1.2.5 ‘A just and free society’: the parts of CST covered in this module

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Unit 1 Contents

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The basic objectives of this module are twofold: first, that you understand the part of Catholic Social Teaching that it covers; and, second, that you see what it means in practice.

CST is about both understanding and action – right action, action for justice and the common good, action based on proper appreciation of what such big ideas mean, action that changes things for the better.  Pope John Paul II said this:

The social message of the Gospel must not be considered a theory, but above all also a basis and a motivation for action.  (Centesimus Annus, #57)

One way to describe the part of CST that this module is about is this: it addresses what it means that we are citizens.  In particular it is about what we should do, the ways in which we should act, as citizens.

This word comes from the Latin civitas, which means city.  Literally, to be a citizen is to be a member of a city and to participate in its life.  But in the way ‘citizen’ is used now, it refers, not just to cities as such, but to any political community, small or large – perhaps a town, a county, or a nation-state.  To be a citizen is to participate in the life of any of these kinds of community.

More specifically, there are two sides to the coin of being a citizen.  First, a citizen receives the benefits and protections due to members of the society.  Second, a citizen contributes to the decision-making needed for the community as a whole.

To the extent that he or she actually does the second of these (rather than relying on others to do so), we can say that he or she is an ‘active citizen’.

  • Where should the new sewage works be located?
  • How can we reduce knife-crime in Birmingham?
  • Should health care be available to all free at the time they need it?
  • Should the UK’s army go on fighting in Afghanistan?

These questions are about how we should do things together.  The first relates to a local community, the second to a large city, and the third and fourth to a whole country.

It is as citizens that we participate in the shared challenge of working out how such questions should be answered.  This can be hugely difficult.

As citizens, then, we are members of a community as a whole.  We are properly concerned, both about protection of our own place in it, and about how matters are decided for its common life.  What this means in practice gives the focus for Module B.

Module A looks at issues that are especially significant for people’s immediate economic and personal circumstances (including work, business and family).  In contrast, Module B looks at the bigger picture – the wider society we all live in, at its various levels.  Another way of putting this is that Module B is about ‘public life’.

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Reflection

To what extent have you been an ‘active citizen’, participating in deliberation about matters affecting your community’s welfare overall?

You might well have voted in elections, or even stood for election.  Perhaps you’ve been to public meetings or written to a newspaper about a controversial issue or lobbied an MP.

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We shall find that CST sees participation in public life in a very positive way.

As the module is about being citizens, it is also about politics.  For some reason, the words ‘citizen’ and ‘citizenship’ have a very positive ring for many people, whereas ‘politics’ and ‘political’ don’t.  On the face of it this is very surprising, because their root meanings are exactly the same.   As noted above, citizen comes from the Latin word for city.  Politics comes from the Greek word for city, which is polis.

Politics refers, simply, to the affairs of the city.  Being active as citizens means being engaged in politics.

In fact CST has a very positive view of politics, just as it does of citizenship.  This was made especially clear in an important statement by the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales.  Before we look at this, here is a fuller statement of what ‘politics’ means.

‘Politics’ refers to decision-making for a whole, geographically-defined community by means of enforceable law, together with all the activities directed towards that – elections, lobbying, opposition, and so on.

This is, at least, a working definition that corresponds with how ‘politics’ is actually used in public life (in both the UK and most other English-speaking countries).  The statement certainly needs unpacking, and we’ll do this as the module proceeds.

The Catholic Church teaches, not merely that it is good to be an active citizen, but that some people have a vocation to seek and to exercise political office.  This is not just an acceptable thing for Christians to do but is an excellent form of service.  The word ‘vocation’ comes from the Latin, vocare, which means ‘to call’, and it refers to a calling from God.

The Catholic Bishops of England and Wales emphasised ‘the political vocation’ in their most substantial contribution to British public life in recent decades.  This was a document called The Common Good and the Church’s Social Teaching issued in 1996, not long before the election in which Tony Blair became Prime Minister.  It is well worth being aware of their strong and clear words on this topic.

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Reading (2pp)

CBCEW, The Common Good, ##57-61, ‘The political vocation’

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The Bishops emphasise the great challenges that are often involved in seeking and exercising political office. This is not least because of the intense media scrutiny that sometimes follows.

So this module is about being citizens, and therefore it is about politics.  We need to go a stage further: given that it is about politics, it is also about government.

The definition of politics above referred to determining things for a community as a whole.  This means the same as governing a community.  Those who have a political vocation seek to get into a position in which they can participate in governing.  So we shall have to pay attention to what CST says about government too.  The most important question here is about government’s proper role or responsibilities – what it should do and should not do.  This is what Unit 3 is about.

On screen 1.1.1, I said, “CST presents a powerful vision of a just and free society”.  At this stage, it would be quite right to regard this statement as an unproven claim.  It is only as you work through the module that you will be able to form a judgment about whether it is true.

But we can sum up by bringing this claim together with the points made on this screen:

Module B focuses on how CST understands the place of citizens, of politics and of government in the action necessary to make real its vision of a just and free society.

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End of 1.2.5

Go to 1.2.6 Questions for discussion half way through the unit

Module B outline

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