There are few things that are predictable in politics, but one certainty is that change invariably comes from where it’s expected least. Legislators are only too well aware that for all their best efforts and carefully prepared presentations, it’s the random curveball that does the damage.
You could hardly find a better example of this than the Gary Lineker tweet debacle – despite all the recent outrage and protests over deporting refugees to Rwanda, and the launch of the government’s appalling ‘stop the boats’ campaign, it was a random online comment from a sports presenter that galvanised and divided public opinion and sent legislators, political commentators and journalists scattering in all directions.
At the heart of this problem is the search for zeitgeist, the conviction that there is an underlying, overwhelming and predictable public response to any given dilemma. Margaret Thatcher didn’t think the introduction of the Poll Tax was any big deal, and David Cameron thought he’d nailed it when he allowed the British public to have a vote on Brexit, only to learn to his horror that actually we weren’t all wedded to the concept of a unified Europe. An identical catastrophe befell the SNP in 2014 when they somehow convinced themselves that the Scottish independence referendum would finally deliver a liberated nation.
Unfortunately the evolution of British – and much of global – politics has been based on formulating economic and social policies moulded as much by what it’s believed the voting public will support, as it is by a conviction that any policy is just and right. Whilst listening to the concerns and wishes your voters is both proper and commendable, the social media age we’re emerging from has made it all but impossible to discern what anyone thinks about almost anything.
More worrying is the trend towards ‘herding’, the online human behaviour that sees individuals unexpectedly and often irrationally supporting a cause or action, simply because its ‘trending’ on social media. We’ve seen this phenomenon a lot in recent decades in fundamentalist cultures that have de facto religious obedience but its increase in western democracies is worrying, as it’s in danger of making countries ungovernable and open to extremism. In a sense this kind of narrative is exactly what Gary Lineker was referring too – and that’s why his remark about ‘the language of 1930s Germany’ touched such a nerve.
We may have smiled in wry amusement at the political antics of Donald Trump and his motley supporters storming the Capitol building, but far darker things have been happening in Hungary with Viktor Alban and his Fidesz party, in France with Marine Le Pen’s National Rally, in Stockholm with the neo-Nazi Sweden Democrats and in Rome with Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy movement.
We’ve often made the dangerous assumption that British pragmatism, independent thinking and the Christian roots of our society will prevent such far-right ideologies from ever gaining traction here in the UK, but the continued profound mismanagement of our political and economic affairs is leaving the door wide open. That’s why it’s critical that we Catholics present not only our social narratives, but engage vigorously with the moral vacuum that’s increasingly opening up in British society.
As far back as 1981, Pope Leo XIII called on Catholics to engage this debate, in his groundbreaking encyclical Rerum Novarum. Across the early 20th century this led to the formation of numerous Catholic political movements, mainly promoting a Christian democratic ideology. In more recent times this Catholic social narrative has become noticeably more diluted, with Catholic theologians preferring to lay out the arguments and concerns, but distancing themselves distinctly from the grubby machinations of secular politics.
When the social and economic order is stable this makes sound sense, but we’re now moving into a period of profound economic hardship, political uncertainty and moral upheaval where it simply won’t be sufficient to present the Catholic lay community with the contrary philosophical and theological arguments, conclude with an instruction for people to make up their own minds and come to their own decisions. In times of turmoil, the Catholic laity look to our Church not just for guidance, but for direction.
With that exactly in mind, The Secretary General of the Commission of Catholic Episcopal Conferences of the European Union (COMECE), Fr Manuel Barrios Prieto, has this week lauded the new document Love the Stranger, which has been produced by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England & Wales (CBCEW).
Released on Monday in response to the ongoing debate about the treatment of migrants and refugees, Fr Prieto says the document: “is not a mere compilation of principles of the Social Doctrine of the Church on the matter, but a reflection on how these principles should be applied to the current challenges faced by our states and societies.”
Fr Prieto goes on to reflect the essence of the Bishops’ document: “An exacerbated nationalism that goes beyond the legitimate love for one’s homeland can lead to not acknowledging the common humanity that we all share.
“A basic pilar of the Christian concept of the human person is that it has being created by God in “his image and likeness”, as imago Dei, and therefore has an inalienable dignity,” says Fr Prieto.
“This is not just a rhetorical expression, but an axiomatic theological and moral principle. No matter in which circumstances a person is, the reality of the unalienable dignity of each person should inspire and guide our actions towards those who are our already in our cities and villages, but also to the newcomers.”
Love the Stranger has been co-authored by Bishop Declan Lang, Chair of the Department of International Affairs at CBCEW and Bishop Paul McAleenan, Lead Bishop for Migrants and Refugees. For years, the England and Wales Episcopal Conference has played a leading role in the Catholic Church on migration issues, including preventing and combating trafficking of human beings, in a decisive and creative way, even beyond its geographical boundaries. The incredible work achieved by the Santa Marta Group, led by His Excellency Cardinal Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster, has also ensured that legislators have been reminded the need for proper and dignified treatment of ‘the stranger in our midst’.
Just as crucially, Love the Stranger says that treating newcomers with dignity is not just a matter for our politicians, but for each of us as well. In this age where every individual is unavoidably immersed in the daily torrent of online conversation and political narratives “It is incumbent on all individuals and institutions to welcome those who come to our country.”
“Responsibility for promoting the common good nevertheless goes much further than the public policy arena, it is the obligation of us all,” the document states.
“The arrival of people from elsewhere enriches our community in so many ways but, even where it brings economic pressures, we should recognise that the goods of the world do not belong only to those born in richer countries. People have a right to seek a fulfilled life outside their homeland, especially if they are unable to live in dignity there.”
This statement is significant, and politically so, as it moves our obligations beyond providing sanctuary for the desperate, to include fulfilment for the disadvantaged. That’s a call that won’t sit easily with many UK citizens, and particularly many of our current politicians, who’ve been brought up unduly fixated with personal achievement, the accumulation of individual wealth and the supposed ‘right’ to keep what one has acquired.
In many respects this points to the most important fundamental social and moral change that we need to embrace right now, that in its turn could resolve almost all of our economic and social problems – love of one’s neighbour, that distinctly Catholic concept of “having a little less, so that others can have a little more.” Sadly it tends to be the case that when life gets difficult, society becomes more divisive – as those with wealth and security fight ever harder to retain what they have, and only those with little or nothing understand what is being asked of them.
The migrants and refuges issue isn’t going to go away any time soon, but will increasingly become a test of our humanity and charity. If we aren’t careful and act with love, it may also become the ultimate test of our democracy.
Joseph Kelly is a Catholic writer and political theologian
Link to LOVE THE STRANGER document: