A central element of life is the need to work. Catholic social teaching, going back to the papal encyclical Rerum Novarum - “Of New Things” (1891), recognises the need to balance the rights of workers with those of owners and employers in order to attain the common good. Trade unions play a role in this evening up what is at the outset an unbalanced equation. Governments also have a role in ensuring that justice is done. It is not for government to only hold up the rights of the employer to the detriment of workers or via versa. Government has a role of holding the ring but also intervention where those who might fall through the net need support. The role of government is to serve, not subjugate the people. This role is very much reflected in Catholic Social Teaching in the concept of subsidiarity, meaning decisions effecting people being taken at the most direct levels. It is also important that government oversees a just society where wealth is evenly distributed amongst all people, not the mass of wealth being horded by a small group. Life, work and the role of government are all umbilically intertwinned.
Rob Flello, Labour MP for Stoke-on-Trent south goes through the role of government in today’s society
Saint Thomas More was certainly on to something when he looked at government through the eyes of “utopia”. So in that spirit what is today’s role of government in our lives and work?
One of the first things that comes to mind is the reason why we have government at all. Perhaps it is a function of our humanity which requires us to have rules to govern our lives. We render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s – paying our taxes and obeying laws as a Christian duty upon us, although of course our secular laws would use the stick of fines and imprisonment if we were to do otherwise. So essentially government is about making rules that direct our behaviour. Those rules range of course from prohibiting murder to levying taxes; some rules are more welcomed than others.
This is reflected in Catholic Social Teaching, which notes:-
“As for the state, its whole raison d’etre is the realization of the common good in the temporal order. It cannot, therefore, hold aloof from economic matters. On the contrary, it must do all in its power to promote the production of a sufficient supply of material goods, ‘the use of which is necessary for the practice of virtue.’ It has also 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 workingman.”
Mater et Magistra – “Mother and Teacher” paragraph 20
As our society becomes more secular, or perhaps more non-Christian, it could be argued there is a more pressing need to legislate to require (or stop) behaviour previously encouraged (or limited) by scripture? But I’m not convinced that the world today is actually all that different to the past. The role of government today is really no different from 150 years ago or perhaps two thousand years ago. What has changed is the way events in one part of the world now have an immediate impact on the rest and global communication has changed the way we view the world.
In a perfect world people would not need government to tell them not to kill each other, or to feed the poor, or to treat the sick, as these would be done without deliberation and without the need to raise taxes to pay police, social security, and healthcare.
In a perfect world people would give a fair days work for the common good, there would be no need for legislation to protect workers from unscrupulous employers or levying taxes to cover sickness absence, pensions, or indeed the need for wages at all as everything would be provided from what society collectively had.
Of course this perfect world would have to be populated with perfect people without our human flaws of greed and jealousy, of laziness and pride.
In our less than perfect world I would argue it is the duty of government to use its powers to ensure that the poorest are helped most – by adjusting the tax system to minimise the amount they pay and by providing help with bills and topping up the income of those with the least. Government also must recognise the inequalities in health where the poorest often have the worst health and shortest lives. In the UK such government duties have been fulfilled through measures such as tax credits, higher pensions, winter fuel payments, and extra funding for the National Health Service.
On the world stage relations between governments are crucial in a world that sadly has in many ways not really moved on in the last two millennia. Conflicts and wars between nations are still a common feature with the resulting death and destruction, waves of dispossessed people, famine, and oppression. It is therefore crucial that good governments work together to seek peaceful solutions to conflict and address the fall-out where there is not peace.
But there is also the “turning a blind eye” that comes from political expediency, where governments allow other nations to behave immorally without question or challenge. We hear frequently that “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” or support for a particular nation is the “lesser of two evils”. Indeed in the West itself we see governments repressing ethnic groups such as Gypsies, or senior politicians changing laws to avoid their own prosecution. No condemnation from other national governments is forthcoming in the name of “International Diplomacy”. Again, is that any different from any point in the last two or more thousand years?
The cost of our fear of other nations also holds back our ability to provide for our own citizens. The need for a military presence is extremely expensive – the UK defence budget for 2010/2011 is around £40billion compared to the UK’s spending on personal social services spending of £32billion.
Government’s role today is, I would suggest, unchanged in the issues it faces, but far more capable of being scrutinised than at any point in the past. But for all that we could learn from history, our governments continue to make the same mistakes, continue to turn back the clock to hit the poorest hardest, and continue to set back the path to a perfect world.
But despite our human failings, the Church is right to insist that serving in a government and the task of governing are noble and essential tasks for good society. It is government after all that is charged with providing the foundations of a society in which all its citizens can grow to achieve their true fulfilment. Yes our human nature is flawed, but St Thomas More and more recent Catholic Social Teaching remind us that our task as individuals and politicians is the achievement of nothing less than a perfect world.
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