the 'in' word
In light of recent revelations about sleaze in Church and politics, Fr Stephen Trott argues that the Church must put its house before it can present a moral vision to the nation.
BEING IN POWER has a notoriously corrosive effect upon people's personalities and even upon their souls.
In the world of politics, a reign of 15 years by the Conservative Party is thought by many commentators to be excessively long, leading to complacency, bankruptcy in the ideas department, and a rolling tide of sleaze as one alleged corruption after another is uncovered.
A regime that is not accustomed to having to justify itself, either to its own members or to the electorate begins to exist for its own sake, rather than for the political ideology for which it once stood. It also eventually allows the financial and personal reputation of its key courtiers to slide into the mire.
Under John Major the creeping subversion of common social values has continued, in an all-prevailing new ideology of sound money, which began under his predecessor.
Nothing else appears to matter any longer, except the continuing reduction of public spending, in areas formerly thought sacrosanct, as well as the disposal of nationalised companies on a grand scale.
When former members of the Government are found to have acquired lucrative directorships with such companies, and MPs to have accepted payment for asking questions in parliament on behalf of lobbyists, then the inevitable happens: the sleaze gates are opened by the media, and only by means of an abrupt change either of style, or leader, or government, is there any hope of restoring decency to political life.
But it is Europe above all that is undermining British trust in public institutions. The electorate was asked to vote in 1975 for a "European Economic Community", a "Common Market". By progressive sleight of hand, it has become first of all the EC, and soon there will be formally the European Union, and a common currency.
The Prime Minister appears to be willing to risk everything rather than allow the people chose by means of a fresh referendum.
Attitudes to the Social Chapter scarcely differ between the opposition parties and the Conservative Party.
A General Election would give the voter a choice of parties with virtually identical manifesto commitments on Europe, all taking Britain deeper into a federal destiny.
The outcome is a feeling of powerlessness and disillusion with politics. We cannot control our own politicians, still less those at the centre of the bureacratic Brussels web, into which we feel ourselves being sucked.
We would all like to have a fresh vision, decisive, inspiring and attractive leadership, from whichever party it comes, just as Mrs Thatcher came on the scene at the end of a tired period of British politics in the 1970s. This time, however, there is noone of her calibre ready to pick up the mantle on either side of the Commons.
If only there were a conviction politician of the quality of Gladstone waiting in the wings, with a moral vision to carry Britain through to the next millenium, to raise us above the obsessive concern with the Retail Price Index, the Exchange Rate, or the FT index; who would offer instead an agenda based on human rather than financial values.
The state of secular politics inevitably rubs off on the Church, also a public institution, which suffers from the general disillusionment with public bodies.
The Christian vision of society needs a stable political framework in which to function effectively, a society which is prepared to accept shared values. But when there is a moral and ideological vacuum in public life, that tends to be reflected in society at large, as individuals make their own private choices in moral matters, inevitably tending to selfishness and the survival of the fittest.
The Churches too have been experiencing the sleaze factor. Once the tabloids have picked up the scent, no institution is safe from the curious eye of the tele-photo lens or the unveiling of longhidden skeletons in private closets.
The Church of England is curently beset by homosex ual scandals, affecting not only obscure clergy in dark corners of the south coast, but even diocesan bishops, with individuals being cruelly "outed" month by month by gay rights campaigners.
The Catholic Church in Ireland, having suffered a grievous blow from revela tions about Bishop Casey, is now experiencing the paedophile crisis that has beset the Church in the USA.
Church authorities always have to judge whether any moral lapse ought to be kept quiet, as a matter of discretion. Trumpeting the news of sexual sins abroad rarely serves any good purpose.
But in a time when all public institutions are being judged, the revelation that a bishop has appeared in court accused of some offence, even many years before, suggests to the common mind, unaccustomed to dealing with issues pastorally, that here is just another corrupt institution, in which power is being used to mask the private iniquities of its controlling Cabal. When the crime turns out to be grievous, as in recent days in Ireland, and when the Church is seen to have covered it up over a period of years, then the Church too becomes damaged.
The only practical response to the public perce tion of corruption is to weed it out. If a government has ceased to listen, it is the duty of MPs to sack it. The same is true in the Church, where there is even less accountability to any electorate.
The desire to care for those who have fallen from grace is in itself laudable, but it must not outweigh the necessity to protect the Church from corruption. Those who seek to promote the highest morals tandards must themselves be, and be seen beyond reproach.
Both Church and politicians face the same challenge now: how to offer a radically fresh vision of the future of the nation.