by Joanna Moorhead
THE CHURCHES are failing to give enough of a lead to Britain's business people in their increasingly vocal search for moral and ethical guidance, according to a new document endorsed by the Catholic bishops' conference.
The document, entitled Morals and Money and due to be published by the Catholic Truth Society early in the new year, paints a picture of a business community grappling in the dark with moral difficulties, and finding little in the way of counsel from priests and ministers. "Even those who look to the church for help and guidance seem to anticipate advice which is likely to be vague and unrealistic," it says.
The paper, which was drawn up by Fr Francis McHugh and Peter Askonas of the Christian Social Ethics Research Unit, says that inteviews with city and business employees showed that the church and the financial system were "worlds apart". But it urges bishops and other church leaders not to ignore the debate. "There are risks in making public utterances on moral issues in the world of money, but there are also risks in remaining aloof . ." it cautions.
The general tenor of the document is likely to be regarded as fairly tame by some of the church's more radical spokespeople, who might have hoped for a more critical analysis of city practices.
The concerns it raises are couched in impartial terms in the hope, experts suggest, of not alienating readers who work in business. But Catholic social teaching is clearly spelt out, with, for example, the obligation of the rich to share what they have with the poor as a matter of justice stressed. And three elements — respect for the human person, the necessity of personal responsibility, and working for the common good — are highlighted as central to any vision which "makes the rule of morals the guardians of the world of money".
Several pages of the document are devoted to the problem of rising levels of personal debt, which according to the paper has doubled in the UK between 1983 and 1989. Mental problems, social withdrawal, physical ailments, marital difficulties and family problems are listed as the main adverse effects of debt.
The document does not, however, condemn credit, which is the cause of much personal debt, outright. "Credit, which allows people to enjoy benefits before they are actually paid for, is not in itself a bad thing. In so far as debtors are concerned, some stress must be placed on personal responsibility for their actions and for the debts they have contracted," it says.
"But this will not always be appropriate, since what may require comment is the lack of responsibility in the face of irresponsible pressure sales. As a matter of justice, such sales pitch and excessive interest rates call for criticism," it continues.
The paper passes on a suggestion that schools should include teaching on money management, credit, saving and debt, and that similar programmes of teaching might be included in the work of the Union of Catholic Mothers, the Catholic Women's League and the Knights of St Columba.
The problem of rising levels of personal debt is the subject of continuing research by the bishops' conference, and a further paper on it is likely to be produced.
The salaries of top business people are discussed in the paper, which notes that some directors earn more than El million a year. "Given the sense of success which directors enjoy, the free cars and free private medical insurance, there is a case for calling for the exercise of personal responsibility and voluntary restraint," says the document.