Some reflections on the Common Good

 History was made on 21 March when Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor was invited to give a talk to parliamentarians at the Speaker's Residence, at the Houses of Parliament. More than 80 attended the evening. We publish the full text below, courtesy of Archbishop's House. The text of other speeches and writings by the Cardinal can be found on: I am very grateful indeed to the Speaker of the House of Commons and Lord Carter for kindly inviting me to come and talk with you today. There is a relationship, even a partnership, between religion, or a religious leader, and the politician. Well, I suppose a Cardinal, as a Bishop, has the advantage of not having to run for office at periodic intervals (though I know people who rather wish they did!) Therefore, religious leaders can speak of human and social issues in a different context. In his farewell address, George Washington said, "Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labour to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens". By way of introduction, I wish to be clear that the Roman Catholic Church in our country cannot align itself with any political party, glad as I am that Catholics can be found in New Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat parties - and no doubt the S.N.P! We might favour one party in one aspect of its agenda but never at the expense of the proclamation of the Gospel, which must remain independent to be true to its prophetic self. This is why the Catholic Church does not normally allow priests to enter Parliament; and why there exists the delicate question about whether any Catholic bishop could or should enter the House of Lords. Secondly, I recognise that religious leaders have more of a freedom to speak out on the many moral and ethical issues which face our nation. We can and should be more prophetic, more demanding, less compromising which can at times be irritating for politicians who say that religious leaders speak from a 'pie in the sky' mentality, without appreciating the nitty-gritty of the 'market place' of political life. My duty is to keep moral principles continually in sight in the decision making process. I also recognise that politics, by its nature, is the art of the possible, which includes taking difficult decisions and finding ways of balancing conflicting concerns. Thirdly, I would like to remind you of three areas which are crucial to Catholics and where the Church and politics overlap. Firstly, there is anything that concerns human dignity and safeguarding its integrity from conception to the grave. Secondly, there is seeking the common good through strengthening the seams and cohesion of human society, which can only be done within a family, within a community. And, thirdly, that very real aspect of life which is helping people find what, or rather Who, they are made for, which is God whose Good News is revealed to us in Jesus Christ. My introduction aside, what do I want to say to you? It seems to me that most people say that Britain is a good country to live in - certainly, as compared to countless other countries in the world. There is proper freedom, democratic process, on the whole a tolerant and equable people, and so on. However, it is true to say that as I move round the country I find a large number of people who are deeply concerned about the future health and direction of society in Britain. They find it hard to articulate this unease. It is there and it is real and it affects you and me in a very profound way. Let me try to illustrate this in three ways. Today, despite astonishing scientific advances, more than 800,000,000 people do not have enough to eat and many millions die of starvation each year. British Governments have been prominent in trying to reduce the burden of unpayable debts of the poorest nations and are much to be commended for this. What is needed, and what are of great importance, are generous and well-targeted aid to the poorest nations; a commitment to environmental protection and sustainable development; and a reform of the international trading and financial systems so that globalisation proceeds in a way that benefits the poorest instead of making their lot even worse. It is quite clear that all this is needed because of the desperate state of those hungry people. But it is also important for another reason. For many years I went out fairly regularly to South America because I had priests from my diocese working there. In particular I went to Peru. In that country there wasn't starvation but the poverty was extreme. What struck me was the comparison between what I would call the simplicity, the generosity, the joy of the people of that country as compared with the people of our own country. A sweeping statement you might say - but I think you will know what I mean. It is a fact that too much money can cripple joy. Our country is being consumed by 'consumerism'. Talking to some parents recently, they spoke to me of their great fear that, as they grew up, their children were being 'designer fashioned' by the advertisers and the things that money can buy. A healthy society is much more important than a wealthy society. It would be much better for this country if we were more generous, indeed, exaggeratedly generous in the aid that we give to those poor countries that provide so much for very many people in this country - not all - who already have more than enough. Of course this may not be thought politically expedient - but if I were a politician I would not mind going to the wall for it. Another aspect of the good society is of course the building up of community and, in particular, the family. In common with many people of all faiths and no faith, I am gravely concerned about the increasing instability of family life and the ever-increasing break down, particularly in marriage. As well as personal suffering, the massive and destructive economic fall out from family breakdown is felt by everyone, reaching as it does into child poverty, poor educational achievement and dysfunctional behaviour. This is a terrible, festering sore and it is at the heart of the uneasiness of so many people. I am quite clear that this is not just the responsibility of politicians; this is something that concerns all of us: religious leaders, politicians, parents, teachers, and big business. I'll give you an example of something that seems to me to diminish, and take away from, family life. One of the nice things that I see as I go out, particularly on a Sunday, for a walk in St. James's Park or Green Park, is families walking around with their children. The Sunday Trading Act allows trading on Sunday but it gives a conscience clause for shop workers. This conscience clause means little to the poor person who knows that he or she, most probably she, would lose her job if she did not accept to work on a Sunday. What kind of human society are we constructing? You know, and I know, that time for families to be together is extraordinarily important for their continuing welfare and yet we construct a society that gives them little time or opportunity for being together, with space to enjoy each other, and cement those seeds at the very heart of our society. The third commandment, 'Thou shalt keep holy the Sabbath Day' is not primarily about going to church, but the time to be with family and friends. My last area is something more profound. This is not a valueless society. It is a strange thing that in Britain, while the Churches or religions don't occupy an central place, the fact is that for most people there is a spirituality which they seek, which they live. St. Thomas Aquinas says everyone is 'capax Dei', namely, that each person has a hunger for God, a space for God and also needs God. This spirituality comes from the very source that a religious leader must proclaim. Each human person is of infinite dignity having been created by God or, as the Bible says, 'made in his own image and likeness'. This is why the Catholic Church has a total life ethic from the moment of conception until the moment of death. It is why, clearly, we would totally deplore abortion or euthanasia; why we have care for the young, the defenceless, and the elderly. To me, I might say, it is extraordinary that in a recent debate on embryo research, those who voted against it were so few. I have been puzzling over the nature of that vote, whether in the House of Commons or in the House of Lords, over these past months. Here was something with regard to the experimentation on specially created embryos, which other Governments in Europe have not done. Many European Parliamentarians were astonished. Only in this country, and with substantial majorities in both Houses, has the cloning of human embryos in effect been authorised. Was it just the plea of those who are incurably sick or disabled, namely, because of the good end for this embryo research? Not totally, because we are told quite clearly that there is stem cell research using cells from adults, and also other sources could achieve the same goals without creating and destroying cloned human embryos. Was it because there was money to be made by someone somewhere along the line, or was it because of an exaggerated subservience of common sense and common humanity to the demands of some scientific research? 'This we can do, therefore we will do it', say the genetic engineers. Who is to say, 'This far and no further?' I must stop. George Washington was right. 'Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.' So I see my role, and those who speak like me, as being very positive towards politicians and I feel that I have a necessary and positive contribution to make to the debate. I regard the role of a politician as a vocation, a noble vocation of service to others. I would want to applaud you very much for what you do, whether in the House of Commons or in the House of Lords. I am also struck by the thought that there is much in common between the everyday work of a member of parliament and a priest in a parish. In your constituency surgeries, you are dealing with people's troubles and their problems all the time, listening and offering help where you can. Today, particularly, we will all be listening to the serious problems that have arisen from foot and mouth disease and offering prayers and any help. It seems to me we have too easily forgotten today that politics, rightly understood and practised, is indeed a noble art. Maybe we have lost positive words such as 'statesman', and 'diplomat', in describing that kind of service but I salute everyone who takes up that vocation. Before the 1997 election the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales produced a document based on the Church's social teaching called The Common Good. Tomorrow we will be publishing a short leaflet in advance of the next election called, Vote for the Common Good. It is scrupulously non-party political and invites Catholics to reflect on that teaching. It draws attention to issues which touch human life and society, and encourages people to vote with one question in mind: "How can my vote best serve the common good?" My hope is that you will be there to listen to their concerns and to offer help where you can. Finally, there is another important thing that we have in common. If this is indeed God's world, and if you and I speak and act from a belief in God, and if that belief is real and not notional, then it means we ourselves have a duty to be in communion with God by prayer. I beg you not to neglect your own spiritual life. Find space for God, nourish your own spiritual life by giving time to God in your daily life. John Henry Newman was in Sicily in 1839, extremely ill, trying to find his vocation by saying, 'God has a work for me to do'. That I believe for each one of you, just as I believe it for myself. So day by day we carry out that task which God has given us to do in a partnership which I think should be very fruitful.

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