Review article: Preaching to Middle England

Ashley Beck

How far does Catholic Social Teaching help us react to the UK leaving the European Union? Here Ashley Beck looks at the teaching and at a recent novel about contemporary Britain. He is Assistant Priest of Beckenham in south London, Programme Director of the Foundation Degree in Pastoral Ministry and the MA in Catholic Social Teaching at St Mary’s University, Twickenham and President of the Catholic Theological Association.

At the beginning of February the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, said at a press conference he was giving with the Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar ‘I’ve been wondering what the special place in hell looks like for those who promoted Brexit without even a sketch of a plan how to carry it [out] safely’.1

Tusk is Polish, from Gdansk, a member of the Kashubian minority in Poland; he is familiar, like many from a Catholic background, with religious language about hell. His comments enable me at the beginning of this article to clarify some things about the language we use in relation to the withdrawal of the UK from the European Union this month.

Theologians and others in the churches have a tradition of using the language of good and evil, and indeed of hell, in relation to moral acts – you see it in the Scriptures and the whole Christian theological tradition. If we claim that an act is profoundly morally flawed we are entitled to describe it as evil or wicked: such language is common in the prophetic tradition in the Old Testament. This doesn’t mean that the person who commits the act is evil: moral theology is traditionally reluctant to apply the adjective to a person at all, since it implies something inherent which cannot be changed. When the tabloid press suggests that those who commit serious acts are evil, they suggest that such a person cannot be converted or redeemed, contrary to Christian teaching. Tusk’s language about hell doesn’t suggest that those he mentions are evil; he is simply warning, perhaps ironically, about eternal punishment in the tradition of Dante, G.B. Shaw and Terry Pratchett.

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