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Speech

NZ Education Development Foundation's Seminar

Issue date: 
Saturday, 18 September 1999
Speaker: 
The Rt Hon Sir Michael Hardie Boys, GNZM, GCMG, QSO

Ladies and gentlemen, good afternoon.

When I accepted the invitation to come here today, it was initially to open this Seminar, rather than be one of three keynote speakers. Having read who they are, and who are the panellists to follow, I am not at all sure of my qualifications to be here at all. I am no expert. Nor am I a philosopher or a theologian. And because this has been a particularly hectic time for me, I have not even been able to come for long enough to hear what all of the experts have had to say. And so I run the risk of being repetitive. If so, I apologise. At least by being the last to speak, I run no risk of stealing someone else's thunder. And because I shall have to leave before the panel begins, there will be no constraints on them.

This seminar is addressing some truly fundamental issues. It is no doubt inspired by some truly alarming facts. Yet strangely there has not been a great deal of community alarm or even concern. I put that in the past tense, because I sense that community concern is growing, and that people are beginning to ask questions, and to look for solutions. There is always a danger that they will look in the wrong place.

I have been asked to speak about "Church and State": a very general topic, as Mr Logan commented to me. I take it that by "State" is meant government in its wider sense, the body that governs by making laws and administering the affairs of the nation. And that makes it a delicate topic for a Governor-General, perhaps a dangerous one. For it comes close to being political, and the cardinal rule for a Governor-General is never to be political. There are those who think he or she should not even be controversial, but I don't go along with that. The question "What do we pay you for, then?" that is sometimes the response to my refusal to speak or act politically, would surely be justified if the Governor-General spoke only airy nothings.

I take my lead from my Australian counterpart, who has said that he is entitled to raise questions and to probe issues of social concern but that he becomes political if he proposes solutions; to which I would add this qualification, solutions about which political parties have differing views. It is a fine line indeed, and I shall do my best to tread on the correct side of it.

When you put Church and State alongside each other, as this session's title does, and when that is done in the context of a seminar that focuses on respective spheres of influence and authority, an instant reaction by many will be that their roles are separate, and that Church in particular should remember that. The Church should keep out of politics, people say, using, one hopes, not very confidently, "politics" in a party political sense. It's not only people on the State side who say that, but people on the Church side too. How can the Church purport to speak on behalf of all, they say, as if there is no significant common ground. And on the State side, people also say that the Church should mind its own business, which they define as the saving of souls, and without believing for a minute in the object of the exercise.

This is really heresy. For the institutions of church and state are of course inextricably interwoven with each other, and with the other two, family and community; for all of them, family, community, church and state, overlap and intermingle, and it is that intermingling and interconnection that can give strength and vitality to society, or that can work to its weakening and damage. If one part does not play its proper role, the effectiveness of the others is diminished. Society is at its best when all four have roughly common standards, objectives and ideals. That is far from being the case at present.

Before we talk about relationships between Church and State, it might be useful first to take stock of the state of our nation, what it is about it that is positive, and worth celebrating, and what about it might be less worthy, and which should be changed. And we should couple that with some consideration of the responsibility of individuals, before we look at the role of our institutions.

The registration brochure for this seminar posed the question, "Civil Society, or Social Dysfunction?" I don't know whether the person who set the question expected an either/or answer, but for my part I would say that we already have both, and very much so.

One of the truly rewarding features of my position is that I travel a great deal about the country, and I meet a great many people. I am frequently excited, inspired, sometimes deeply moved, by what I see and hear. I visit schools, and meet truly dedicated teachers and outstanding young people, talented, motivated, with a strong sense of purpose. I officiate at award ceremonies for our youth organisations, and see the committed leadership, and the desire to lead and serve that they imbue in their members. I go to concerts and performances and other expressions of the great and diverse talent that we have among us, and I find the extent of that talent exhilarating. I go to old people's homes and organisations that care for the disadvantaged, and simply shake my head in wonder and admiration at the devotion and love poured out by nurses and caregivers. And as patron of over two hundred organisations, and involved in some way or another with many more, I know full well the extent of the effort and the money contributed by the tens of thousands of voluntary workers and donors, without whom it can truthfully be said that society would collapse. And twice a year I meet those who have been named in the Queen's Birthday and New Year Honours and I marvel at the accounts that are read out of what these people have done, many for a long lifetime, in the service of others. And they are but a representative handful.

But I know too, by what many of these people tell me, by what I read in the papers, and by my own experience as a judge, that this is only part of the picture. For it has become a fact of New Zealand life that there are very great contrasts in our society, between those who have and those who have not; between those who are doing well and those who are not; between potential nurtured and potential unrealised; between talents utilised and talents thrown away; between the many needs and the seemingly limited resources available to meet them. It is these contrasts that make necessary many of the endeavours of the people I have been talking about. And many of them, I must add, really should not be necessary at all in a truly healthy and civil society.

We have to admit that to a considerable degree, "things" have already fallen apart in New Zealand. Yes, this country has made great gains over the past few decades, certainly over the last century. But at the same time, we have also lost some of the quality of the life that our parents and grandparents took for granted. I'm not saying that we are exiles from an earlier and golden age: no era is made of that pure metal, the times are always alloyed. But even though we are living longer, and for the most part are better-educated and better-fed and are free of many of the illnesses that bore away our ancestors young, our way of life is in other ways not at all as healthy as once it was.

That can perhaps best be illustrated, not through statistics, crime rates, divorce rates, child abuse rates and the like (although I am going to give you some of those), but through memories; memories of some of the qualities of the New Zealand way of life that we have mislaid, or merely not nurtured and sustained. I'm thinking of such commonplaces as house doors left unlocked; lost purses nearly automatically returned, together with the money they contained; more general politeness, civility, consideration; but above all, clearer ideas and stronger instincts about right and wrong. Memories, I should add, of days when so many more people went to Church, and when Sunday School and Bible Class were the norm for the majority of our children, and when there were strong communities and well supported community organisations, so many centred on the local church.

I promised, or threatened you with, statistics, and now I suppose I should deliver. It is, I believe, important that all of us understand the extent of the contrasts I have spoken about, the extent to which New Zealand has become dysfunctional. For only when we understand the size and categories of our problems can we begin to think of solutions, and the part that the institutions of society can and should play in providing them. There are many measures and classifications to choose from.

Let's begin with marriage, long and widely accepted as the foundation of a cohesive society. Yet marriage is losing its footing; some would go so far as to say the erosion is far-advanced. Each year, fewer couples marry. More and more live together, raise families, without being married. The number of these increased 40% between 1986 and 1991, when the last census figures were available, and in the same period the number of married couples who had separated rose by over 20%, while those who divorced rose by over 30%. The number of divorces each year is almost half the number of marriages. There are of course moves afoot to improve the statistics by allowing same sex marriages; an oxymoron, a self contradiction, if ever there was one. We have the second highest rate of teenage childbirth in the western world. Almost half the children born in this country are born out of wedlock. Quite a few more never make it at all: in 1995, there were 13,650 abortions. There are well over 100,000 sole parents on the DPB. Most of them are mothers. In 1991, of the industrialised societies only the United States had a higher proportion than us of one-parent households.

Another part of the picture is the increase in violence: the number of violent crimes reported to the Police has almost doubled in the past decade. This is partly a reflection of the much increased reporting of domestic violence, the extent of which is indicated, perhaps only slightly, in the fact that over 5,000 women and 8,000 children a year are seeking the safety of women's refuges. In 1996/97, 3,091 offences against children were reported to the police. Nine children a year are officially recorded as victims of homicide, seven at the hands of those responsible for their care. For the years 1985-89, New Zealand was the sixth-highest on a table of industrialised nations, for deaths of infants presumed to be the result of abuse. Four years ago in the lower North Island, one in ten of 11 to 13 year-olds surveyed had been punched, kicked or beaten by an adult at least once in the previous nine months. A recent Christchurch study showed that 17.3% of girls and 6% of boys had experienced some form of sexual abuse before the age of 16; 5.6% and 1.4% respectively reporting attempted or completed intercourse.

And the rate of juvenile offending is pretty alarming too. Between 1990 and 1997, the number of under 17 year olds apprehended for offending increased by 41%. 22% of all apprehended offenders were in this age group. 1,250 young people under 20 were in prison.

Home, or lack of one, is a recurrent theme with these young people. A recent study of 109 serious repeat child offenders showed that 23 were not living with their own family; 70 had had a change of caregivers; 50 were either already involved in alcohol or drug use, or other family members were; 65 had already gone on record as suffering or witnessing physical or sexual abuse, family violence or neglect; the parents of 80 were not coping. This is consistent with the experience of every judge: and that is my background. Almost all offenders of every age come from dysfunctional families, have been abused as children, have failed miserably at school, have resorted to drug and alcohol abuse, are unemployed. It is a dismal pattern, and a self perpetuating one too.

It is the absence of fathers that is the most significant cause of all for troubled youngsters. The number of children growing up without fathers is frightening. And it is an unhappy fact that fatherless families - families where father either is just not there, or where he plays no effective part in his children's nurturing - these families are the more likely to produce children who are, to use the current term, "at risk": at risk of being abused, of being emotionally, even physically scarred; at risk of dropping out of school, of becoming pregnant, of living on the streets; at risk of being hooked on drugs or other substances; at risk of being caught up in gangs, in crime, of being unemployable, of having no ambition, no vision, no hope; at risk of handing down hopelessness to the next generation; at risk of suicide. As for that, we have the highest rate of youth suicide in the western world. The rate has trebled in the past two decades. Suicide is the second most common cause of death among young people - after motor accidents.

But what is the cause of all this dysfunction? Why so many failed marriages, so much reluctance to commit to marriage? Why so much violence, so much irresponsibility in relationships? The answer comes on more than one level. A great deal of the violence, for example, is undoubtedly the immediate result of excessive drinking. Just the other weekend we heard how the lethal combination of alcohol and the loss of the Bledisloe Cup caused an alarming increase in incidents of domestic violence. And we learn that among many school children the best way to spend the weekend is to get blindingly, sickeningly, drunk. Then you get the vandalism, and the rioting, and sometimes a police officer or someone else is bottled or knifed. Alcohol undoubtedly unleashes aggression.

Going a little deeper: the New Zealand Herald recently ran a series of articles about violence, and it identified another cause: poverty. We are told at times that poverty does not exist in New Zealand, and that's true if you define it in Third World terms. We certainly don't have the poverty that you see in the slums and shanty towns of Calcutta or Soweto for example. But if you define it as the inability to share in the basic ingredients of New Zealand life, adequate food and housing and clothing, the opportunity to see and to learn, then we do. And in a small country, where we are all aware how most of us live, and in a consumer-driven society where good looks and possessions seem to count for everything, the contrasts can be very apparent. As a 15 year-old is quoted as saying, "It would be a waste of time hitting someone if you had money." But with unemployment, there can be precious little of it, as well as the frustration and humiliation of finding no-one prepared to give you a job.

And if you are on the DPB, particularly with more than one child to care for, and poorly educated, your material prospects are pretty grim, and you might take your frustrations out on the children or on seeking such transient fun and happiness as might come your way. In 1991, 25% of our children belonged to families in which the parent or parents had no paid work.

The lamentable state of so much home and family life is both a cause and a consequence of much of this dysfunction, but going deeper still, underlying it still further, is the collapse of community, of that sense of belonging together and so needing and being dependent on each other, that was so strong in earlier days.

And underlying that again, underlying all the contrasts, all the dysfunction, there has been a widespread fundamental philosophical and moral shift, an abandoning of traditional values and concerns, and their replacement by an individual morality, by a moral relativism or moral subjectivism that claims for each individual the right to make his own moral choices, free of the constraint of any absolute right and wrong, free of the burden of responsibility for the well-being of others. And so a current definition of what is 'good' is essentially a secular, self-centred and materialistic one, which denies moral content in human relationships, denies responsibility for anyone other than oneself, refuses to pass judgment on anyone else's behaviour. It finds daily expression in the hedonistic lifestyle of so many, in desperate consumerism, in claims to free choice in matters of birth, life and death, in the right of everyone to see and hear and read whatever they want. What some turn out to want is a welter of violence and sex, on screens large and small, as a sort of general backdrop to day-to-day life. By courtesy of some of the more extreme performers, the images can come with a sound track that suits them admirably.

This of course is a broad brush generalisation, and I have already acknowledged the tens of thousands who do not see life in that way at all. Further, it is interesting to note that moral relativism is losing ground among some liberal thinkers, simply because it is inconsistent with their emphasis on rights, which when properly analysed, can exist only on a moral foundation. But though there may be some philosophical retreat among those who are concerned with rights, those who are not concerned with rights can live on quite happily.

The mortal danger of this relativity in values is that its message is one that many, in one way or another, dearly want to hear. Because then there are no final moral standards to which we must adhere, nothing to "fetter" us. There simply are no bitter pills. And because there remains no real "temptation" in the old Judeo-Christian sense, there is obviously no need to resist many of the invitations the world has to offer. This results in the eleventh commandment being the only one that counts: don't get caught. And even if you are apprehended at something or other, well, there's no moral stigma to that. Just be more careful, next time.

There are interesting justifications for this implied claim that any one person's definition of right and wrong will often, and quite rightly, be different from everybody else's. One is a reaction against what is seen as authoritarianism, whether on the part of Church, or State, or certain sectors of society. The argument is that to deny the claim to individuality will result in right and wrong then becoming defined by the powerful, who brand as 'wrong' only what does not suit them. Sometimes, this argument even circles back on itself, by stating that broadly agreed-upon codes of behaviour, through their very existence, reveal that elites in society can arrange any culture's belief systems to accord with their own comfort.

It's an attack on conscience of course; a denial that there is anything in humanity that lives upstairs, as well as downstairs.

To be sure, our old moral certitudes were often imposed on people. The social order used to be far more rigid. Much, even all authority, was claimed by people now properly identified as patriarchs. And, too often, a dictatorial few allowed whatever measure of legitimate authority they possessed — legitimate only, of course, insofar as it was founded upon leadership by example — to devolve into authoritarianism: the insistence on control; that state of mind where the lunge for power is instinctive. Differing points of view, different manners and customs and cultures were, tacitly for the most part, but sometimes deliberately, suppressed. The interests of the few took precedence, the interests of all those 'under' them, were taken much less seriously. We've all met, or remember, men exactly like that. Is it any wonder, then, that as soon as it was economically possible for people to dispense with patriarchy and excessive hierarchy, that they leaped at the chance?

And overshot their mark.

Because so many co-incidentally fled more trustworthy, higher, authority. That sort of authority, however, has a very great practical, as well as a spiritual, effect. It is that life's rules, life's ideals, remain reasonably clear and constant — even when not demonstrated by example as well as they should be, all of us and all of our institutions being imperfect. And as a coherent and consistent moral standard is more meaningful to most people than a moral babel, we are being, by definition, only sensible when we acknowledge a higher authority. To maintain otherwise is to say that humanity — ultimately, every individual woman and man — is the measure of all things. To believe that is to place yourself in spiritual solitary confinement.

To live life meaningfully at all, let alone to the full, we have to share ourselves; who we are and what we do. Each of us therefore, is called upon to demonstrate virtue, to attempt to live an upright life. There is nothing new about that proposition of course. It had quite general acceptance in the ancient world. It means though, as the Greek philosophers taught, that it is in the interests of society as a whole for the point to be made clear. And by whom better than the State?

It's necessary here to admit that there were serpents in this latter day Eden I've been talking about, but as I've acknowledged I'm only claiming that it was a gilded, rather than a golden, age. Some things used to be tragically and hypocritically concealed. Family violence, for instance, used to be seen, much, much too often, as an 'internal' matter — 'internal' to violent families, that is. Which meant that offenders, "heads of households", were left to get on with being both judges and jailers. It should have been unconscionable, but it wasn't. Yet even so, in the same era, with only rare exceptions, any father's abandonment of his wife and family triggered massive social disapproval. He was recognised — seen very, very clearly — as a man who'd broken one of the few sacred promises all of us are ever called upon to make. The social signals about some kinds of behaviour were clearer. They could be mistaken, but more often were not.

So the general rebellion against old too-hierarchical ways, was not all wrong. But it has gone too far. The idea of the need to be obedient to 'capital-L' law, moral laws, became too-closely allied with the exercise of autocratic authority in the home and the workplace and even in the community at large. In denying the morality of much of that, some came to deny there was any such thing as authority at all. It seems that we saw wood, and before stopping to consider whether we were seeing one twisted tree or a whole moral forest, started to chop. We have been clear-felling now for several decades.

The resulting moral landscape can be an un-benign, unfriendly, arid one, to say the least. Living in it, many feel as if things are falling apart, and that there's a lot that simply doesn't make sense. We have come to be surrounded by no little paradox and confusion. For instance, on the grounds that no-one should be ruled by overlords, many now deny that they should even be expected to rule themselves. But with no shared sense of right and wrong, rules, civil law, become more important than before.

The paradox is that because we actually prefer to live by definite rules, we come to demand that those rules be imposed on everyone equally by some replacement "higher" power; mostly, in New Zealand, the State, "the Crown," "the government." There's a fringe benefit too: the transfer of responsibility to the external authority can make the still, small voice of individual conscience even smaller. When we try to legislate morality however, even to a degree, we will into existence a set of institutions that can easily come to be regarded as the nation's ethical arbiters: a role for which they are unlikely to be well suited.

What then is the role of the Church? "The Church is not really in the business of being a moral guardian," the Archbishop of Canterbury has said. "We are in the business of calling people to a faith which has moral consequences." In other words, the Church is not in the business of making people's moral choices for them, either, even if, arguably, in former times it sometimes believed it was. But the Church is certainly entitled, even bound, to express the Christian perspective on moral issues, pointing to a better way; not only encouraging and aiding members to travel along that better way in their own lives, but also commending that better way to the rest of society. Letters that I receive, and that I read in the newspapers, tell me that there are many bewildered people out there, looking for the Church to do just this. Why doesn't the Church give a lead, they say; a little unjustifiably, no doubt, but that's what they say.

Stating views about public life, of course, is not, and never has been, the Church's core business, but the Gospel which the Church proclaims is concerned with the whole of life, even so. Dr George McLeod, founder of the Iona Community, made the point very forcefully in his book "Only One Way Left" (an unashamedly political book, it must be acknowledged), in a passage I like to quote when I am in a stirring-up mood:

"I simply argue that the cross be raised again at the centre of the market place as well as on the steeple of the church. I am recovering the claim that Jesus was not crucified in a cathedral between two candles, but on a cross between two thieves, on the town garbage heap, on a crossroads so cosmopolitan that they had to write his title in Hebrew and Latin and Greek; at the kind of place where cynics talk smut, and thieves curse, and soldiers gamble, because that is where he died and that is what he died about. And that is where churchmen should be, and what churchmen should be about."

Unless it is to turn itself into something different from its true nature and calling, either deliberately or by timid neglect, the Church is necessarily involved in much of what is also the concern of the State. We are fortunate that this land does not require the Church to offer up martyrs in protest against tyranny and evil, as was the case in Nazi Germany, say, although that still happens in parts of the world. Rather, there are issues of social justice and of community standards and values that are very much affected by the actions or inaction of the State, and which are very much the concern of the Church. In this sort of area, the two can easily come into conflict, but the conflict should be seen as constructive and not otherwise, for the sole objective is, or should be, the promotion of the common good.

I do not believe that the church should be in the least deterred from fulfilling that role by the fact that there will always be criticism and opposition if it does so; or by that fact that its voice is nowadays a minority voice. It is said that we live in a post-Christian age: that we have (supposedly) tried Christianity, found it wanting, and moved on. Certainly the statistics seem to support that, to a degree: census figures show that in 1991, 20% of the population said they were of "No religion", an increase of 24.9% over the 1986 figure. Between 1956 and 1991, the percentage of the 5 to 19 age group stating they were of "No religion" rose from 0.39% to 25.14%;, from less than half of one percent to more than a quarter of us. On that basis, the young are formally abandoning religion even more than their parents. And those who do still acknowledge a religious affiliation, are, like their parents, staying away in droves.

Yet all that is beside the essential point, which is that the mission of the Church is the same as it was when everyone attended services, and it must remain true to that mission. But it needs to be careful: careful to be sure of its facts, careful to present rational as well as emotive arguments, practicable rather than unrealistic solutions. It is all too easy to damage a sound case by careless reasoning.

The Church has always expressed Gospel concerns in a practical way, ministering to the needy in all their circumstances. Often it has done it alone. But then the State has joined in, taking over to some extent. Now the State is retracting somewhat, not because the need is less, but because it has other priorities. Of course there will always be the sick to tend, the incapacitated to care for, there will always be those who for one reason or another cannot care for themselves, and their needs I believe should properly be met in a partnership between Community, Church and State.

It should not be the sole responsibility of the State, for the State does not always do these things best, and anyway the God-given desire to serve others should have every opportunity to be expressed. But it cannot be left solely to the voluntary sector either, for its resources are limited, and anyway we should all accept responsibility for each other, and the State can at times be the best medium through which that communal responsibility can be discharged.

So I do not see any need to re-define the role of the Church. The more debatable issue is the role of the State.

What of that role? The promotion of the common good is surely the primary one, some might say its sole role. But of course there are differing views as to what is the common good, and widely divergent views as to how the State should go about promoting it. Should it simply provide a framework within which citizens are free to pursue their own interests, along with a safety net for those who cannot look after themselves? Or should it regulate the way people behave, and at the same time ensure there is adequate provision for all their needs? We are well past the age when it was quite widely accepted that the State's functions were limited to the maintenance of public order, to defence, and to the administration of justice. But how far beyond those core functions the State should go can be a very political issue indeed. And while I must be careful about entering upon it too much, there are some questions that can usefully be asked and thought about.

For society to climb out of the statistical crevasse I described earlier, we have to start at the bottom, with the fundamental problem, the rejection of values. To make a start here is not really all that difficult. If you were to do a poll or a survey, and ask people to think carefully, you would find that most would again agree that society needs to be underpinned by some basic concepts, even if they do not think of them in that way, even if they do not always practise them. The list would include honesty and truthfulness; kindness; consideration and concern for others; compassion, obedience, responsibility for self and others, respect, duty. And people would mostly agree that these values, these virtues, need to be taught; although not necessarily by them. Last year a study was released that found that around 30 percent of New Zealand parents thought it was the role of teachers, or the clergy, someone other than themselves, to teach children values, to learn to differentiate between right and wrong. How you change that attitude I am not sure.

The Church teaches these things, and would add some more. But the schools have been wary of them. The secular clause of the Education Act has been used as justification. But these basic values are not exclusively religious, or spiritual, values at all. Some schools are appreciating that, and are undertaking 'values education', with strong support from parents. I believe that values education is a legitimate and indeed essential feature even of a secular education, and that the State is fully entitled, ought, to make it an essential component of the school curriculum.

And as part of that, it seems to me to be the responsibility of the State to counter one of the dangerous consequences of subjective morality, in its practice as well as its ethic, the conclusion that individuals do not actually overlap with one another. Yet we do, do we not? What else is a 'community' but individuals who part-merge themselves with others? From our earliest years, and all through our lives, we intermingle with each other. Yes, we each have our individual conscience and set of responsibilities. But we are social souls more than we can ever be solitary creatures. This knowledge must surely be basic to any system of education.

The secular clause in the Education Act has resulted in some other rather bizarre attitudes. I wonder how many children, how many adults for that matter, understand the millennium. They know that it begins with the year 2000 of course, but counted from when, and why? Actually, I cannot recall seeing or hearing a single reference to the fact that it is the 2000th year of the Christian era, and that it is from the (deemed) year of the birth of Christ that our calendar runs. Again, from time to time we hear of teachers being reprimanded for explaining what Easter is, for example, and Christmas, why we celebrate those days. I wonder to what further extent history is been edited by the excision of any reference to the incalculable extent to which Christianity has formed our civilisation.

I believe that the State has an obligation to present the full picture of our heritage, as well as to insist that our schools teach those values that are fundamental to the civil society. In this context, we need to consider how wide our schools' responsibility should be. For example, in teaching responsibility for self and others, should they teach life skills, give sex instruction, and if so what is the message that should be given? Too often the message, if not from state agencies then from agencies that people associate with the State, seems to be devoid of moral content.

Sex is described in biological rather than human terms, without emphasis on its moral dimension as an expression of committed love; while family planning tends to concentrate on prevention of consequences rather than on moral choice and responsibility. If the State is to accept responsibility for the teaching of values, as I believe it must, is this sort of approach good enough?

The next question is how far the State should legislate. There are certain moral values that must necessarily be incorporated in legislation, but this is usually done by way of prohibition or punishment rather than positive direction. Thus the criminal law punishes murder and sexual assault and dishonesty. But this is because that is necessary for society's protection rather than for its enhancement. So indeed are some of the positive duties that the law enforces, such as the duty of the driver of a motor car to exercise due care, or the duty of an employer to provide a safe place of work. And for the sake of our economic rather than our moral welfare, the law provides remedies for breach of contract and breach of trust and other civil wrongs. But in terms of what may be called general morality, should the State adopt a positive, or a neutral role? Certainly the State has of late been retreating from legislative prohibition, and adopting instead a more relaxed attitude of individual choice. Homosexual acts in private between consenting adults, once visited with the direst consequences, are no longer unlawful, and abortion is no longer absolutely forbidden. The laws about gambling have been relaxed, and we are now allowed to have casinos. Strict controls over the sale and consumption of alcohol have gone.

Many of these changes have been strenuously opposed by the Church on the grounds that they are contrary to morality and thus to the public good. But so long as the weak are protected, is it for the State to say that homosexual acts or abortion, for example, are wrong and must therefore be forbidden? Should the Church resist such changes, or instead concentrate on ensuring that in their implementation the weak are indeed protected?

And what of family law? No-one would suggest that people should be required by law to be good husbands and wives, loving mothers and fathers. Laws to that effect would be futile. But how far should the law go? Divorce is easy now. Should it be more difficult? Should there be a distinction in property and other rights between married couples and de facto couples? Or does equity require that all couples, married or not, heterosexual or homosexual, should have the same rights? Should we legislate for pre-marital counselling to be compulsory? We have legislated for counselling before separation; why not at the more telling earlier stage?

Even if we limit the State's intrusion into morality to what is necessary to protect the public in general and the weak in particular, two other questions require answers: protection from what, and who are the weak?

Let me illustrate with two examples.

There can be little doubt that what we can see on the screen, at home or at the movies, or even in the magazines and the papers, has quite a lot to do with the incidence of violence in our society. I quote from the recent Auckland Herald series of articles: "Internationally, there is a consensus that media violence teaches aggressive behaviour, desensitises viewers to violence in the real world and increases community fear and therefore hostility." In the United States, it is said that by the time a youngster turns 18, he or she will have seen 200,000 dramatised acts of violence and 40,000 dramatised murders. When you have regard to what's available in the video stores and the games you can play in the amusement arcades, and what's on at the movies, that sort of figure might not be too far out for us either. Even the children's programmes, the cartoons, are all too-often violent. The media so often teach not only the lessons of aggression, but also the idea that violence is the appropriate response to any situation in which we think we are badly treated, or our desires are thwarted. They can also give the message that violence can be exciting, entertaining, an experience to be sought after.

Now what should the State do about that? There are those who would say, absolutely nothing. It is no business of the State to engage in censorship of any kind. But of course we do have censorship and it no doubt keeps the worst excesses from us. For the most part, however, it is not particularly effective in protecting the young and the vulnerable. What more should be done, though? Can and should the State do more, bearing in mind that some effort at least will be confounded: will it be possible for anyone to control the Internet?

Now let's turn to drink! It is glaringly obvious that alcohol, or rather the excess, the abuse of it, is a major contributor to violence, whether it be on the street, in the home, or on the road. The demon drink, my grandmother used to call it, and constantly cited to us a certain local gentleman: "It will get him in the end, you'll see" she would say. And when eventually he died, at the age of 93, she was vindicated. "It got him in the end, you see." The trouble is, it gets too many too soon.

Our once very strict liquor laws have been greatly relaxed over the years, and alcohol is much more freely available than it was. Drinking conditions have improved, and you no longer see the drunks spilling onto the street at six o'clock. But we still have huge problems, most especially with the young. Should the State be doing more to contain them? The problem here of course is essentially one of our attitude towards alcohol, often quite immature, even primitive. The idea that the ability to hold your liquor is a sign of manliness is one example. The idea that alcohol is a necessary accompaniment to sport or to having a good time is another. And our young people must learn not only that there are better ways to spend their time than getting blotto, but that it is actually very bad for them. Is it enough for the State to relax the law about supply, or ought it to be putting greater resources into education? There are of course a great many organizations endeavouring to do this, as well as pick up the pieces. Many are very reliant on voluntary work and donations. But does the State have a greater responsibility than it now exercises?

And now to touch, very lightly, on a most controversial topic, the withdrawal by the State from full welfarism. This is often roundly condemned by the Church, which of course sees the consequences through the work of its many welfare agencies. But we must remember too that welfarism has its problems: dependency, chiefly, by shifting responsibility from the individual and the community to the State. The community and the State are not synonymous, but the tendency to treat them as if they are may be a contributor to the decline in our sense of community. In the end, it becomes a question of balance, does it not?: of avoiding debilitating dependency while also avoiding unfair hardship. It is the role of the State to set that balance. But the State should not do that unaided, because it cannot see the full picture. Church and community often do see another part of it, and they have a responsibility to make their perception known and the State has a responsibility to listen.

To move on. For two hundred years or more now, there has been great emphasis on the responsibility of the State to protect individual rights. That has been a traditional role of the Courts. Rights-centred legislation is all the vogue — the Privacy Act, the Official Information Act, the Bill of Rights Act, are just three examples. But one must ask whether in this usually praiseworthy enthusiasm, the State has not lost sight of the responsibilities that run concurrently? A year or so ago, I came across a document entitled "A Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities."

It is the product of a group called the InterAction Council, which consists of former national leaders: former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt is Honorary Chairman; former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser is Chairman, who serve with people like Jimmy Carter, James Callaghan, Lee Kuan Yew, Mikhail Gorbachev, Shimon Peres and Pierre Trudeau. The Council's purpose is to have the United Nations adopt a Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities to go hand in hand with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Mankind, the Council says, has struggled for freedom and rights; it is now time to foster responsibility and human obligations.

The draft Declaration begins with some fundamental principles for humanity and these conclude with words that have a rather familiar ring: "What you do not wish to be done to yourself, do not do to others". The document goes on to spell out responsibilities under a number of headings: non-violence and respect for life, justice and solidarity, truthfulness and tolerance, mutual respect and partnership. Then it touches on why it is so important to think about responsibilities at the same time as we are thinking about rights. It makes the point very tellingly by quoting Mahatma Gandhi when he listed the seven social sins:

Politics without principles.

Commerce without morality.

Wealth without work.

Education without character.

Science without humanity.

Pleasure without conscience.

Worship without sacrifice.

Unless rights and responsibilities are paired, the document declares, there will only be constant assertions of entitlement, which will inevitably degenerate into endless contention about who is owed what by whom.

Whether or not the international community formally adopts a document like this, it speaks truths which a State may well regard as important for its own society. And the Church has a great deal to offer on this topic. And really it has much to offer on all the issues I have mentioned, as well as on so many others. Frequently, there is a moral context in which the powers and responsibilities of government fall to be exercised.

This has rarely been as true as it is now with the developments that science has brought upon us. Reproductive technology, genetics, are prime illustrations. What is happening here opens up huge moral and ethical issues, which serve only to emphasise the fact that you cannot draw a line between the appropriate spheres of Church and State. The State must ultimately make the decisions. The Church, however, has much wisdom and experience to offer the decision-making process. It will not necessarily be heeded, but unless it speaks it certainly will not be. We can admit that the State has expertise in "doing things right." But the Church, I believe, is often the better-endowed to decide what the "right things to do," might be.

There is I am sure scope for much greater dialogue between Church and State than there is at present. I have given just a few examples of areas in which this would be fruitful. Perhaps more formal mechanisms should be established. This is the age of pressure groups, of lobbyists, why not join it? But for this to be acceptable and successful, we will need to revive in the Church a way of thinking and a manner of speaking and a willingness to act on belief, that has become too-muted during the last few decades. This Seminar is a good sign.

Partly, largely by default, what has been called "secular orthodoxy" has come to set public standards: that supposedly-moral code that has replaced Judeo-Christian natural law and revelation, but which is based on what feels right, or fair, in some ineffable way, and which avoids mention of God or religion, to the extent that talk of them is often regarded as illiberal, impolite, embarrassing. What feels right, however, can alter over time, or be overlooked to avoid administrative inconvenience. And given the sometimes near overwhelming pressure exerted by the adherents of secular orthodoxy, transmitted as it is into everyone's life by all modern media, it can be very difficult to isolate a moral signal from the materialistic background noise. Christians therefore need to support and encourage each other in their faith and their works. Remember, even Peter, the Rock, denied his following when he was alone at the Chief Priest's residence, waiting for the cock to crow.

That story from the Gospels is surely a useful metaphor for the relationship between Church and State. We are all of us, in our individual ways, disciples. We are presently in a courtyard, a place bustling with public life. Those around us are continually posing us questions; moral questions both large and small. And before we answer any of them, we should listen for the cock crowing. Most of the time, the call will be from our own consciences. But sometimes that crow might come from the Church. And is that not, still, one of its transcendent roles?

Last updated: 
Friday, 9 January 2009

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