- Conscience and the Commons
Following his election as Lib Dem leader, Tim Farron was grilled by the media about his beliefs as an evangelical Christian. Has the focus on faith, which began with Tony Blair, reached the point where it is harder than ever to hold religious beliefs and play an active role in political life?
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Catholic Social Thought and Practice (CSTP) addresses a wide field, including issues well beyond the competence of an economist. Yet global economic issues impinge on most of the dimensions of CSTP and it is therefore appropriate that the founders of the St Hilda Chair, located within the Centre for Catholic Studies at Durham University, have chosen an economist as its first holder.
Since material provision is such an important part of life, economic justice is a key concern of CSTP. No society can be considered just, which does not care for and respect the poor, and it is through labour with dignity in the service of others that most people find their fulfilment. The private ownership of property is an important foundation of personal freedom and the restraint of tyranny, yet it carries a social mortgage. The limits of the rights of property must be judged against the criterion of the common good, including the integrity of creation.
The role of the academic here is first to articulate CSTP in the language of social and political science so that connections can be made and meanings clarified. For CSTP to engage requires that it can be understood by others. While a Catholic methodology holds to the truth of the teaching of the magisterium, truth has no fear of rational enquiry. Yet it must be recognised that much of social science is inimical to the underlying premises of CSTP and this post is not for the faint-hearted.
The St Hilda Chair offers the opportunity to define a research programme and build a team capable of fulfilling it over the long term. A particular problem and area for research is economics itself. As papal and Vatican documents make clear, ‘economic liberalism’ is an ideology, no less than Marxism, and the line between ideology and theory is sometimes hard to discern. Apart from theory, there are many practical issues addressed by CSTP which require rigorous investigation and analysis, such as the reform of the international monetary, financial and trading systems, the strengths and weaknesses of grassroots movements like co-operation and Fair Trade, and the rights and responsibilities of corporate enterprise and its shareholders, on the one hand, and organised labour on the other.
The St Hilda Chair is neither an episcopal cathedra nor a seat in Parliament. Nor does the Centre for Catholic Studies espouse a particular political agenda. Our job is to read, think, write and teach, while facing outwards to serve both the Church, in its widest sense, and society as a whole. If we understand ourselves and the world better, there is hope that we can contribute to making it better.
Dr Mark Hayes is the first St Hilda Chair in Catholic Social Thought and Practice at Durham University. He is also an economics lecturer and fellow at Robinson College, Cambridge.