Catholics not only have a right to try to transform society, we have a divine mandate. We are constantly told, sometimes by clerics, that we should keep our opinions to ourselves – that we should erect a wall between our faith and our politics. But Jesus did not die quietly or behind closed doors. The Church did not spread his message through private coffee mornings. And the Christian commandment to love our fellow man does not stop at being charitable.
Telling people the truth is an act of love. Failing to do it is a sin of omission. So the question isn’t “Should we try to change our communities?” but “How should we go about it?” The answer is with fearless honesty.
Christianity is tough and uncompromising. The modern notion of the Jesus who loves without asking for anything in return, the Jesus who tolerates, the Jesus of the therapeutic encounter, runs totally contrary to the Jesus of the Gospels. In Matthew, he says: “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword … Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.”
Catholics can conclude two things from this passage. First, that we are called to be outspoken social critics. Second, that our witness will personally cost us dear. In fact, I suspect that the true measure of how accurate our criticisms of society are will be how painfully we are punished for making them.
So, what should we be criticising? Let’s start with the material problems facing society, just as Jesus condemned the worship of money.
No one should want to bury capitalism. No economic system in history has done more to create wealth and eliminate poverty. But while markets can undeniably serve people, sometimes the needs of people are sacrificed to serve a volatile free-market system that seeks to maximise profit. Pope Francis, for example, has spoken movingly about the impact of environmental decay upon developing countries: a kind of new colonial oppression, an extraction of resources and wealth that leaves deserts and trash heaps behind it.
Here in the West, people voted for Trump and Brexit for perfectly rational reasons. The death of manufacturing – caused by technological change and sending jobs overseas where the costs of production are lower – has decimated communities. The credit crunch impoverished a generation. In the United States there has been a surge in reliance upon food stamps; here in Britain, upon the food bank. Regardless of whether you think it’s fair to identify mass migration as part of this bleak picture, it cannot be denied that it goes hand in glove with the emergence of parallel economies in which poorer members of society work part-time for low pay, while the upper middle class enjoys the benefits of cheap labour. Inequality is increasingly recognised as a measure of failure.
Most people know this; lots of people are talking about it. You will easily make friends on the activist Left if you tell them you are angry about it. But what modern society seems curiously blind to – or too afraid to admit – is the moral rot at the heart of all of this. The role of human free will, the way we destroy ourselves willingly, and the way, so often, we choose to destroy those we claim to love.
Free will is a reality. Murder is illegal in Britain; but still people do it. And likewise, no one is compelled by any law to underpay their workers and award themselves a huge bank balance; but still they do it. No one is forced to be racist, to pollute the waters or build houses for the rich rather than the poor – they choose to do these things. And this is a crisis of spirit. The socialist says the answer is greater regulation of our lives by the state. Maybe the socialist has a point, although other societies have taken that to extremes and either collapsed or else survived by brute force. The Christian has to get to the heart of the human problem. To be radical: to find the immediate origins of our challenges and the real solutions.
Let us tell society the truth. We have a crisis of the family. The latest figures show that nearly half of all babies born in modern Britain are born out of wedlock. And study after study has confirmed the impact that this has upon poverty and crime.
We have a crisis of decency. Last year, there was an average of 171 hate crimes reported per day in Britain. It is commonplace in modern politics to call your opponent unpatriotic or bigoted or evil. The President of the United States, a married man, was elected despite the fact that he joked about sexually assaulting women.
We have a crisis of relationships. People will not commit to their partners. People will not commit to their children. People are retreating into a virtual reality that, in many cases, offers fleeting friendships rather than long-term relationships – and, of course, the ridiculous, corrupting spectre of pornography. A recent parliamentary report warned that “one in five children aged 12 to 13 think that watching porn is normal behaviour, and nearly one in 10 children aged 12 to 13 are worried they might be addicted to porn”.
We have a crisis of self-worth. Mental health problems are spreading like an invisible plague. NHS Digital has said that the number of young people admitted to hospital with a diagnosis of anxiety has tripled over the past five years.
We have a crisis of identity. According to a recent survey commissioned by the feminist Fawcett Society, half of Britons aged 18 to 34 believe that gender is not binary. Something as essential to our identity – arguably the rock upon which our sense of personhood is build – is eroding in a sea of confusion.
We have a crisis of responsibility. More than half of Britons over 75 live alone and two–fifths of them say television is their main source of company. Where are their families? Our parents raised us; now it is our turn to take care of them. We have to do this. The longer we are living, the greater the incidence of elderly infirmity and dementia. The NHS is overcrowded, the hospices have no room, the local authorities don’t have enough money. Raise taxes to pay for things if necessary, yes. But the Catholic should also be asking: why aren’t their families taking responsibility for their own?
Failing that, we are creeping inexorably towards the legalisation – even encouragement – of euthanasia. And euthanasia is a logical end to a culture that treats human beings as units of production, and which deems them not only useless when they have finished their labour but even a burden upon the rest of us.
This is a crisis of humanity. And the statistic that sums it all up, the statistic that should outrage Catholics to their very core, is that 185,000 abortions are carried out in England and Wales every year. Even if you accept that an abortion is a woman’s legal right – even if you were to accept the proposition that backstreet abortions are a worse prospect and likely to proliferate if abortion were banned – it should still prick your conscience.
Abortion speaks to every social ill we have. Abortion is so often linked to poverty. The highest rate of repeat abortions is among black women. People with Down’s syndrome are being slowly eradicated. And there is even the outrage of gendercide: the purposeful abortion of girls purely on the basis that they are girls. Class prejudice, racial disparity, ableism, sexism: why is the Left not up in arms about this?
Catholics are sometimes accused of being disproportionately obsessed with abortion over other social problems. This isn’t true; it just stands out because it is the most radical and discomforting part of our agenda. It is Christlike not just in the sense that it is speaking up for the silent but also in that it upsets people. It is messy, awkward, politically incorrect – everything Jesus was about.
And abortion goes to the very heart of man’s capacity to sin. A society that can dispose quietly of nearly 200,000 “unwanted” children can very, very easily sack its workers, cut down its trees, lock out refugees and wage ceaseless, pointless wars.
Catholics have to speak out, to be heard. But how can we most effectively do it? Through mainstream politics? Yes, but it comes with caveats: do not compromise your principles and be prepared for disappointment.
I speak from personal experience. I began my political life as a member of the Left and for many years was an activist for the Labour Party. I eventually abandoned the party, in part because I concluded that there was a contradiction between its policies and my faith. That was a wall of separation I chose to erect between myself and mainstream politics – and it stayed standing until this year’s election. I not only voted Tory for the first time in my life but urged others to do so.
I now regret that decision. Not only because the Conservatives didn’t do nearly as well as I expected – they ran a campaign about as exciting as creosote – but also because I allowed myself to believe that one party could be the redemption of a nation.
I swallowed Theresa May’s rhetoric about Christian democracy, about creating a fairer society rooted in the values of community and faith. What did I get in return? The Government has announced a consultation on granting people the right to change their gender without a doctor’s agreement and, for those who identify as neither male nor female, to mark their birth certificate with an X. It’s not that this is a uniquely awful policy, or that there aren’t plenty of other reasons to dislike the Conservative Party, a party of big business and libertine instincts. But let’s just say that turning transgenderism from a medical issue to a lifestyle choice is the straw that broke this camel’s back.
If Catholics are to engage in politics, don’t become submerged within a party machine. I am sick and tired of being told – to my surprise – that this MP or that MP is Catholic. If I didn’t already know, then they aren’t a very good Catholic. They should run for office explicitly as a Catholic, root their politics in Catholicism, offer a Catholic analysis of our problems, explain their solutions with relation to Catholic dogma and, if there is an insurmountable contradiction between party policy and their Catholicism, resign. I am not calling for a more religious politics so much as I’m simply asking religious politicians to be a bit more religious than political.
So there is one way we can help: engage in politics without compromise. Another is to serve our Church without compromise. Our wonderful, glorious, immaculate Church – the Bride of Christ, the hope of mankind.
She is like the mother we take for granted (and every mother will tell you: “You take me for granted!”). Do we do enough for her? Enough is never enough. Do we go every Sunday? Do we confess our sins as regularly as possible? Do we pray? Do we venerate the precious sacraments? Do we really listen to what the Pope says? Are we doing enough to support our priests? And what are we doing to add to their flock?
If we want to transform our society, let us transform our Church – nurture it, help it to grow, bring it more souls. The way to do that is to live openly as a Catholic. Talk to people about it. Explain why you’re not eating meat on a Friday and what Christmas really means to you. Decorate your office space with pictures of saints. Tell people you’re going to pray for them: it will comfort the needy and irritate the blasphemous. Transform society by being openly, nakedly, a Christian to those around you, and not being frightened either by their curiosity or their hostility.
And, most of all, Catholics need to do something that has become counter-cultural in the 21st century: have as many babies as possible. Raise an army of Catholics. Send them out to fight.
That’s how we win: we throw ourselves into the battle with a courage that saves us and the people we encounter. It is a matter of living with integrity. To quote St Catherine of Siena: “If you are who you are meant to be, you will set the world on fire!”
Tim Stanley is a historian, Daily Telegraph columnist and contributing editor of the Catholic Herald. This is an edited version of a talk given at the Evangelium Conference 2017 (evangelium.co.uk)
This article first appeared in the August 18 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here