By Fr. George Welzbacher
September 11, 2011
Two weeks ago I offered a comment of my own on the recent wave of riots and looting that for several days all but paralyzed many of England's cities and towns, beginning with several northern neighborhoods of London itself. In the Star Tribune for Sunday, August 28th, Katherine Kersten (for my money the paper's most keen-witted columnist, worthy of comparison to the nationally syndicated political commentator Charles Krauthammer) shared with her readers her own reflections on the social catastrophe that today is staring Great Britain-and not only Great Britain-in the face. Here is what she said.
* * * * *Riots Show That The West Needs Religion
By Katherine Kersten, Star Tribune, 8/28/2011
The spectacle of crowds of young people rampaging through the streets of London is the latest sign that something is deeply amiss in Britain, and in the West in general. In early August, hordes of youthful looters torched cars, assaulted passers-by, and smashed shop windows--carrying off flat-screen TV's, brand name clothes, cameras and jewelry.
These youthful marauders-who coordinated their looting and assaults by cell phone--seized the world's attention. The usual explanations of racism and poverty seemed to fall flat in accounting for their amoral free-for-all. One texter summoned friends to London for "Pure terror and havoc & Free stuff. Just smash shop windows and cart out da stuff u want!"
In recent weeks, two eminent thinkers have offered illuminating reflections about the source of such disorder. They are Jonathan Sacks, Britain's chief rabbi, and Pope Benedict, head of the worldwide Catholic Church. The two men represent different religious traditions. But their diagnosis of the ills in question is strikingly similar.
The anarchy in the streets of Britain's largest cities has been brewing for half a century, Sacks wrote in the Wall Street Journal. He traced it to what he calls "one of the most radical transformations in the history of the West"-the moral revolution of the 1960s, when the West abandoned "its entire traditional ethic of self- restraint."
The West tossed the Judeo-Christian moral code out the window, says Sacks, and replaced it with materialism and radical individualism. The new watchword is "Whatever works for YOU."
Britain's social fabric is unraveling in the resulting ethical vacuum. As religious belief and institutions wither, millions of aimless young people are increasingly immersed in "the culture of buy it, spend it, wear it, flaunt it, because you're worth it," wrote Sacks. "The message is that morality is passé, conscience is for wimps."
Sacks concludes that Freud was right: "The precondition of civilization is the ability to DEFER the gratification of instinct." And even Freud-no fan of religion- "realized that it was the Judeo-Christian ethic that trained people to control their appetites "and that fostered self-mastery and personal responsibility ".
Like Sacks, Pope Benedict believes the West faces a moral vacuum. Europe has rejected the religious notion of universal ethical truths, he says. Yet it's clear we can't derive an alternative moral code from "the rules of evolution or from psychology and sociology."
Today, young people are learning that morality is purely subjective, and that every person must decide questions of right and wrong for himself or herself, the pope told Croatian leaders in a speech in June. In Benedict's view, the idea of "conscience"--a precondition of democratic civil order-is becoming untethered from, and unformed by, a larger search for universal truth about what is good for man.
This is perilous to the common good, said Benedict. For without men and women "moved by the power of truth and good," Europe will eventually wither and die.
Sacks and Benedict agree on the diagnosis of the West's ills. They also agree on the CURE: A remoralization of society, which means a return to religion as a shaper of morality and community.
It can be done, says Sacks. He points to what happened in England and in America after the Industrial Revolution in the 1820s. That too was a time of social upheaval, as people poured into the cities in search of work. Family breakdown and rampant crime followed.
But on the heels of this disorder came a remarkable religious revival. The temperance, Sunday School, and charitable reform movements revived moral character and public spiritedness. In one generation, social order was built anew.
Benedict also sees a return to religion as vital for the West. The first step is to recognize that religious conviction is "a natural element within society," he says. Religion should not be banished to the private sphere. Instead it should have a vibrant presence in the public square.
Judeo-Christianity does not aspire to a direct role in politics, he explains. Its role is to form the men and women who build a democratic culture: "It is by forming consciences that the Church makes her most specific and valuable contribution to society."
Most Americans don't share Europe's contempt for religion. This "nation with the soul of a church," in British writer G. K. Chesterton's words, still draws on deep wells of religious faith. But our opinion elites are generally skeptical-and many even hostile-to the idea that human beings need to search for truth and to let it shape their lives if they are to flourish.
If America holds to Chesterton's view, we can be the light that sparks a new religious awakening. If not, we may join Europe's slow slide into the abyss.
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