The Scottish Referendum: A Catholic Perspective
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The Scottish Referendum: A Catholic Perspective

The Scottish Referendum: A Catholic Perspective

John Deighan FAITH MAGAZINE September-October 2014

Stands Scotland where it did? The forthcoming independence referendum is a hot topic north of the border with strong views frequently encountered. It surprises me that people can be so certain of their position given the complexity of factors that could influence their choice of vote. In the project of organising a society, a shared vision of what that project should be is a fundamental ingredient. However Scotland, like the rest of Europe, seems to lack such a shared vision. The Christian foundations of our civilisation have been jettisoned as outdated and unnecessary by a large portion of our society but most especially by the political classes. Therefore trying to envisage a state in present-day Scotland seems more of a pragmatic balance of factors rather than an organic development from a unified and coherent community. As modernity has developed, the context of communal living has become more focussed on the satisfaction of individual rights. These have obscured objective natural reason. Thus there has been created an environment for the imposition of values by those socially powerful rather than the genuine pursuit of the common good. At this time, therefore, I believe a pragmatic consideration of what could make that situation better is the task to be undertaken by those about to cast their vote.

A Catholic social teaching perspective naturally gives rise to considerations of subsidiarity and solidarity. The supporters of independence emphasise the importance of making decisions at the lowest level, whilst those in favour of the Union emphasise solidarity. A fuller consideration than balancing these two principles is necessary. This must involve a consideration of the constituent elements of any society; namely the family, civil society and political society.

The questions to be considered ahead of a Yes or No vote do not have easy answers. The myriad of issues involved each require prudential judgments to be made.

The structure of society arises from the nature of the human person. The Church has endorsed the view that the family and political society are the two forms of social cooperation which arise from human nature, and that civil society consists of a myriad of intermediate societies that are more freely chosen. We need a family and an ordered society requires a political society – but we don’t need to be a member of a golf club or trade union or to read a particular newspaper.

The complex of organisations and relationships that form civil society provide the environment in which we typically experience our everyday lives. A healthy civil society is marked by a flourishing of such groups and relationships freely cooperating in a spirit of solidarity.

The state is at the service of civil society and arises from it since, inevitably, there are clashes of interests at a civil level which need an authority to provide binding policies and laws to fairly resolve competing interests.

A free society of civilised people could generally expect to see that the intervention of political society is a light one given the priority of society over the element dedicated to its governance. Issues around work and the economy are so fundamental to the wellbeing of society that a robust system of protection is required to ensure the powerful do not crush the weak in the drive for consumption and profit. Likewise, protecting people from those who are criminally motivated or dangerously reckless is an important aspect of government work. All too often, however, we think that political society can provide the solution to all sorts of problems for which they are poorly equipped. We have even witnessed the rise of the state as parent in the form of its determination in Scotland to give every child a state guardian.

The condition of civil society is an indicator of how well the state will perform in its task of coordinating and facilitating a free society. A society which gives too much power to political society undermines its own vitality. The modern state is ubiquitous in almost every facet of life. Many of the groups operating in civil society are in fact extensions of the state. The budget of many lobby groups can be found to consist largely of state funding. If not always directly funded then funded by being commissioned to provide ‘services’. Also, statutory bodies take on lobbying roles using government money to identify specific elements of civil society and give the artificial prominence.

“The supporters of independence emphasise the importance of making decisions at the lowest level whilst those in favour of the Union emphasise solidarity.”

That’s not how it should be and whether an independent Scotland will affect this should be a factor for consideration ahead of a vote.

In Scotland during the time of devolution we have seen a considerable effort to reshape the values of our society. This has included much effort from within the apparatus of government, both devolved and guided by Westminster, but it has also largely been done through the entertainment industry. The family as a life-giving cell has been crucially undermined and devalued such that children are frequently denied the presence and support of their parents. Abortion has been eagerly supported by services which should be dedicated to preserving health. The population continues to face a crisis sometime in the future due to the ageing of society. Perhaps continually increasing the pension age can keep ahead of the pension crises but there will inevitably be a health crisis when demand outstrips resources. How equipped is civil and political society in Scotland for influencing these issues and will it be for the better? These are problems facing many countries that have unwittingly embraced the culture of death. European politics has undoubtedly been an important part of that and our relationship with Europe needs to be assessed, as does the relationship with the current UK countries. How will it affect these issues? In addition, a new constitution will be created. Who is likely to have the influence in creating it and forging the institutions that will deliver democracy?

The questions to be considered ahead of a Yes or No vote do not have easy answers. The myriad of issues involved each require prudential judgements to be made. The political society presently guiding laws and policies in Scotland has done much damage to family and community life with efforts to reengineer our understanding of family life. Also the competencies of different areas of society have not been fully respected such that the state increasingly takes over the responsibilities that could be done at civil level or within the family. This is also a feature of European politics and evident within the United Kingdom. An important issue to consider is whether or not an independent Scotland will exacerbate such detrimental aspects of governance. There are, of course, good things being done by politicians at Holyrood and Westminster so it is not just about mitigating the bad but about making a choice which may allow more good to flourish.

An important aspect is also that of providing positive leadership. Society has a whole can lose its sense of right and wrong. It can become overly materialistic and at times the state has a duty to offer a corrective rather than just follow the flow of particular values in decline. This however depends on the state having a true understanding of the common good. Politicians in Scotland, for example, have pursued a ‘hearts and minds’ campaign to re-educate society on its understanding of sexuality; will a Scottish state rather than a United Kingdom state make that more or less likely to continue. The United Kingdom of course has played a pivotal role in enforcing unjust laws on equality such that religions freedom has been undermined.

The genuine concerns about economics, our relationship with our fellow UK countries and the wider world are all in need of assessment and have been the most common subject of contested claims.

This makes it a real test for those who take the responsibility of voting seriously. That no position has been given by the Church is in keeping with its respect for temporal authority and freedom of persons. Yet the Church does give much guidance on the values that must prevail in a society and on these we must ponder ahead of any political vote.

John Deighan is the Parliamentary Officer for the Bishops Conference of Scotland. 

Faith Magazine