Law, Morals and Faith

(The Nationalist, 17 May 2002)


Public concern about crime featured in the recent presidential election in France, local elections in England and the general election in Ireland. In Germany, too, they have been asking themselves anxious questions in the light of the school shooting by an angry teenager which left 14 teachers dead.

There is much public concern about crime, especially among groups who are particularly vulnerable, such as the elderly. Why has it increased so much? Why has murder now become relatively commonplace where before it was a rare occurrence? In 1949, for example, in the Republic of Ireland, there was one murder, two armed robberies and sixteen thefts of cars. That would now be considered a modest total for one week. Over the same period, prisons have grown from five to fourteen, and the number of prisoners has multiplied by more than four.

Our response to increased crime has mostly been to introduce new legislation, increase spending on law enforcement and create new law enforcement agencies. Yet crime continues to grow, much of it unreported because people, for various reasons, see it as futile to do so.

Are we really getting to the bottom of the problem? My belief is that law needs a moral basis if it is to be compelling. But we are losing a sense of morals in the face of attitudes which give primacy to the individual over the community, and which challenges whether words like good, true and just have any meaning, beyond what the individual chooses to assign to them. Everything has become subjective, and the result is a loss of shared values and a loss of community. The pendulum has swung from passive conformity to doing one’s own thing regardless.

But if law needs a basis in morals, morals need a basis in faith. At the bottom of every moral question is a basic challenge, ‘Why should you or I care about anyone?’ To reply by saying that if no one cares about anyone but themselves, then society will fall apart, is true, but hardly adequate as a motive for building a caring community rather than one where the driving force does not extend beyond intelligent self-interest.

For morals to have a motivation that looks beyond the self, and genuinely cares about the other, faith is needed. The Christian faith has two basic commandments: love God and love your neighbour. Loving one’s neighbour has nothing to do with liking him. It is about treating him/her with respect as a person created by God, redeemed by Christ and with the same eternal destiny as myself – even if I don’t like him.

There is a link, intangible but real, between law, morals and faith. They need each other.