Cardinal challenges society's reluctance to accept moral authority

 Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor, Archbishop of Westminster, delivered the Leggett Lecture last night at the University of Surrey to an audience of several hundreds lecturers and students. In his talk, entitled 'The Real Map', the Cardinal said many people in Britain today are at a loose end, because of what he believes to be an unwillingness to accept any moral authority other than their own. The lecture opened with the Cardinal commenting on how often, through school and university, we can be "given maps of life and knowledge" about "the things which scientists thought could be proved to exist, and how they worked; but the beliefs and values on which previous generations conducted their lives and the non-material questions which preoccupied them had simply been removed from the intellectual scheme of things", a process "which left no room for a creator". He spoke of Western society having made enormous advances in racial and gender equality and in medical knowledge - "all these things are good"- but that we have also "sidelined the intangible questions about the meaning of life, about virtue and right living", and have "reduced them to apparent irrelevance". The Cardinal commented on the environment and genetic research and the way in which "as material conditions have improved, so the quality of life has coarsened" with "innocence, fidelity, simplicity of life... mocked at and the gratification of almost any sexual urge... regarded as a basic human right". Even "technology and affluence between them", he said, "have not yet produced a truly civilised society or... brought us nearer to understanding what true happiness is or what is needed to achieve it." "The questions which science, of its nature, cannot answer... are still of deepest concern to every one of us." The Cardinal said he believed many people, and especially the young, are beginning to question whether "the liberal/scientific view of the world provides adequate answers to these age-old questions". He went on to discuss differing views from which people choose to view the world and especially rejected Bishop Richard Holloway's "liberal position" on an "objective code of morals", suggesting that there is "an objective moral code implanted in human nature: the so-called Natural Law" with man having "within his heart a law written by God". To reach the goal of happiness, the Cardinal said, God has given us "a map... which we call 'conscience'" which ultimately allow us to "practice social justice, to husband and not squander or destroy the resources of our planet, to practise fidelity and stability in marriage, and to respect the absolute value of every human life". The Cardinal ended by recognising that his thoughts "are entirely consistent with those principles which Einstein saw as "universal, true for men at all times" and discoverable by moral or aesthetic insight common to all men and women." full text of the Leggett Lecture follows: given by Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor Wednesday 21 November 2001 - University of Surrey, Guildford The Real Map The late E.F. Schumacher, the author of Small is Beautiful, once recalled how, on a visit to what was then known as Leningrad, he consulted a street map but could not make out where he was. "I could see several enormous churches, yet there was no trace of any of them on my map. When finally an interpreter came to help me, he said: "We don't show churches on our maps." Contradicting him, I pointed to one that was very clearly marked. "This is a museum," he said "not what we call a 'living church'. It is only the living churches we don't show." Schumacher then realised that this was not the first time he had been given a map which failed to show things that were in front of his eyes. All through school and university he had been given maps of life and knowledge on which there was hardly a trace of many of the things he most cared about. They showed him the things which scientists thought could be proved to exist, and how they worked; but the beliefs and values on which previous generations conducted their lives and the non-material questions which preoccupied them had simply been removed from the intellectual scheme of things. As for God, "it was still permissible, on suitable occasions, to refer to God the Creator, although every educated person knew that there was not really a God... and that the things around us had come into existence by a process of mindless evolution, that is by chance and natural selection" - a process which left no room for a creator. I suspect that many of those here will recognise this as broadly speaking the ethos - the world-view - inculcated into them, either directly or indirectly, at university and since. It is the culmination of the process which began with the Enlightenment: the exaltation of reason in its narrowest, Cartesian sense, focussed only on those phenomena which are indubitable and measurable. It is an approach which has resulted in enormous advances in the sciences, in medicine, in our understanding of how the universe and all that is in it "works". But it has sidelined the intangible questions about the meaning of life, about virtue and right living, and has reduced them to apparent irrelevance. In the West today, the level of material comfort is, for most people, higher than ever before. So is the degree of control we exercise over our environment. Compassion and tolerance are, perhaps, more in evidence than in the past; liberty of conscience - not least in the Catholic Church - has come to be acknowledged as paramount; racial hatred has been outlawed and inequality between the sexes - to put it in neutral terms - significantly reduced. Dramatic advances in medical knowledge have enabled us to reduce pain and lengthen life. All these things are good. But when we look a little deeper or a little further, we can see that all is not well with us. As we in the West grow steadily richer and more comfortable, half the world's population remains in abject poverty, and the establishment of the global marketplace looks set to widen the gap. Our ability to control our environment has not prevented us from squandering non-renewable resources at a truly horrendous rate, eliminating whole species and threatening to destroy the atmosphere within which we are able to exist. Genetic research, while opening up hitherto unthought of possibilities for the relief of incurable diseases, puts at risk the inviolability of human life. The events of 11 September and their aftermath have illustrated the depth and bitterness of the hatreds which divide us. Within our own society, as material conditions have improved, so the quality of life has coarsened. Violence and drugs are poisoning lives on a scale hard to imagine by comparison with a few years ago. If one were to judge by the media - keen, as ever, to push out the boundaries of the permissible - it would seem that innocence, fidelity, simplicity of life are to be mocked at and the gratification of almost any sexual urge is to be regarded as a basic human right. "It will be a savage world indeed", as the late Bishop of Salisbury, John V. Taylor, predicted, "when we find no more in beauty than pleasing sensation, and neither death's mystery nor the astonishment of birth hold any power to overwhelm us, but are as carnal as we have tried to make eating and sex. True civilisation is three-quarters reverence." These reflections are more than just the dyspeptic musings of elderly clerics. Similar misgivings are now being aired even in the media. The state of our society, according to a woman writer in a recent number of The Spectator, "brings to mind Hans Christian Andersen's nasty little fairy tale of the old enchanter ... who applies his magnifying glass to a drop of ditchwater, in which he observes 'all the thousand little imps in the water... jumping and springing about, devouring each other, or pulling each other to pieces'. In this case ... we are the imps themselves ... part of a society apparently in the grip of a galloping sexual bulimia in which the only notions of innocence attach, hazily, to 'kiddies' (when well clear of puberty) and certain categories of animal." So technology and affluence between them have not yet produced a truly civilised society. Nor have they brought us nearer to understanding what true happiness is or what is needed to achieve it. In the words of the Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, "in achieving material abundance we have lost our moral and spiritual bearings. In achieving technical mastery, we have lost sight of the question, To what end? Valuing science at the expense of ethics, we have unparalleled knowledge of what is, and unprecedented doubts about what ought to be." Meanwhile religious faith has come to be regarded as simply a form of wish-fulfilment. At best, it is seen as a private territory of vanishing plausibility into which individuals may enter if they wish, but which they must not expect to have any bearing on the real world. The real world is believed by some to be the world governed by the post-modern combination of scientific knowledge and liberal agnosticism in which, it has been said, "people can tolerate any belief whatsoever, provided it is not seriously held, and who therefore demonise anyone who disagrees with them". Yet the questions which science, of its nature, cannot answer have not gone away. Indeed, they are still of deepest concern to every one of us. There are the inescapable questions of what to do in particular situations: faced, for example, with marital breakdown, with the prospect of an unwanted pregnancy, with the opportunity to make a quick profit by dishonest means, or with the possibility of lying oneself out of a difficult situation. And even more important, there are the prior questions: What is happiness, and how do I achieve it? Does life have a purpose, or is it just "a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing"? I have the impression that many people in our "secularised" and sceptical culture - and perhaps especially young people - are beginning to question whether the liberal/scientific view of the world provides adequate answers to these age-old questions. All of us, whatever our beliefs, or lack of them, are on a journey: the journey through life from birth, through maturity to old age, death and (as many millions of people continue to believe) beyond. All of us have to make up our minds about the nature of that journey and how best to lead it; and at every stage along the road we are faced with the need to make moral or ethical decisions, as well as judgements of value. On all this, the liberal/scientific map either offers no guidance or else leaves us to make up our own minds simply on the basis of personal preference. You may choose between a utilitarian view (what you judge will be best for society), a hedonistic one (what will contribute most directly to my self-fulfilment) or a deterministic one (the choice is illusory because it is determined by heredity, culture, parental conditioning or the factors governing the survival of the species.) Or, of course, you can simply abdicate, like the scientist quoted recently in The Times who, when asked about the morality of human cloning, replied that he was a scientist and not a moral philosopher, and was therefore content to get on with his science and leave moral judgements to others. A similar abdication of moral responsibility, albeit in a different context, was practised by the custodians of Hitler's concentration camps. You will find a classic expression of the current liberal position in a recent, widely read book by Richard Holloway, the former Bishop of Edinburgh, who argues reassuringly that the disappearance of moral certainty need not worry us. At the risk of trivialising his carefully argued thesis, I think it is fair to say that he discounts the need for an objective code of morals, and dismisses versions of morality derived from religious traditions in particular as essentially authoritarian or fundamentalist. The traditions themselves, he suggests, have now disintegrated, to a considerable extent through the corruption of the institutions (like the Churches) which sought to impose them. However with the old traditional morality discredited and no longer consonant with the way people actually live, we are in a position to develop new moral guidelines of our own, based on the principles of consent and avoidance of harm. "The traditions that no longer work for us were ones we built ourselves, so the chances are that we can build new ones for the future. They will probably be less solid than... (in) in the past, more makeshift and provisional, but that will suit our day and our needs". This is an approach profoundly congenial to the predominant culture of our day. But will these "makeshift and provisional" principles which we lay down for ourselves then have the force to influence conduct when the going gets rough? The distinguished journalist and academic Timothy Garton Ash, in his book The File, describes how he returned to post-Cold War Berlin to examine the file which had been kept on him by the East German Security Police, the Stasi, and to talk to some of the people who had informed on him - decent people caught up in a closed system which they had come to regard as immutable and inescapable. It was a system in which it was taken for granted that deceit and betrayal of one another were ineluctable features of daily life, justified by the need to sustain the state; and that the survival of the state - of the Marxist-Leninist polity - was a kind of absolute. Ash rejects that absolute as a perversion. And at the end of his book he reflects on the moral choices which may face his own children in the fight of what he accepts as "the relativity of our own ways and beliefs" - a relativity the awareness of which, he believes, makes for tolerance. He endorses the view advanced by Isaiah Berlin that "To realise the relative validity of one's own convictions and yet stand for them unflinchingly is what distinguishes a civilised man from a barbarian." But then he goes on: "here is the more difficult part. From what source can we derive those standards of right and wrong strong enough to challenge, if need be, the very system we have been brought up to accept as right, and to counter the deep normative power of the given? Where to find the courage to defend these values 'unflinchingly', even to death, if we know all along that they are only relative?" As Pope John Paul II once memorably said in Germany, "Mann kann niche auf Probe leben; mann kann nicht auf Probe sterben; mann kann nicht auf Probe lieben": "You can't live provisionally; you can't die provisionally; and you can't love provisionally". The traditional Judaeo-Christian response to Ash's question is to point to the existence of an objective moral code implanted in human nature: the so-called Natural Law. And one of the clearest descriptions of what is meant by the Natural Law is attributed to the great scientist Albert Einstein. Einstein, so Isaiah Berlin tells us, held that "Moral and aesthetic values, rules, principles cannot be derived from the sciences, which deal with what is, not with what should be; but neither are they... generated by differences of class, culture or race. No less than the laws of nature from which they cannot be derived, they are universal, true for men at all times, discovered by moral or aesthetic insight common to all men, and embodied in the basic principles (not the mythology) of the great world religions." In more explicitly theistic terms, the same thought is reflected in the Second Vatican Council's Constitution on the Church in the Modern World ('Gaudium et Spes'): "In the depth of his conscience man discovers a law he has not made for himself but which he must obey, a law which always calls him to love and do good and shun evil, and which, when necessary speaks clearly to his heart and says: do this; shun that. The fact is that man has within his heart a law written by God; man's dignity lies in obedience to it, and he will be judged accordingly. Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of man, where he finds himself alone with God, whose voice can be heard in his inmost being." This uncompromising language of rules and principles, law and judgement, can and does mislead people into thinking of objective morality as a set of prohibitions arbitrarily imposed by the deity - or by an authoritarian Church - with the apparent object of curtailing human enjoyment. But although Christians sometimes encourage this misunderstanding by the moral attitudes we strike and the language we use, the reality is in fact the reverse. The starting point for an understanding of the Christian concept of this "law within the heart written by God" - Einstein's "basic principles" - is a consideration of human happiness: given what we know of human nature and human behaviour, what conduct will best conduce to human happiness and human fulfilment? In addressing this question, the Christian believer is, of course, proceeding from a conviction derived from twenty centuries of reflection, experience and prayer: the conviction that all human life, the universe and all it contains, are gifts from the hands of a Creator who brought them into being and sustains them; that however mysterious and unknowable the ways of this Creator are, the right analogy for his relationship with men and women is that of a loving father to his children; and that the journey on which these children are embarked is intended to lead them ultimately to a fuller life in Him. To enable them to reach that goal, He has given them, not a set of prohibitions, but a map; and with the map, the compass which we call "conscience". From this understanding of the nature of the created universe and humanity's place in it, there follow the basic postulates of the Christian moral tradition: - that we are all caught up in the mystery of God, who is our end and our beginning; - that each human life has an inalienable dignity derived from God, in whose image and likeness we are made; - that we should behave to one another as we believe that God behaves to us, that is with justice, gentleness and generosity; - that we are the stewards of what God has created, not its owners, and are answerable to him for our stewardship. It is perhaps easy to see how, from these basic postulates, we derive the precepts which require us (for example) to practice social justice, to husband and not squander or destroy the resources of our planet, to practise fidelity and stability in marriage, and to respect the absolute value of every human life. So far from being arbitrary or irrational constraints, these and the other precepts we derive from our map are profoundly positive. They are the "foundational principles for civilized existence: that is for human flourishing according to the kind of nature we share." You may of course object that none of this can be regarded as "objective". It is not susceptible of scientific or empirical proof, and must therefore be treated simply as one of any number of possible explanations of what we are all doing here; a map of life which some people may be guided by if they wish, but which has no reality for those who do not accept it. This is not the place for a course in Christian apologetics, and I am not going to embark on a series of arguments for the existence of God. I would only remind you that a theocentric world-view is no more and no less "objective" than the current liberal/scientific view that the existence or non- existence of God is an irrelevance. Belief in the arbitrariness, the essential soul-lessness, of the universe is at least as debatable as belief in the tremendous reality of a sustaining Creator. God's reality is as evident to the believer as is God's unreality to the sceptic. "What baffles the prophet is the disparity between the power and impact of God and the immense indifference, unyieldingness, sluggishness and inertia of the heart. God's thunderous voice is shaking heaven and earth and man does not hear the faintest sound." There is, moreover, no such thing as a totally "objective" or value-free world-view. To quote Professor Nicholas Lash of Cambridge, " 'Secularity' - the systematic exclusion of theological or metaphysical considerations from the structure of social explanations [is] illusory and self-defeating... 'secular' social theories are, in fact, 'theologies or anti-theologies' in disguise. Purporting to be scientific explanations of the social world (including, therefore Christianity), in fact they tell stories which, from the standpoint of a Christian narrative of the world's creation, are either deviant or false." Believers in short, whether Christians, Jews or Moslems, have no reason to apologise to scientists or liberals for taking a theocentric view of the world. Although I have drawn my basic moral postulates from the Christian tradition and formulated them in the theistic terms in which I believe, they are entirely consistent with those principles which Einstein saw as "universal, true for men at all times" and discoverable by moral or aesthetic insight common to all men and women. Because we live in a "post-modern" culture, with its emphasis on relativism and pluralism, and its essentially hedonistic understanding of what constitutes human flourishing, these principles have become obscured, and Christians are under great pressure to modify them, or else to "privatise" them and treat them as a matter of personal preference. But if, as we believe, they are indeed "the foundational principles ... for human flourishing", then they are principles of which all humanity needs to be reminded; and the evidence for what happens when we disregard them is in the moral confusion and malaise which surrounds us. This does not mean that Christians should seek to impose their moral vision on those who do not share it, even assuming that were feasible. But nor can they allow it to be relegated to the same private, subjective status as a preference for Bach over pop music. The role of the Christian and the Christian Church in addressing the moral problems of our society is essentially one of persuasion: to make the Christian vision manifest as much by the quality of the lives Christians lead as by discussion, dialogue and argument. In putting our case, we need humility as well as confidence, bearing in mind the many evils for which Christians have been responsible. That we believe we have access to the "Real Map" does not mean that we have all the answers: the map has to be read with due regard to the complexities of human life and of the human condition. What Christians cannot do, however, is simply to acquiesce in the current, "post-modern" assumption that all truths are relative and all moral precepts provisional. For to do so would be a betrayal. If the moral vision which I have tried to summarise here is indeed the Real Map, if it enshrines the true principles by which human conduct should be guided, then, to quote Professor Lash again, it is "a powerful and public truth, the antidote to all the violence which defines and shapes our world. And... we have no alternative but so to act and speak". Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor Archbishop of Westminster

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