Chesterton said, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.”


Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

The woman in today’s Gospel is hauled before the Lord by a judgemental society. She is isolated in her guilt. And therein lies the falsehood which Jesus uncovers. No one is guilty in isolation. Rather we are so bound to each other that a guilt which we might seem to be proper to one person alone almost always involves others, too.

Jesus’ silent and dramatic gesture of writing in the sand makes everyone present look into their own hearts and recognise their own failures and sins.

This same truth is at the heart of our Lenten journey. This is not a time for working out the blame to lay on others but a time for identifying our own faults, seeking forgiveness for them and trying to build a more virtuous life.

The pursuit of virtue is a key theme in a document which we Bishops of England and Wales have recently published under the title ‘Choosing the Common Good’. While the document is issued in the context of the forthcoming General Election, it is substantially about matters that can never be decided by an election. It is about the health of our society.

In it we speak about the pursuit of virtue because the virtues are the habits of the heart which shape the way we live and the contribution we make to the flourishing of those around us, whether in the family or wider society. We speak of the cardinal virtues: prudence, courage, justice and temperance and highlight how each one is keenly relevant to life today.

Prudence fashions us to be people who take care in decision making, trying to be attentive to principles and circumstances, exercising emotional intelligence rather than being shaped primarily by feelings and fashion.

Courage is the opposite of evasiveness: a temptation faced by us all, not least those in public life. The practice of this virtue makes us capable of facing the truth about ourselves and of remaining true to the undertakings we give.

The virtue of justice is the practical, day to day, recognition of the duties I owe to those around me: to my parents, to my children, to my school, to my work, to those who are caught in poverty or disaster, in Haiti, Chile, or those who live next door. The virtue of justice includes the practice of my duty towards God, in prayer and in taking part in the life of the Church.

Temperance – a very old-fashioned word – is probably the key virtue, for it helps us to use wisely the good things of this world, to be satisfied with enough, to resist the temptation to have more and more, or to indulge without regard for the consequences. In many ways, the virtue of temperance is a key to a happy life.

These virtues help us to build a good, healthy society in a way that no political programme can ever achieve. No amount of new regulations will nurture these virtues, for they are found in the kind of person we are trying to be and in what we do when no-one is looking.

Effective politics, and effective economics, actually depend on there being a morally healthy society in which we all recognise the importance of the common good, the potential for flourishing within every single person and the encouragement of virtue. These are important considerations as we prepare for a General Election. As well as examining the party manifestos with their wide-ranging policies, we would do well to ask how the different parties intend to help this kind of human flourishing.

Catholic Social Teaching, on which the document ‘Choosing the Common Good’ is based, is a rich resource for us all. Familiarity with its key themes will help us to assess our complex society.

Familiarity with this teaching will also help us to make the most of the wonderful prospect of the visit of Pope Benedict XVI in September. As the details of the programme of this visit emerge, we will see how important our Social Teaching really is and the huge significance of the Holy Father’s presence in our society as a courageous witness to the truth of our humanity and to the truth of our Christian faith. Clearly we must prepare well for his visit and give him our heartfelt support when he is here. There will be much more about this at a later date. Sufficient for now that we promise our prayers for Pope Benedict, just as he promised to pray for us, to ‘hold us in his heart’ during this precious period of preparation for his historic visit.

Paul’s words to us today are very reassuring. Even such a great champion of faith as he readily admits: ‘I have not yet won, but I am still running, trying to capture the prize for which Christ Jesus captured me…All I can say is that I forget the past and I strain ahead for what is to come; I am racing for the finish, for the prize to which God calls us upwards, to receive in Christ Jesus.’ (Phil 3.13-14) So we too, in these remaining days of Lent, renew our effort to be open to Christ, to receive his forgiveness in the Sacrament of Reconciliation and patiently build up the practice of virtue in our lives.

In this way we not only contribute to the good of our society but also stay faithful to the Lord and to the building of his Kingdom.

Yours devotedly,

XVincent Nichols
Archbishop of Westminster