Good sense and a few slip-ups in the bishops’ election advice

'The bishops’ 2015 letter the letter is of use to all voters – not just Catholics – in casting their votes this May' (PA)

The Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales have published their letter to Catholics offering guidance on how to vote in the general election.

Conservative Catholics often wait with bated breath for the bishops to speak before general elections. They remember the mammoth Common Good and Catholic Social Teaching published in 1996 and largely seen as Cardinal Hume’s preference for Tony Blair and the dawn of New Labour.

They also call to mind Vote for the Common Good in 2001, Taxation for the Common Good in 2004 and Choosing the Common Good in 2010, passages from which did more than hint at the left-leaning inclinations of the hierarchy.

This year’s offering drops the mention of the common good from the title, itself a welcome relief as there are at least three other key principles of Catholic social teaching: human dignity, solidarity and subsidiarity. To the chagrin of many, the last concept has been quietly relegated in some previous documents, and the common good cheaply elided with the notion of solidarity.

The bishops’ 2015 letter reminds the reader that it is a moral obligation on all voters to exercise their franchise, that the Election cuts across a range of issues but that some, like the dignity and value of human life and flourishing, are central to the decision-making process.

The themes identified by the bishops include the meat-and-drink of Christian politics: respecting life, supporting marriage and family life, alleviating poverty, educating the good of all, building communities and “caring for the world”.

There are sensible pointers to assessing candidates in the text. There are particularly strong and welcome statements on Catholic education and religious freedom, and the bishops recognise that the future of Europe is caught in the inexorable tension between the bipoles of subsidiarity and solidarity.

There are some slip-ups, however.

The bishops refer, for instance, to a “robust National Health Service” whereas many Catholics in good faith would prefer a robust health system on which we can all rely.

In the context of a superficially balanced paragraph on immigration which recognises the need for fair regulation, the case for immigration is explained as a product of violence and conflict and the benefits of workers and students from overseas. The document fails to acknowledge the real, practical difficulties of immigration but baldly warns against “a great danger of blaming immigrants for the ills of society”.

The statement that marriage is a loving and faithful relationship between a man and a women (“the basic building block of society”) is qualified by the recognition that “families are more diverse and fragile than they were and there are many families of all kinds where love and commitment are found.” This statement is potentially a hostage to fortune that may need further clarification.

Alongside a familiar call for markets to be the servants rather than masters of people, the private sector is seen as having a “vital role” in building communities. It is a mystery and a disappointment the bishops do not see the benefits of the free market explicitly extended to international development. The question of welfare is ducked.

There is a common problem across the bishops’ political pronouncements over the past 18 years. They all too often lend themselves to being interpreted as calling for state action to tackle amorphous matters such ‘social injustice’, a heavily-contested term, without recognising that civil society and a virtuous citizenry voluntarily shoulders the vast weight of tackling such problems.

Nonetheless, the letter is of use to all voters – not just Catholics – in casting their votes this May.