'A GOOD LIFE IN HARD TIMES'
LECTURE TO LSE
BY ARCHBISHOP OF WESTMINSTER
2, MARCH 2011
'Thank you for the invitation to deliver this lecture this evening. I am glad to do so and I look forward to our conversation afterwards. The title of this lecture, “Good life in hard times”, might, I suppose, be taken by those with an economist’s cast of mind as a tacit bow to Marx.
If religion is the opium of the masses it ought to be a counter-cyclical business – interest in the hereafter should grow as the ‘here and now’ gets harder. But the truth is that we are at one of those critical junctures in society when not only the word “Big” but also truly big questions are in play in public debate, including the place of religion in the public forum.
The immediate party political fray surrounding public expenditure is only partly about rival prescriptions of how best to secure fairness and recovery from the recession. Beneath lie more fundamental differences about the role of the state and what the common good really demands. Across the political divide, and more widely in society, there seems to be a genuine desire to go beyond mere slogans and to explore how to create a more engaged and thriving civil society. And then there is the so-called “well-being” agenda. What makes us happy?
Looking back now on a decade of continuous economic growth we know that human contentment did not rise as expected with GDP. It’s about time we started to ask why, even if we might quickly admit that it doesn’t make much sense for government to promote happiness as a policy aim. Equally important - and still too often ignored - are the profound moral questions that have come to the fore in the diagnosis of the financial crisis and its aftermath, as we think through the role and limitations of markets in serving society and promoting the common good.
All these issues in their different ways raise questions about values, and the moral and spiritual resources on which we might draw to help us answer the question about what is the ‘good life’. I believe that religious faith, and in particular the tradition of Catholic social teaching, has something immensely rich to contribute at various levels, the personal of course, but also in relation to the role of the state, of the market and wider civil society. Later on in the lecture I want to offer some thoughts drawn from the fruit of that tradition.
But I want to start somewhere else. There is in Britain today a wariness and latent concern about religion – that it is a problem to be contained and not a gift to be shared. So I wish to try to dispel some myths about the place of religion and religious freedom. I want to argue that promoting religious freedom increases our capacity to do good in the public square, within due limits. Why the caveat “within due limits”? Because I do not wish to defend everything done in the name of religion any more than I would expect a humanist to defend everything done in the name of humanity. But I do want to take head on four arguments against promoting religious freedom.
They are: (i) that it is inherently divisive; (ii) that it encourages fundamentalist extremism; (iii) that it pollutes and deludes, and (vi) that it undermines respect for fundamental human rights. And having done that I want then to put three positive arguments: (i) the richer understanding of what it is to be fully human that religious freedom expresses; (ii) the powerfully positive contribution which religion can make to building a stronger civil society, and finally (iii) how a rich understanding of religious freedom can help secure a viable pluralism in a secular society . And that will then lead me on to say something about the particular contribution from the tradition of Catholic social teaching, which is available to all – and for free - in both good and hard times...'
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