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Values: an obstacle or an opportunity?

    Thought for future leaders
    • Rome
    • 23 September 2008

          Affirming values in an abstract way is a facile exercise; practicing and respecting values demands commitment and clear terms of reference. Such guidelines can only exist within a context of confrontation between secular values and religious ethics, the meeting point of the two representing a universal value system.

          The “death of God”, the secularization of society and loss of certainty people underwent in the 1900s left them with a series of beliefs that led to an objective evaluation of individual behavior, rather than a reflection solely on values per se. We have adopted a sort of Kantian approach: “act on any given occasion as though your behavior could be elevated to a universal norm.” However, can ethical behavior be separated from its consequences? Such a discussion demands common ground, but finding shared values is a complex matter: values can neither be negotiated, nor chosen by majority vote. This is evident, for example, when specific values are not defended in legal norms and lead people to be “conscientious objectors”. Recent debates on biomedical research, abortion, euthanasia and similar subjects confirm – both for laypeople and the church – the centrality of the individual in defining civil society. (This does not stop the various sides of the debate from arguing over what defines the individual…)

          What with globalization, the individual risks taking a back seat to technology (John Paul II spoke of “the fatality of blind mechanisms”). Against this neo-functional approach to labor, especially as regards a creeping lack of solidarity, values must be promoted that encourage training programs and respect for the environment, for example. A “human ecology” through “sustainable flexibility” must preserve those conditions that make work acceptable and that maintain a certain level of sanity in our increasingly rushed world.

          What role should politics – which translate our values into norms – play? Benedict XVI recently called on Catholics to make their voices heard in politics, yet politics is generally considered an improper arena for working out moral issues. Value-oriented questions must be dealt with in a broad pluralistic environment. Advancing the “value frontier” also means taking advantage of the subsidiariety principle – both vertically and horizontally – as evidenced by volunteer work, public-private collaboration, corporate charity programs, and so on, as long as everyone’s responsibilities are clearly defined.

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