Last week archbishop now Cardinal Nichols, closely followed by 27 Anglian bishops, intervened in the debate over welfare reform. This was met with the usual boring cry of, ‘The church should stay out of politics,’ as though God’s sovereignty somehow ended at the doors of parliament.
What was more interesting were the predictable complaints from the political right that the church has gone left. What the latest intervention by the massed clerics is held to illustrate is the apparent tendency of church leaders to intervene on only one side of any economic debate and take a line which can be charitably described as soft left.
Are political and economic matters really either so clearly morally good or morally evil? Is there only one side a Christian can take?
Church leaders have few qualms about making sweeping pronouncements regarding economic matters. A few years ago we had senior English churchmen sounding like spokesmen for Occupy Wall Street. Dr Rowan Williams, then archbishop of Canterbury, wrote that ‘unimaginable wealth has been generated by equally unimaginable levels of fiction, paper transactions with no concrete outcome beyond profit for traders’. Williams added that Karl Marx had been right in his assessment of the nature of capitalism, ‘if about little else’. His counterpart in York, Dr John Sentamu, said the market took its rules of trade ‘from Alice in Wonderland’ and branded speculators who had short-sold shares ‘bank robbers and asset strippers’.
Seemingly incredibly sophisticated financial products most assuredly bring problems, they also enable reasonably efficient flows of capital, from those who have surplus funds to those who require funds, e.g. for investment in a new or growing business. They may be more complicated but they operate on the same principle as the TV programme Dragon’s Den. The outcomes from such transactions are more than ‘profit for traders’, and bring real and tangible benefits to a significant number of people, including those who gain employment in such businesses.
The recent failings of the global financial system, and they are many, do not demonstrate that the system itself is a fantasy from down the rabbit hole. It is this same system which enabled a sustained global economic expansion throughout the 1990s and into the first years of the 21st century. We did not hear church leaders then lamenting that that expansion was built on sand.
One common justification for this soft left stance is that the Bible is clearly on the side of the poor and the New Testament in particular is proto-socialist if not communist. Blithely ignoring its historical context Acts 2:42f is regularly trotted out with a quasi-fundamentalist flourish as an illustration of the church at least starting out as a communistic community sharing everything. Church leaders are said to be merely enunciating a biblical vision of economic and political reality.
As usual there is another approach to the question. Our church leaders are not sitting up conducting their evening devotions over Marx’s Capital. There are two underlying reasons why church leaders consistently hold to a redistributive economic stance – compassion and ignorance.
Clergy are profoundly influenced by the fact that they spend a great deal of their lives thinking about or in close proximity to the sheer wretchedness of poverty. Clergy, even those in leading positions, tend to have far greater personal contact with poverty than politicians. When confronted by real poverty the compassionate response, the Christian response, is to give immediate help. Thus we have church food banks, urban aid programmes and help given on an individual scale, sometimes sacrificially.
The problem arises when this laudable compassion is combined with economic ignorance. The cry of compassion against poverty can be simplistically converted into a cry of rage against wealth.
There are Christians working as professional economists, such as members of the Association of Christian Economists, who approach economics from a distinctively Christian perspective. Unfortunately, with very few exceptions most clergy are woefully ignorant of the most basic economic principles.
Our seminaries offer and our denominations require courses in all manner of useful or useless ‘outside’ disciplines; sociology, psychology, gender studies even anthropology. How many denominations require Economics 101? The result is that when even intelligent church leaders make economic statements they are not made on economic grounds but on the basis of familiarity.
Church economics operate on the redistributive principle, money is gathered in and then shared out. At its simplest the plate is passed around on a Sunday and on Monday the bills are paid. If there is not enough money to pay the bills and do the work of the church the minister stands up and puts another layer of guilt on the congregation. Clergy have a static approach to money as though it were a pie that has to be distributed, if someone is to get a larger portion someone else has to get a smaller portion.
However, outside the Occupy movement, Greens, Lib Dems, SWP and other fringe groups, the real world operates on the production principle. The amelioration of poverty requires the creation of wealth. If money is to be redistributed to those in need first of all value has to be created. We cannot help the poor by taking in each other’s washing. Unlike the clergy the entrepreneur talks of making money not collecting it.
The French Thomist philosopher Etienne Gilson pointed out the inadequacy of good intentions, ‘Our first rule of action (is) that piety is never a substitute for technique; for technique is that without which the most fervent piety is powerless to make use of nature for God’s sake.’
Our clergy make pronouncements on economics with the best of intentions, and we all know what is paved with good intentions.