Pope says Nope? Catholic Social Teaching and the independence question


The tabloid press informed us during the referendum campaign that the ‘Pope says Nope’.  A Scottish academic asks what might have caused the Pope, if he did, to say Nope, and what lay behind the apparent shift in the political allegiance of some of Scotland’s Catholics from Labour to SNP.

The church long predates the notion of a national state of the sort that we understand today.  The early church was an underground organisation which simply had to take whatever government it got.  The Messiah, it was understood, was not the political liberator of the Jewish nation.  But as time went on, and the second coming seemed less imminent, Christianity made its accommodations with the powers of the world.  By the time of Constantine, Christianity became the official religion of an empire which spanned much of the known world, the Eastern and Western Roman Empires.

In the year 494, a short-lived Pope called Gelasius I asserted the notion of ‘the two swords’.  He said to the Eastern Roman emperor, in a fight about who appointed the patriarch in Constantinople: ‘There are two powers by which this world is chiefly ruled… the authority of the priests and the royal power… that of the priests is more weighty…’  This struggle for power eventually reached a compromise 300 years later, in the Concordat of Worms, though by that time the Vatican had lost any authority over Eastern Christendom.

These understandings of the authority of the secular and the spiritual, what we might now call church-state relations, are silent on geography, the boundaries of nations.  The notion of a nation, or a people, was more like a tribe or an ethnic group, not a modern polity, a territory with rulers, laws, citizens and a sense of belonging.  It was the church which carried forward from its Roman heritage the notion of a functioning political system, a polity, of what good government looked like, and its mental picture of that was Europe wide, Christendom wide – not national.


Modern Catholic social teaching and national questions

The nation-state is a notion of the 18th and 19th century.  The idea of a nation, with its own national polity, emerged from the French revolution, the revolutions of 1848 and the German nationalist romantics.  ‘Peoples’, defined by ethnic identity, become polities – states with their internal legal and political orders, and citizens, and an international personality.  Nowadays, this crystallises in the juridical or international law notion of a state, as in the UN Charter.  The international order consists of the interaction of sovereign states.  These abstract institutions assume an international ‘personality’ rather like the actual personality of individual sovereigns in the middle ages.  Their boundaries are inviolate.  Their internal affairs are their own business.

The church has more or less reconciled itself to the sovereignty of nation states.  As late as 1963 Pacem in Terris says ‘Thus all over the world men are either the citizens of an independent State, or are shortly to become so; nor is any nation nowadays content to submit to foreign domination’.  With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that an uncritical acceptance of colonial administrative boundaries as defining ‘nations’ was problematic.  Lines on a map don’t make a nation, even if they can define the boundaries of a state.  This was a gap not just in the church’s thinking; the question of what constitutes a ‘nation’, what should become a state, and the relation between the two is not an obvious one.

The church constantly stresses the need for international as well as national politics, to overcome political rivalries, promote peace and justice, and deal with issues of globalisation which are beyond the power of individual states.  In the words of Gaudium et Spes, there is a the need for ‘some universal authority…endowed with effective power to safeguard security…justice…and rights’.

None of this gives us a direct answer to the Scottish national question, but it does set the context.  The Scottish case is clearly not a post-colonial question.  The issue was not whether there was a ‘right’ to independence, but whether people should opt for independence or not: the choice was being freely made by the citizens of a modern, free, European country.

Looking at Europe, we can see how the church’s history influences its thinking.  Its roots in the multinational Roman Empire made the church something of a guardian of ideas of good governance.  This inheritance formed, very imperfectly, the ideas of European Christendom.  It is no accident that many of the founding fathers and leaders of the European Union – people like Robert Schumann, Konrad Adenauer, Alcide De Gasperi and Jacques Delors – were driven by a vision of European rather than national unity, and very specifically by Catholic Social Teaching.  Catholicism in general leans to the supranational more than to the national.

A digression: the confessional state

There have been occasions when the church and some particular national movements have become entangled.  The most obvious example is the Polish nation’s image of itself – identifying with the suffering Christ – and the connection between Catholicism and Polish nationalism is a strong one.  Ireland offers a slightly different example: those of us raised on songs about the revolutionary activities of ‘brave Father Murphy’ are often surprised to find the extent to which the church authorities were hesitant about Irish nationalism.  Slovakia offers a warning: under the leadership of a Catholic priest, it became briefly a deeply unpleasant, supposedly Christian, fascist state in the 1940s.

In the Scottish case, however, the choice is between membership of one or other of two secular, liberal states.  So far as religious freedom is concerned, Scotland and the UK are in broadly the same place.  The choice of independence, for Catholics, was not about freedom of religion, the place of the church in society, or the extent to which the state was in any sense a confessional one.  Nor was there any plausible suggestion that independence would have led to social policies more in line with traditional church teaching, on issues like abortion, gay marriage and so on.

Did the Pope say Nope?

And so to the Pope’s intervention on the matter.  He was being asked directly about potential division between Catalonia and Spain and said, ‘All divisions worry me’, and the succession of a nation without a history of forced unity has to be handled with tweezers and analysed case by case.’  ‘Handling with tweezers’ seems to be an Argentinian turn of phrase for something that should be considered with great delicacy.  The tabloid headline ‘Pope says Nope’ which delighted supporters of the Better Together campaign may have oversimplified the Papal message, but I think it got some of his drift.

Probably the most important single theme in all of the Church’s social teaching has been about social solidarity.  There is a close bond between the ideas of solidarity and the common good, and the ‘universal destination of goods’ and between solidarity and equality.  In essence solidarity is about mutual support and sharing between different groups or classes of people to produce a more just, more equitable, outcome.  Solidarity ‘highlights…The common path of individuals and pupils towards an ever more committed unity’.

I want to focus on the concrete and practical: resource sharing to redistribute between different social groups.  In general, the wider the geographical boundaries of social solidarity are set, the more likely they are to produce socially just outcomes.  The rich like to put walls around themselves, whether in gated communities or small, rich, tax havens.  The poor end up together as well.  But inside any one country, rich areas cross-subsidise poor ones – or they should: it is extraordinary how often better off parts of any country find arguments saying that they should be entitled to retain the resources generated there, and not waste them on the feckless poor elsewhere in the country.  Very much of the independence argument in Catalonia is based on the proposition that it is wrong for rich Catalonia to be subsidising poorer regions of Spain.

The United Kingdom is a multinational state, but has a high level of geographical social solidarity – guaranteeing welfare and pensions in each part of the state irrespective of the income generated there.  So, for example, Wales enjoys higher levels of public spending than the United Kingdom average, but it could afford maybe 30% less from its own taxable resources.  Gordon Brown described this in a nice phrase as a kind of ‘social justice between nations’.  Contrast it with the EU, another supranational institution: here there is very little sharing of resources across the nation states within EU boundaries.  German taxpayers do not pay Greek pensions.  So if Greek tax revenues fall short, Greek pensioners go short.  Modern nation states embody – geographical – social solidarity within their boundaries, but not across them.  That’s international aid, if it exists at all.

The argument from social solidarity and social justice, therefore, tends to widen rather than narrow national borders.

I am not saying there is a high level of redistribution inside every nation state: the UK, for example, is more or less in the middle – not as redistributive as Scandinavia, but more redistributive than North America.  But redistribution within national boundaries is geography blind.  Whether you get your pension or your benefit depends on the rules, not on where you live.  That’s true in most countries; even in federal countries: redistribution for welfare is carried out at the state level. It isn’t true between countries.  States have both the shared identity and the democratic mechanisms to legitimate the pooling and sharing of resources across their territory to deliver social solidarity.

So on the face of it, the principle of solidarity suggests that national boundaries should be set as widely as possible to maximise the scope for sharing resources, and separation into two different states goes against that.

It might be argued however that other big principle of Catholic social teaching, subsidiarity, pulls in the opposite direction: originally conceived as a principle in opposition to the all-encompassing state, subsidiarity argues that matters should be determined at the lowest practical level, nearest to those affected.  ‘Intermediate social entities can properly perform the functions that fall to them without being required to hand them over on to other social entities of a higher level.

In the church’s teaching this was not initially about different levels of government.  It was a reaction to totalitarianism, which tried to gather all power to the state.  Subsidiarity was primarily about preserving the proper role of the family, the organisations of civil society, against the claims of a state that would supplant them.  But it can be applied to government institutions too, and has been adopted by the EU as a principle for regulating the allocation of powers to different levels of government.  Champions of national government grabbed at it, but it is equally applicable to any system of multi-levell government – national, regional, local or European.

Subsidiarity and solidarity have to be held in balance.  The risks of solidarity are those of centralisation and control.  Subsidiarity carries its risks too: ‘Subsidiarity without solidarity runs the risk of self centred localism.’  It’s certainly not the same as nationalism.  In essence it is about multi-level government.

Independence as an end to austerity?

Most voters in the referendum seemed to be preoccupied by whether they would be richer or poorer because of the result.  For people who were already poor, their immediate experience of ‘austerity’ may well have driven them.  And there will be those, perhaps despairing of progress on social justice, who genuinely believed or hoped independence would deliver it.  A sense of independence as a means towards the end of social justice is often found among people concerned at public spending and welfare cuts.  Nicola Sturgeon says she is amongst them.  ‘Vote Yes and get rid of the Tories forever’, said the campaign poster.

The question in front of Scots, however, was ‘should Scotland become an independent country?’  It is possible that a purely Scottish political system would have chosen more redistribution, higher public spending and higher taxes.  I’m not at all sure, as Scots are as capable of being mean minded and selfish as anyone else.

One certain consequence of independence would have been that Scotland would no longer share its tax and public spending.  It would pay for its public services, pensions and welfare from taxes raised in Scotland alone.  The consequences of that were clear during the campaign, and have got starker since.  Per head, public spending in Scotland is already over 10% higher than the UK average, so could only be sustained if tax income was 10% higher too.  That was true when revenues from North Sea oil supported the British economy in the 1980s.  But oil is finite and revenues are now very much smaller and declining.  Within the UK, Scotland can rely on shared resources to sustain spending.  On its own, it will to have to make what is euphemistically called an additional ‘fiscal adjustment’ – cuts in public spending or tax rises of more than 10%, on top of the present Tory plans.

Balancing solidarity and subsidiarity in a multinational state

For the last 300 years, Scotland has been both part of the United Kingdom and separate from it.  The union of 1707 was not a takeover.  Scotland merged its international personality with that of England, but not its domestic institutions.  When all the state’s work was done through the law courts, Scotland’s law courts remained quite separate.  That has been the pattern since, integration on some issues, separation on others.  By the end of the 20th century, it was plain that Scotland’s separate institutions had to be democratically accountable, and hence a Scottish Parliament.

The internal organisation of the United Kingdom sets a balance.  Virtually all domestic matters, aside from welfare, are decided in the Scottish Parliament.  Other issues which are best dealt with at the wider level – such as macro-economic management – are decided at Westminster.  So too is welfare, to embody in a practical sense the principle of social solidarity.  I would argue that the framework of multi-level government is an embodiment of the principle of subsidiarity.  This is of course changing, so that the Scottish Parliament gets more tax and welfare parts.

And that takes me to the question once again of social solidarity: the present UK government is cutting welfare, at least for young people.  It seems to me that what we need is a system of multi-level government which preserves the benefits and geographical social solidarity – sharing of risks and resources across the widest possible area, with the scope for deeper social solidarity in Scotland itself.  If we want to be able to be more generous than the UK welfare system, then the Scottish Parliament should have the power to do so.

Francis’ ‘tweezers’ are the twin principles of solidarity and subsidiarity.  Solidarity strongly suggests continuing social justice between the nations of the United Kingdom: not merely a prudent approach but a principled argument for sharing resources to support, in particular, the most vulnerable wherever they are in the United Kingdom on the basis of their need, not their nationality.  Subsidiarity is enshrined in an approach which enables Scots to combine this solidarity with powerful domestic institutions taking decisions democratically in their own interests.  After what seemed to me to be a painful and difficult referendum process, I think Scotland is now edging to an arrangement which gets the right balance between subsidiarity and social solidarity.  I hope that our political leaders have the vision to see that, and perhaps the generosity to accept it.

Professor Jim Gallagher CB FRSE is Visiting Professor of Government at the University of Glasgow.  This is an edited version of a talk he gave to the Glasgow Newman Association.


Feb/Mar 2020

In June 2019 Open House held a conference exploring possible new directions for the Catholic Church in Scotland. See conference papers.

Open House also held a conference on the role of lay people in the governance of the Catholic Church in November 2013. See conference papers.