England -- an alien culture

It is strange for a British shepherd to return home and confess that he feels like an alien.

Yet whenever Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor finishes the flight from Peru to Great Britain, he feels confused. During numerous trips to South America, he has visited priests and their flocks who live simple lives as they struggle with poverty, disease and hunger. Yet most seem remarkably joyful.

That is not what the cardinal sees at home, where there exists a "surplus of all that glitters." In fact, the leader of the Catholic Church in England is no longer sure that he understands the soul of his homeland.

"The unease, even anguish, of our Western world is there for all to see," said Murphy-O'Connor, in a recent address to the National Conference of Priests. "I could go on about this, and talk also about the rise in New Age and occult practices and the search being made by young people for something in which, or someone in whom, they can put their complete trust. ...

"We in the West become richer, able to possess what we want when we want, and yet in doing so we do not necessarily become happier. Why is it that so many in our society seek transient happiness through alcohol, drugs, pornography and recreational sex?"

These are blunt words, especially coming from a cardinal. Under normal conditions, they might have started a lengthy debate about the spiritual identity of a proud land. That was not the case this time -- since this sermon was preached only days before Sept. 11th.

Nevertheless, the cardinal's words remain relevant in the wake of the attacks, which pundits keep describing as a "clash of cultures." Britain is a symbolic player in these events.

According to Murphy-O'Connor, British culture has changed. It is no longer what it used to be. The cardinal even began with a provocative biblical lament from Psalm 137: "How shall we sing a song of the Lord on alien soil? "The most stinging passage did not appear in the published text. According to the Times, the cardinal added this statement: "It does seem in our countries in Britain today ... that Christianity, as a sort of backdrop to people's lives and moral decisions -- and to the government, the social life of the country -- has now almost been vanquished."

The church must face this fact, he said. The years ahead will require both compassion and tough realism.

It has been easy to see this trend in statistics. A survey in 2000 found that 48 percent of adults in the United Kingdom claim a specific religious tradition, compared with 86 percent of Americans and 92 percent of Italians. Among the young in Britain, two-thirds of those between 18-24 claimed no specific faith as their own.

The profile of Roman Catholicism has risen in England during the past decade, even though Mass attendance is down 20 percent. In part, this is because statistics have been even bleaker in the Church of England, with only a quarter of the population now identifying with the state church. In the late 1990s, Anglican attendance figures slipped under the 1 million mark.

But the cardinal did not focus on statistical decline. The key, he said, is that modern England worships at the altar of moral consumerism and absolute personal freedom.

This has been devastating in family life. He noted that the land's chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, has openly stated his belief that the "extraordinary institution, marriage, which brought together sexuality, emotional kinship and the creation of new life and wove them into a moral partnership suffused by love, has been exploded as effectively as if someone had planted a bomb in the center of our moral life."

There is no sign that matters will change anytime soon, the cardinal said.

"There is an indifference to Christian values and to the church among many young people and, indeed, not only the young," he said. "You see a quite demoralized society -- one where the only good is what I want, the only rights are my own and the only life with any meaning or value is the life I want for myself."