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The Referendum and Catholic Social Teaching

Categories: Articles:Social Justice | Published: 09/09/2014 | Views: 4985

'This briefing is not in support of either YES or NO viewpoints. It examines the topic of the Referendum and tries to put the issue in the context of Catholic Social Teaching; with a view to assisting people to come to their own decision through an awareness of this tradition.'

The purpose of what follows is not in support of either YES or NO. It aims to look first at the topic of this Referendum; and to put the issues in the context of a Christian social understanding. I have no party or group affiliation. The context of Catholic Social Teaching is something which can be and is shared with fellow Christians and with people who do not profess any faith. There is no intention here to inhibit people’s own choices or to suggest that they should not discuss and campaign for whatever viewpoint they hold without force or disrespect

The Issue:

We have to live responsibly in the society we are a part of, albeit in accordance with our faith. We live, we are told, not in an Empire, but in a democracy. In words attributed to Sir Winston Churchill (perhaps inspired by his 14 years’ experience as MP for Dundee): ‘It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government, except all the others that have been tried’.

What is at once the essence and drawback of democracy is that it is quantitative rather than qualitative. This is noted by Aristotle (no less ruefully than Churchill) more than two thousand years ago. Where Plato’s Republic is characterised by a patrician elitism of the wise, Aristotle points out that, like it or not, equality is not gauged by wisdom or worthiness:

‘But one factor of freedom is to rule and be ruled in turn; for democratic justice is to have equality according to number, not worth, and if this is justice, the multitude must be sovereign and whatever seems best to the majority this must be final and this must be justice, for they say that each of the citizens ought to have an equal share.’ (Politics.6.2 ,1317b2–7).

This means that for election and decision making, you have to deliver the numbers; and any collective that can deliver a numerical majority gains access to the levers of power. That is the nature of representative democracy. We mandate our power to be exercised through our representatives by arithmetical majority.

A referendum reverts to another form of democracy – direct democracy - in which each person who is an elector has an individual vote. It is still a numbers game, but not only do the collectives and representatives no longer matter; their agendas conflict with the prospect of a truly personal choice on a single issue unmixed with compromise or trade off.

Disappointingly, the Referendum campaign has in fact been dominated by party has- beens, wannabes and hacks, many of whom seem more concerned for personal and party interest.  Then there are the self-appointed journalistic ‘experts’, ‘business leaders’ and - God help us – ‘celebrities’ who really have no business sticking their noses in; and at best have no more than the one vote which every elector will have. The Referendum is not a matter for party politics or the vested interests of business or celebrity culture; but rather should mobilise the whole of Scottish civic society, every registered elector, to making individual, critically informed decisions on the single question at issue.

This point was wonderfully illustrated in a letter to the Herald from Duncan Graham:

‘I am just a wee baldy man who lives in Scotland. I cannot act, sing, dance or cook. I have never been in the jungle, or won a medal for running or jumping. I am now too old to kick a ball and have never slept with a Premier League footballer. What I can do, however, is make up my own mind whether I want to live in an independent country...’  (Herald, Tuesday 7 January 2014)

Making an informed decision is in some degree dependent on access to reliable information. There has been an imbalance in the coverage of the Referendum in an overwhelmingly one sided and frequently dishonest mainstream media highlighted in Dr John Robertson’s report; which was the sidelined by mainstream media. This is compounded by the general ignorance of London based journalists (including Scots), which means national journalism is rarely informed, current or interesting in its reporting.

There are 37 national or daily newspapers in Scotland. Just 5 of them are owned in Scotland; none of the 37 (except the Sunday Herald) has shown any support for independence. I have found the best option is to disregard the mainstream media news and discussion of the referendum. This leaves time for all sorts of useful activity including critical survey of sites on the internet; and it does not exacerbate high blood pressure. Quite frankly, if it took two years and endless media digression before every important political decision, nothing would ever get done.

The Object of the Referendum Campaign:

One area of shared concern is the issue at the heart of the Referendum: sovereignty and self-determination.  According to the opening words of the UN Charter: ‘The Purposes of the United Nations are… To develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples’ (Chapter 1, 1-2). According to the UN Declaration of Human Rights:

  • Everyone has the right to a nationality.

  • No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality.

Each of these terms is argued over and discussed in international law. These rights however are also unconditional: which means that all discussion of whether we can afford it, whether the EU will permit it, or what effects it might or might not have on international relations and security for example is irrelevant at this stage.

Rights are unconditional but they only exist in the context of obligations. This is well described by the French thinker and activist Simone Weil:

‘The notion of obligations comes before that of rights, which is subordinate and relative to the former. A right is not effectual by itself, but only in relation to the obligation to which it corresponds, the effective exercise of a right springing not from the individual who possesses it, but from others who consider themselves as being under a certain obligation towards him. Recognition of an obligation makes it effectual. An obligation which goes unrecognized by anybody loses none of the full force of its existence. A right which goes unrecognized by anybody is not worth very much’ (The Need for Roots, 3).

For the Christian, however, a more immediate answer might be the words of the psalmist: ‘the earth is the Lord’s and all the fullness thereof’ (Psalm 24:1). Even an atheist could equally well argue that the earth belongs to no individual or group. Indeed, in contrast to the Powers of this world, Jesus explicitly says My kingdom is not of this world’ (John 18:36). This underlies the irony of his statement about ‘rendering to Caesar’ when questioned by functionaries of the Jewish collaborators with the Roman Empire, who were ‘trying to entrap him’ (Matt 22:15-22). Caesar, like all emperors, has nothing ultimately worth having.

In the last analysis it is a question of power – what we do or can do. It links with identity - who I am or can be; and resources – what I have or have access to; but it is rooted in power. The crucial element in the referendum is power and where it should reside. It was a good Catholic, Lord Acton, who identified the continuum of power – ‘Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.’ This is not a very reassuring start.

Matthew’s gospel gives an interesting insight into Jesus’ attitude to power as transmitted through the early apostolic tradition: ‘You know that the rulers in this world lord it over their people, and officials flaunt their authority over those under them. But among you it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant’ (Matt 20:25-26). The Greek word for servant –‘diakonos’ – is quite different from slave and carries the connotation of those through whom God carries out his administration on earth; such as, for example, magistrates (Romans 13:4), in the sense that we still refer to a public servant.

This translates into the question of sovereignty, which can be summed up as follows:

‘The subject of political authority is the people considered in its entirety as those who have sovereignty. In various forms, this people transfers the exercise of sovereignty to those whom it freely elects as its representatives, but it preserves the prerogative to assert this sovereignty in evaluating the work of those charged with governing and also in replacing them when they do not fulfil their functions satisfactorily. Although this right is operative in every State and in every kind of political regime, a democratic form of government, due to its procedures for verification, allows and guarantees its fullest application. The mere consent of the people is not, however, sufficient for considering “just” the ways in which political authority is exercised.’

Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, 395

It is also worth remembering that there are differing notions of sovereignty. Indeed a landmark legal decision, MacCormick v Lord Advocate of 1953, stated that ‘the principle of unlimited sovereignty of Parliament is a distinctively English principle and has no counterpart in Scottish constitutional law.’ For Scots, sovereignty resides with the people (hence Mary Queen of Scots, not Scotland).

It’s probably also worth distinguishing the difference between the nation and the state. The nation is the community of people united by cultural, ethnic, linguistic and historical ties. It need not be geographically bound, often in fact thriving through its expatriates.

The state is the area of territory living under a unified form of government, which is usually elected by its taxpayers. It is also shorthand for the forms of authority and administration fiscally supported by the electorate. The Referendum, despite a great deal of sentimental blather about belonging and national identity, is largely a matter of the functioning of the government of Scotland and its ultimate responsibility. Those entitled to make the decision will be the registered electors of Scotland, whatever their national origins.

It is important to avoid confusing the instrument of the Referendum, or indeed the mechanism of government, with its purpose. It is essentially about the state and is managerial. The state’s officials – whether politicians or public servants - are our employees, paid for out of our taxes. Their opinions, in a matter of direct democracy, carry no more weight than the single vote that they, like us, will have. Again, in the words of Lord Acton, ‘There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it’. He added in a postscript a valuable guide which serves us equally today: ‘Put conscience above both system and success.’

The question remains, however, whether Scottish civic society is sufficiently aware, sufficiently engaged and empowered – and sufficiently compassionate to be able to manage independence. Yes or No is therefore not simply a question of political expediency but a matter of moral, cultural and spiritual maturity.



The Referendum and Catholic Social Teaching:                                   

My remit is to give a spiritual perspective and I suppose I could say: just go and pray about it. I’m very happy to say that - without the ‘just’, however, since our spiritual response always precedes our theological response. And a theological response is not the province of experts only, but necessarily of all of us.

I come from a tradition of Catholic Social Theology within which I have tried to locate the Referendum. The tradition is formed in the Jewish awareness that God’s chosen people are those who live by the words of the prophet Micah: ‘the Lord has told you what is good, and this is what he requires of you: to do what is right, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God’: (Micah, 6:8). The message of the risen Christ through the New Testament is that the Kingdom or sovereignty of God is within us (Luke 17:21), beyond the vicissitudes of ordinary experience. And this awareness is sustained and developed by Spirit filled communities living out the interdependence between God and our neighbour.

Within that tradition, there is first of all a need to identify clearly what the issue is. That is the Referendum question. Next it is useful to triangulate that issue around a Christian understanding of the main areas of social life: cultural, economic and political, dealing respectively with matters of identity, resources and power.

Each of these areas can be seen as having a guiding theological principle, which does not of itself give an answer. Rather, it allows us to gain a point of reference to assess the situation with a view to taking action. This is the basis of what is called the See-Judge-Act method of Catholic social action.

The principle of Dignity turns on the fact that we are created in the image of God. There is something of the divine uniquely in each of us: a transcendent source of human dignity and worth, without which rights and obligations are merely provisional. The sense of collective identity is what we call culture, the creative expression of human capabilities. Failure to acknowledge this is ‘dumbing down’; an ignorance of our culture which ultimately turns us away from God.

We believe that God created the world and its resources for all. This belief resides in the principle of the Common Good: not for just some, not just for particular countries, not even for the majority of humanity, but for everyone, particularly the poor and vulnerable. A prevalent climate of selfishness about the Referendum – ‘What’s in it for me?’ – is predictable but disappointing. The passages in Acts about holding things in common (ie 2:44 and 4:32) are less of an ideological statement and more of a realisation of mutual responsibility and fellowship.

The argument is also made that insofar as independence would entail Scotland separating from the rest of the UK, this would be an act of selfishness. (In fact Scottish votes almost never make any difference to the outcome of UK elections). More fundamentally, this argument confuses the boundaries of compassion with the boundaries of governments; as if our responsibility for our neighbour was constrained by the country they lived in.

The guiding principle of power for Catholic Social Teaching goes under the name of Subsidiarity. This means that, at its simplest, the best level of government is the smallest, lowest or least centralised competent authority compatible with effective fulfilment of its functions. Political decisions should be devolved to the lowest appropriate local level wherever possible, in preference to centralised authority. As an analogy, imagine a set of screwdrivers: you have to use the right size and shape of tool to do the job properly. If the tool is too large, it damages the object; if it is too small, it damages itself.

The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church lays out the inter-relation of social organisations:

‘The political community is established to be of service to civil society, from which it originates. The Church has contributed to the distinction between the political community and civil society above all by her vision of humanity, understood as an autonomous, relational being who is open to the Transcendent… The Church's commitment on behalf of social pluralism aims at bringing about a more fitting attainment of the common good and democracy itself, according to the principles of solidarity, subsidiarity and justice.’ (Compendium, 417)

The Referendum question is: ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’ Of course no country in the modern world is independent; the best we can hope for is the recognition of our interdependence and political structures which encourage cooperation rather than antagonism. What is certain is that Scotland has long had its own cultural institutions, its own legal system, its churches (note the plural); no less than its traditions in medicine and philosophy, science and technology.  It also has its own vehicles of language, as well as music and the visual arts.  The reality too is that particularly since Scotland regained its own parliament in 1999 many of the functions of state are in fact managed independently and in a manner different to Westminster policies in eg, education, transport, health and the environment.

The context of subsidiarity was well defined by St John Paul II, in his first encyclical Redemptor Hominis:

‘The essential sense of the State, as a political community, consists in that the society and people composing it are master and sovereign of their own destiny. This sense remains unrealised if, instead of the exercise of power with the moral participation of the society or people, what we see is the imposition of power by a certain group upon all the other members of the society’ (n 17).

In modern secular political thought, ideas of imposed power are encompassed under the notion of cultural hegemony, in which the imposed economic and political ideologies of the dominant ruling elite are projected as being normative for all; when in fact they only benefit those who control wealth and power. Cultural hegemony is thus a form of totalitarianism.

The American journalist Bob Herbert, writing in the New York Times in May 2006, gave a useful definition of totalitarianism:

‘Hallmarks of totalitarian regimes have always included excessive reliance on secrecy, the deliberate stoking of fear in the general population, a preference for military rather than diplomatic solutions in foreign policy, the promotion of blind patriotism, the denial of human rights, the curtailment of the rule of law, hostility to a free press and the systematic invasion of the privacy of ordinary people.’

An effective preventive to a totalitarian society is a participatory democracy. The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church makes the point in sections 190-91 that there are two ways in which totalitarianism can happen and flourish. The corruption of selfish interests or is one factor. The withdrawal and abstention of those who feel disempowered and that therefore participation and voting are pointless are the other factor. This exemplifies the maxim that for evil to triumph all that is necessary is that good people do nothing. A low turnout in the Referendum, whatever the result, will diminish the authority of the process.

Democracy is a numbers game - a lottery even. But like a lottery, you have to take part if you want to gain anything; and unlike a lottery, the odds are much, much better. The Referendum touches upon a fundamental principle of democracy, the right to decide who is ultimately responsible for our representative democracy, and therefore voting is imperative.

The Referendum and Faith:

As people of faith we are not merely indulging in amateur political science when we consider the Referendum; we are looking at something which impacts on the way we are enabled in (or prevented from) living out that faith. According to the theologian Paul Tillich, faith is a part of our growth and development as a whole person by an act of total commitment, freely chosen, to what we decide to make our ultimate concern.  It is not superstition, wilful irrationality or capriciousness. Rather it is an affirmation of the transcendent nature of ultimate reality.

‘There is a risk if what was considered as a matter of ultimate concern proves to be a matter of preliminary and transitory concern—as, for example, the nation… The reaction of despair in people who have experienced the breakdown of their national claims is an irrefutable proof of the idolatrous character of their national concern. In the long run this is the inescapable result of an ultimate concern, the subject matter of which is not ultimate.’ (Tillich, The Dynamics of Faith, 1957, 17).

These intermediate, less than ultimate concerns have been usefully seen by the contemporary theologian Walter Wink as ‘Powers’: things ranging from distractions to major evils that divert us from our proper ultimate concern. As Wink points out:  

‘these Powers can and must be redeemed. But focus on their redemption will lead to utopian disillusionment unless we recognize that their transformation takes place within the limits of the fall.’ (The Powers that Be, 32)

Our capacity to identify as ultimate those things which are only preliminary or transitory is the root sin of idolatry. It is connected, however, with the important balancing mechanism which Christianity introduces to prevent us from granting ultimacy to things which are not ultimate: the fall, or original sin. Original sin seems to be (and is often portrayed as) a purely negative and unhelpful doctrine. Yet, as G K Chesterton, in his usual paradoxical style, reminds us in the closing pages of Orthodoxy:

‘Christianity preaches an obviously unattractive idea, such as original sin; but when we wait for its results, they are pathos and brotherhood, and a thunder of laughter and pity; for only with original sin we can at once pity the beggar and distrust the king.’ (Orthodoxy, chap 9).

As Christians, we know that our Kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36) and that we have here no abiding city (Hebrews 13:14). This is not to promote quietism or turning away from the world; but rather to point out the limitations of a purely secular approach. Some of the implications have been hinted at by the Jesuit scientist and mystic, Teilhard de Chardin:

   ‘The resources at our disposal today, the powers that we have released, could not possibly be absorbed by the narrow system of individual or national units which the architects of the human earth have hitherto used…. The age of nations           has passed.  Now, unless we wish to perish we must shake off our old prejudices and build the earth… The more scientifically I regard the world, the less can I see any possible biological future for it except the active consciousness of its unity.’ (Human Energy, 37)





Implications of the Referendum:

Nevertheless the Referendum should not be seen as irrelevant, since the result -whatever it is - will have consequences for our faith. Writing recently in the Sunday Herald, Neil Ascherson recalled a different approach to independence:

In the dark years before the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, Vaclav Havel used to say: “We don’t need to wait for it. Let’s start living in truth now – right now. Let’s live ‘as if’.” And the Polish workers, before there was Solidarity, said: “Let’s create spaces – authentic spaces in which a real Poland exists, in which we talk openly, wait for no permission, design our own future.”’

Ascherson concludes: ‘Never mind what happens on referendum day. We should be saying: “Wake up, we are independent already, now, today. And from today we shall start to act as if we were citizens of an independent country.”’  

Albert Camus, who was involved with the French resistance to the Nazis, makes a similar observation on the difference between political independence and human freedom:

‘We shall be sure that freedom is not a gift received from a State or a leader, but a possession to be won every day by the effort of each and the union of all.’  (Resistance, Rebellion, and Death, p 97).

Pope Francis has laid out some straightforward guidelines in his recent exhortation Evangelii Gaudium:

‘[I]t is time to devise a means for building consensus and agreement while seeking the goal of a just, responsive and inclusive society. The principal author, the historic subject of this process, is the people as a whole and their culture, and not a single class, minority, group or elite. We do not need plans drawn up by a few for the few, or an enlightened or outspoken minority which claims to speak for everyone. It is about agreeing to live together, a social and cultural pact.’ (n 239).

Working out such a pact, however, requires more than merely falling in with existing agendas. In 1998, the US Bishops Conference published A Pastoral Reflection on Lay Discipleship for Justice in a New Millennium, which contains criteria applicable to the Referendum:   

‘We cannot be indifferent or cynical about the obligations of citizenship.    Our political choices should not reflect simply our own interests, partisan   preferences or ideological agendas, but should be shaped by the principles of our faith and commitment to justice, especially to the weak and vulnerable.’



To summarise then: Catholic Social Teaching does not of itself warrant either a YES or a NO vote. That is not its purpose. The Referendum is an exercise of one of the means of democracy practised in the UK. In contrast to the representative democracy which empowers elected representatives to make decisions on behalf of the electorate, the Referendum is an exercise in direct democracy in which each elector’s vote is sovereign, irrespective of the views or policies of any other group or individual.

The matter at issue is not taxation, pensions, Trident, Europe or anything else. These are for the party manifestos at a general election. Similarly, judgements based on personalities are not only irrelevant but misguided. The matter at issue is the precondition of all of these: where the elected seat of government that makes all of these decisions should reside.

While the responsibility for each person’s decision is absolute, it should be informed. Catholic Social Teaching provides principles of discernment, rooted in Christian faith and the Catholic tradition, which serve as guidelines beyond ideology and party politics in the process of reaching a decision. These principles may be stated briefly. The decision I make should:

  • Uphold the universal dignity of the human person created in God’s image.

  • Augment the mutual social benefit that is the Common Good, not just for the people of Scotland, or of the UK, but ultimately of the whole human family.

  • Be in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity which aims to empower people in a way which delivers the most effective government at the lowest practicable level.

The history of the Christian churches suggests that Lord Acton’s strictures on power apply to them too. It has never gone well when churches have aligned themselves too closely with an established political order: ‘You can’t depend on anyone, not even a great leader’ (Psalm 146:3, Contemporary English Version). The bible contains a sustained critique of power, summed up in each testament by women - Hannah in the Old (1Sam 2:1ff) and of course Mary in her Magnificat:

‘He has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted the lowly’ (Luke 1:52).

St Paul, addressing the community at the centre of imperial power was unequivocal about our responsibility: ‘Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God - what is good and acceptable and perfect’  (Romans 12:2). And the first letter to Timothy says that ‘The ultimate aim of our way of life is love that issues from a pure heart, good conscience and a sincere faith’ (1Tim1:5). If people vote honestly out of those criteria, discerned through the tradition of Catholic Social Teaching, they will be exercising true independence regardless of whether they vote YES or NO.

Tim Duffy

August 2014


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