October 25, 2019
A short reflection as I sit in the airport in Chicago, listening, watching, and chatting with people around me awaiting my flight across the Atlantic and back to Leuven/Louvain….
Some people, depending of course on one’s personal and/or religious values — and who often make a lot of noise in public — think of public morality as primarily a way of regulating sexual behavior: prostitution, same gender marriage, pre-marital sex, pornography, matters of dress and nudity, and pornography. I find those very same people often tend to ignore issues like ecclesiastical corruption, political leaders who are regular liars in official public statements; and who certainly ignore personal and group responsibilities connected with the environment, immigration, income inequality, misogyny, and racism.
I would contend that public morality is what motivates and holds a society together. It is based on a social covenant of truthfulness, trust, and respectful collaboration. Sometimes I fear, in our highly polarized society, that we live in a time of a broken public covenant.
Public morality should keep us from killing each other, enable us to respect individual life, respect people’s property; and promote constructive and effective social interaction.
Ideally, public morality should be a set of beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors TRANSMITTED and REINFORCED by all social institutions: church, family, school, neighborhood associations, the workplace, and government.
Looking at the contemporary signs of the times, the traditional shapers of public morality have lost much of their effective voice because of lost institutional credibility, uncertainty about truth and falsehood, and a cultural impoverishment that disconnects people from tradition, history, literature, and a sense of common human identity.
Some people fall back on the one thing they have: an exaggerated sense of individualism. Then individual experience and personal sentiment determine what is true. A young fellow at the airport said he didn’t know much about Nazi concentration camps, thinks much is probably made up, but that if he had lived “back then,” he might have supported the anti-Jewish movements in Germany “because, well after all they ARE just a bunch of selfish crooks.”
And yes, today we do have a growing secularization that perceives God and religious institutions as unimportant and simply a matter of personal taste. Christian values become personal and individual values and not matters of public virtue.
I am truly convinced that gradually a new public morality will take shape – a new consensus in our pluralistic society. Before that happens, however, various religious and political fundamentalisms will try to take charge and control individuals, groups, and society in general.
We need to be alert travelers. It will be a bumpy and turbulent flight…..