Time to examine the nation's soul: In calling for a Royal Commission on the family, Basil Hume sees an opportunity to reverse society's moral malaise with a deep reflection on symptoms and causes

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A SOCIETY that has suddenly caught its image in the mirror and dislikes what it sees can either shrug its shoulders and walk away, or pause and ask why. The national moral agonising prompted by the horrific death of James Bulger needs to be channelled creatively.

Any genuine moral reflection has to start with self. We need to search our own hearts before we probe the hearts of others, and face the fact that the potential for evil, pride, greed, lust and envy is within us. We all have a tendency to do or tolerate wrong. Conversely, each person has an innate capacity for good. The recognition of failure and of evil, whether by an individual or a nation, is surely a sign of that goodness.

Morality is very much concerned with how we treat other people. We are normally individually responsible for our own actions. We are, none the less, all powerfully influenced by the culture we inhabit; the social and economic conditions of life. In seeking to understand human behaviour it is wrong to exclude either individual responsibility or social conditions.

In recent years, morality, like so much else, has often been reduced to individual choice, a matter of opinion, and is seen as purely private. There are, in fact, basic moral values such as personal integrity, self-discipline, generosity, compassion, fidelity in relationships and respect for human life that we should be able to share. These are founded on the fundamental dignity of being human and are not a matter of arbitrary selection. They are essential to society's survival. Without such shared values, society loses its way and starts to disintegrate. This is happening now and the process must be reversed.

Without indulging in a false nostalgia, we must discover a new sense of community. Membership of a community makes demands and confers benefits. We have to recognise that living in a civilised society imposes on each of us duties and responsibilities; it also means that all citizens have legitimate claims on the society to which they belong. It is ominous that many people now feel they do not belong; that they have no stake in society, that they do not feel wanted, needed or valued. This is why, for example, endemic unemployment, especially among young people, is such a corroding social sore.

But where do we first experience belonging and learn its benefits and demands? In a family. The family is the basic community. It is the place where the deepest experiences of love, trust, self-acceptance and growth in intimacy can take place. Parents are the first and principal educators of their children, and it is in the family that moral values are inculcated and practised, where right and wrong are learnt and where respect for life and love become instilled. The influence of a parent for good or ill is incalculable. To be a parent is perhaps the greatest responsibility a person can undertake.

That, I realise, is the ideal. In reality, and with devastating results, too many families in our society fail to become sources of love and stability. And as an institution the family has been severely undermined in recent decades. A healthy family is fundamentally at odds with our culture because it is radically anti-individualist. Taking family responsibilities seriously leads people away from seeing themselves as the centre of their world, to acknowledge the claims made by partner, children and parents. This process is bound to be painful as well as rewarding.

There is a kind of suffering love, struggle and sacrifice that every family will experience if it is to survive and grow strong. Is it not so that such an experience lies at the heart of true love? Difficulties in relationships, where they are not mutually destructive, are often the growing pains of a mature and lasting love. But in today's society, struggle and self-sacrifice are not generally seen as positive and creative. Our culture presents pain and suffering, in whatever context, as unmitigated disasters always to be avoided. People are urged to limit any commitment, to avoid total involvement; to hold on to what they have, rather than to give themselves away. The lifelong commitment promised at marriage enables a stable family to provide the best environment for children. It is wrong if such a lifelong commitment is seen as impossible or undesirable.

The breakdown in family life is not, of course, the sole cause of our moral malaise. There are many complex factors involved, and family breakdown is as much a symptom of what is wrong, as a cause. But if families are the building blocks of society, what happens if they are crumbling? Without judging or in any way penalising those who, through no fault of their own, find themselves lacking a traditional or stable family, we have to restore family life. Furthermore, I do not forget that there are those who, by circumstance, have the vocation to be single persons. But it is essential for the regeneration of our society to discover the integrity of family life and to find new ways of supporting and protecting it.

This is what lies behind my tentative suggestion of a Royal Commission. There may, of course, be a better forum. A Royal Commission, however, needs a focus. It should be the Family. Such a Commission could provide a platform for a sustained public examination of the factors influencing family life today. It would bring people together - from politics, the churches and other faith communities, the law, education, health, housing, social services, the media and other walks of life - to reflect on the deeper issues involved. To avoid the danger of such a forum becoming remote and losing credibility, it would need to be well publicised and to listen to the experiences of families throughout society. As 1994 is the UN Year of the Family, the Commission's work would have an extra impetus. The process of this sustained public examination of the place of the family in our society would be as valuable as any report such a Commission might produce.

In making a claim for the rediscovery of shared moral values, I am speaking from my religious standpoint. My belief in God leads me to ground moral values in Him and to see them as reflecting His plan for the wellbeing of people in society. Furthermore, it is my conviction that a sense of God and the demands He makes upon us are an essential basis for the proper conduct of human affairs. Of course, I recognise there are many who, while advocating the same basic moral values, do not subscribe to any religious belief. It is also true that some professedly religious people behave in immoral ways.

We need to examine candidly the fruits of recent decades of experience which, as much as anything, indicate where we have gone wrong. It would be a hopeful sign and an encouragement to many if our society grasped this opportunity to begin a change for the better.

Cardinal Hume is the Archbishop of Westminster.

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