By Cormac Murphy-O’Connor. This is an edited version of a lecture given in Melbourne this week by Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, the Archbishop of Westminster (THE TIMES, 02/09/06):
The new millennium has been high season for doom merchants, prophets and futurologists of all kinds. Even Christian authors are talking about the present era as one of transition, a turning point, a time of crisis.
In the postmodern world almost everything is mixed together and the once clear outlines of society have become confused. The institutions that only a generation ago inspired almost unquestioning trust are now, perhaps properly, the subject of scrutiny and suspicion. Look at any contemporary institution and you will see that this is so, from royalty to the Church. Even parliamentary democracy, which had been regarded as a serious, progressive model for the expression of political views and the making of laws, is now seen as tainted by corruption, self-interest and the politics of money.
Our world is increasingly dominated by personal preference and immediacy. Even religion is selected à la carte in an individualistic way. A bit of Buddhism, a bit of New Age, a chapter from the New Testament and a course in oriental meditation.
Old certainties are being questioned and undermined by strident apologists for the postmodern. Pilate unconsciously revealed himself to be the first postmodern thinker with his famous: “Truth, what is truth?” Truth in this postmodern milieu is no longer received, and need not necessarily be proved objectively because there is no such thing as “objective”. I remember my predecessor, Cardinal Hume, expressing his traditional view about morality to a young person, who replied: “Well that’s your view, isn’t it?” That is the response of a postmodern young person.
However, I do not regard the postmodern period as a totally negative one. For many young people in the Western world life can be pretty good. The accident of birth is very slowly becoming less of a determining factor when it comes to entering the highest levels of education or the employment market. For those with leisure and money, new ways to stretch your horizons are being invented all the time.
But the picture and the prospects are not uniformly positive. There is an increasing divide between the rich and the poor. Greater affluence has a tendency to bring in its wake a generalised aspiration for more and better. This is fuelled by a pervasive “you can have it if you want it” advertising culture, aimed deliberately at the very youngest consumers. Violence or robbery are sometimes a means to short- circuit the poverty gap, and these are on the increase.
We have also witnessed a very serious breakdown in the fundamental building blocks of our society. In Britain, about 45 per cent of today’s marriages end in divorce. A quarter of our children are raised by single parents or unmarried couples, or even by same-sex couples through adoption.
All of this leads to the individualisation of society, in which the individual has a more open attitude towards traditional ties, such as family or religion, and feels obliged — for it is not always a free choice — to move house or change lifestyle, according to the labour market and other social forces. The individual does not see himself as only subject to such outside pressures but, thanks to the modern experience of freedom, recognises that he can live his own lifestyle, free from outside influences.
Individualism threatens social cohesion, the family and the community. And ultimately it threatens one of the most vital and, perhaps, fragile support systems that human beings have ever devised: the community. At its best, such a community is the place of most profound human flourishing. It inspired Christians from St Benedict to Jean Vanier, Frère Roger, Mother Teresa, St Francis of Assisi and countless others. Our sense of communion, of community, is the most fundamental part of our being human.
Sartre, who wrote “Hell is other people”, was fundamentally wrong. To be human means to be in relationship with others and so the concentration on the individual in contemporary society has brought in its wake greater personal isolation and loneliness. One need only look at the high incidence of suicide among young men.
If I have in any way accurately read the text of our times, I believe that many young people are themselves part of a community that is searching, and that search is a challenge to the whole Church to journey with them in their seeking. They are engaged in their search in three ways. First, they are seeking God, but don’t always know where to go.
Secondly, they are seeking to belong; they are seeking community. A few weeks ago I was in Lourdes and went to visit a community called the Cenacolo. It was an extraordinarily moving experience. The Cenacolo is a house of 40 men, all of whom had been drug addicts. Many of them had been on drugs for years and had found that all efforts to get them off addiction had come to nothing. Through the inspiration of Sister Elvira, 50 of these homes have been founded. They are communities that rely totally on providence. All those staying there, through prayer, through the community, through their service to each other, had found not only that they were able to overcome their addiction, but also had found a peace and meaning to their lives.
In that community was a glimpse of the Kingdom of God, which is not one without effort and difficulty. It is like the pearl of great price that, having been found, brings great joy. One of the men said to me: “We are taught to have a mind to the person beside us in whatever we are doing, whether it is making a meal, or painting a wall, or working in the field. It moves us beyond ourself to look at the other.” And I think that is something of what young people crave. They need to know that they are loved, that someone is looking out for them. In community they can discover a place of healing, of forgiveness and the opportunity of a fresh start.
Thirdly, I believe that our young people are seeking the poor, and how we may reach out to those in most need. This is something the young know instinctively. They are scandalised by any show of religion that does not have an eye to the most needy. Young people are very generous, very willing to reach out to those who are on the margins. The words of St Matthew still ring true: “I was hungry and you gave me to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me to drink. I was a stranger and you made me welcome, naked and you clothed me, sick and you visited me, in prison and you came to see me.”
In his novel Life After God, Douglas Coupland, the Canadian author,attempts to explore the tension and yet the richness at the heart of postmodern society: “Now — here is my secret; I tell it to you with an openness of heart that I doubt I shall ever achieve again, so I pray that you are in a quiet room as you hear these words. My secret is that I need God — that I am sick and can no longer make it alone. I need God to help me give, because I no longer seem to be capable of giving; to help me to be kind as I no longer seem capable of kindness; to help me love as I seem beyond being able to love.”
His is a still, small voice speaking out at the desolation of many people in our society. It is as though people are dressed up, complete with a thousand and one possibilities, but nowhere to go. It is this desolation that is the beginning of our reaching out to God. And I suspect that our postmodern society is leading us back to God.