Caring for the poor is natural Catholic territory – let’s not give it up

Oscar Romero - hero to the poor

The question of poverty deserves to get a wider airing than it does. So it is good to see that Father Timothy Radcliffe devoted his recent Romero Lecture to the subject, as reported in this paper. 

Are the poor hated in this country? They are certainly perceived as a problem that needs a solution, and there is a rising sense that the welfare state is close to breaking point, thanks to the ever-rising cost of benefits. That the welfare state as presently constituted is not working and needs reform ought to be a position that all reasonable people could share, but, alas, discussion about the welfare state has degenerated into a less that reasoned discussion about “scroungers” and “benefit tourism”. The rich, and indeed those who are not particularly rich as well, feel themselves under siege, having to pay for what seems to be an ever-increasing benefits bill. Are the poor hated in this country? Well, yes: if to be regarded as a nuisance, to be feared and to be despised as scroungers is to be hated, then they are hated.

Fr Radcliffe also mentions the way the media portray the poor, or “chavs” as they are usually called, and here he follows the line of the well-known commentator Owen Jones. Sadly, it is true that unemployed working class people are stereotyped as pretty undesirable in our culture. They are the butt of jokes, but behind these jokes lies the assumption that we would all be better off without them.

And have you noticed that there are virtually no respected public figures of working class origin? Who speaks for the workers nowadays, ever since Tony Blair invented New Labour, and ever since the Conservative party turned its back on Basildon and Romford?

There was a time when the working class was idealised. The Old Etonian George Orwell wrote lyrically about the miners, just as he did about the workers’ militias that fought in Spain. Moreover, Orwell did actually share in the experiences of the working classes in the 1930’s. Hardly anyone nowadays writes about working class experiences from the perspective of a working class life. Hardly anyone articulates what that experience must be like.

Orwell loathed the Catholic Church, but even he, in, I think, Keep the Aspidistra Flying (that extraordinary account of lower middle class poverty), admits that the Church cares about “the poor, as they call them, by which they mean the working class”. (The words are given by the character Ravelston, if memory serves.) Indeed, back in the thirties many leading Catholics were concerned about poverty and were proponents of the doctrine of distributionism. It is to be remembered that this is part of our tradition.

So, when Owen Jones talks about the demonisation of the working class, Catholics should listen with interest and concern. And when politicians talk about the trend to ever lower pay, we should also listen. Of course that is the natural territory of people like Owen Jones, a Left-wing firebrand, and Ed Miliband, a north London socialist intellectual. But it is our natural territory as well. Let’s not give it up.