Challenged by Change - The William Wright Memorial Lecture
posted on 23 September 2003
Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, will this evening (Wednesday 24th September 2003) give the William Wright Memorial Lecture at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst.
The following are extracts from the Cardinal’s address:
“ At the heart of your profession and mine is discipline: disciplines of mind, of heart, of speech, of action, even of thought. For Christians the discipline of the Gospel is a key to living truthfully and fruitfully. The discipline of following Jesus faithfully is exacting. It is also liberating. But as all the great mystics tell us, you cannot enjoy the freedom without putting in the hard work.
“ You cannot live a holy life, for example, if you are not prepared to spend time in prayer and contemplation. One of the most demanding aspects of Christian leadership and witness today is the voluntary acceptance of disciplines of life which appear increasingly at odds with prevailing cultural norms.
“ Traditionally leadership, in the Catholic and Anglican Churches, has been dominated by an Episcopal, clerical or religious model. The disciplines for Catholic clergy include a promise of celibacy and chastity, and in the case of religious a promise of obedience to religious superiors.
“ But times are changing in the church and one of the great challenges for the lay leaders of tomorrow will be to accept many – not all of course but many- of the same disciplines that clergy have accepted over the centuries. It is not easy in today’s world to set aside time for God, and to do this on a regular, daily basis, irrespective of the demands of ordinary life – from doing the weekly shopping to preparing a liturgy for the Sunday service.
“ Nor is it easy to remain faithful to the moral teaching of the church when it appears so at odds with the moral liberalism and relativism of our times.
“ Imbued as it is with a certain conservatism, and a reluctance to adapt to ephemeral change, the Church can be slow to change and reform. It is not easy to distinguish between merely temporary phenomena and the kind of scientific, moral or social developments which may actually change the very nature of man’s relationship with himself or his environment.
“ The difficulty is that in an age of rapid change and increasing moral relativism we are not prepared to give ourselves time to judge whether change is fundamental or transitory, a change in tastes rather than a shift in self-understanding.
“ So it is important to understand the difference between adapting to genuine developments in our understanding of ourselves, our true nature and our defining relationships on the one hand; and merely accommodating passing fashions and temporary phenomena on the other.
“ At the least this is the difference between wisdom and foolishness; at a deeper level it can be the difference between truth and falsehood. I am not saying the Church always gets it right. I think the Church is challenged by the whole notion of change and can be too reluctant to listen to the Spirit of God speaking through the signs of the times. But this caution is not necessarily reprehensible.
“ Every institution, especially today, is subject to caricature. A certain disdain for institutions is almost endemic. Yet our institutions are crucial to our continued well-being. We cannot survive without some kind of institutional framework to protect and promote the common good, and in particular our collective freedom or liberty.
“ It is a characteristic of the post-modern age in which we are supposed to live, to take freedom a little bit too much for granted. We may be at risk of confusing freedom with licence. I’m free to do what I want, choose what I want, say what I want, believe what I want. And of course up to a point that’s true. However it would be superficial and egocentric merely to regard freedom as something for me; conveniently forgetting that others must be allowed to enjoy their freedom too. Freedom also implies constraint, restraint, self-discipline, mutual respect, negotiation, mutual security, and so forth.
' This is something institutions such as ours, which have been at the service of mankind for a very long time understand very well. Imperfect as they are they have a great talent for balancing individual freedoms and energies, with those of the wider group. There is a wisdom inherent in the institution. The institutional memory is constantly being updated and replenished: mistakes made, lessons learned, new perspectives discovered.
“ Very few human institutions – I can’t off-hand think of any – have survived as long as the Catholic Church, for instance. But I think there is great wisdom in our armed forces too. In particular in your capacity to develop human potential to the very highest standards, and to continually adapt to the extraordinary demands placed on you by changing circumstances from technology to geo-strategic world politics.
“ The post modern is suspicious of institutions because they are assumed to be wedded to modes of thought and behaviour which are too overweening and oppressive of individual liberties and genius. This induces an understandable defensiveness. This defensiveness could become destructive, not just of our collective self-confidence, but of our institutions themselves.
“ If we lose them we will loose ourselves, in the process. True, we will rediscover ourselves anew, and that has an attraction. But we will lose much that is good, and the fruit of centuries of tradition and human endeavour besides . That would not be good. Somehow the onus is on us to find ways to protect the irreducible kernel, what I would call the genius, of our institutions, our way of life, while sitting much lighter to the things than can, and probably or properly, should change.
“ I am not arguing for a reactionary spirit which rejects all change and yearns nostalgically for the comforts of yester year. That is both mean-spirited and misguided. And besides it doesn’t work. I am arguing for an openness of spirit which is attracted to change because it keeps us fresh and equipped for the task. But which at the same time is alive to the dangers inherent in losing touch with our guiding spirit, ethos and purpose without which we might as well pack up now.
“ In a nutshell I am arguing for renewal. Renewal is this eternal openness to improvement and change borne of an absolute commitment to the bigger vision which first inspired. It may be a term peculiarly suited to the Church, because at the deepest level it refers to the life of the Spirit in us. It is best understood in the context of the spiritual renewal of the human person.
“ But it holds for institutions too. Certainly mine, and I suspect yours too. Renewal is never change for change’s sake. It is more the constant willingness to rediscover the real truth about ourselves, and to live it more deeply and faithfully. It implies a constant willingness to return to the source; a constant willingness to ask questions of ourselves; a constant moving forward without ever losing touch with the inner genius, inspiration, motivation.
“ Hard though the practice is, it is also a liberating and life-giving attitude of mind and one which institutions, including the Church, would do well to work a bit harder at. I have always believed in the Latin phrase ecclesia semper reformanda – the church must always reform. Now I have the chance to put some of that theory into practice.”