In Joseph Epstein's short story "Second-Family Man", the protagonist Futterman tells the rabbi at university that he is torn between becoming a rabbi or a lawyer. "Become a lawyer," the rabbi tells him. "It's morally much more challenging." This would make a salutary text for some of the clergy of all denominations who have waded into the present debate about the morality of the market economy and found themselves out of their depth.
One of these turbulent priests is profiled in our "Overrated" column: the Anglican theologian Giles Fraser, who resigned as Canon Chancellor of St Paul's Cathedral in October, prompted by his support for the Occupy the London Stock Exchange protest. This provisional wing of Occupy Wall Street, having pitched camp outside St Paul's, soon became a kind of postmodernist installation, provoking schism in the Church of England and chaos in the City Corporation, all the while enjoying the spectacle without even suffering the discomfort of actually sleeping in their tents. Unlike the hand-wringing bishops and deans, this anti-capitalist inquisition has no qualms about claiming to be holier than thou, especially if thou happen to be making an honest living in the City.
How our ancestors would have treated such false prophets may be surmised from Professor David Womersley's "Underrated" portrait of John Donne, sometime Dean of St Paul's and as great a preacher as he was a poet. Though he would have heartily agreed with Epstein's rabbi that lawyers, and for that matter laymen in general, are "morally challenged", Dean Donne would also have seconded Dr Johnson's view: "There are few ways in which a man can be more innocently employed than in getting money." So for that matter would all the great churchmen of Donne's day, from T.S. Eliot's hero Lancelot Andrewes to George Herbert, the metaphysical poet and archetypal country parson.
Why, then, have today's liberal clerisy so much less grasp of economics and morals than past divines? Why do they condemn the legitimate pursuit of commercial profit-unlike the authors of the Hebrew Bible or the Jesus Christ of the New Testament-but hesitate to vilify violations of the Judaeo-Christian moral law, from eugenics to euthanasia, by the state and other authorities? This moral confusion runs deep. In Why We Should Call Ourselves Christians (reviewed on page 61), the atheist former president of the Italian Senate, Marcello Pera, summarises what he calls the descending trajectory of liberal ethics:
1) It is prohibited to violate the moral commandments.
2) It is prohibited to violate the personal autonomy of the individual.
3) It is prohibited to set moral limits.