We have to recognise, first, that respect is due to every human being simply by virtue of our common humanity. Then we must realise that we are interdependent. Catholic social teaching calls this solidarity. It can be seen as a moral criterion whereby human behaviour and action should be determined by care and concern for each other, and a commitment to the common good.
Such considerations as these no doubt played a part, for many in all parties, in prompting debates in the election campaign - especially on key issues such as education, the National Health Service, and Europe. But now is the moment to consider some other fundamental issues. These did not attract the same attention, though they also exercise the minds of a great number of people.
The first duty of any society is to respect and protect human life itself. While this may seem obvious, its full consequences are not always appreciated, for human life begins at conception. Abortion virtually on demand is one of the greatest scandals of our time. This is not only because of the destruction of human life, but also because of the hidden suffering of so many women.
It was highly significant that during the election broadcasters refused to screen uncensored the Pro-life Alliance party film. If abortion so offends against taste and decency, why should we be tolerating 500 abortions every day in this country? I saw the film. It is shocking, but the reality is worse.
It only became possible to outlaw slavery in the last century when enough people saw clearly what was involved. They recoiled in horror at the practice, and worked to abolish it. There is a similar need to change minds and hearts today. The moral case against abortion will ultimately prevail when enough people come to see that abortion is not only wrong in itself, but is even more abhorrent than slavery.
We need also to beware of the arguments now being put forward in favour of euthanasia. What is trumpeted as the right to die for terminally ill people could very quickly become the duty to die for elderly people who felt themselves a burden to others.
A second urgent issue is the family. It is there that children first develop, for good or ill, the habits and values that govern their relationships with others. Recent research has highlighted the adverse long-term consequences for children of family breakdown. This country has the highest divorce rate in Europe, with 40 per cent of new marriages predicted to end in divorce. There are also rising levels of cohabitation. I understand the evidence so far is that these relationships are even less durable than marriages. The frightening problem of children born without love or commitment in unstable situations must be addressed.
Many of the social, cultural and economic pressures that threaten family life are beyond the power of government to control directly. Individuals are responsible for their actions, but public policy can tackle poverty, unemployment, poor housing, and economic insecurity which all contribute to family stress. It can also promote personal sexual responsibility through education for parenthood, and by requiring absent parents to support their children. We should promote the life-long commitment of marriage between a man and a woman as the stable basis of family life. We must put the health of the family centre stage, and the Government must assess the impact on families when policy changes are made.
Families have become increasingly divided between the "work rich" (where both partners are working) and the "work poor" (where neither has a job). One in five households of working age has no breadwinner; 25 per cent of children in England are now living in families on income support. Addressing this situation must have priority. It is both a matter of justice for those deprived of opportunity, and essential if we are to avoid more people lacking any sense of belonging to the wider community.
Solidarity creates commitments at many levels: family, town, region, nation, continent, global. Local loyalties are important, but they should not be opposed to wider expressions of solidarity. Much of the election campaign seemed to be confined to the interests of this country, even to the exclusion of Northern Ireland.
Northern Ireland only appeared to figure prominently through the contemptible disruptive actions of the IRA. A new horizon opened in the province with the cease-fires of 1994, and many people hoped that trust would take root. Despite recent difficulties in the province, agreements have already made between the British and Irish governments embracing the principle of consent before any constitutional change can take place. There is also on-going contact between the main democratic political parties, with round-table talks due to resume in June.
Our new government must make strenuous efforts to rekindle the fire of hope in all the people of the province, by encouraging all parties to renounce violence unequivocally and to undertake substantive face to face talks, and by focusing on the mutual gains which a broadly agreed settlement could bring.
There are many other vital areas that attracted little election coverage but are of great concern to many people, such as the drug culture, increased violence on our streets, the arms trade, and the global environment. I would single out, however, helping the poorest in our world.
The poorest fifth of the world's population - one billion people - live in absolute poverty. They consume just 1.4 per cent of the world's income whereas the richest fifth takes 83 per cent. Relative affluence and success create responsibilities for individuals and society. We share a common humanity with those in greatest need. We must be more generous with well- targeted aid, more determined to cancel unpayable third world debt and to help the poorest countries to tackle corruption and gain easier access to world markets.
The truth is that we live in one world, peopled by one human family in which every person matters. Our awareness of this truth deepens when we recognise that we are all children of God, made in his image and likeness. In fact a spiritual quest (which I cannot pursue here) lies at the heart of any search for moral health and vitality, whether personal or social.
Whatever our religious beliefs, however, we can surely agree that what will draw people together into a more cohesive society is an open spirit of solidarity, founded on a shared sense of mutual responsibility. We have no right to expect a better future for our society as we approach the millennium unless we all commit ourselves to working for each other, that is, for the common good. We cannot lay these expectations on the Government alone.
The writer is the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster.Reuse content