Faith & reason: 'Why doesn't anybody care about us?'

A tale of two bishops suggests a misguided privatisation of our moral sense, suggests Brendan Walsh, director of public relations for the Catholic aid agency Cafod.
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The Independent Online
While the Bishop of Argyll and the Isles was effortlessly dominating the headlines last weekend, the visiting Bishop of Torit was having to settle for a short interview with the World Service and a few hard-earned paragraphs in the regional press.

The "bonking bishop" from the Hebrides makes better copy of course. His brother bishop, Paride Taban, is from a vast diocese in southern Sudan with two doctors, no secondary schools and little infrastructure beyond the traces in the bush left by the trucks of aid agencies and rebel soldiers. There were no six-figure sums offered for his exclusive personal account of the untidy 30-year-old war that is slowly bleeding his people to death by neglect. The arithmetic of this horror - an estimated 2 million deaths and 2 million refugees in an African country of no vital strategic interest - falls a couple of noughts short of raising the eyebrows of diplomats and news editors.

The Randy Rod story, on the other hand, has it all - secret love, public betrayal, unexpected twists of plot, the frisson of the sacred rubbing up against the saucy. The Church is half suspected of peddling in cruel and unnatural doctrines and half suspected of having hit on some deeper wisdom about sexuality that might relieve us of our growing obsession with it.

Jesus had very little to say about what we get up to on our own. It was what we do together that interested him. He lived amongst family and friends, and his moral teaching is overwhelmingly concerned with the creation of relationships, families and communities characterised by honesty, generosity, justice and conviviality.

A convenient if not always comfortable thing about the Christian life is that there's just the one thing to remember. As St Paul reminds us, "The commandments can be summed up in these few words: 'Love your neighbour as yourself'."

It's not, of course, always easy to see how this compact mission statement translates into difficult moral choices, there often being more than one neighbour making a call on our love. But it highlights the wholeness and integrity of the Christian vision of the good life. Sex is simply one of the more exotic and curious suburbs of morality. The same guiding principle of love of neighbour applies in the boardroom, the newsroom and the cabinet office as well as in the bedroom. The same virtues of truthfulness, generosity, justice, courage and so on should run through every aspect of the good life like the letters in Brighton rock.

The issues surrounding the story of Roderick Wright, Kathleen Macphee, Joanne Whibley and Kevin Whibley are familiar and engaging. When we all rushed out to buy the News of the World last Sunday it shows, as well as a prurient curiosity with the peccadilloes of Catholic bishops, a lively instinct to understand and sympathise and be angry with people caught up in stories of love and betrayal. Whatever side we might take, we understand the obligations of honesty and responsibility, we care that the right thing is done.

The issues raised by the visit of the bishop from Sudan struggle to generate the same excitement. "Why does nobody love us?" asked a young mother of four whose husband had been killed in the war. "Why doesn't anybody care about us?" The Catholic aid agency Cafod has published a new report warning that this forgotten war may be about to erupt into an ugly regional conflict. Bishop Taban is pleading for urgent international action to avert a catastrophe. Craftily, he points out that enlightened self-interest as well as moral obligation should impel Britain to take a lead in supporting a fresh peace process.

The contrasting response to the two bishops and their stories tells us more about ourselves than it does about the issue of priestly celibacy or the rights and wrongs of intervention in another African conflict. Our moral sense is alive and well; we have not lost our talent to bristle with indignation. But it is becoming carved up, privatised. The values of respect, compassion, generosity and courage are prized by friends, lovers and families, but in public affairs a different set of values - self-interest, greed, deceit - are accepted. Our vision of the good life is being fragmented and narrowed down to the maintenance of domestic harmony.

For bishops like Paride Taban the indivisibility of morality is a daily, urgent reality. "I'm told the war that is killing my people every day is an 'internal affair'. But as Christians we have no 'internal affairs'. We believe all men and women are our brothers and sisters, and that each of us has a duty to come to the aid of our brothers and sisters when they are suffering."

Somehow, without giving politicians and the press any encouragement to become parsonical or any added licence to think they can solve other people's problems for them, we have to restore the wholeness of our moral imagination.