The following interview with Alice Thompson and Rachel Sylvester appeared in 'The Times' on Saturday 14 February 2009.
'Pride, avarice, lust, anger, gluttony, envy and sloth: sometimes it feels as if Britain is in the grip of the seven deadly sins. There are arrogant politicians, greedy bankers, lecherous television presenters, furious trade unionists, obese children, competitive shoppers and an underclass of people who do not work. To the doom-mongers, British society is not broken, it is shattered.
According to the Archbishop of Westminster, the economic downturn could be the very thing that brings us to our senses. “It's the end of a certain kind of selfish capitalism,” Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor said. “This particular recession is a moment - a kairos - when we have to reflect as a country on what are the things that nourish the values, the virtues, we want to have ... Capitalism needs to be underpinned with regulation and a moral purpose.”
He will stand down soon as the head of the Roman Catholic Church in Britain, which he has been for nine years, but before he goes he wants to make one final plea to Britons to change their ways. He told The Times that he had advised Gordon Brown to complement his National Economic Council with a moral one, to “rediscover the things that make for a healthy society”.
He said: “One feels very sorry for those losing their jobs but in times of recession people have to rely on friends and neighbours and families and things that really matter to them. That may be a good thing. I think people did lose their way a bit. It has been difficult to bring up children with the kind of values we want. Let's face it, we now have a ‘me, me' society, a more consumerist society, a utilitarian society, and our values and virtues have become diminished.
Some of it has got to do with having too much. If your worth just depends on your wealth, that is not healthy. Your worth should depend on who you are.”
Nothing exemplified this better than the bonus culture in the City. “I hope people have come to their senses. I don't know why they got such big bonuses. I would cut them out altogether.” Bankers, he said, “were just wanting to make profits but in ways that were rash, and they thought they could continue on this bonanza without querying their excesses. The industry is so focused on money. Unless that is underpinned with a moral sense and regulation that makes it clear money is only a tool for living, then it is wrong. I think sometimes there weren't enough controls on the City.
“Fred the Shred [Sir Fred Goodwin, the former head of RBS] wanted a quick fix. I don't condemn him; there are rich people but don't let money possess you. The best people, however rich, are keen to share it.”
He refused to single out the Government for blame, saying: “Everyone was cashing in. People kept borrowing as well as bankers lending. People kept shopping. I think shopping fills a void. If you have one car, you need two. Everyone wants the latest trainers and clothes. It is awful to go to a house and see in a corner hundreds of unused toys. It's so profligate. What children need is security and love, not huge amounts of money.
“Maybe the Church lost a bit of confidence. We should have said more. [The recession] is not a punishment of God but the consequences of living a certain way of life. If you live a life that is consumed by overindulgence and greed, you eventually pay a price.”
He condemned the widening gap between rich and poor. “I admire the Prime Minister for feeling strongly about this ... but I have said to him that pouring money into things is not the only answer. You might give another half-billion to education, the health service or in benefits, but this is about people, motivation and encouragement.”
The benefits system, he said, undermined the family. “Clearly you have an obligation to look after people, whether one-parent families or broken families, but if all resources are put on them, it isn't right. Every social policy should have, at its heart, benefit to the family.” He said that much of the benefits system “obviously doesn't benefit people. The tax system must benefit the family. The greatest evil in this society is the breakdown of the family.”
He was worried that some single mothers were exploiting the system. “I am sure if you can get benefit from having another child, you might want quite a number of children for the money.” He was also concerned that mothers may be working too much. “I have nieces and I will be in big trouble if I say women shouldn't work but I think children should have a mother who is there. If I was living on an estate in Basingstoke or Slough, I wouldn't necessarily want to be at home all day long ... If a woman goes to university, she gets used to having equality and a career. You can't say, ‘No, you can't work', but I do think you have to make some choices.”
The Sixties had a lot to answer for. “Liberalism is fine as long as it doesn't become libertine. Casual sex is very dangerous. I get so angry about schools. They all seem keen to teach everything about sex. When I go into schools and talk to girls and boys, they say, ‘When I grow up I want to settle down, marry and have a family.' It is good to encourage that, not to say you must have sex right, left and centre and it will all be fine. It won't.”
On contraception, he said: “It is quite ridiculous to go on about Aids in Africa and condoms, and the Catholic Church. I talk to priests who say, ‘My diocese is flooded with condoms and there is more Aids because of them.' Education, healthcare and abstinence are much more important.”
Celibacy had been a sacrifice in his own life. “I would have liked to have been a father. I think good priests would also make good fathers. The sacrifice is very big but it is compensated by having a special relationship with the parish.”
Catholic adoption agencies should, he said, be allowed to turn down gay couples who want a child - something that is now banned under equality legislation. “I am against discrimination against homosexuals but ... we think the best way of bringing up a child is with a father and mother. [The law] is political correctness gone mad. Religious bodies and voluntary agencies shouldn't be discriminated against.”
There was a danger that politics was losing touch with faith. “Fifty years ago there was an underlying Christian ethic that was held by most MPs. That is not true any more. There's a tendency to utilitarianism, a rationalism that is not underpinned by anything,” he said. “Churchill didn't really believe in God but he called on God quite regularly to help the British Empire. Macmillan was very much a Christian, so was Margaret Thatcher.”
He was concerned about the rise of “militant secularism” - exemplified by the atheist adverts on buses and “that wretched God Delusion book”. He said: “There is a serious attempt by the [Richard] Dawkinses of this world to say we want as much right as the believers to post our unbelief.
“There's not enough weight given to Christianity in schools. Children should learn about Christmas before Diwali and Ramadan. People should not be afraid to say we are a Christian country.”
Roman Catholics could teach Muslims a great deal about integrating into British society, he said. “Even when I was a boy the country was a bit suspicious of Roman Catholics. Tony Blair thought that it would have been very difficult to convert while he was Prime Minister.” Things had changed, although not enough, he said. “If the heir to the throne can marry a Muslim or a Hottentot but can't marry a Catholic, that's ridiculous.” The next Coronation must, he said, be ecumenical. “Prince Charles is an Anglican so there should be an Anglican service - but it will have to include the other