Ethics Amid Prosperity

Document Aims to Orient Debates in United Kingdom

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LONDON, MARCH 12, 2005 ( An umbrella group of Britain’s major Christian churches has called for greater attention to the area of social justice in the lead-up to national elections in the United Kingdom. Churches Together in Britain and Ireland (CTBI) published a discussion document, «Prosperity with a Purpose,» on Feb. 28.

The publication «calls for an attack on poverty to be driven by wealth creation based on market economics,» the press release explains. The document calls for a new and wider sense of solidarity, together with a deep renewal of civil society.

The churches recognize the positive contribution of the market economy. «Under the right conditions, economic growth can serve God’s purposes,» they affirm. The conditions outlined in the document are the following:

— That humanity is seen as one human family, with a universal bond of solidarity.

— That wealth creation and the pursuit of social justice are inextricably linked.

— That market forces encourage economic growth but are regulated in the interests of the community.

— That the environment is safeguarded by substantial efforts to mitigate the harm caused by pollution.

— That advancing prosperity leaves no one behind, not children, retired people, those who care for families, disabled people, nor any other section that is vulnerable or liable to neglect.

— That globally, priority is given to those whose economies are burdened by unmanageable international debt or are victims of unfair international trading conditions.

— That the structures of civil society are renewed so that local communities can shape their own future.

Progress in meeting these conditions so far is «patchy,» the CTBI contends. Poverty has been reduced in some areas, but is on the increase in others.

Sharing the fruits

To improve matters, a number of principles for inspiring economic activity are outlined. In general, the principles call for a greater attention to the poor and the common good, so that the fruits of economic prosperity are shared more equitably. The document calls, above all, for priority to be given to moral considerations in order to avoid problems associated with economic inequality, consumerism and the exclusion of some groups from the benefits of growth.

Regarding poverty in Britain, the document contends that there needs to be a rethinking of the government’s anti-poverty strategy, which has failed to remedy the problem to a satisfactory degree. A number of more specific points are also mentioned. The document is in favor of both a minimum wage and the establishment of a «living wage,» which can be met by a combination of employer and state contributions.

The CTBI also notes that those on low incomes also face problems due to difficulties in obtaining credit, and when it is available they are often obliged to pay excessively high rates of interest.

The discussion paper also deals with the international arena, stating: «The moral case for contributing a greater share of national wealth to the relief of poverty overseas is a compelling one.» Deficiencies in international markets and problems related to movements of global capital sometimes leave «some of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people open to great hardship and injustice.»

Christian contribution

The contribution that the Christian churches can play in determining economic policy is another subject dealt with. An essential starting point for any reflection on prosperity «has to begin with the inalienable dignity and infinite value of the individual human person,» the CTBI argues.

As well, the Christian churches, the document continues, «share a commitment to social justice, nationally and globally, which flows from a deep conviction that Christ Himself commands them to identify and oppose injustice and oppression committed against any person, regardless of status or description.»

And even though in many countries poverty is on the decline the report adds that «the more prosperous a society becomes, the more important it is for social justice and community cohesion that nobody be left behind.»

Ensuring social justice is not only about protecting those in need. «It is also about mutual responsibility at all levels, and a shared commitment to the common good.» It is therefore necessary that the better-off sections of society recognize the responsibility they have toward the welfare of others.

The document further explains that social justice is not limited to questions of wealth. Problems such as an imbalance between work and personal life, a breakdown in community relations, and a deteriorating physical and social environment, also pose a challenge. These conditions can create «a spiritual malaise and a different kind of poverty,» the study notes.

And it is also important to keep in mind the parable of the rich young man of the Gospels, the document adds. Creating wealth and accumulation possessions should not become an all-encompassing attitude. Moreover, «once a certain level of material success has been achieved, further affluence does not lead automatically to happiness, and often leads away from it.»

The modern economy

Churches have been criticized in the past for an excessively negative view of economic activity, the document admits. «On the contrary this activity is something to celebrate,» the CTBI states.

Raising the standard of living in a community, and thus helping the poor «is part of God’s will for humanity.» In fact, Christians need to recognize that economic progress «is one of the chief engines of progress and greater well-being in the modern age, directly and indirectly; and to thank God for it.»

But, the document adds, «the pursuit of profit as an end in itself does frequently result in hardship and injustice.» Therefore, the operation of economic laws needs to be tempered by government intervention to correct injustices and remedy situations where the market fails to adequately address society’s needs.

Another means to address these problems is ensuring a greater respect for ethical principles among businessmen and companies. A commitment to honest trading practices, remunerating fairly employees, and maintaining a minimum level of trust and responsibility are necessary elements in ensuring the common good. Along with economic capital the community needs a stock of «moral capital,» which is essential to guiding business activity.

Fomenting morality and virtue in society is a task for churches and parents, the document states. The media and legal system also play a part in setting the moral tone.

The document also recognizes a need for a greater level of economic sophistication on the part of those working for social justice. «Moral principles applied simplistically and without due respect for economic analysis can easily lead to erroneous solutions,» it warns. Therefore, churches need to avail themselves of the expertise of their members who are specialists in the field of economics and business.

The document states that Christians want to contribute to the national debates that will precede the next election for the British Parliament, as well as intervening in local elections in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. But, the document adds, «none of the Churches participating in this study wish to be seen to be telling their members how to vote.» The aim of the CTBI document, rather, is to make «a genuinely nonpartisan contribution» to the debate.

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