When and How Should We Express Moral Outrage?

I wasn’t going to blog today because I have often written about St Thomas of Canterbury, and I am very keen to catch up on my ‘thank-yous’ to our Christmas benefactors. Three things have made me change my mind. The first was hearing a friend waxing indignant about the story behind Philomena, the second was finding a tweet in which the tweeter asked me, rather aggressively I thought, what I was doing about the two migrant children who have died in U.S. custody recently. In the latter case, I think either the tweeter assumed I must be a U.S. citizen or was hoping that by tweeting me she would capture my Twitter ‘audience’. In both cases, however, the moral indignation was plain, and I felt there was little I could do to assuage either person. I turned to Facebook and there found one of my online friends, whom I don’t know very well, complaining that if he expressed his horror of abortion most people tolerated his views because he is known to be a Catholic, and being pro-life is expected of Catholics. If, however, he expressed other views in line with Church teaching, especially some that are less well known, he seemed to attract a great deal of moral outrage, often expressed in very personal terms.

Now, it’s easy for me to say I agree that the treatment of many young Irish girls in the mother-and-baby homes of the past was appalling and that I am troubled by what we know of the treatment of young migrants detained by U.S. authorities, because that is no more than the truth. I don’t regard myself as personally responsible nor, crucially, do I see any way of helping other than through prayer and the financial aid the community provides refugees and migrants. I’m a Benedictine nun, not a religious sister belonging to any of the Orders or Congregations that ran the mother-and-baby homes, and I’m British not a U.S. citizen. But none of that will help either of my interlocutors, nor, I suspect, would anything similar help my FB friend to deal with his critics. We are facing the phenomenon of moral outrage seeking a target and not being sure where to find it. It is akin to the frequent demands, ‘Someone must pay for this’ and ‘heads must roll’ whenever incompetence or worse is discovered in politics, business or any public service. Just think of the comments on the police that followed the Gatwick Airport drone chaos!

Some of us probably try to channel our sense of outrage through letters and emails to those we think are in a position to change things, or we may use social media to try to draw attention to the wrong we believe needs righting. The difficulty, in most cases, is not letting our sense of outrage run away with us, so that we waste our fire, as it were, in a scatter-gun attack that simply annoys those caught in it. St Thomas of Canterbury (yes, I got him in!) was very astute in the quarrel he picked with Henry II and in his manner of conducting it. He tried to remain Henry’s friend while clearly demonstrating that some of their old shared behaviours were no longer acceptable now that he was a bishop. Henry, alas, felt a deep sense of personal betrayal as well as fury at the idea that the Church had liberties not under his control. We know how the story ends, and how a few years later a compromise with Rome made the quarrel between king and archbishop seem irrelevant. But we are left with the memory of a brave man, who stood up for what he believed and gave his life for it without calling down imprecations on the heads of his murderers. In that, I think he showed that there is more than one way of working to achieve what is right, that moral outrage can be expressed quietly and with consideration for others. It is easy to dash off an angry tweet or Facebook status. It relieves our feelings. But if we really want to do good, we might take a leaf from St Thomas’s book.