A Catholic guide to modern politics

A Catholic guide to modern politics
How can a global religion help us navigate a global world, asks David Quinn


It’s fair to say we live in a time of big political turmoil. We don’t want to exaggerate, mind you. It is not anything like as turbulent as the years from World War I until the end of World War II.

Nonetheless, the long period of political stability that emerged in many countries after the Second World War II seems to be at an end.

That period was marked in Western Europe by mostly predictable and stable Governments formed by either centre-right or centre-left parties.

In America, there is still a predictable two-party system consisting of the Republicans and the Democrats, but politics are polarising there in a way not seen in decades, even taking into account the counter-culture of the 1960s.

Now what we see is the emergence of lots of new parties that are grabbing their share of the political cake, with these often being far-left or far-right.


What has happened to the old political stability? I think a big part of the answer is that globalisation has ended it.

In the past, a great deal of the world was not yet competing with the West. We competed mostly with ourselves and each Western country was more or less on the same level economically, although the likes of Ireland lagged for a long time.

But then, roughly 30 years ago, the Iron Curtain came down and suddenly the countries of Eastern Europe entered the global marketplace. Now they could compete to attract jobs that would never have gone there in the days of communism. In addition, following entry into the EU, workers from those countries could come to our countries looking for jobs.

Even more significantly, China entered the global marketplace. China was poor, with a massive population. Now it could attract investment and jobs from giant, Western corporations offering cheap, educated labour. This was a real game-changer.

India, with its vast population, also began far-reaching economic reforms with an impact on the world economy.

The effect has been the more and more people in the West, especially the working class, feel their livelihoods are threatened, as their jobs disappear overseas.

They also believe they face increased competition from immigrants. Immigration has been a huge political issue in much of Europe, as well as America, and the refusal of the main parties to acknowledge the concerns of many voters over many years has driven those voters into the arms of the nationalist right, including the likes of Donald Trump in the US, and Matteo Salvini in Italy.

What are Catholics to make of all this, and crucially should we be pro or anti-globalisation, pro or anti-immigration?

The nation-state is simply a bigger version of the local community which is a bigger version of the tribe”

There is no straight-forward answer to this. That said, in my view Catholic teaching does not permit us to be totally anti-immigration. It is un-Christian to simply close your borders to those in need.

On the other hand, you are not required to favour totally open borders either with no limits placed on immigration. Catholic teaching permits us to be concerned about the effects mass immigration would have on your own society, especially on the less-well-off.

In other words, there is a balance to be struck and it is perfectly acceptable for Catholics to lie somewhere between the two extremes and argue (respectfully hopefully) over where the balance is to be found.

Borders are, of course, an expression of the nation-state. What should Catholics think about the nation-state? Obviously, many voters now believe that globalisation is eroding the nation-state and they feel less secure and threatened as a result. It is no good simply lecturing them about this or denouncing them as racists. As mentioned, it is more the working class than the middle class who feel threatened by immigration and free trade so it’s easy for the middle class to lecture them and feel superior.

More and more people in the West…feel their livelihoods are threatened, as their jobs disappear overseas”

Again, there is no definitive Catholic answer to this matter. Catholicism is a universal religion. It believes everyone is my neighbour and not just the person next door. The EU seeks to bring about ‘ever closer union’ between all its member-states. This is fully compatible with Catholicism and most of the founders of the EU (as it is now called) were committed Catholics.

But it is also fully acceptable to believe in the nation-state so long as this belief doesn’t harden into an aggressive nationalism that defines itself against everyone else and seeks to make enemies.

The nation-state is simply a bigger version of the local community which is a bigger version of the tribe, clan or family. Just as we are allowed to take special responsibility for our family members, it is perfectly permissible to take special responsibility for those who are part of the historical local community, in our case, Ireland. That is also perfectly compatible with Christianity and Catholicism, within certain limits.

The same applies to free trade. We could take the attitude that everyone in the world should be as free to sell their goods here as someone from Ireland or the EU and therefore remove all tariffs and regulatory barriers to trade.

This might help enrich (say) farmers from Africa or Brazil, but it might harm the livelihoods of Irish farmers. So once again there is no easy answer to this question, and it is acceptable for a Catholic to be for or against free trade or be somewhere in between.

The key guiding principle must be that the care of the most vulnerable is foremost. Catholics are perfectly free to decide where the right balance lies in these issues, while carefully avoiding demonising each other when we disagree about it.