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Posted on Thu 6 October 2022

Moral renewal in our body politic - Catholic Herald September 2022

Earlier this month, Nick Timothy, former chief of staff at 10 Downing Street during Theresa May’s Premiership - surveying the detritus of law-breaking by lawmakers, parliamentary sleaze, cash for honours and the possible misleading of parliament - called for moral renewal in our nation and among our elected representatives.

    This is a highly laudable call, but how is such renewal to come about and what might be its features?  At this time of leadership contest in the Conservative Party, brought about, at least in part, by failures in moral leadership, these are the questions to ask ourselves and those seeking to lead.

   Knowing the difference between right and wrong cannot just be a matter of returning to old conventions. In today’s world, such discernment must be made on the basis of right belief about ourselves, our place in the universe and our relations with our fellow humans. We become persons through our relationships with others, whether family or friends, and even adversaries. Radical views of autonomy only lead to selfishness and greed.

   Decisions about assisted dying, for example, cannot be taken just because I feel humiliated as I am now dependent on others for help in daily living. I will have to take into consideration the feelings and future of my spouse (if any), children, the wider family and even my friends, not to speak of the vulnerable in society at large who may be put in danger by my decision. The strengthening of palliative care in general, and the hospice movement in particular, will assist in the management of pain and in end-of-life care, so that even “last days are not lost days”.

   One feature of moral renewal must, therefore, be respect for the inviolable dignity of the person, however poor and defenceless, especially at the earliest and the latest stages of life and during serious illness. The presumption must always be in favour of life, even if sometimes it is right not to “officiously keep alive”. Such a view of the person cannot be derived from merely utilitarian principles or from focus groups and opinion polls. It is firmly rooted in a spiritual view of humanity, based on the Judeo-Christian teaching that we have been made in the image of God.

   This last also leads us to our commitment to equality. Again, this is based on the insight, shared both by faith and science, that humans have a common origin. It is this which commits us to the equality of persons, to the equality of civil and political rights and to the equality of opportunity. In society that values education, effort and enterprise, it cannot be about equality of outcomes, even if the poorest are cared for in every possible way. Nor can it be about equal regard for every kind of lifestyle and preference, of which there is no end.

   The Centre for Social Justice and the Marriage Foundation, for instance, have provided us with abundant evidence that children fare best when they are brought up in stable families, with both parents present and involved in their upbringing. This is in no way to devalue the heroic work of single parents in bringing up their children on their own. It is simply to state that society must recognise a social norm for human flourishing.

   Research shows that children relate differently to their mothers and fathers and the due involvement of both in play, work and role-modelling is highly desirable. It is most important for government to support stable families, particularly through the tax and benefit structures. This will have a significant impact not only in our schools but also on our streets.

    As the father of modern conservatism Edmund Burke has pointed out, liberty needs to be attended by responsibility, if it is not to lapse into mere libertarianism. Such liberty is grounded in the cumulative tradition of the nation, going back to King Alfred’s laws, the Charter of Liberties, Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights and the successive repeal of the Test Acts for religious conformity. Any claim to base it on radical Enlightenment claims that it is “self-evident” to “pure reason” will not withstand scrutiny. Those wanting to lead the nation today need to be aware of the tradition in which our valuing of liberty is rooted.

   One way in which responsibility can be exercised is that of delaying gratification. For too long, the “bread and circuses” bandwagon has given people the impression that there is endless entertainment on tap and there is no need for people to wait for the fulfilment of their desires. We know, however, that duty to the nation, in times of war or in the cause of peace, can demand that we delay the satisfaction of some of our desires, for example, for marriage, children or the purchases of a home. If we are called to serve the poor and needy, at home or abroad, this may also mean self-denial of the immediate gratification of our desires. More and more people are discovering that a proper stewardship of creation also involves denying ourselves the fruits of its exploitation, degradation and denudation. It will take brave leadership to show a jaded public that not every desire can be met immediately, but that some will have to be postponed or denied for the sake of the common good.

   It is clear that parliamentary and public accountability of politicians and others in public life needs to be enhanced. There should be due provision for independent assessments of probity in national life. We should expect all-round personal integrity and honourable behaviour in the lives of those who wish to lead us.

   Finally, as even Immanuel Kant had to admit, there is a higher tribunal which no one can escape, however adept they may have been in evading human scrutiny.


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