Celebrating the common good

In October 1996, the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales published a substantial statement about Catholic Social Teaching, The Common Good and the Catholic Church’s Social Teaching,1 in the months leading to the General Election of May 1997. St Mary’s University in January organised a study day to celebrate the 25th anniversary. Ashley Beck sums up the day.

Catholic Social Teaching has often been developed through significant anniversaries of earlier teaching documents – so for the first century after Rerum Novarum important material appeared marking 40th, 60th, 80th, 90th and 100th anniversaries, and Populorum Progressio was similarly marked. This stresses development and continuity; while it is a danger to look back too much, we can learn a great deal. The Common Good was the first substantial teaching document from the bishops in this country on what was then correctly seen as a neglected area of moral teaching and has set the scene for shorter pre-election statements ever since. Some of the reactions to the statement illustrated vividly how much ignorance there was about social teaching in so many parts of the Church. As part of the MA in CST programme at St Mary’s, we were able to bring together physically in a day conference (itself an achievement nearly two years after the beginning of Covid-19 restrictions), respected authorities on social teaching (including two people who had been involved in drafting the document) and thirty or so participants, together with another thirty or so joining by Zoom. We hope in due course to publish all the papers; in this article I attempt to draw out some important points from what the speakers said.2

The Vice Chancellor of St Mary’s University, Anthony MacClaran, opened the proceedings, describing The Common Good as a ‘clarion call’ in 1996, and reminding the audience of the history and ethos of St Mary’s University in relation to Catholic teaching about social justice, having been founded in 1850 to train teachers to work in largely poor parishes.3 The first speaker, journalist Clifford Longley, had played an important role in the drafting of the document in 1996; Longley is best known in the Catholic world as the leader writer of The Tablet.4 The paper gave fascinating details about some of the personal relationships and tensions in the background of the drafting of the statement, both between himself as a journalist and other journalists (such as the previous editor of The Times, William Rees-Mogg) and among the bishops themselves; what is also striking is that, in pre-internet days, the document was put together so quickly. An achievement of the document is that it was issued as an official teaching document, with the authority of the whole Bishops’ Conference; but there had been some tensions which reflected differing levels of knowledge about the social teaching tradition, and also in relation to the issue of abortion, where there was a division between the outlook of the document and the views of the then Archbishop of Glasgow, Cardinal Thomas Winning. Something which right-wing critics of the document focused on was its support for the minimum wage, which was to be in Labour’s 1997 General Election manifesto – as Longley said: ‘Basil Hume told me later that he had a queue of Catholic bankers and investment managers knocking on his door who wanted to complain about this “economically illiterate” document’.

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