Thursday, October 4, 2012

Am I a liberal? - Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor

I am suspicious of labels, whether political or ideological: as Bishop Tom Wright has said of the practice of categorising everyone politically as either “left” or “right”, labels foster “an inappropriate ‘package deal’ mentality where it is assumed that once you decide on one issue you are committed to a particular position on lots of others as well”. Labels also lend themselves to being used pejoratively, as when someone who believes in the importance to a healthy society of stable marriages and families is described as “socially conservative” even if he or she may favour higher taxes on the rich and re-nationalising the railways. Gladstone’s liberalism was essentially an expression of his revulsion from tyranny and oppression; but when he moved across the political spectrum from high Tory to Liberal, he retained what would today be regarded as many strongly “conservative” strands in his thinking, including a strong religious faith and devotion to the Anglican Church.

If to be liberal means to be in favour of liberty, equality and fraternity – of freedom, fairness and the brotherhood of mankind – then surely all Christians are, or ought to be, liberal; and so, I hope, am I. But what do the words really signify, and how far are the three aspirations compatible with one another? As the leaders of the French Revolution quickly discovered, the attainment of equality is impossible without coercion; and freedom of thought and conscience is bound to lead to sharp disagreements over what is or is not allowable behaviour, and thus - inexorably - to restrictions on freedom in one direction or another.

Currently, the emphasis is once again on the paramount importance of equality: racial or social discrimination of any kind is the great sin. But if those who believe abortion to be wrong in principle may not even refuse to assist at abortions because other people believe that abortion is a right to which everyone should have equal access, where does that leave freedom of conscience and belief? If fairness is crucial, why should some people be disapproved of (if not yet actually outlawed) for spending their money on giving their children a better than average education and yet almost encouraged to spend their money on expensive holidays and a luxurious lifestyle which others cannot afford? Of course it is unfair that some people should be able to get a better education than others, but should non-discrimination entail that, if some people can’t have it, no one should?

“In my experience”, says the philosopher Roger Scruton, “the most intolerant people are liberals: people who can tolerate any belief as long as it is not seriously held and who therefore demonise everyone who disagrees with them”. Sadly, those with whom liberals  disagree often seem to include those who have a respect for the Natural Law or who have a religious perspective on the human condition. Gladstone, I think, would be dismayed. Scruton may exaggerate; but there is enough truth in his aphorism to make me cautious about claiming to be a liberal today. 

Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor is Archbishop Emeritus of Westminster

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