Thought for the Day, 25 May 2009
I get a sense that our society is reappraising the value of virtue. We are finding in the City, in Parliament, in journalism, in truth everywhere else too, that "going to the very limit of what the rules permit" isn't good enough. As the Archbishops of Canterbury and Westminster have been saying over the weekend, we need an internal moral compass as well. To be precise, we need a conscience. We need it in order to apply to our lives the four cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, moderation and courage. Whether we do so successfully depends crucially on what sort of people we are. If we are virtuous we will act virtuously, and become more virtuous in the process. Well, that's the theory anyway.
Am I saying only religious people can be virtuous? Certainly not. Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor said, controversially, last Thursday that "For Jesus, the inability to believe in God and to live by faith is the greatest of evils. "Evil is a word with many shades of meaning, but this seemed to come close to saying that atheism is wicked.
I beg to differ. One of the most virtuous men I've known was my own father. He was an out-and-out atheist, a Dawkins before his time. Though he disagreed profoundly with my own choice of faith - I'm of the same persuasion as the cardinal - my father certainly wasn't evil. Indeed, a Catholic theologian once said that virtue in an atheist is more admirable than virtue in a believer, for a virtuous atheist pursues the good purely for its own sake, whereas the virtuous believer hopes for his reward in an afterlife. There's a sobering truth in that.
The opposite side of the coin is that wickedness is more wicked when committed by a religious believer. It destroys trust. Many Irish people have abandoned the Catholic faith in recent years, and I would not be surprised to hear of more doing so in the light of recent events, because of the scandal of children being abused sexually or sadistically by priests or nuns. So the inability to believe in God may have a lot to do with the dreadful example set by some of those who do believe.
And I also think the inability to believe in God can, paradoxically, be a source of grace, even something like a gift. It's as if God switches on the light for some people, but for others He deliberately leaves it turned off so they have to create their own light. They have to discover for themselves how to be moral and virtuous, and why it matters.
Believers and non-believers together have the urgent task of promoting the idea of virtue in order to remoralise our entire economic system and our whole society - before it all finally falls apart.
copyright 2009 BBC - Listen to the audio clip here (RealPlayer).