The pre-election document produced by the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales, Choosing the Common Good, has been described by the BBC as an “attack on British society’s ‘lack of trust’”.
The BBC says the document accuses British society of being “unneighbourly”. The effect of the BBC report is to portray the bishops as a bunch of scolds, railing against modern society and its selfish ways.
This is a shame, because the document actually accentuates the positive aspects of British society.
As a matter of fact, in its celebration of the charitable response of ordinary British people to the Indian Ocean tsunami and the Haitian earthquake, it is a sight more positive than most media reports, which are usually far more negative.
Overall, Choosing the Common Good is a measured document. While it is not naïve about the problems of contemporary society, such as family breakdown or the collapse of trust in institutions such as Parliament and the banks, neither does it paint a completely black picture of society as a whole.
Instead, it seeks to chart a way out of the various crises engulfing British society, identifying the promotion of virtue as the key to finding a way to restore values to British public life.
The practice of virtue, the document says, “helps to shape us as people.”
It continues “The virtues form us as moral agents, so that we do what is right and honourable for no other reason than that it is right and honourable, irrespective of reward and regardless of what we are legally obliged to do.”
“In place of virtue we have seen an expansion of regulation. A society that is held together just by compliance to rules is inherently fragile, open to further abuses which will be met by a further expansion of regulation. This cannot be enough.”
It doesn’t take much to see how a more virtuous society would have found it easier to avoid both the economic and political crises that have bedevilled British society over the past 18 months.
But the promotion of virtue might seem like a rather amorphous aim for a pre-election document. After all, politicians are not well-placed to begin to promote virtue, especially now.
But the bishops manage to hint at a number of ways that politicians can at least make some contribution to the building up of virtue.
The first is by promoting and assisting the family, especially through marriage. As the bishops usefully point out, the family is “”the first school of life and love, where the capacity to relate to others, to develop moral character, is founded”.
In other words, the family is the school of virtue. The stronger and more united the family, the better formed the child, at least on average. So by supporting the family by practical means, and by allowing the family a wide measure of independence, politicians would be indirectly assisting the growth of a virtuous society.
The second means by which politicians could promote virtue, the bishops suggest, is by giving more freedom to religious bodies. In particular, it points out that Christian Churches “have long contributed to the promotion of the common good, adding that “other faith communities also demonstrate this contribution to the common good. This role of faith should be clearly recognised”.
The document also points out that faith communities “have a distinctive and active role in building up a society which fosters the flourishing of all” and are one of the main pillars of support for the common good”. The fact that a disproportionate amount of charitable giving and volunteer work is done by people of faith is a testament to this.
The document’s emphasis on virtue is actually not as old-fashioned and out-of-place as it seems. The left-of-centre think tank, Demos, recently produced a document on the role of virtue and how virtuous traits like prudence and temperance can help reduce poverty. David Cameron echoed this sentiment in a recent speech hosted by Demos. Is a band-wagon starting to roll?