Two months ago I was in Zimbabwe, to see for myself the desperate situation of so many people and to offer my support and solidarity. It was a deeply moving experience. Many of those living with HIV/Aids are now too malnourished to take the drugs they need, though they have them. I asked Sister Margaret McAllen, director of an Aids programme in Harare, what she could do. She replied: «How can we give hope to people in such a desperate situation? Through love. Change comes through love.» Sister Margaret may sound like a romantic, but I know she is a very practical realist. Her faith is no obstacle to facing the most horrendous facts: it is a resource with which to change them.
This simple reality belies the caricature of the Catholic church as some heartless, insular institution that wants to deny people their freedom. It is a distortion intended to persuade us that the church has no constructive role to play in our society. It sees religious belief as mere prejudice while failing to recognise the doctrinaire nature of its own position. The tradition I belong to has a deep and distinguished history of reason. It is passionately concerned about the truth. After all, it was Christ who said: «The truth will make you free.»
This is why I believe that freedom of belief, openness to its arguments and respect for the insights it brings is a critical resource for our society. If you see the church only as an institution then you miss its secret. Its secret is love. That is why it has survived for 2,000 years and still speaks through the faith of 1.3 billion people. Yes, it is true that history shows how often the church can forget what it is. But time and time again, history also shows the church rediscovering its own secret. Often when the politicians have forgotten and the aid workers have gone to the next emergency, it will be the church, the women and men of faith, who continue to work on. In such a church you learn that the greatest freedom comes in the service of others.
I believe this contains insights into the wellbeing of our society because it takes us to the core of our relationships. And at the heart of these is the family. Our society has embarked upon a massive social experiment regarding the family and how we understand it. The fragmentation of the family and the loss of the relationships and continuities between the generations is, I believe, part of the social and personal disorientation that so many people experience.
I know the pressures many parents and children face in trying to hold things together. I am filled with admiration for the generosity and sacrifices I see people make every day. Here is an extraordinary «ordinary» experience which is a deep well of goodness for the whole of our society. Not to cherish it or give it the social, economic and legal support it needs seems to me to be damaging to our present and future good. We cannot do this unless we have a clear, deep and secure vision of what it is to be a human. This is where love is inseparable from truth, the deep truth about who we are and that which gives meaning and lasting value to life.
The church’s vision of what it is to be human cannot be eroded by political systems, social status, or economic variables. It is grounded in a vision of the human person that can resist all reductive arguments and political strategies that undermine it.
From this, too, springs an understanding of our freedom. Freedom is not simply a capacity to do whatever we want, when we want, as we want: that benefits only the fittest and the most powerful. Nor is freedom just a political or social construct. It belongs to our essence as moral persons, and cannot be divorced from our purpose as human beings. It carries with it a deep responsibility for others and for the world in which we live. Only the cultivation of such a moral solidarity will galvanise the political will needed to confront the emerging global environmental crisis. A society that does not see this, that makes absolute individual autonomy, does not guarantee our freedom. It destroys it. It is in this spirit, too, that I have called for MPs to be given a free vote on the human fertilisation and embryology bill.
I believe we need solid values and a vision that inspires us. Could the church have a contribution to make in helping to find the moral and intellectual resources to map another way? TS Eliot once observed that it was a dangerous inversion to advocate Christianity not because of its truth, but because of its benefit. In the end it does come down to this – not just the truth about God but the truth about what it is to be human. This is why I wonder if there is not a lie that lurks in the appeal of an atheistic secularism. It is not its attacks on religion that gives me pause for thought, but its vision of what is human. It says that this is all we are, this is it! We have no significant purpose; we’re merely chance products of material processes.
I believe we do have a purpose; that we are made for greater things. Atheistic secularism ultimately diminishes us; it kills the human spirit under the pretence of liberating it. Our democracy is too precious and costly a gift to be narrated by this version of the secular alone. I want to keep alive the church’s vision of humanity which is part of the truth it carries. It belongs not just to Catholics or to Christians but to us all.
If we can start from this truth then I believe we can discover a real freedom to do things differently and to find that other way. This is part of my Christian faith; it is my hope.
Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, the Archbishop of Westminster.