08 February 2022, The Tablet

Dr Philip Booth explains new bishops' conference role

Dr Philip Booth explains new bishops' conference role

Cartoon by Jonathan Pugh

Dr Philip Booth, the new head of research and policy for the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, has stated that his role is advisory and his own views have little relevance to how he will do his job.

Dr Booth, currently director of the Vinson Centre at the University of Buckingham and Professor of Economics at St Mary’s University, Twickenham, is the first appointment to the role of director of research and policy for the bishops since a staff reorganisation in 2020.

Speaking to The Tablet, Dr Booth said: “It is a very specific job. I will head the team working to provide briefings for the conference in the various areas where the bishops may want to develop a policy, such as in the recent case of church openings or on legal issues such as assisted dying.” He said that any statements will be limited to topics where the conference is unanimous.

Dr Booth has a substantial academic record in the study of Catholic Social Teaching and its interaction with public finances and runs the Catholic Social Thought website. He has previously worked as an advisor to the Bank of England on financial stability and is a senior academic fellow at the free-market Institute of Economic Affairs. He has consistently argued for the role of the market economy in Catholic Social Teaching and has criticised those who interpret Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis’s encyclical on “social friendship”, as an attack on capitalism.

However, he insisted that these views would have little relevance to his new role, comparing it to his advisory capacity at the Bank of England.  “I think [the bishops] have seen from my scholarly record that I am dispassionate on the various matters they may wish to address.  They wanted somebody with a record of managing a research team.” He added that it was “not my place” to anticipate or influence what the bishops may comment on, but said that the prudential economic issues which he has studied “don’t come up very much”.

Nonetheless, some will see his views in these areas – particularly social security – as relevant to the post. Mainstream ideas of Catholic Social Teaching, such as those expressed in the 1997 Common Good document, generally encourage state intervention for basic services, but he has in the past questioned whether this “actually undermines the development and flourishing of the human person” and more recently disputed claims “that our imperfectability should lead us to conclude that government regulation of the economy is necessary to rectify the impact of sinful acts”.

The research and policy team, composed of half-a-dozen experts in various fields such as bioethics and ecumenism, is a relatively new creation for the conference. It was the product of a reorganisation of staff in 2020 by the assistant general secretary Greg Pope, the former Labour MP, who led the research team until the permanent appointment. Dr Booth will work three days a week for the Bishops’ Conference, and will continue to teach at St Mary’s.

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