A week ago Cardinal Keith O’Brien, Britain’s senior Catholic cleric,delivered the kind of courageous message Anglican prelates tend to save until their retirement.
He referred to same-sex marriage as a ‘grotesque subversion of a universally accepted human right’, adding that Dave’s chosen re-election stratagem would ‘shame the United Kingdom in the eyes of the world’. It represents, he said, ‘an attempt to redefine marriage for the whole of society at the behest of a small minority of activists’.
Truer words have seldom been spoken. And the man who spoke them is qualified to do so: marriage being an ancient Christian sacrament, His Eminence was clearly staying within his remit. It is part of his job to comment on any moral choice we face, and such a choice is discernible behind everything in life.
Economic decisions, for example, can – or rather should – never be amoral. Whenever they are, they backfire not only on morality but also on the economy. The present state of the economy was caused precisely by divorcing economics from morality, be that on the part of our governments, financial institutions or indeed us, the public.
But while morality should be an integral part of economic policy, it can’t be the only part. Moral decisions must be taken side by side with purely technical ones, and a true test of statesmanship is the ability to make sure the two aren’t in conflict. Hence a Christian, and especially a clergyman, should refrain from comments on the economy unless he is able to show that Christian moral goals can coexist with successful economic policies.
Cardinal O’Brien’s comments on the economy show that he simply doesn’t understand how Christianity relates to the economy. His Eminence has attacked Dave’s economic policy (and God knows it’s eminently attackable) at just about its sole strong point: opposition to the EU’s tax on financial transactions.
‘I am saying to the prime minister, look, don’t just protect your very rich colleagues in the financial industry, consider the moral obligation to help the poor of our country,’ declares the cardinal. With all humility and respect, this is nonsense. Not the commitment to helping the poor – this is basic Christianity. What is nonsensical is the cardinal’s belief that this or any other tax will serve this purpose. In fact, it’ll achieve exactly the opposite.
His Eminence correctly counts among the poor, or rather the poorer, those pensioners whom the current crisis has robbed of their life’s savings. However, what little money is still left in their pension funds is at the mercy of exactly the kind of transactions the economically illiterate cardinal wishes to tax and thereby hurt. This is just one specific example of his insufficient grasp of economic realities. But the cardinal’s real problem is deeper than that.
While, as we know, the poor will always be with us, the success of an economy is measured by how few of the poor still remain. The briefest of glances at any successful modern economy will provide irrefutable proof that it’s not wealth redistribution but wealth generation that reduces poverty. And the two are at odds: the more redistribution, the less growth. This stands to reason: a free-market economy is not a cake that’s baked to a set zero-sum size, and anyone grabbing a large slice will consign everyone else to smaller ones. A dynamic economy doesn’t stay the same size; it grows.
In such economies it’s hard, though not quite impossible, to become rich without helping others to stop being poor. One has to admit sorrowfully that the pre-Christian Chinese understood this simple give-and-take of economics much better than His Eminence does. ‘When the rich lose their money, the poor starve,’ they said, and if modern history proves anything at all, it’s this folksy wisdom.
One hears in the cardinal’s pronouncements the echoes of the harebrained belief that Christianity has much in common with socialism, which is usually held by those who love the latter and hated the former. If they understood either, they’d realise that in essence Christianity isn’t just different from socialism but opposite to it. Good works, of which charity takes pride of place, serve not just a material purpose but above all a spiritual one. A gift generously offered and humbly received doesn’t just improve the recipient’s finances – it elevates both parties’ souls and moves them a tiny step closer to salvation.
Socialism, on the other hand, is by definition materialist and therefore atheist. Its objective isn’t salvation but ‘happiness’, understood in the vulgar modern way. Socialism makes recipients of state handouts not grateful but resentful. And it makes the overtaxed rich run away, leaving the economy so much worse off and the poor so much more numerous.
Nor will His Eminence find many examples of socialist countries where Christianity has thrived. I, on the other hand, could cite dozens where Christians have been persecuted. Those same lands have also multiplied poverty by orders of magnitude, compared to countries where it was understood that the great success of the few produces a moderate success of the many.
‘My kingdom is not of this world,’ said that famous proto-conservative, meaning that his kingdom was higher than this world. But Christ also showed in his own person that the two kingdoms are in fact one. This is the essence of the Christian doctrine, a general guide as it were. However, figuring out the details of how the two worlds interact is no easy matter. By his ill-judged pronouncements Cardinal O’Brien has shown just how difficult it is.