A friend of mine mentioned how disappointed he was about the performance of the Christian Democrats. His objection was that they were too liberal, especially in relation to abortion and "gay marriage". He suggested that they had become too concerned with chasing votes and lost sight of principles.
The two issues he referred to need a whole discussion in their own right, but there is a more general point, which is whether there is a place for parties which describe themselves as "Christian"?
In some European countries, notably Germany and Italy, Christian parties are major political forces. In others, such as the UK, they have never gained a foothold and the idea is alien. In the UK, committed Christians of various persuasions have found a place in each of the three main parties. Amongst the most famous was Hilaire Belloc. In 1906 he ran as Liberal candidate in the marginal South Salford constituency where the electorate was overwhelmingly Protestant and Belloc’s Catholicism was considered an insurmountable political liability.
Urged by his campaign manager to make no mention of religion, Belloc began his first election speech in typical pugnacious fashion: “Gentlemen, I am a Catholic. As far as possible, I go to Mass every day. This (taking a rosary out of his pocket) is a rosary. As far as possible, I kneel down and tell these beads every day. If you reject me on account of my religion, I shall thank God that He has spared me the indignity of being your representative.”
After a shocked silence, there was applause. Belloc won. Whether contemporary British voters would have rejected him on the same grounds is an interesting question, given the wave of anti-Catholic emotion which is currently sweeping the country.
In practice, the Christian Democratic Parties in Germany and Italy have never been much more than parties of the centre-right. The social and economic ideas set out in the series of encyclicals beginning with Rerum Novarum have had little, if any, influence on their programmes and policies. One wonders whether the British model is not preferable. There is little Christian influence anywhere in contemporary British party politics. That merely reflects the mind of the British public, as a democracy, even with an unrepresentative electoral system like the UK's first-past-the-post, is bound to do. In that environment, a Christian party would get nowhere unless it watered-down its policies to the point that they were indistinguishable from anyone else's. And Belloc's gesture would probably ensure that he did not get elected.
If one feels sufficiently dissatisfied with the state of all the political parties, it is probably best not to engage directly at all. Catholics at least, have a duty to be aware of the social teaching of the church, which is a closed book to most people. This calls for study of what the church is actually saying, and it stands outside all the current fashionable -isms. Of particular relevance is Caritas in veritate, issued in June 2009. This pointed out that the most important means of charity was through justice. But of what precisely does economic justice consist? What is unjust about the present economic dispensation. These are big questions which the encyclical leaves open, rightly in my view, because this is the challenge for the laity to explore.
Results will not come quickly but ideas leak out gradually and in the long run this approach is more likely to produce worthwhile and lasting change.
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