Brexit and Catholic Social Thought


Dr Maria Exall is our Research Fellow in Catholic Social Thought and Practice.
She describes her research project on Brexit and Catholic Social Thought below.

There is a widespread agreement across the political spectrum that the economic and social alienation which led many in Britain’s poorer and marginalised communities to vote to leave the EU must be addressed.[1] Political commenters and academics have referenced Catholic Social Teaching (CST) and the ‘Common Good’ as a framework for dealing with this alienation in an authentic and engaged way. But are they referencing the tradition with integrity? Differing emphases within the tradition would lead us in different political directions and any use of CST must acknowledge this.

 In this project I will examine two contrasting models of ethical citizenship which could meet the challenges of the social alienation of Brexit, both of which draw upon CST and the Common Good tradition. The first model is that to be an ethical citizen you need to be a ‘citizen of somewhere’ – embedded, relational, and part of a distinctive group. In this model it is only by acknowledging your place that it is possible to have a meaningful and respectful dialogue with others to enhance social solidarity. The second model is that ethical citizenship starts with the understanding that we are all ‘citizens of nowhere’ and the development of a universal ethics is necessary to embrace growing transnational, multiple identities in our globalising world.

I will assess the viability of both models in bridge building across competing communities of belonging, and the cultivation of an ethics of empathy and compassion. The theoretical context of my examination of the contrasting models is the debate between communitarian, semi communitarians and liberals in contemporary political philosophy and the construction of contesting post liberalisms. I will deal with the criticism that liberal democracy is too ‘thin’ to encompass cultural identity or community belonging. I will, equally, critique the ‘post liberal’ politics of Red Tories and Blue Labour and the integrity of their readings of the Common Good tradition which support a ‘citizenship of somewhere’.

Both Red Tories and Blue Labour make strong claims for the distinctive role of faith communities- and the socially conservatism within them-in renewing and revitalising our society and I will assess this. I will show how the Blue Labour/Red Tory critique of the neoliberal market system often seamlessly passes on to a critique of certain principles of political liberal democracy itself, and of social liberalism. I will challenge this conflation. I will also assess their understanding of identity politics and question the reified assumptions of the self and ‘community’ that underpin their conception of cultural identity and belonging.

I will examine the claim that the Common Good supports a distinct perspective that is ‘above politics’, an ethical citizenship where political initiatives at the mezzo and micro based civic society level are seen as more ‘moral’ than the actions of local and national Government. I will consider how this relates to current populist ‘anti politics’, and contrast with interpretations of the Common Good, perhaps more historically and theologically rigorous, where the focus on national Governments and their influence on the international order retains a key importance. I will consider an alternative reading of the ‘Common Good’ for our present day that would support a ‘citizenship of nowhere’.

[1] Even though this is an empirically contestable narrative as an explanation for the result.

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Maria Exall has a PhD in Philosophical Theology from King’s College London. Her research interests are the interface between modern rationalist philosophy and apophaticism and the relationship between egalitarian ethical and political theory and the Christian tradition of spiritual poverty. Her article “Different Deserts: deconstructionism and Dionysian apophaticism” was published in Mystical Theology and Continental Philosophy: Interchange in the Wake of God (Routledge, 2017) and her article “Becoming a cross to thyself”: loving humility in The Book of Privy Counselling and Thomas Nagel’s ‘impersonal standpoint’ was published in Mystical Doctrines of Deification: Case studies in the Christian Tradition (Routledge, 2019). Maria is a national trade union representative and political activist.