It is good to know that the Bishops of England and Wales are to distribute a letter to all parishes this weekend about the forthcoming election, and that this document gives a list of suggested questions that we, the voting public, should put to our candidates.
Bishop Egan of Portsmouth has already sent out a pastoral letter on the election, again with questions that Catholics should put to the candidates. The Anglican Bishops sent out their pre-election pastoral last week. The National Secular Society has taken note of this, with a predictable reaction.
For once the NSS is completely wrong. It should welcome a contribution by the Anglican bishops, and indeed by all religious leaders, whatever faith group they come from. This is not because religious people have a contribution to make that is more intrinsically valuable in their own eyes than that of unbelievers, but rather it is because our political conversation needs participants if it is to flourish. Moreover, these contributions need to be varied, if we are to avoid the feeling that we are in some sort of echo chamber, where everyone says the same thing.
If the intervention of the Bishops, both Catholic and Anglican, were to be criticised, it would surely be along the lines that their interventions had become stale and secularised. This was the main reason that the most high profile Anglican intervention in social and political matters, Faith in the City, published back in 1985, became so reviled. It was disliked, not because people thought it too religious, but because they did not think it religious enough. In other words, the report seemed to be a socialist anti-Thatcherite tract, written by people who had little grounding in faith at all, and were intent purely on bashing the government. It has to be said that this line of criticism was most unfair, made by many who had not read the report, and many who really did not see the nexus between faith and social action.
But the truth remains: in commenting on social and political matters, the challenge for religious people is always to link the Gospel to real life, and to be able to say something fresh and original, rather than to say something that sounds like a pale imitation of one political position or other.
It is at this point that I must admit to missing Saint John Paul II a great deal. Given his background, coming to maturity in occupied Poland, and living under Nazi oppression, he had one foundational insight of enormous value: every political and social project must be built on a rock solid appreciation of the transcendent worth of the individual, and nothing can replace this one and only foundation. This was the reason behind his implacable opposition to abortion, euthanasia, contraception and sexual promiscuity. All of these things (and not just these things alone) obscure the dignity of the individual person. And without the acknowledgement of the value of the individual there can be no healthy society.
At present the Church is trying to make a meaningful contribution not just in the United Kingdom’s election, but also in crisis-torn Venezuela, and war-wracked Congo. In addition the Church has been involved, though much more marginally, in the continuing search for a solution to the wars in Syria and Iraq. Sadly, in some of the latter cases, I don’t feel I have been hearing the John Paul message loud and clear as once I did. We need to return to the teaching of the Saint!
In Britain, where the situation is far less dramatic, the teaching of the Saint is equally important. Consider the question of prison reform, which is always with us. Can we say that the good of the person, and the common good of society, is at the heart of our vision for prisons? In that case why do so many re-offend? Again, what underpins our policy on mental health? There are some of the questions that we need to put in order to renew our political conversation, and stop the United Kingdom becoming a zombie democracy. I am glad the Bishops are pointing us towards the questions we should be asking.