Sermon at Matins on Sunday 30 August: Caritas in Veritate 5

30 August 2009 at 10:00 am

The Reverend Dr Nicholas Sagovsky, Canon in Residence

All of us have a pretty robust sense of what is good for us.  If we didn’t, we wouldn’t survive.  Not all of us have such a robust sense of what is good for our family, or the groups we belong to, our country or our world.

Sometimes what we think is good for us conflicts with what is good for others.  There are times when we have to put ourselves out, or go without something, or suffer, for the sake of others – for the sake of what in Catholic social teaching is called ‘the common good’. 

We live our lives in a community of communities: our family, our village, our city, our country, our world.  Each in its own way is a community in which we share life together.  Some of us regard our place of work as another community: many of us experience the church as a special kind of community.  The thing that makes a community more than just a collection of individuals is the extent to which we care about the good of others, the extent to which we share in the common good.

I think it is helpful to see the State as a community of communities.  There is a lot it holds in common for all of us.  It holds a common purse, taking in money through taxation and giving it out for education and healthcare, policing, defence and communications.  A well-run state is a state that uses these resources for the good of all its members.  It’s not run for just the good of the people in charge, or the people with power, but for everybody, where everybody includes generations yet to come.  The same is true of a well-run business: it’s not run just for the good of the people in charge, or even the good of the shareholders and the employees, but for the good of the wider community to which it belongs.

This is the way of thinking that lies behind Benedict XVI’s recent Encyclical on ‘integral human development’, Caritas in Veritate.  This is the sort of development or human progress which is not just good for individuals but builds communities.  The trouble is that a great deal of what we call ‘progress’ seems to make the rich richer and the poor poorer, and so to divide human communities.  We compete against each other ruthlessly; we do not cooperate to build a better world.

In his letter, Benedict sets out a different vision, a vision inspired by Jesus Christ in which what matters most is not how rich I am, or what opportunities I have to better myself, but how much wealth there is for everybody and what opportunities there are to help each other.  This does not mean he is against the market, but he wants to see the market working for everybody’s benefit, and that is not an easy task. 

Take the state.  Can the state be for everybody’s benefit?  The reason we don’t have private armies or a private police force is so the army and the police will defend everybody within the state equally, both externally and internally.  The reason that in Britain we have a free education system and a free healthcare system is so that everybody, no matter how rich or poor, can have good education and good healthcare, which is not just for their benefit but for everybody’s.  We need people in our society who are well educated and we need people who are healthy, to serve the common good.  This is for everybody’s benefit, quite apart from the good they experience as individuals.

Let me take two examples.  Several times, Benedict mentions the worldwide financial crisis.  ‘Development is impossible’, he says, ‘without upright men and women, without financiers and politicians whose consciences are finely attuned to the requirements of the common good.’  We have become so used to the idea of banks being run as businesses, without a sense of the common good, that we need to stop and think about this.  The role of a national bank, like the Bank of England, is clearly for the common good.  It regulates interest rates and currency so we can have confidence in the money we all use every day.  Working with the government, the Bank has to play its part in creating a secure environment for employment and trading - something from which everybody benefits.  But privately owned banks need to play their part too.  When they stopped trusting each other and lending to each other, a lot of people whose mortgages or loans got called in, people who lost their jobs or their homes, began to suffer very badly.  The government then responded for the sake of the common good.  We may think what it did was not particularly well done and hindsight is a great thing – the point here is that it was not just the job of the government to think about the common good, but the job of responsible bankers as well.  Benedict gives examples of banking that exists to serve both individuals and the common good.  He talks about credit unions and micro-finance, both of which offer small loans at low interest from shared funds.  Stephen Green, Chairman of HSBC, has written about this in his book, Good Value [London: Allen Lane, 2009], ‘Strong, efficient, well-supervised banks with a drive to innovate and to provide suitable, profitable services, and staffed by people with integrity and commitment, are a sine qua non of effective market economies and modern social development, the relief of poverty, and our future as a low-carbon economy.’ (p.156)   Benedict would, I think, agree, but I think he would also join me in asking hard questions about how the high street banks are helping in the relief of poverty, about the bonus culture in banking, and about the overblown salaries of senior executives.

Like Benedict, Stephen Green has a good deal to say about the environment.  This is where he actually uses the term ‘the common good’. The climate, he says, is the quintessential ‘commons,’ the public good that is free to everyone (p. 159). Benedict makes the same point when he says, ‘The environment is God’s gift to everyone, and in our use of it we have a responsibility towards the poor, towards future generations and towards humanity as a whole.’ (48).  Both would agree that if we don’t heed words like these we shall all suffer, beginning with the poor and those in the most marginal human situations.  But why should I put that in the future tense?  It’s already beginning to happen. 

For Christians like Benedict, and Stephen Green, the common good matters because it is God’s gift to all of us – the good in creation which none of us owns but from which all of us benefit.  It cannot in the end be atomised into millions of individual goods, all competing in the market. ‘The development of peoples depends,’ says Benedict, ‘ … on a recognition that the human race is a single family working together in true communion, not simply a group of subjects who happen to live side by side.’ (53)  This is why, when he talks about ‘the common good’ and about communion in love and truth, he is talking about hope for the whole of God’s creation.

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