Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor explains how Catholics should approach the tricky task of evangelising Britain’s pluralistic society THE PRESENT TIME: AD EXTRA I want now to look at some aspects of that springtime landscape [described by Cardinal Newman in his 1852 homily “A Second Spring”] today, to reflect with you, first, on some of the challenges posed by our culture and, secondly, to speak about some central aspects of our life as a Church which I believe we are being called to deepen and to cherish. Let’s look at some challenges posed by our secular culture.
I have been a priest for over half a century and a bishop for more than 30 years. These have been years of considerable change in the international situation, in our society and also in the Church. Fifty years ago I think most of the values that the Church wanted to uphold were also those that society itself would have agreed with. I am in no doubt that many still recognise and admire the Church’s social and charitable work. But for others the Church and indeed Christian life seems to be out of step with “the spirit of the times”. There has been a subtle but deep change in the way the Catholic Church has been perceived by contemporary culture. It is not that it meets with indifference or even hostility – although that is certainly noticeable rather it is heard with certain incomprehension. Incomprehension not only makes it difficult for the Church, and indeed, individual Christians, to make their voice heard, it also means that there is the risk of distortion and caricature.
Yet I believe the Church has a perspective and a wisdom which our society cannot afford to exclude or silence. The Church’s teaching has the whole human good in mind; that is why it is not simply one lobby group among others. Let me give two examples.
THE ECONOMY Faced with the current global and economic crisis, it may seem that the Church’s social teaching is the last place to look for ideas. Prayers perhaps, ideas no! I think that would be a mistake. It would take another lecture, I fear, to show why but let me just point in that direction. One of my predecessors, Cardinal Manning, helped shape the beginning of the Church’s contemporary social teaching. Manning’s writing on the social and economic conditions of the poor, combined with his practical work for them and organised labour contributed to Rerum Novarum. He reminded Victorian culture that the worker was not a commodity purely subject to the economic demand or lack of it; the worker was a human being first and should be treated as such. He was clear that the economy must operate within a moral framework and exists to serve the common good, which is rooted in the good of the human person. If it forgets this, it becomes destructive of the very good it is intended to serve. In other words, money is not an end in itself. His words are very relevant in today’s economic climate. The Church does not offer a blueprint for economic policy, but it does argue that if the market is to serve the common good of all then it demands a strong ethical framework and effective regulation. One important test of this is to look at those who benefit. Here the Church has always maintained that the common good cannot be secured if it means the poor just get poorer. The poor must always be given effective preferential consideration. No action, even in critical times, should further disadvantage them or weaken their capacity to participate in the economic system.
THE FAMILY The economic crisis not only places great strains upon our financial institutions and the public purse, it has immediate and long lasting consequences for that most fundamental of all our human and social institutions, the family. We cannot be fulfilled persons without others – we are made for community. That means we must seek to sustain the health of those social institutions which are the foundations of a civilised and humane social sphere. The Church itself is one of these social spheres and that is why she has always recognised the importance of the family. The family is not only the domestic church; it is also the foundation of society. We can see that even in times of political and social collapse, the family has the power to survive and enable others to survive. It is from the family that society can rebuild itself. That is why I believe the Church is so right in continuing to emphasise the fundamental importance of marriage and family life. Socially, our culture has embarked upon experimentation with the meaning and structures of marriage and family. There is a danger that we come to undervalue their importance for human flourishing and for the strength of our cultural and civic life. A failure to appreciate the personal as well as social and economic importance of these two foundational institutions risks a profound cultural and human impoverishment. There is much manipulation of the concept of marriage today, but it should never blind us to the real value of marriage understood as a lifelong commitment between a man and a woman open to the transmission of life ordered to the good of spouses and their children. Its seems strange that one should have to preach this in our time, for when asked what is most important to them in survey after survey, people consistently place family at the top of the list; high above health or wealth. We need to secure these goods for the whole of our society and that they should enjoy legal and financial recognition and support.
I hope these two brief examples serve to make the point that the Church is not just another lobby group. It has both balance and insight which can get lost in a caricature or the prejudice that exiles it to a purely private realm of esoteric practice and belief. Taken together, the lack of “synch”, ignorance, and an aggressive secularism which tries to persuade us that every defeat of the Church and restriction of Christian work and influence is a social and personal gain, means that the relationship of the Church to culture is constantly being reshaped. We need, what some have called, a new apologetics of presence.
TOWARDS A NEW APOLOGETICS OF PRESENCE What might this mean for us? Certainly, we know that there will always be a sense in which Christian life will always swim against the stream. Indeed it is that different way of seeing, that different way of being, that is the gift of faith to every culture. I think, though, that this difference is a genuinely creative encounter with culture; it is not an unfortunate by-product of being out of sympathy with contemporary trends. The distinctive way of being Christian is surely grounded in the way in which the Church understands the dignity and destiny of every person before God and their infinite value in His eyes. And it is this very depth of understanding – we might call it loving – that also gives an attunement to the longing and desire for what is genuinely good and lifegiving that every person has, whether they share our faith or not, whether they can articulate it or not.
This is why the Church’s first word should never be “No”. It is always a “Yes” to the fundamental calling and dignity of life, through which we come to see more clearly the necessary “No’s” that must also be uttered if the truth is to be spoken. To be sure there is much that is deeply troubling about our culture and its values. And in fact it is tempting – and certainly headline-making to simply to list what is wrong. One could say, for instance, that we now live not in a liberal but a libertine society in which all moral and ethical boundaries seem to have gone out the window. But that is too quick, and it ignores the fact that there are very many people trying their best, deeply concerned about the future, and alive to the humanly destructive power of so many forces at large. The truth is that to be human is to be deeply tempted to be good. And what is needed is a renewed sensitivity to the moral and ethical dimensions of living which very many want to see more firmly embraced and spoken of, and in particular the importance of individual personal responsibility, which is also part of mature freedom. We need to encourage and affirm the good in each person, rather than simply naming the bad. It is only if the joys and hopes of humanity are shared first that true and lasting change is possible.
Two weeks ago I gave an interview to the Times. The two women journalists who interviewed me, not necessarily Christian, seemed remarkably attuned to the values that the Church speaks about. They were mothers, and deeply concerned about the values that they wanted to give their children – those simple basic lights we need to guide us through the complexities and changes of our lives. They wanted to give their children values that would last, that one could live by and build a life on. Those women were good parents and I believe they expressed a heartfelt concern which the majority of parents share about the emptiness and transience of so much that passes for standards and values in our society. They were searching and they need support to have confidence that their intuition was a good one. How interesting then in a survey reported this week on the BBC almost two thirds of those questioned said the law “should respect and be influenced by UK religious values”, and a similar proportion agreed that “religion has an important role to play in public life”.
Many of the arguments of secularism seek to offer a new and liberated self-sufficient humanism. Yet, I think, they can only end in the death of the human spirit because they are fundamentally reductionist. They have an impoverished understanding of what it is to be human which means that in the end they have no satisfactory defence against the instrumentalisation of the person. Pope Benedict expresses this when he says: “People today need to be reminded of the ultimate purpose of their lives. They need to recognise that implanted within them is a deep thirst for God. They need to be given opportunity to drink from the wells of his infinite love. It is easy to be entranced by the almost unlimited possibilities that science and technology place before us; it is easy to make the mistake of thinking that we can obtain by our own efforts fulfilment of our deepest needs. This is an illusion. Without God who alone bestows upon us what we by ourselves cannot attain, our lives are ultimately empty.” What marks the Church of Wiseman, Manning, Hinsley, Heenan and Hume is its response to the challenges that faced it. In many ways it was a poor and underresourced Church, but what it may have lacked in material things it made up for in energy and confidence. This does not come from any recognition of the Church as an institution. One day the Church may be in favour with the secular powers, another it may be pilloried. We do not seek respectability, we seek faithfulnessfaithfulness to the reality of Christ who is the Light of this age and every age and to the Church which receives its truth from Him and the gift of his Spirit. And with that faithfulness to Christ and his Church comes faithfulness to what it is to be human and building of a society in which everyone has the capacity to flourish whatever their race, creed, age, status and ability. The lamentation for a past time, some glorious golden age, is not a Christian song. It is not the song of faith but of despair, for our faith gives us a vision not of what has been but of what will be – whatever the difficulties or sufferings we have to endure – we cannot surrender or lose confidence in the future which God has secured for us. This is why the Church must always be an active agent in the creation and building up of a genuinely humane culture.
Let me make some simple practical suggestions which might help our secular society understand the Church and come to see it as a partner in the common good, not an adversary.
First, there is a need for the state to acquire a better understanding of the contribution and place of faith in British society. Legislation on discrimination, much of it good in itself, is now being used to limit freedom of religion in unacceptable ways. The sad and totally needless conflict over the Catholic adoption agencies is one example. But that is a symptom of a wider prejudice that sees religious faith as a problem to be contained rather than a social good to be cherished and respected, and which properly and necessarily has a public as well as a private dimension.
Second, extensive contributions made by Christian charities in the UK have been largely underestimated by the authorities. Governments would be wise to provide a greater and more autonomous role for the voluntary sector in delivering key public services. Many of these charities not only serve their own religious communities but the whole community irrespective of religious affiliation or none. I am thinking also of the excellent voluntary social work done in all the parishes of our country and without recompense but contributing in a wonderful way to the common good and social cohesion.
These are two small practical aspects of what I am calling a new apologetics of presence. It is a way of keeping open a space for what is good and truly human, for the Christian life when it is lived in its beauty, generosity and depth, is a life that is good; it is a life which is fully human.
To read the full text of the Cardinal’s address, watch it online or join in a discussion about it, visit www.rcdow. org.uk/lectures