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.