Monday, November 24, 2008

Free Markets Require Virtue

Especially, "prudence, courage, justice and temperance," according to Most Rev. Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Birmingham, England.

In his homily during the 'Civic Mass' at Birmingham's Cathedral on the Feast of Christ the King, Archbishop Nichols agreed with those who say "the root causes of the financial crisis are ethical."

In an exposition reminiscent of Chesterton's observation that "When you break the big laws, you do not get freedom. You do not even get anarchy. You get the small laws,” Archbishop Nichols said,

"We have neglected the development of shared ethical values and principles to guide and shape our behaviour, believing that to be an unattainable goal and we have substituted raft after raft of regulation. Yet a society controlled only by regulation succumbs, sooner or later, to our inherent drive for self-interest. Society too needs the perspective and practice of true virtue."

He goes on to praise "virtue" over the more widely acceptable notion of "values":

"the notion of ‘values’ is a flexible and friendly one. I can establish or negotiate my own values, and they tend to accommodate to my own behaviour. But talk of virtues is more demanding for a virtue is more like a hard earned skill such as those used in the performance of music or sport."

Several years ago I worked for then-Bishop Nichols when he was an auxiliary of Westminster and experienced him as a truly generous and genuinely pastoral (in the true sense of the word) bishop. In a country where they'll bet on anything, he is currently favored (favoured?) at Paddy Power 13-8 to return to Westminster as Archbishop - way ahead of last place contender Bono at 500-1.

It is well worth reading the entire homily as Archbishop Nichols explains how each of the virtues should play in a healthy market. It's available as a word doc at the Archdiocesan website and is pasted inline below:

HOMILY
Preached by
HIS GRACE THE ARCHBISHOP
THE MOST REVEREND VINCENT NICHOLS
at the
CIVIC MASS
FEAST OF CHRIST THE KING


During recent weeks we have often heard the phrase: ‘We are living in exceptional times.’ Indeed it has become one of the Prime Minister’s most quoted remarks. And it is true that the upheavals in the world’s financial systems and the loss of confidence are producing effects that are having an impact on all of us. Job losses, companies closing down, building sites standing silent are now evident every day.

These are the circumstances in which we come to celebrate this Feast of Christ the King and this Civic Mass in which we ask God’s blessing on our endeavours, especially in public service. We will not find financial or commercial solutions here. But we should gain some insight into our situation, in the light of the truth about our human nature which this Feast expresses and which this faith makes clear.

So this morning we can ask: what have we learned about ourselves and our society while living in a time of plenty? And what can we learn about ourselves when, as now, we begin to live in a time of austerity and hardship?

Many have commented that the root causes of the financial crisis are ethical. Indeed the very term ‘credit’ comes from ‘credere’ and indicates that trust and belief are central. Commentators point out that the financial systems, while closely regulated, were lacking in clear ethical foundations. It can be put like this: a market controlled only by regulation, sooner or later, will succumb to its inherent drive for profit at all costs. Of course the profit motive is crucial; of course responsibility to investors is a significant balancing factor in risk taking. But what we have seen is that, left to itself, the financial market has no robust external frame of reference, not even a wider economic framework. It has behaved as if it exists for itself and within itself and to the benefit of those who are part of it. What the market lacked was the perspective and practice of true virtue, which builds trust and without which every human endeavour is unstable.

Perhaps the same can be said of our society at large. We have neglected the development of shared ethical values and principles to guide and shape our behaviour, believing that to be an unattainable goal and we have substituted raft after raft of regulation. Yet a society controlled only by regulation succumbs, sooner or later, to our inherent drive for self-interest. Society too needs the perspective and practice of true virtue.

The word ‘virtue’ is not one we use too often in public discourse. Indeed in general we confine such ethical talk to the private sphere. In the public domain we are hesitant to ask for more than compliance with the rules, although we do now talk more about the values which we need to promote across society, particularly those of respect and tolerance. Yet the notion of ‘values’ is a flexible and friendly one. I can establish or negotiate my own values, and they tend to accommodate to my own behaviour. But talk of virtues is more demanding for a virtue is more like a hard earned skill such as those used in the performance of music or sport. Of course, in such a performance the rules have to be observed. But the rules of the game alone have never produced a masterful performance. Only dedication, sacrifice and true skill do that. This is the arena of virtue.

The Christian faith, as expressed in the readings which we have heard this morning, is a guardian of true human virtues. Traditionally a virtue is expressed as being ‘personal capacity for action, the fruit of a series of good actions, a power for progress and perfection’.

The shepherd of the first reading is a virtuous man. He knows that his task is to care for the sheep, whatever their condition. The necessary virtues have been his practice; they are his true capacity; they contribute to progress and the wider good. He is vigilant and responsive, not to the cause of his own well-being but to that of the sheep. He will ‘keep them in view’, ‘rescue them’, ‘pasture them’, showing them where to rest, bringing back the stray, bandaging the wounded, watching over ‘the fat and healthy’. With his effort, progress is made in the well-being of all. This is the fruit of virtue.

The human virtues guarded by the Church, but of course not by the Church alone but by other faiths and many of good will, are those of prudence, courage, justice and temperance.

Prudence is the virtue by which we discern the true good in every circumstance, and the right way to achieve it. It is the opposite of rashness and carelessness. It is needed in an age of advanced technology when the presumption is that if something can be done then it should be done.

Courage is the virtue that ensures firmness in difficulties, enabling us to conquer our fear, even fear of death, and face up to hardship. It is the opposite of opportunism and evasiveness. It is needed in an age of pragmatism and cautious self-protection. Courage produces heroism.

Justice is the constant and firm will to give their due to God and to our neighbours, be they near or far. Justice towards God is the ‘virtue of religion’; towards neighbour it is the respecting of their rights and the fulfilling of my duties, promoting equality and the common good. It is the opposite of self-centredness and unrestricted profiteering. Justice towards God is needed in an age of public secularism and justice to our neighbour in an age of globalisation.

Temperance is the virtue that moderates the attraction of pleasures and provides balance in the use of created goods. It is the opposite of greed and self-indulgence. It is needed in an age of consumerism and excess.

We are in need of the practice of these virtues at all times. In times of plenty they promote generosity and philanthropy, good working practices in every enterprise and the service not just of one’s own benefit but of the common good of all. In times of austerity they lead us to a simpler life-style, to a practical relief of material poverty, to a discovery of a sense of deeper shared identity and mutual concern, to wise practical judgements about what is of lasting importance and what simply the fruit of excess.

The exercise of these virtues will make good shepherds of us all especially for those hit hardest in the months to come! And may I add that these human virtues have their true foundation in the greater, theological virtues: faith hope and love, which bind us to God and to each other.

Today’s Gospel reading also helps us in our quest to understand life in society. It affirms an ancient and unchanging truth: there is a judgement still to come. You can easily recall the scene depicted in the Gospel, and so often painted on the archways of churches: the Last Judgement, with the virtuous on one hand, the selfish and foolish on the other. And in medieval paintings there was always a bishop among the condemned. Quite often there was one of the other side, too, as if the artist was hedging his bets!

But we need to listen carefully. The criterion by which the judgement is given is quite simple: have we been merciful? Have we responded to those caught in poverty, misfortune or in the consequences of their own behaviour? If we seek the mercy of God for ourselves, then the question we are asked is: have we extended that mercy to others?

Mercy is simply understood: it is the virtue by which the application of expected rules is suspended, out of love and compassion. Mercy, like all the virtues, gets us beyond the regulations and into the true heart of our condition. Mercy enables us to start again, to make progress after failure, to receive what we don’t deserve. A family or society that is incapable of showing mercy to its weak and vulnerable is dead from within. The wooden application of regulation squeezes the life out of us, and can only be rescued or redeemed, by lives of true virtue and above all by mercy, the most precious quality of God and the one in which we rejoice today.

The vision of St Paul is that of the fulfilling of all things, all things on this earth and all things in heaven, in the final resurrection. Christ is the instigator and the first fruit of this fulfilment. In him, whom we proclaim as King, we get a glimpse of our true destiny. This is the end for which we work, accepting the call to perfection while knowing, that left to ourselves, it is beyond our achievement. But, united in a common humanity, filled by the grace of God which comes through Christ, we can do so much.

Of course the economics must be right. And we pray today for those whose responsibility this is. But so too must be the spirit in which we work together: an effort shaped by the exercise of true human virtues and inspired by the Holy Spirit of our loving and merciful God, Father of all, in whom all things will come to their fulfilment. To him be glory now and through the ages. Amen.