John Humphrys - Moral Leaders : Do We Need Them?

November 12, 2020, 5:33 PM UTC

This week the Catholic Church has once again found itself in the dock. Not once but twice.  Here in Britain the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse has accused the head of the church, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, of prioritising the protection of the Church’s reputation over the need to expose priests guilty of abuse. Meanwhile successive popes have been charged in a separate report with not only turning a blind eye to decades of similar allegations of abuse against a priest, Theodore McCarrick, but of promoting him to the status of archbishop and cardinal. It is hard to think of anything more morally heinous than the sexual abuse of children, yet it is to religious institutions like the Catholic Church we have traditionally looked for moral guidance. So where should we now look for moral leadership? Or do we even need it at all?

The laconic prime minister, Harold Macmillan, was once heard to remark, when under attack for some supposedly dubious behaviour on the part of his government: ‘if you want morality, dear boy, go and ask the bishops!’ That was sixty-odd years ago and it’s probably fair to say that the number of people who would now follow his advice has greatly diminished. Bishops aren’t quite what they were. Partly this is the simple result of increased secularism: fewer people now subscribe to the doctrines of religious faith which underpin the moral judgements the bishops pronounce. Indeed some of those doctrines seem utterly at odds with moral views people work out for themselves. If you think that over-populating the planet is an immoral thing to do because of what it does to the destruction of habitat, the extermination of species and the very prospect that human beings can go on living here (or, to put it more pithily, what it does to God’s creation), then you’re unlikely to agree that contraception is a sin.

But it’s been the revelations of how some religious institutions actually behave that’s done so much to undermine their moral authority. The Catholic Church in Ireland lost that authority almost overnight because of what emerged of the extent of priestly sexual abuse and of the ongoing cover-up. In Anglican Britain, Catholicism has never had such moral sway over the public but whatever it had is now likely to be reduced even further by the IICSA’s report, which accused Cardinal Nichols of failing to show leadership and lacking compassion for the victims of abuse. When  some of those victims demandedn his resignation he said that only the pope was in a position to ask him to resign and Pope Francis wanted him to carry on. Accountability operates in only one direction, it seems.

The Church of England too has had its own cases of clerical sexual abuse and its own charges of cover-up, undermining its legitimacy as a moral leader. Some might hope, though, that because Anglicanism is doctrinally less dogmatic than Catholicism it might be possible to gain more of a hearing for its moral views. But some people would say it’s had quite the opposite effect and that its very wishy-washiness mutes its moral voice. Morally, it’s accused of following not leading. A case in point has arisen only this week. The Church’s House of Bishops announced on Monday that it was embarking on a formal ‘decision-making’ process on its attitude to sex, sexuality, marriage and gender, with the possibility that this would lead to its ending its opposition to same-sex marriage. But the public is way ahead of it, having come to the conclusion very quickly and very emphatically (if the polls are believed) that if two people love each other, it’s morally right that they should be able to marry whether they are of the opposite sex or not.

It would be easy to conclude from all this that, sixty years after Macmillan, we no longer look to religious leaders for moral guidance because they’ve got none worth listening to and we can work out our own moral positions for ourselves. But it’s not quite as simple as that, as another of the week’s events suggests: the sudden death of the former Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks.

The Jewish population of Britain is relatively tiny: probably no more than 300,000. Yet Lord Sacks gained himself an audience -  an audience that listened -  far out of proportion to the size of his own flock.

It may have helped that Judaism is one of the least dogmatic religions. It is certainly heavy on rules (especially the Orthodox Judaism from which Lord Sacks came), but it does not require its adherents to believe five impossible things before breakfast, as some other religions seem to do. And this relative freedom of thought gives its leaders the opportunity to think for themselves, something Lord Sacks exploited to the full.

Jonathan – who I came to think of as a friend -  understood that in our secular age, moral questions still need addressing and just knowing how things work, which is the limit of what modern materialist secularism offers, is not enough. He define those questions as  ‘as to how to live, how to construct a social order, how to enhance human dignity, honour human life, and indeed protect life as a whole’ . He said: ‘Science takes things apart to see how they work; religion puts things together to see what they mean’.

The unsated appetite for meaning in life is evident all around us. It was certainly evident to presenters of the Today programme when I was one of them. We almost all wanted to ditch Thought for the Day, the slot in which religious leaders or commentators reflected on an issue of the day, in order to give us more time for our journalism. But the audience wasn’t having any of it: they wanted the slot and there was no more distinguished and penetrating contributor to it than Jonathan Sacks. Perhaps their approach could be summed up like this:  we no longer want to be morally dictated to, but we do want a moral discussion and that has to be led by someone.

It’s easy to see why we should still want moral leadership, or at least moral guidance. You just have to look at what happens in its absence. Without some sort of generally agreed moral framework to our affairs, however implicit it may be, anything goes and it can quickly go wrong. I suspect we could all write our own Thought for the Day about what has been happening to politics in the United States over the last four years: the blatant lying and, indeed, the total lack of interest in what truth means; the vicious incivility of debate; the abuse of power in a country founded on the most profoundly democratic principles. The absence of any moral framework at the very top.

But where should we look for leadership in the moral debate? Lord Sacks, hardly surprisingly, thought we should look to religion. ‘Religion, or more precisely, religions should have a voice in the public conversation within the societies of the West… because if religion is not part of the solution it will assuredly be a large part of the problem as voices become ever more strident, and religious extremists ever more violent’. But this is  too much for some secularists to stomach. They will point to the woeful behaviour of some organised religions. They will want to look elsewhere.

In Britain it could be said we have found our own moral leader in someone who certainly did not set out to fill the role. There is probably no one more respected, whose voice is more listened to, and whose warnings are more heeded than Sir David Attenborough. If it is meaning we are after, the topic of the very future of our planet could hardly be exceeded in seriousness. If it’s moral guidance we need, strictures on waste, on excessive consumption, on the need to reduce population and how we should reassess our whole way of living could hardly be more pertinent. These are what we hear from Sir David’s pulpit, except that he would hate the very idea that he occupies one or that he preaches.

So do we need moral leaders? And where should we go to find them? Let us know what you think.