THE TABLET THE I NTERNATIONAL CATHOLIC WEEKLY
Founded in 1840
NEED FOR A DIFFERENT LANGUAGE
Asuccession of former Commissioners of the Metropolitan Police have been telling the Leveson Inquiry how essential it was that they developed close relations with national newspaper journalists. Lord Justice Leveson did not seem overly impressed. A police force fixated on its public relations image stands at one end of a spectrum, at the other end of which, it is not unfair to say, stands the Catholic Church.
Judging from its recent performance, its indifference to how it is publicly perceived is boundless. Clearly both the police and the Church need to move from opposite directions towards a middle position, where relations with the public are treated seriously, but not obsessively, out of a genuine sense of respect.
Cardinal Keith O’Brien’s original excursion into the media, with an article on gay marriage using words like “grotesque”, “madness” and “staggering arrogance”, could have driven anyone who did not fully agree with him into the opposite camp. It was a public-relations catastrophe – a fact that the Catholic Church south of the border seemed immediately to recognise.
In an apparent attempt at damage limitation, the Archbishops of Westminster and Southwark circulated a pastoral letter to be read in churches last Sunday. Though its language was measured, it seems to have provoked a significant backlash among parishioners as we report in our news columns today. It was represented in the secular media not as a distancing exercise from the O’Brien outburst but as piling further pressure on the Government – in other words, as an amen to Cardinal O’Brien’s extreme language. That is how many ordinary clergy and people appear to have understood it. They were upset and embarrassed.
In their letter, the archbishops exalted marriage as a bedrock of society. This merely made the exclusion of gay people from it seem all the more gratuitous. Any intended repudiation of the O’Brien approach was too oblique to be noticed – the archbishops did not appeal for the use of temperate language, for instance, nor did they dispute Cardinal O’Brien’s assertion that civil partnerships “are harmful to the physical, mental and spiritual well-being of those involved”, nor his misrepresentation of the right to marry under human-rights legislation.
Archbishop Vincent Nichols in particular has led the way in a more open and sympathetic treatment of homosexuality within the Catholic Church. He has repeated his support for the so-called Soho gay Masses; he reissued Cardinal Hume’s bold affirmation that love between two people, whether of the same or opposite sex, should be treasured and respected; he has talked positively of civil partnerships as strengthening commitment. But in the fallout from Cardinal O’Brien’s intransigent words, it was not safe to assume people would remember any of that. Then, if ever, it needed saying again.
To operate in the public square, the Catholic Church has to try to influence social policy by appealing to public opinion with reasoned argument, fully respectful of those who disagree. Indeed, there are many compelling issues on which its voice needs to be heard, especially at a time when government policies are driving up unemployment and poverty. Professional expertise at managing the media needs to be available to help it. Churchmen and journalists are very different creatures. A mediator who understands both sides could, without going to the opposite extreme, have avoided this unfortunate episode.
LESSONS FOR BUSINESS
Sir Terry Leahy, the Catholic entrepreneur and former head of Tesco, is the latest business leader to express concern that society is losing sight of the need for wealth creation. Given that the market economy contributed so decisively to the 2008 global crisis, this is not surprising.
Nor will the negative perception of business have been helped by the reported remarks of Greg Smith, who, on resigning as a Goldman Sachs director, said that at one time its culture had revolved around “teamwork, integrity, a spirit of humility, and doing right by our clients”, but added: “I see virtually no trace of the culture that made me love working for this firm.”
Something has gone wrong. Sir Terry’s fear is that the distrust of business will lead to greater regulation to prevent it behaving irresponsibly, thereby stifling enterprise and growth. But some would say Tesco’s own aggressive philosophy of expansion has contributed to the present climate, and that growth should never be sought without regard for the human cost.
There is confusion and uncertainty among economists about what rules and principles should now govern business and commerce, not least since the shock discovery that free-market systems are not after all self-correcting. This may be one of those rare moments of truth, when searching questions will receive serious attention rather than be brushed aside.
The series of lectures of which The Tablet has been carrying edited versions for the past six weeks, on the theme of Catholic social thought – the academic handmaiden of Catholic Social Teaching – has drawn attention to much fresh thinking in this area, not least on the importance of culture. The point is not only that business people should not be motivated by pure greed – a popular conception – nor that they must be tied down by regulation to stop them behaving badly, but that the internal value system of a company, including who gets rewarded, is vital to that company’s sense of responsibility to all its stakeholders. That internal culture, as well as the law, needs to make it clear that the maximisation of shareholder value is not the only thing that matters. Indeed, the heart of the problem is the treatment of a business as nothing more than a short-term financial asset to be milked, mortgaged or traded, instead of treating it as a genuine creator, via real employees doing real work, of some of the real wealth that the world needs.
The issue is not so much capitalism per se but the “financialisation” of capitalism – as the 2009 papal encyclical Caritas in Veritate made clear. It is primarily the shift of financial power from the Terry Leahys of this world to the Goldman Sachses that has undermined public trust in business. The stock of social capital has been drained, the common good depleted.
The global economy has expanded enormously in the last 20 years thanks to human ingenuity harnessed to market forces, and the proportion of desperately poor people in the world, despite population growth, has halved. But the economic engine behind this phenomenal relief of suffering and hardship has been allowed to falter. Only a revival of the sense of moral purpose behind the world economic system can reverse that. Catholic Social Teaching could be the idea whose time has come.
2 | THE TABLET | 17 March 2012