A Question of Values

As humanity perfects itself, man becomes degraded. When everything is reduced to the mere counter-balancing of economic interests, what room will there be for virtue? When Nature has been so subjugated that she has lost all her original forms, where will that leave the plastic arts? And so on. In the meantime, things are going to get very murky.
Gustave Flaubert: 1852.

There is a lot of talk about values, particularly by leaders but I am often confused by what they mean by values. It seems that values are often reduced to binary positions: Good/Evil and even With/Against Us (a position rather than a value but couched as a value) and at other times un is placed before nationality (eg unAmerican, unEnglish, unAustralian – as if these were new nationalities). If you think refugees should be better treated, if you want environmental policy change, if you don’t believe a war should be conducted, if you don’t believe torture is a valid way of extracting truth then you become an un….

Values, and here I mean moral values, are informed by virtues such as compassion, honesty, loyalty, courage, tolerance and generosity. They in turn provide us with a compass that points us to a way of being, of acting humanly, of acting well.

The questions of values and morality has been highlighted by the victims of sexual abuse (including sodomy and rape – how we use language to obscure reality!) by priests in Ballarat, Australia. If Christian values are informed by truth, compassion, honesty and inclusiveness (“Suffer the little children to come unto me.”) then they have been sadly absent not only in Ballarat but elsewhere as the film Spotlight demonstrates.

Ballarat and other victims of sexual abuse by clergy, particularly Catholic clergy it would seem, have for years experienced the exclusivity of Christian values of truth and compassion, having experienced neither. Instead they found that the Church acts like any other corporation that will sacrifice and go to any lengths to protect itself. Virtues and the associated values, and I would argue, morality, have certainly been sacrificed.

Cardinal George Pell has wriggled his way around what he knew about the abuse when questioned by the (Australian) Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. According to Pell he knew something at the time but was unable to say that everyone knew or what knowledge they had when he was a junior priest and assistant parish priest to the Christian Brothers of Ballarat. At times he sounded like Donald Rumsfeld on a bad day. Pell was under Bishop Ronald Mulkearns who also knew of the practice of sodomy and rape of boys in the schools but did not give as much thought to the effects on the children and their need for protection as he did to the protection of the reputation of the Church. Pell was aware of something, including heavy-handed and unusually harsh discipline. He approached the school in question and was told it was all “in hand”, a rather unfortunate phrase under the circumstances. He did not, it appears, follow this up displaying, it seems, a remarkable dereliction of duty. Nor did he seem to be of the opinion that he needed follow up a young boy who told him what he was experiencing in the hands of one of the clergy. One can be generous to Pell: he was a junior parish priest and his supervising senior was not concerned enough to take steps beyond shifting the offending priests from one parish to another. It is unclear what power he did have under the circumstances, although, of course there was a legal channel that was avoided in the strong desire to protect the reputation of the Church. The question is not what Pell could do or did do but rather what the Church did or did not do as whole.

Without wanting to underplay the seriousness of what happened to the young children entrusted to Catholic schools, it does seem typical that values are traded according to needs. We see this in trade agreements between countries where there is a reluctance to pursue human rights abuses because to do so might compromise the agreement. This parallels the desire of Mulkearns to protect the reputation of the Church. The result is a disinterest in questioning the plight of people whose rights for safety and protection are suspended. This surely reflects not only on the governments in question but also on their emissaries, usually people in influential and powerful positions.

The United Nations Office of Human Rights states that we all have the right to food, health, water and development and that trade is an opportunity to promote these. Elsewhere, under What are Human Rights it states that is the “duty of states to promote and protect all human rights and fundamental freedoms, regardless of their political, economic and cultural systems”. I was surprised that the two papers were separated leaving me to wonder why the rights of food, health, water and development did not extend to the fundamental freedoms in the one paragraph. Is there ambivalence even at this level?

Susan Ariel Aaronson and Jean Pierre Chaufflour point out in a WTO article that many of the world’s most important trading nations include human rights language in their PTAs but there is a reluctance to use trade instruments to change the behaviours of abusive countries. Australia’s trading partnership with China is a case in point. The ministers talk of common values, but the only common value appears to be profit and an agreement to be complicit in ignoring human rights.

Unfortunately, Australia’s human rights record is currently at an all-time low because of its appalling treatment of asylum seekers and refugees on Manus Island and Nauru, leaving it in a poor position to raise such issues. However, ministers fall over themselves proclaiming their Christian values or, at least, that they are regular church goers.

If they were seriously upholding Christian values surely we would witness a more compassionate response to others: the relatively small number of people seeking asylum in Australia who are incarcerated in abject conditions on Manus Island and Nauru (and various other marginally better centres such as Christmas Island and on-land detention centres) whose lives, let alone rights, are held in poor esteem without consideration or care about psychological effects? This echoes the nonchalant attitude of priests and bishops in the Catholic Church. Bishop Mulkearns was anxious about the reputation of the Church; the Australian government about “stopping the boats.” Moral values don’t get a look in.

Flaubert in 1843 wondered what the point of scientific advance was if moral advance was absent. This question is still pertinent today, not only in respect of science but also of economic and social progress. If all economic progress can give us is insular, comfortable lives regardless of others, then we have to wonder what progress we are making. And in the absence of a moral compass, what does the Catholic Church have to teach?

Links:
https://www.ohchr.org
https://www.wto.org

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