This is the second of my ‘thinking aloud’ posts about the new situation I believe confronts us. I am, as always, more interested in your thoughts than my own, but here are a few remarks that may prompt a response from you. I admit to have flown a few kites, so beware of assuming everything I’ve written is to be taken literally.
Western Society and the Idea of the Common Good
Catholic Social Teaching does not always make for easy reading. Since the late nineteenth century, the Church has articulated a view of the social order that has often been rejected, in whole or in part, even by some of her members. Most readers of this blog will probably agree that recognizing human dignity and working for the common good of society is important; but once these abstract ideals are linked to concrete matters, such as the role of the state, subsidiarity, social organization, concern for social justice, oppression, inequality and wealth distribution, difficulties begin. For example, we have all met people who claim to be fervently pro-life but turn out to be only pro-birth — that is to say, they oppose abortion but are unwilling to finance through tax or other measures the support needed to raise and educate the children who are born. Even on less contentious issues, it can be difficult to find common ground, much less agreement, especially now that Western society has become, in theory at least, multicultural. Is it possible to agree what constitutes the common good if we cannot agree on common values?
While British society could claim to be in some sense a Christian society, however tangential an individual’s connection might be (e.g. attendance at a few church services, such as weddings and funerals), and as long as a modicum of knowledge of the Bible was deemed necessary to understand English literature, it could be argued that society possessed many values in common. There was broad agreement about how to behave — being law-abiding, truthful, charitable to the less fortunate, and so on. Violence was looked on askance, unless war were involved, when it became a solemn duty — at least for some — or, as in the case of capital punishment, was the result of judicial process. Women were respected, though not always treated well. Religion could be mocked, sometimes savagely, but it had a place in society that was acknowledged if not always welcomed. By and large, I suppose we could say that a positive understanding of goodness as articulated by Judaeo-Christian tradition was a shared ideal to which everyone aspired.
Multiculturalism and its Effect
I am not convinced that that is still true. For example, there are some living in Britain today who exalt a warrior ideal, especially in defence of their own religious values. It would be simplistic to condemn Islamist violence without considering what underlies it. We may not agree with the violence — I certainly don’t — but we cannot ignore the presuppositions on which it rests. We cannot simply say, ‘You should not act in that way.’ Yet that is what talk of assimilation effectively does. It obliges one party to change on the basis that others reject its values and underlying motivation. It is reactive and springs from a predominantly negative idea of what is acceptable.
To take another example. One aspect of the Black Lives Matter campaign which has troubled me almost as much as the enduring racism that gave rise to it is the way in which history is frequently treated unhistorically. Taking down statues, re-naming buildings and roads, erasing or covering up monuments deemed to be unacceptable and re-writing narratives, so that the only form of slavery that counts is Black Slavery, distorts our understanding of what was, and is, a very complex matter. It has also made it difficult to express any view that does not conform to the current orthodoxy. It has also had the unintended consequence of blinding many to the scandal of modern slavery. We no longer agree, it seems to me, that slavery is wrong because we believe freedom is good. We now believe slavery is wrong because it allows us to express a grievance, a sense of injustice.
A third example, then I’m done. I wear a face-covering in order to protect others from any potential infection from COVID-19. It isn’t easy because I have breathing difficulties, but it is manageable; and I’m happy to put up with the inconvenience for the sake of others. I don’t know whether the science behind mask-wearing is proved or not, but I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt. Those who refuse to wear a mask when they come to the house are demonstrating either that they know better than we do (quite possible, though none so far has been an epidemiologist) or wish to assert their personal freedom to behave as they wish. Again, I’d say that is behaviour that springs from an individualistic and largely negative conception of the common good. It privatises what is beneficial.
Do We Still Have a Common Purpose?
Can we draw any conclusions from the three examples I’ve given, or any others that occur to you and which you may wish to share? The one I find most compelling is what I’d call the loss of a sense of common purpose and therefore agreement on what constitutes the core values of society. For me, as a Catholic Christian, those core values include acknowledging the importance of the group (which may involve self-sacrifice by the individual) and take their inspiration from what I believe to be good and positive (love, mercy, justice, forgiveness, etc). I often fail to live up to them, but they remain the ideal to which I aspire and inform my understanding of the common good. How about you? Am I talking complete nonsense, or has something changed, something we need to think and pray about because it will affect the future even more than it affects the present?