Values Worth Defending?

In recent days politicians of every stripe have appealed to our western democratic values and urged that they are worth defending in the light of violent onslaughts by Islamist extremists. At one level, that sounds eminently reasonable. I, for one, would not want to live in a society where failure to observe the puritanical code imposed by its de facto rulers could lead to flogging, mutilation, stoning or decapitation. But I am not sure that I am absolutely convinced by that appeal to ‘western values,’ either. As a Catholic, I’m always going to question some of the prevalent western assumptions about abortion or the morality of capital punishment, for example, not to mention having some very different ideas about poverty and riches. Yesterday’s debate in the Lords about Lord Falconer’s Assisted Dying Bill left me wondering whether Lady Campbell’s eloquent explanation of how illness affects judgement would be matched against Lord Cashman’s equally eloquent account of how he had wished to die alongside his partner of thirty-one years. The emotional charge of both was compelling, but also, for me, highlighted the way in which we are losing a common ground for our morality and our decision-making. We actually don’t agree on what constitutes our core western values.

If you think that last statement too sweeping, run through some of the things you would identify with being western and democratic and ask yourself whether there is still general agreement on what they are and on what limits, if any, should be, or are, imposed and by whom. We do not agree on life-death issues, sexual morality, the legitimacy or otherwise of nuclear weapons, the duty of helping the less fortunate, and so on and so forth. Even the idea of free speech, which has been so much discussed of late, proves on examination to be more nuanced than some would have us believe. No one is entirely free to say whatever he/she likes (though it often seems  they are) because we have laws governing slander and libel. The problem comes when an individual or a group refuses to accept the law and situates itself outside the common legal framework of the land. That seems to me to be happening more and more. I also wonder whether we are tending to appeal to transient emotions in much of our decision-making rather than trying to weigh pros and cons as fairly as possible. It is a piquant and sometimes discouraging mix.

This morning I find myself encouraged by two things. First, Pope Francis has been speaking clearly and plainly in the Philippines about many of the things we are arguing about in the west. He has come out on the side of the angels rather than the bankers and the religious bullies that often dominate our conversation. Secondly, the story of St Antony, whose feast we keep today, reminds me of the perennial creativity of Christianity in the face of opposition and darkness. Antony heard the gospel imperative to go and sell all he had and follow Christ. He did so, and gave the Church both the monastic and the eremitical way of life. A thousand years later St Francis heard the same gospel and gave the Church a new love of the poor Christ and a new way of following him. These are not western democratic values, although the Church has played an important role over the centuries in shaping western civilisation. What we can take from them is, I suggest, the same in each instance. We do not need to defend our values, but we do need to live them.


4 thoughts on “Values Worth Defending?”

  1. As ever, Sister, you get to the heart of the matter. We are these days constantly encouraged to believe that each person’s values are, theoretically, as valid as the next person’s. It’s a theory that cannot hold water, since, if I sincerely believe that my faith requires me to put you to death because you believe differently from me, whose right should be upheld? It is a nonsense. There is no cogent set of “Western values” any longer – if, indeed, there ever was. Even”Christian values” vary not only from denomination to denomination but from Christian to Christian. It seems to me that individually the only thing we can do is to do our utmost to follow the values of the Prince of Peace and show love in all we are and do. Bit tricky, I find – my failures are far more than my successes but with the example of people like you,who are an inspiration, and the help of the Holy Spirit there has to be hope!
    Many thanks, as ever, for your tweets and blogs which are the highlights of my online day!
    Pam Baker

  2. One of the special appeals of Catholicism has been its steadfast resistance to change for change sake. We are cautioned by St Paul to not conform to this world but transform it with the love of Christ. Somewhere, in my lifetime, I have watched civil institutions that I held on almost the same plane as the church, fall further down that slippery slope until we come closer to C S Lewis’ notion of living behind enemy lines.
    I suppose we should out of prudence keep our heads down and try not to be noticed. The Christian life is no longer the standard today for the moral life. You are quite right in that I think. And being is a higher calling than doing except in the final instance where doing nothing implies consent.
    I fear for the souls of those who think abortion a proper path and who now push against an ever opening door to euthanasia. We are becoming a cult of death in the name of compassion. We can slaughter our unborn, our selves and soon our elderly with no interference by the legal guardians of our society. Those who used to begin their vocation by affirming that they would: “First, do no harm.” now draw from the whom, the stuff of life and soon will be the unhooded but masked executioners of those who carry wisdom along with and should instead be honoured.
    As I lay dying the slow death of cancer, I thank our kind Lord that I leave soon. There is not a safe or happy land, anywhere.
    Thank you, Sister for holding onto the line I was born to believe.

  3. I think your point about appealing to transitory emotions is spot on. Political theory from the 1900’s and continuing seems to have embraced the transition that political power is acquired by emotional appeal to capture the kneejerk reaction of the majority of the population rather than winning through logical argument. Fear further injects into the public mindset an emotional response that can be used and manipulated to further solidify an unexamined emotional response.

    Speaking hope, love, faith; inspiring others to see beyond the fear brings forth the results of true growth and real dialogue.. where thought, true relationship and creativity can thrive.

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