Rees-Mogg, Grenfell and Catholic social teaching

The Brexit of the Johnsons and Rees-Moggs of this world will free Britain from “the manacles” of the EU. This will enable Brexit to be used to slash and burn all those pesky regulations designed to protect workers’ rights. Johnson has now left them to be discussed in the non-binding political declaration, no longer preserved by the legally binding withdrawal agreement. Rees-Mogg concurs. 

Jacob Rees-Mogg is visible as a devout Catholic, sometimes ostentatiously so. But the social teaching of his church is set squarely against this Brexit vision, since it is often regulations inspired in part by Catholic social teaching that constitute those “manacles” of the EU. 

Modern Catholic Social Teaching evolved as a Christian response to industrial poverty in the late nineteenth century. Its principles chime impeccably with liberalism. Workers have the right to solidarity with each other (collective bargaining, trade unions), whilst private property is to be respected and entrepreneurship encouraged because it creates wealth. A collaboration between capital and labour that is fair and comprehensive is essential. The State also needs to be involved. As Pope St. John Paul II put it in Centesimus Annus in 1991: “the marketplace needs to be appropriately controlled by the forces of society and by the State so as to guarantee that the basic needs of the whole of society are satisfied.” 

He also taught that the State, “has…the duty to protect the rights of all its people, and particularly of its weaker members, the workers, women and children. It can never be right for the State to shirk its obligation of working actively for the betterment of the condition of [the workers].”    

How do such principles square with the Catholicism of Rees-Mogg?  When challenged by David Oldroyd-Bolt in the Catholic Herald on how his view of Catholicism accords with its social teaching, he responded “capitalism has lifted the poor out of poverty”. He cited statistics to show that poverty has declined from 52% of the world’s population to 10.7% over the century to 2013, most recently because of the adoption of free market capitalism in China and India. He then added, “it is the capitalists who love the poor”.  Oldroyd-Bolt concluded that Rees-Mogg’s belief in the power of the market to lift the world out of poverty was absolute. Rees-Mogg also asserted that popes should not involve themselves in such political issues because it could undermine the Catholic doctrine of papal infallibility. Successive popes have clearly begged to differ.  

It is hard not to suspect that indifference or wilful ignorance lies behind Rees- Mogg’s attitude. It somehow tallies with his outrageous assertion that the victims of Grenfell Tower lacked common sense because they followed the fire brigade’s instructions. This was perilously close to suggesting that the poor are responsible for their own misfortunes. 

He has apologised profoundly. Yet the approach he now regrets taking in that interview is basically the same that he takes to unbridled capitalism. His attitude on that issue similarly shows a lack of connection with people with problems  distant from those of his privileged little world. There is a need to safeguard the rights of working people (and of everyone else) in the way that Catholic Social Teaching, the Liberal Democrats and the EU all seek to do.     

Remember Catholic Social Teaching. It might just possibly come in handy when debating with Tories on the doorstep and in hustings organised by churches.   

* John McHugo is a member of the Lib Dem Foreign Affairs Advisory Group. He is the author of Syria: A Recent History, A Concise History of Sunnis and Shi'is and A Concise History of the Arabs. He is also a trustee of the Balfour Project and a board member of CAABU, the Council for Arab British Understanding.

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14 Comments

  • chris moore 6th Nov '19 - 10:31am

    It’s worth mentioning that Jacob Rees-Mogg has not understood the epistemological limitations of Papal infallibility.

    The Pope is not infallible in ALL his pronouncements, only in those made ex cathedra.

    Such pronouncements are rarely made and, of course, always debated and cleared with intellectual authorities within the Church.

    (I want to make it clear that I’m not a Catholic or, indeed. religious.)

  • “Workers have the right to solidarity with each other (collective bargaining, trade unions), whilst private property is to be respected and entrepreneurship encouraged because it creates wealth. A collaboration between capital and labour that is fair and comprehensive is essential. The State also needs to be involved. As Pope St. John Paul II put it in Centesimus Annus in 1991: “the marketplace needs to be appropriately controlled by the forces of society and by the State so as to guarantee that the basic needs of the whole of society are satisfied.” 

    He also taught that the State, “has…the duty to protect the rights of all its people, and particularly of its weaker members, the workers, women and children. It can never be right for the State to shirk its obligation of working actively for the betterment of the condition of [the workers].” “. – these principles are consistent with social liberalism or New Liberalism, but not with classical liberalism, which advocates for unfettered laissez-faire capitalism, survival of the fittest and Social Darwinism. And the Youtube “classical liberals” are even worse.

    https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=-0Mi_xDDzaw
    This video pretty much explains why I am not and we should not be classical liberals.

  • Rerum Novarum trod a fine line at a time when the powerful felt threatened by the emerging Marxism. But it largely missed land, like so much else of the time (lacking an understanding of the law of rent and assuming that in a capitalist era land would be less important), and continued the blasphemy that the planet we were all gifted, for free, can be owned by a few who can thereby effectively keep the rest, non-owners, in a form of slavery, extracting what they can in rent so that those non-owners can only just subsist.

    It’s time for the church to read its scriptural instruction book, from Cain’s enclosure and his punishment for it, and understand, as John Locke put it, that God “has given the earth to the children of men; given it to mankind in common”. With his Jesuit background and his warming toward liberation theology, maybe Francis can make the difference!

  • With respect, “social darwinism” was about the “survival of the fittest” entire societies. Spencer clarified what he meant – that whatever measures for supporting individuals were put in place (and he was not opposed in principle, just in measures that promoted dependency), we should not put ourselves into a position where our society as a whole was indigent and dependent on aid as that would lead to the inability of the whole society (country) to compete against more industrious societies.

  • nigel hunter 6th Nov '19 - 2:31pm

    I t is also the responsibility of the authorities to safeguard peoples lives. The problem at Glenfell Towers should never have happened if the Govnt had been dutiful to its people.

  • I’m sure Wee Mogg is a faithful follower of the Pope, just not this Pope or any Pope from the last two hundred and fifty years or so.

  • As a Catholic, a Deacon in formation and a Liberal Democrat, I often struggle with reconciling my faith and my loyalty to The Church with the Party’s policies. However, I cannot understand how people like JRM can square libertarian free market economics and nationalism with Church teaching. There are certain so called ‘Traditionalists’ (the Oratories are full of them) who appear to think being a Catholic is about everything being liturgically how it was in the 16th Century and socially pre 1832 – I assume JRM is one of the Latin Mass brigade.

  • [Rees-Mogg] responded “capitalism has lifted the poor out of poverty”. He cited statistics to show that poverty has declined from 52% of the world’s population to 10.7% over the century to 2013, most recently because of the adoption of free market capitalism in China and India

    Oh dear! Rees-Mogg evidently believes that capitalism is A THING. In reality, it is the broadest of sack terms for the ‘capitalism’ practiced in China is very different to that of Thatcher, Reagan and their political heirs, now generally referred to as neoliberals.

    The Chinese version is heavily state-directed using a mix of incentives, subsidies and regulations to steer development towards desired goals. Whether you approve of those goals or not, it has broadly worked so far although mistakes are storing up big trouble for the future IMO. Interestingly, the UK followed broadly similar policies during its own industrial revolution, heavily protectionist for instance.

    Conversely, despite the lack of supporting evidence, UK and US neoliberals typically believe that competition, working within ‘free markets’ and liberated from regulation, is a force that drives inexorably towards an optimal allocation of resources.

    Well, tell that to those who depend on food banks to feed their children; tell it to those who lack housing; tell it to those robbed of all hope. After 40 years of neoliberalism we know beyond any shadow of doubt that it doesn’t work except for a very few while the country is left unhappy, divided and weak.

    Neoliberalism depends on a fundamental deceit; it asserts markets should be ‘free’ and attacks any attempt to regulate them in the public interest but it quietly and privately creates its own self-serving de facto regulations via such devices as selective reregulation, turning a blind eye to monopolies (which privatises regulation) and financialisation (which tilts the playing field).

    In religious terms (I am CoE, not RC), neoliberalism takes greed – one of the ‘seven deadly sins’ of traditional Christian teaching and a trait of human nature that easily runs out of control to become individually and socially destructive – and elevates it to the organising principle of society.

    What could possibly go wrong? Well, as it turns out, just about everything.

  • Gordon 6th Nov ’19 – 6:38pm:
    …tell it to those who lack housing;

    Housing, specifically Planning Permission, is a state monopoly.

    ‘The housing crisis: an act of devastating economic self-harm’:
    https://capx.co/the-housing-crisis-an-act-of-devastating-economic-self-harm/

    The housing crisis has caused more damage to GDP than any event since the Black Death.

  • Jock Coats – OK, “Spencer denounced Irish land reform, compulsory education, laws to regulate safety at work, prohibition and temperance laws, tax funded libraries, and welfare reforms”. You know what, his vision actually became reality in the past, in the form of the Gilded Age. And don’t get me start to tell you about the horrors of the Gilded Age. Anyway, you can either have democracy or some Robber Baron dudes, but you cannot have both.

    If we care about the well-being of other people and the society, we should not be classical liberals.

  • Julian Tisi 7th Nov '19 - 1:58pm

    Wow, I never thought I would see such a positive article about Catholic social teaching here on LDV. As a Catholic I’m particularly impressed by chris moore who understands the concept of papal infallibility better than many Catholics!

    I think there’s some nuance that needs to be added though to the role of the state. As John McHugo says, the State must “…protect the rights of all its people, and particularly of its weaker members, the workers, women and children. It can never be right for the State to shirk its obligation of working actively for the betterment of the condition of [the workers].” However, this does not preclude any form or other of economic model to achieve such betterment. It is quite legitimate for JRM to argue that open markets bring the poor out of poverty – indeed, I would broadly concur. But he [JRM] must at the same time not be blind to where this might not work so well and where the state needs to step in.

  • Sue Sutherland 7th Nov '19 - 5:06pm

    I query whether classic liberals are liberals at all. I think a better name would be classic capitalists because their belief in Laissez Faire leads to the accumulation of wealth in a few hands which is what has happened in world economics as well as in the UK to a certain extent. What is increasingly obvious is that the trickledown theory doesn’t work and worshipping the market as the Saviour of all ills is incompatible with religious belief.
    I used to like the Latin mass because of its link to history but also because you could go to Mass in any country and understand it, so it was a link between nations. I’m no longer a Catholic and I can see the links between non Conformist churches and the Liberal idea of society. St Paul describes the way the church should work with everyone having a contribution to make according to the skills and talents they have been given. No one is more important than another.

  • Jeff – Thank you! Your comment with its approving reference to a propaganda piece by CapX, part of the ‘Tufton Street’ (see Wikipedia) group of neoliberal activists and promoters, demonstrates exactly the point I made in my earlier comment – namely the antipathy for any attempt to regulate in the public interest, Development Control in this instance, who must attempt the difficult task of balancing the many conflicting pressures on land use in our crowded island.

    Who else do you propose should do this? Big money property magnates? Because that is the inevitable outcome if the state surrenders its proper role.

    The housing crisis is indeed horrifically damaging but only a modest part of that can be blamed on the planners. See, for example, the case of big housebuilder Persimmon’s profits last year; turbo-charged by the ill-conceived ‘Help-to-Buy’ scheme, they made an average profit per house of more than double the average paid for each plot. And the build quality is shocking – another triumph for the earlier deregulation of Building Control.

    https://www.theguardian.com/business/2019/feb/26/persimmon-profits-help-to-buy-scheme

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