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The Pope is right: the riots were a product of relativism – a rejection, and not only by the rioters, of objective moral values

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?

By on Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Police clash with looters during the London riots

Police clash with looters during the London riots

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:

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.

  • ms catholic state

    The answer is very clear…..it is a return to Christianity and Christ.  But people don’t want this…..as they want their abortion contraception divorce etc.  But they still want a ‘moral’ society, one that will ensure well behaved youth that don’t cause riots…..but that will cost they themselves nothing.

    Life’s not like that I’m afraid.

  • Anonymous

    The moral destructive qualities of the blanket ideology which is “Moral Relativism” can be seen in the recent outrages in the inner city areas of British cities.  People who have not been introduced to objective moral values and remain largely influenced by an empty materialism built on gang culture at the margins of society, took advantage of the riotous situations to enrich themselves illegally through an orgy of destruction.   PM Cameron speaks of the collapse of morality in the lower echelons of society but has he inspected the amoral greed and venal corruption that are present in his parliamentary ranks and the banking and industrial sectors?  Reform begins at home and our present Pope Benedict XV1 has given the necessary guidelines in relation to this with his own refreshing analysis, based upon the liberating Good News of the gospels.

  • James P

    I am sure Our Holy Father will be thrilled to know that Our Oddie considers His Holiness made an interesting argument. And will no doubt note the ‘But…’ Silly ol’ Holy Father: clearly not quite up to Our Oddie’s intellectual standards. (But well done for having been interesting.) In other words, irony etc, this is beyond patronizing and really deeply wrong.

  • Anonymous

    Frankly, Dr Oddie, I doubt if even the Daily Mail would  publish stuff as bad as this. Perhaps you can enlighten us all and tell us when Christianity was “the soul of public life”? Are you seriously suggesting that before the riots most people would have agreed that looting should be “tolerated”?  Were people calling on MPs to pass legislation to decriminalise theft?  And as there were no riots in Scotland do we assume there are no “relativists” north of the border? Convincing stuff, eh? 

  • W Oddie

    I never said anything remotely like what you say I did. Either read  what you are criticising, or just shut up.

  • W Oddie

    O, dear another one. I never said anything remotely like what you say I did. Either read  what you are criticising, or just shut up.

  • Noustrak

    I don’t think that many of the people involved in the riots know what moral relativism is. They found their conscience impractical or stupid because of their life experiences, information, peers, or the high they felt in a mob situation. So many ways to get disconnected from one’s conscience/God.  How to reconnect is the issue and maybe the Pope can put up a few recreation centers like the Salvation Army does in their attempt to show Jesus is still a major influence on Earth. Pontification is pharisaic, even parasitic.

  • Anonymous

    There seems to be so little love in this column.   “So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”

  • http://twitter.com/razhorse Crag MaZ

    0.00004% of the population go on a materialistic rampage and suddenly there is widespread despair? Overstatement.

  • Anonymous

    “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” 
    So presumably you are claiming that in the first half of the last century “objective values” (whatever that means)were pervasive and dominant?  Please feel free to  correct me if I am misinterpreting you, Dr Oddie.
     
    ps Ever heard  of Auschwitz  and Hiroshima?

  • Anonymous

    Dr Oddie tells us that we have more relativism in the UK than in the past and we have had some riots, and deduces that the riots must have been caused by the relativism. Can Dr Oddie show any correlation between the predominance of moral relativism in a society and the frequency of riots? In order to prove his case he would have to show that other societies with high moral relativism also have a tendency to have riots, (is this true of say Scandinavia?) and that other societies which have a strict absolute moral code do not have riots (no recent riots in Muslim countries?). Was this country really so much safer and crime free two hundred years ago when nearly everyone believed in God, in the Ten Commandments and in hellfire and damnation for sinners?

  • Anonymous

    I always find it disappointing that while Dr Oddie’s posts are intelligent and witty, his replies to commenters are, quite often, simply rude.

  • W Oddie

    No ruder than the comments: why should I just sit here and put up with it?

  • W Oddie

    Yes, you are misinterpreting me.

  • Anonymous

    I think the Gospels might have an answer to that question. In any case, it’s just silly to be irritated by every somewhat rude person one finds on the internet.

  • https://openid.org/locutus LocutusOP

    # They found their conscience impractical or stupid because of their life
    experiences, information, peers, or the high they felt in a mob
    situation.
    You don’t need to be able to describe a duck to know it tastes good – so the fact they would not be able to define moral relativism is hardly relevant. The very fact that these people committed these acts and ran away should be proof enough that they can tell good from bad, and that only their relativism allowed them to refrain from good.

    # …maybe the Pope can put up a few recreation centers like the Salvation Army does in their attempt to show Jesus is still a major influence on Earth.
    The world is truly has no hope if it needs the Pope to do everything for it. In any case it is up to the laity and not the Pope who are called to work for social change.

  • https://openid.org/locutus LocutusOP

    Greedy rioters and greey bankers are only the most obvious manifestations of moral relativism. I’m not even sure I would pick on bankers – given the whole purpose of banking is making money anyway, that bankers have always been greedy, and also that the financial crisis would not have taken place if it had not been for greedy enablist consumers and selfish governments which seek to rule rather than serve. In that sense, the banking crisis was a much more damning indictment of society than the rioters.

    The relativisation of the value of human life and a long trek away from the precepts of natural law are far more hazardous.

  • Anonymous

    Yes they do have an answer Ian – Dr Oddie is fully vindicated in denouncing lies and brooking them no favour.

  • Anonymous

    Dave – you don’t want love – rather its antithesis – complacent subservience to narcissistic, self-indulgent, cowardly delusional subhuman exigences fomented in loneliness and existential ignorance.

    Dr Oddie’s calling our nation out of Plato’s cave: You seem to think we can get away with a group hug while lying that there’s no cave at all…

  • Anonymous

    Paul, on what do you base your claim that this is what I want?

  • Parasum

    I blame:
    massive immigration (which has eroded the unity of the British people)
    the erosion of a shared moral culture
    the permissive society, with its emphasis on immediate gratification
    Individualism and its insistence on rights while ignoring the duties that go with them.

    I’m sick of hearing about abortion “rights” – what about the duty to care for the very weak & helpless ?  The notion of rights is now so corrupted that there is now a “right” – not a liberty – for people to offend one another, and to ride rough-shod over the susceptibilities of others. This anti-human individualism is described by James Hitchcock as “The Triumph of the Imperial Self” in his 1979 book “Catholicism confronts Modernity”. This “triumph” is suicidal, because it destroys society, and leads to the disintegration of human personality. Love OTOH integrates human personality.

    ISTM these are some of the roots of the barbarisation of British society. Barbarisation is the end of civility – and look what’s become of that.

  • Parasum

    There’s a difference being values being acknowledged as authorative, however poorly they may be lived; and, the same values not being lived, because they are despised.

    People in the period mentioned committed adultery as much as they do now – but the change is, that adultery is no longer a big deal – it has completely lost the stigma which, in society at large, was rightly attached to it; Christianly inadequate as the reasons may have been. To say that rape is stigmatised, though true, is insufficient, because both acts are wrong; not just the one. 

    I think the rot set in earlier than the ’60s – but that seems to be when the dam burst.

  • Mike

    Well there was a terrible massacre in Norway recently – a twisted, horrific reaction to relativism. The recent riots in Muslim countries have been largely driven by a desire for freedom from secular dictatorships, and disgust at their immoral leadership. And no, 200 years ago, the country wasn’t crime free, but it was a darn sight more orderly and most people knew right from wrong. It all comes down to respect for moral truths and the eternal verities – or rather lack of it.

  • Anonymous

    Axiomatically – if there is ‘so little love’ on here -  you are denouncing that which you presume to be uncharitable [a dearth of love].

    Obviously after even the most peripheral scan of the page we can do little but conclude that you’re not referring to being uncharitable but rather to there being comments which are impolite or ill-mannered or insensitive.

    If you make an appeal to 1 Corinthians 13 you ought to be able to stand or fall by it – it’s quite obvious to the exegete that the Agape [de me echon ouden eimi] has bugger all to do with the fascism of good manners and the insincerity of sociocultural insensitivity.

    You were calling for ‘love’ while defining ‘a lack of love’ which had nothing to do with the meaning of love itself – ergo my response.

  • Anonymous

    Then provide a clarification for your remarks. You have claimed, without providing any coherent empirical evidence, that relativism has replaced an “objective” value system in our culture leading people to behave in a certain way. But the mere fact that people  behave badly or that they disagree  over certain moral issues does not entail that those people accept  a relativist viewpoint or that they have been influenced by relativism.      

  • Marilen Picornell

    I agree
    whole heartedly with Dr. Oddie!  How can
    a tree stand firm without the correct root? 
    We must allow the Lord to plant roots, not us!  What roots do I mean?  Were we not created in His image and likeness?  Stupid things do happen when we create our
    own standards and don’t even have a reference or have the wrong ones because we
    think we know everything.  Why not use
    the guidelines our creator made for us?  He
    knows what is best and why.