As the psalmist declaimed, ‘it is a people that do err in their heart’. We do need a ‘Big Society’: but on what will it be built?

The Pope has made an interesting comment on the Summer riots in his response to a speech made by the new Ambassador to the Holy See, Nigel Marcus Baker, on the occasion of his presentation of his credentials to the Holy Father. He had spoken of the necessity of values in public life; a fairly safe line for such an occasion. The Pope built on this in his reply:

As you pointed out in your speech, your Government wishes to employ policies that are based on enduring values that cannot be simply expressed in legal terms. This is especially important in the light of events in England this summer. When policies do not presume or promote objective values, the resulting moral relativism, instead of leading to a society that is free, fair, just and compassionate, tends instead to produce frustration, despair, selfishness and a disregard for the life and liberty of others. Policy makers are therefore right to look urgently for ways to uphold excellence in education, to promote social opportunity and economic mobility, to examine ways to favour long-term employment and to spread wealth much more fairly and broadly throughout society. Moreover, the active fostering of the essential values of a healthy society, through the defence of life and of the family, the sound moral education of the young, and a fraternal regard for the poor and the weak, will surely help to rebuild a positive sense of one’s duty, in charity, towards friends and strangers alike in the local community.

He had already spoken, in a British context, of the need for objective moral values, when he addressed the leaders of our public life in Westminster Hall:

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By appeal to what authority can moral dilemmas be resolved? These questions take us directly to the ethical foundations of civil discourse. If the moral principles underpinning the democratic process are themselves determined by nothing more solid than social consensus, then the fragility of the process becomes all too evident – herein lies the real challenge for democracy.

But even he can hardly have predicted the frightening collapse of public order that took place only last month. David Cameron (of whom, as my readers will know, I am not an uncritical supporter) spoke of a “slow motion moral collapse” and, once again, of the desperate need to mend a “broken society.” Now, we are all prone to scoff at a politician’s catch-phrases, and he has been banging on about our “broken society” for years. But look, when they get it right, we should say so. Ed Miliband, seeing that Cameron had struck the public mood, couldn’t of course resist the temptation to jump on the bandwagon and at the same time to make party capital at such a time by bringing in phone hacking (thus reminding everyone of Cameron’s pal Andy Coulson) and all those greedy bankers (supposedly Cameron’s rich pals in the city, even though it was Gordon Brown who as Chancellor never missed an opportunity of fulsomely praising them as the bedrock of everything that was good and noble).

So, yes, said little Miliband, there’s a moral crisis; but “we can’t honestly say the greed, selfishness and gross irresponsibility that shocked us all so deeply is confined to the looters or even to their parents.… The bankers who took millions while destroying people’s savings… The MPs who fiddled their expenses… The people who hacked phones to get stories to make money for themselves”: they too were “greedy, selfish and immoral”. Well, of course: and so? What we needed to understand was the immediate crisis: and Cameron got it right. But the trouble is that it isn’t enough to say that there’s a moral crisis, and that the looters epitomised it. When we have lost sight of the objective character of all moral discourse as our society has, we need to understand how that loss happened. As Francis Phillips wrote in her blog at the time, “Everyone in the media has a different explanation for the roots of the recent riots in London and elsewhere. Actually, as Christians know, it is very simple. It is encapsulated in a quotation from a French cleric, Cardinal Pie…. “When Christianity is no longer the soul of public life, of public power, of public institutions, then Jesus Christ deals with this country in the manner he is there dealt with. He continues to give His grace and blessings to the individuals who serve Him, but He abandons the institutions, the powers which do not serve Him….” This has, as she said, a certain Old Testament ring. The riots were indeed a kind of judgment. In the words of Coverdale’s translation of the psalm Venite, Exultemus Domino, “Forty years long was I grieved with this generation, and said: it is a people that do err in their heart, and the have not known my ways. Unto whom I sware in my wrath that they should not enter into my ways”.

You could, if you like, see that as the psalmist’s warning against the evils of relativism. And of course the Pope is right: “When policies do not presume or promote objective values, the resulting moral relativism, instead of leading to a society that is free, fair, just and compassionate, tends instead to produce frustration, despair, selfishness and a disregard for the life and liberty of others”. I have often echoed the Pope in this column (that’s what he’s there for); but it’s not often I can do so in words which I wrote about a particular subject before he spoke of it; last week’s speech, as far as I know, was the first time he has spoken of the riots and linked them with the evils of relativism; I did so at the time (sorry about this, but one isn’t always right, and it’s nice to be—inadvertently—backed up by such a source; also, I really do think we need to understand this very clearly):

One definition of relativism I have come across (there are many) is that it is the belief “that, because there is no universal moral standard by which to judge others, we ought to tolerate the behaviour of others – even when it runs counter to our personal or cultural moral standards”.

Well, if you thought that before the London (and Manchester, and Birmingham and Salford and Bristol and Liverpool) riots, what do you think now? Is there really no universal moral standard by which the looters may be judged? And ought we really to tolerate the “behaviour of others – even when it runs counter to our personal or cultural moral standards” in the case of the looters? Answer: no.

All the other proximate causes of the rioting come down to that: the collapse of discipline in the classroom, the collapse of the family, and of all the values that Cameron (rightly, admit it) talks about regaining in his ideal of the Big Society: all these things come about when we turn against or simply forget as a society the underlying objective values that we have taken for granted from our Christian heritage.

It all began in the sixties and really got under way in the seventies and eighties: “Forty years long was I grieved with this generation, and said: it is a people that do err in their heart, and the have not known my ways”: well, we have in fact known them, God’s ways; but about 40 years ago we rapidly became much more remote from them. Time now for reflection and for a great act of communal remembering. Not of the Church, and of specifically Christian ways necessarily, not at first: but certainly of the roots of a culture which within living memory embraced us all.

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