A long and winding road to justice and peace

There are two types of laws: there are just laws and there are unjust laws… What is the difference between the two?…An unjust law is a man-made code that is out of harmony with the moral law.

– Martin Luther King, Jr., 1963 

The path of mankind towards the goal of a just state and a truly just rule of law has been long, full of many wrong turnings and indeed, strewn with multiple miseries. Yet we keep going in spite of all that. King’s simple definition of an unjust law, and by implication, a just one, is governed by its adherence – or otherwise – to the moral law. But how hard it has been for us to agree on what that latter law is and how to know it. It was not so hard in earlier ages when there was a surer guide to help us know right from wrong. This was an age when there was a clearer consciousness of the foundations of such a law. That was an age when men and women allowed their consciences to be formed by that consciousness – the consciousness of God.  

Among the leaders and rulers of our age, Martin Luther King was one such man. There are others but not many. They are, sadly, exceptions to the flawed rule governing our age – the law of self-interested pragmatism. If an action produces the desired result it is a good act. If not, forget it. That is about as far as our moral compass of choice takes us in the high-tech world of today. The pragmatic rulers to whom we entrust the management of our fragile societies now leave their consciences on the hat-stand when they enter our legislative chambers – and indeed boast of doing so..

At the very dawn of parliamentary government – in the troubled environment of the Plantagenet monarchy of England – we find a golden moment when that furtive search for justice was guided tentatively by a ruler who was guided by his acceptance of a divinely inspired moral universe. 

The events are recounted by the historian, David Carpenter, in his masterful biography of King Henry III. He tells of how, after the king’s wedding and subsequent coronation of his youthful bride, the happy celebrations at Westminster on 20 January had to be cut short. “Fear that the Thames, swollen by rain, would flood the palace, drove the court  to Merton priory, eight miles away in Surrey. It was there, on 23 January, that the king, the  Archbishop of Canterbury, Edmund of Abingdon, the bishops ‘and the greater part of the earls and barons of England’ agreed a series of provisions ‘for the common utility of all the kingdom’.” 

The ‘statute of Merton’, as it became known, did not stand alone. Between 1234 and 1237 the king issued around a dozen provisions dealing with the law and government of the realm. They were very much the product of the cooperation between the king and the political community. 

This was the aftermath of the reluctant signing of Magna Carta in 1215 by Henry’s somewhat vicious father, King John. Reluctant is a euphemism, for in truth John had, if not a gun to his head, certainly a knife at his throat. The barons had already landed a French army with a ready replacement for John at its head. On John’s death the following year, Henry, a nine-year-old child, succeeded to a throne shaken by civil war. But with the help of skillful guardians he made it to maturity and assumed personal rule of the kingdom in 1228. Gradually he asserted his authority and by this enactment of a series of provisions through his ‘great council’, the institution which in these years was for the first time recorded as a ‘parliament’, very significantly advanced the cause of true justice in the realm. 

The ‘statute of Merton’ and subsequent provisions enacted in the few years following, dealt with the protection of widows and orphans,  regulating the composition and frequency of local courts, devising new legal rules and actions related to succession and possession of property, remedying the abuses of royal officials and restricting the king’s rights of compulsory purchase. The legislation covered a whole range of issues and impacted on many sections of society. The statement at Merton that the legislation was conceived ‘for the common utility of all the kingdom’, was an explicit acceptance of the  concept of ‘the common good’ in political morality.

“For Henry”, Carpenter tells us, “the legislation was closely linked to his religion.” According to the great recorder of events of that time, Matthew Paris, he promulgated the statute of Merton ‘for the salvation of his soul and the improvement of his kingdom, influenced by a spirit of justice and piety’. “Henry himself,” Carpenter adds, “on another occasion, wrote of abolishing evil customs ‘for the health of our soul and the souls of our ancestors and heirs’. (This was all) in the spirit of his coronation oath to abolish bad laws and introduce good ones. He may well have been influenced by the example of Edward the Confessor, a legislator, so it was thought, deeply concerned with the welfare of his people.”

Henry III, although not always wise or faultless in what he did, was profoundly motivated in these enactments. Paris also affirmed that he was inspired by his marriage to Eleanor, his young Provencal bride, doing good in the hope that ‘God would consummate a joyous beginning with a happy end by conferring the gift of children’. The legislation reflected Henry’s pious concern to protect widows, help the poor and bring the position of the Jews into line with the decrees of the Fourth Lateran Council. In England this provision ameliorated an existing law which had laid down that Jews were not to remain in the kingdom unless they could be of service to the king. 

Undoubtedly, the path to justice is a long and winding one – as such a small step illustrates. However, such small steps for man – if I can be allowed a rather clumsy allusion – are necessary ones if we are to continue to make our way to better rather than worse conditions for mankind. But to those who might cry out ‘foul’ for the assertion that the true foundation of morality is consciousness of God, as it was for King Henry III as much as it was for Martin Luther King Jnr., we have only to recall what history shows us are the fruits of so many regimes which denied this and made man the ultimate arbiter of what is just and unjust.

A ‘story’ that may or may not come true

The inevitable retreat of big government, third wave feminism and selfish individualism – all of them inherently unsustainable, –  was proposed as a golden opportunity for the rejuvenation of the institution of marriage, the rescue of the family,and the well-being of society over the coming decades at a conference on marriage in Belfast, Ireland, last weekend.

In seizing this opportunity men and women would need to change their attitudes to themselves and to each other. The family had no future without the engagement, commitment and support of its young women. Women had been profoundly misled by radical feminism, by the myth that they can be happy and fulfilled by a career that provides financial independence, making men and marriage optional, the conference was told.

Gerard O’Neill, Chairman of Amárach Researchamárach means tomorrow in the Gaelic language – was speaking in a personal capacity on the future of marriage to Ireland’s Catholic marriage care service, Accord, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of its foundation. Mr. O’Neill spoke of the “new and often hostile forces arrayed against marriage as an institution and preferred choice in the early 21st century.”

He began by examining  marriage rates, past and present. Back in 1962, he said, there were 7 marriages per 1,000 people in Northern Ireland; in the Republic of Ireland there were just over 5 marriages per 1,000. Fast forward fifty years and the marriage rate in the North, part of the UK, has fallen from 7 to 4.5 marriages per 1,000, and in the Republic from 5.2 to 4.6 per 1,000. He put these rates in a European context, pointing out that  the rate in Cyprus was 7 per 1,000; Slovenia’s was the lowest at 3 per 1,000.”

He then moved to look at another significant social change over the past fifty years impacting on marriage and the family – births outside marriage. He described the trend here as “alarming”. Back in 1962, he pointed out, fewer than 3% of births were outside of marriage in Ireland. Today, the proportion is close to 40% and it is well over 50% in the cities. He set that in a European context where the rate today varies from a low 7% in Greece to a high 64% in Iceland.

“I say ‘alarming’ because the life prospects for a child born outside of marriage (to a single parent or even to a cohabiting couple) are worse on virtually every single measure we can derive than are the prospects for a child born to a married couple. Not for every child everywhere, of course, but for the vast majority consistently over the past fifty years. We have every cause to be alarmed.”

He then looked forward and began by looking at the forces which he believed would – one way or another – shape the future of marriage in Ireland and everywhere else for that matter. He didn’t offer forecasts or prophecies: only a ‘story’ that may or may not come true, perhaps all of it or just some of it. Reasuringly – somewhat, depending on your reading of half a glass of water – he quoted Herb Stein who said “If something can’t go on forever, it won’t”.

He suggested that in the coming years Western societies would face a number of surprising, even disturbing ‘stopping points’. He referred to the dire prediction known as “peak oil” – which describes a trend whereby global oil output reaches a peak as oil reserves are consumed faster than they are replaced and from that point on the flow of oil goes into decline. His view is that this peaking phenomenon can apply to more than oil and that it may affect three important factors which determine our lives and our society today – “big” government, radical feminism, and individualism.

We have already hit “peak government”, he suggested, in that we are living through an epic economic crisis in the developed world. That crisis has flowed from the finance and banking sector on to governments through sovereign debt. The bottom line was that a growing number of governments would be unable to fund their financial commitments into the future and so their spending would have to be cut, he said.

He connects this with marriage in a very simple way:

“in many parts of the world the Government has become the ‘daddy state’ – replacing fathers and husbands with expanding social welfare provisions.  But the ‘daddy state’ is about to become the ‘miser state’ – and so the dependency culture that was allowed to grow up around the expansion of profligate state spending will have to rapidly go into reverse.”

O’Neill moved into very controversial territory when he approached feminism. The second and third waves feminism, he said, had expanded rapidly throughout the second half of the twentieth century, especially in the Anglophone world, on the back of economic, cultural and technological changes.  The first wave had wanted equal citizenship for women – the right to vote at the beginning of the twentieth century. Second wave feminism wanted equal economic access for women – the right to paid employment. Third wave feminism, however, wanted, and still wants, much, much more, namely: “the transformation of society to the detriment of men. In case you haven’t noticed, feminism is no longer about equality.

“Of course, many feminists will deny this. They will point to the gender wage gap or other such controversies. But they then ignore gender gaps that are to men’s detriment: higher rates of unemployment, of emigration, imprisonment, sucide, as well as greater victimhood from violent crime. Men are also failed by our educational system (a growing majority of third level/university students throughout Ireland and the developed world are women). Men still die five years younger than women on average despite all the advances of science in the past fifty years.”

As he sees it, many feminists talk about the glass ceiling, while conveniently ignoring the glass cellar that traps their brothers, fathers, sons and husbands – or should that be partners, he asked? A Western culture sadly afflicted in the past by misogyny was now one afflicted by a strident culture of misandry – both equally intolerable.

“But as Herb said, if it can’t go on, it won’t. The thing is, most of the ‘success’ of gender feminism in the late 20th century has been the result of substituting men with the state: as employer, provider and defender. Ergo, Peak Government means Peak Feminism. Again, it won’t be pretty after the peak has past”, he promised.

In describing his third peak, he locked horns with the arch-priest of individualism, Abraham Maslow, in a full frontal assault. Maslow, an American psychologist, was at the centre of an unprecedented global revolution in values, culture and behaviour which took place over 50 years ago. Maslow’s description of the human “hierarchy of needs” said that security and sustenance were at the bottom while “self-actualisation” was at the top.

Abraham Maslow

“All very hippy, all very self-centred,” O’Neill said, “but a perfect charter for the radical liberal agenda of autonomy and individualism that has swept the world over the past fifty years. And also very wrong: we now know that the deepest psychological drivers of people relate to bonding, parenting and belonging.”

At this point O’Neill opts to read the glass of water as half-full rather than half-empty and states his optimistic belief that we have now reached the point of “peak individualism”. The tide which began to sweep over us form the 1960s onwards is now ebbing – along with “peak government” and “peak feminism” – because of “our ageing populations; the emergence of new types of communities and networks; and the resurgence of an older, deeper wisdom about what makes life meaningful and worthwhile. And it isn’t self-actualisation.”

O’Neill then suggests that if we are to realise the opportunity for positive change which our descent from these peaks presents to the institution of marriage, the family – and as consequence, our society – three things will have to happen.

Firstly, men will have to find their purpose again. Unemployment among young men throughout the world is the biggest threat to the future of marriage bar none, he said.

“It is also the biggest barrier in the way of our future wellbeing as a society. No civilised society can survive without the engagement, commitment and support of its young men. And right now we are failing an entire generation of young men throughout the Western world. Nor will men be civilised without the pre-requisites that historically have given them purpose and identity, namely: a job, a wife and a child – preferably in that order!”

Secondly, women, for their part must ‘woman up’

“we are all familiar with the call for men to ‘man up’ when the circumstances call for it. We’re less familiar with the call for women to ‘woman up’. Just as civilisation has no future without its men, so the family has no future without the engagement, commitment and support of its young women. Women have been profoundly misled by radical feminism, by the myth that they can be happy and fulfilled by a career that provides financial independence, making men and marriage optional. It doesn’t. The bottom line is that the family will only be saved by young women realising that marriage and motherhood are more important than a career.”

Thirdly, people of faith and Christians in particular must go on the offensive. While fifty years, he said, is a long time for a human being it is but a mere blink in historical time. Institutions like the Christian churches can and should take a longer term view of the future.

“Peak Government, Peak Feminism, and Peak Individualism”, he warned, “will unleash new forces in the world, not all of them benign. But it will also open up new spaces for organisations like the Catholic Church and other faiths (including Muslims) to use their wisdom, authority and resources to provide guidance and inspiration through the turbulent times ahead.”

He concluded by declaring that marriage and parenthood are as relevant to our wellbeing today as they were fifty years ago – or 2,000 years ago for that matter – and that marriage will be even more important to our wellbeing in the “post-peak” future we are now entering.