21 MARCH 1992, Page 30

Clerical loss of nerve

Sir: Simon Heffer's thoughtful article on crime (Politics, 15 February) merits com- ment, even if this is unavoidably delayed. He refers to 'liberal penology (all society's fault, and so on). . . and the consensus view of treating and rehabilitating criminals rather than punishing them'.

To regard criminals as victims of society or as mentally ill appears humane. In reali- ty it is dehumanising by denying people the basic human characteristic of personal responsibility. The ideology behind this approach is logically flawed, because it does not address the question why different peo- ple react so differently to similar external conditions. The widespread de-emphasis of personal responsibility, of which the issue, raised by Simon Heffer, is a major instance, is fundamental on the contemporary scene. The readiness of so many modern clerics, from recent Popes and from the present Archbishop of Canterbury downwards, to go along with this de-emphasis is an exam- ple of the degringolade, loss of nerve, of the churches, and calls into question the claim of churchmen to be spiritual and moral leaders.

The extent and limitations of personal responsibility for conduct raise very diffi- cult issues. But wholesale denial of this responsibility and the treatment of people as creatures of external circumstances are de-humanising and therefore immoral.


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