In Peter Hennessey’s Reflections radio series, Margaret Beckett was asked why she abandoned the Catholic faith of her childhood. The event which crystallised her disenchantment was John Freeman asking Cardinal Heenan what one word summed up the Church. Margaret waited, expecting something like “charity”or “love”. The Cardinal’s answer was “Authority”.
Perhaps not a surprising answer for an institution long steeped in hierarchy and an acute sense of its own magisterium. But in light of the revelations over recent years of the criminal, un-Christian activities of too many of its priests and nuns, most recently in this story (which has received surprisingly little attention) the Cardinal’s answer was revealing about what really mattered to its leaders.
To its shame, the Church has yet to show that it really understands that the appalling conduct by some, and its cover up by others, is not, sadly, an exception but the almost inevitable consequence of it placing the maintenance of its authority above other values.
This is what is likely to happen when people in authority feel unchallenged and unchallengeable. For an institution founded by a man who said, “Suffer little children to come unto me” it will be a long time before many will be able to look at a sentence with the words “church” and “children” without thinking of matters quite other than what Jesus intended.
When an institution becomes more concerned about its own reputation, even at the expense of covering up or condoning behaviour deeply at odds with its professed values, about preserving its brand, about protecting its leader or staff from criticism, however justified, then there seems to be nothing which cannot be justified to protect the institution’s honour, even as its conduct becomes more and more dishonourable.
The same responses to allegations of scandal have been seen in: the Anglican church (Bishop George Bell), charities; some parts of the Muslim community, understandably (on a human level) unwilling to countenance the possibility that their religion may have been used to justify atrocious crimes; the NHS (most lately, Gosport); the Labour party, parts of whom have been desperate to ignore any suggestion that their leader is anything other than perfect;
Trump and his supporters treating anything even remotely critical as “Fake News”; the Leave campaign refusing to engage with allegations about its funding; even banking where, contrary to Bob Diamond’s tin-eared and premature “The time for apologies is over” most people felt (and probably still feel) the time for apologies has yet to start.
Curious that, in an age of PR, branding and the “message”, it seems to come as a surprise to many that the only long-term effect of acting dishonourably while focusing on image, of a culture of denial and cover up is to stain an entity’s or person’s reputation, perhaps irretrievably. Worse: the longer the denial lasts, the longer it will take to recover one’s reputation. Long after a clean-up has occurred the entity will still be dealing with the harm caused by events long before.
You would have thought that the Tory party would have understood this lesson. Its description as the “nasty” party has a half-life almost as long as the material stored at Sellafield. The flirtation of Johnson and Rees-Mogg with Bannon, their apparent desire to copy the Trump playbook risks tainting once again their party, whatever its short-term advantages.
Even if they are careless of their own reputation, surely they should have a care for the party? Labour too seems intent on repeating the same mistake. Not just in failing to address its issues with anti-Semitism but in giving the impression that the current leader’s reputation is more important than that of the party he leads.
Corbyn is echoing the hubris shown by May last year when her battle bus had her name prominently displayed rather than that of the party she led. One day they will no longer be leaders but their parties will live on. When leaders forget that they are not more important than the institution they serve, disaster is rarely far away.
In an article in Al-Sharq Al-Awsat on 4 September 2004, shortly after the Beslan massacre, Abdel Rahman al-Rashed wrote this: “It is a certain fact that not all Muslims are terrorist, but it is equally certain, and exceptionally painful, that almost all terrorists are Muslim…….It would be easy to cure ourselves if we realise the seriousness of our sickness. Self-cure starts with self-realisation and confession.
We should then run after our terrorist sons, in the full knowledge that they are the sour grapes of a deformed culture.” Substitute “Catholics” and “child abusers” and “abusive priests” for “Muslims”, “terrorists” and “terrorist sons” in the above passage and this could – and should be – addressed to the church with which this header started. There is profound pain and shame in these words but also an appeal to people’s better nature, to remember, and act on and according to, the real values which once motivated the entity’s creation.
What might the travails of religious groups teach those in public life? The obvious one is that describing oneself as good does not makeone so. But, ironically enough, one lesson is not to place so much emphasis on a star politician, a saviour who will lead the party to the promised land of huge majorities and electoral hegemony. As is being clear that even the best politicians are flawed human beings, needing people and processes around them to limit their power.
But perhaps the most important one – and for voters, not just politicians – is to realise that, while there is honour in public life, in seeking to speak up for unpopular groups or causes, in trying to make life better for the forgotten and vulnerable, in wishing to remove injustices, in seeking to improve our political arrangements, remembering the values which motivated you and acting honourably in trying to achieve your aims is the only, the best way of achieving anything worthwhile and lasting.
There is a price to be paid for short-term victories achieved in a dishonourable manner. Cynicism, disillusionment, worse: a perception that reprehensible means are a useful tactic. Might we get better politicians were we to reward honourable behaviour? Or, like Caliban, are we raging at our own face in the glass?