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Catholics speak up for fair society

The Catholic Church made clear this week its opposition to unbridled market forces being allowed to determine the fate of schools in a statement from the Bishops' Conference that was attacked by the Conservatives for setting a political agenda.

The policy paper from the Catholic Bishops' Conference provides a set of principles to guide Roman Catholics when they cast their votes in next year's election and will be promoted in the church's 450 secondary schools and 2,000 primaries.

It warns that public authorities must maintain a critical distance from an ideological view that free markets can do no wrong and, in particular, that the common good requires that in both health and education there has to be a system for rapid intervention when deficiencies become apparent. Schools and hospitals cannot be left waiting until the logic of the market causes them to close, harming those who must still rely on them, it says.

Based on the tenets of Catholic Social Teaching (the Church's thinking on education, partly drawn from papal encyclicals) the paper sets out the principles that should be followed in order to bring about a good and fair society. While it does not favour one political party over another, it is likely to give greater comfort to Labour and the Liberal Democrats than to the Tories.

In its more controversial sections, the statement endorses the principle of a national minimum wage and the right of employees to be represented by trade unions.

However, the central principle promoted in the statement is the concept that individuals have a claim on each other and on society for certain basic minimum conditions without which the value of human life is diminished or negated. The way in which society is structured is vital, it says, to the development of individuals. A well constructed society will be one that gives priority to the integrity, stability and health of family life.

"It should be a principle of good government, therefore, that no law should be passed with possible social consequences without first considering what effect it would have on family life and especially children," says the statement.

All Catholic citizens, it maintains, need an informed "social conscience" that enables them to identify and resist structures of injustice in their own society. "This will especially be the case at the time of heightened political activity, for instance when as now a general election is in prospect."

In education terms, the Catholic Church has not been an enthusiastic supporter of the Government. A number of Catholic schools have opted out, but the Catholic bishops oppose the policy on the grounds that it leads to inequitable funding of schools. Catholic schools in the main are comprehensive and the Church is not encouraging the introduction of selection.

According to the CES, the document will form the underpinning for discussion groups in schools and might prove useful to those staging mock elections.

"We would expect it to form part of general discussion as the election looms," said a spokeswoman.

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