The visible presence and tangible action of the Church, universal sacrament of salvation, in a pluralist society is today more necessary than ever to put the people of the world in contact with the message of the Truth revealed in Jesus Christ. It is a widespread and diversified presence, in the great debates, social events, and meeting places capable of raising the attention, interest and curiosity of the indifferent world, so as to present the person of Christ and His message in a manner capable of holding the attention and provoking reception of the dominant culture.
Where is Your God? Pontifical Council for Culture (2006)
The UK government, in a laudable attempt to prevent extremism, violence and social hostility has called for the teaching of ‘core British values’. Yet is there such a core? Just think of the values implicit in a few newspapers:
The Daily Telegraph, The Guardian, The Sun, The Racing Post, The Western Mail, The Voice, The Daily Record and The Eastern Daily Press. Do any of these give us ‘core British values’ or are British values spread around the contradictory set of identities and commitments implicit in that list? Each day we are presented with a plurality of cultures, a plurality of classes (each of which may be constructed on different foundations), a plurality of political opinions and yes a plurality of geographical regions each with its own implicit or explicit values. London, Cardiff, Glasgow or Norwich provide different viewpoints. The political left and the political right, the elite and the popularist as well as ethnicity and leisure interests all present a different take on the values of readers. Such plurality describes the reality: it is an attribute, not a value.
Jean Paul Sartre, himself an atheist, once said of France: ‘we are all Catholics’. If we were to attempt such a generalisation for England we might say that we are all Anglicans. Yet even that is a self-consciously plural set of ideas rejoicing in the latitude such a broad Church can accommodate. After the allegedly ‘glorious revolution’ the English settlement made religion important but allowed a stemming of religious passions. The 16th Century period of martyrs and the 17th Century time of wars were to be replaced by a peaceable and industrious time. Social cohesion was achieved through not making too much of religion. A certain deference to authority was expected and a domesticated spirituality became the norm, with a certain tolerance of variation in practice. Emotionalism in religion became un-English. The core values implicit in such a culture would be patrician, literary, homely, quiet and respectful. The public school sense of discipline and order, as well as praise for ‘fair play’, naturally arise from such a milieu. It is also this which feeds into the idyllic village green picture of Englishness presented, in remarkably similar ways, by George Orwell and John Major. However, it is obvious that not all in England, and certainly not all in Britain, would hold such values . Many would have different backgrounds in varying social classes, ethnicities and economic activities. Religiously, many would be Chapel rather than Church, there would remain significant Catholic presences as well as Catholic immigration and conversions and many unchurched or followers of non-Christian religions. And most of us live in Cities.
There is less a core than a series of nodes of identity in Britain today, some of which are natural partners and some of which are in contradiction. Thus secular values can cohere with faith values, but often they give rise to tensions. In the enhanced pluralism of contemporary Britain I would suggest that the explicit Christian values of Catholic Social Teaching provide a ground for positive dialogue with all men and women of goodwill. Solidarity and subsidiarity do provide ways of accommodating legitimate differences within a wider unity. The common good remains an important corrective to factionalism and over-reaching individualism. Commitments to justice and peace and the good stewardship of the environment provide principles for action. The contrast of the culture of death with the culture of life challenges the dehumanising tendencies of some parts of modernity.