supporting parents in the exercise of their responsibilities. But at the heart of necessary policy initiatives to support the stability of couple relationships, it is essential to support marriage “Marriage brings considerable and measurable benefits to individuals, children, family life and society. It deserves protection. A strong future for marriage is both achievable and desirable.
“A more realistic view of married life should be encouraged and couples should be prepared with the skills to maintain and develop their commitment. There should be more resources for relationship support. Society has a vested interest in supporting marriage as the surest basis for family life. Politicians of all parties should recognise and support marriage as a key building block of a stable society.” The bishops also expressed concern about threats to freedom of religion.
“Care must be taken not to put obstacles in the way of religious belief and practice which reduce it to devotional acts,” they said.
They added: “Partnerships between Government and faith communities should be mutually respectful and permit these communities to act with integrity in the provision of public services for the common good. This has long been the case in the provision of education and the benefits brought by that partnership are substantial and clear. Faith communities also have their part to play in the formulation of public policy and have a right to make a proper contribution to the life of our democracy.” In his introduction to the document, Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster, president of the bishops’ conference, wrote: “We offer this statement as a contribution to the wider debate on the important themes of the moment. It forms a backdrop to the more particular issues which may well dominate the election itself. But it proposes that without a wider debate about a shared vision for our society, the electioneering may well be confined to bitter arguments over issues of particular policy. We need a more wideranging debate about the values and vision which can underpin all our joint effort today.” Choosing the Common Good is available from the bishops’ conference website, www.catholic church.org.uk.
■ Tory leader David Cameron has offered to answer readers’ questions ahead of the election. If you have a question for him, please email us at [email protected] or write to us at the address on Page 13 by next Wednesday.