As predictable as the bells pealing out the arrival of Christmas, the Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams has once again managed to mark the festive season by a display of painful moral confusion.
First, he used his sermon at Canterbury Cathedral to rebuke the most prosperous for having yet to shoulder their load in the economic downturn.
And then in an article for yesterday’s Mail on Sunday he wrote that the poor should be absolved of any responsibility for their own circumstances.
True, he acknowledged that there were doubtless ‘some who make the most out of the benefits culture’ — although even here he couldn’t resist a swipe at ‘some who have made the most out of other kinds of perks available to bankers or MPs’.
But he warned: ‘The Victorian distinction between the deserving poor and the rest is very seductive.’
And he added: ‘Even if there are those who are where they are because of their own bad or foolish choices in the past, that doesn’t mean they are any less in need in the present. And it can’t be said often enough that most people in poverty — and we should be thinking of children in particular — haven’t chosen it.’
This was an extraordinary thing to say. It means that even if poor people are dishonest or irresponsible, the rest of society must regard them as just as deserving of society’s largesse as the honest poor.
But the notion that those who have behaved immorally or irresponsibly should be treated in exactly the same way as those whose behaviour has been irreproachable is itself profoundly amoral.
Of course, no one chooses to be poor. But some people do choose lifestyles that cause them to become poor — such as choosing not to work, or deciding to bring up children on their own.
And what was so disturbing about Dr Williams’s observation was that he seemed to be negating the importance of such choices.
Indeed, by demonising the better-off while investing the poor with a halo, he came close to suggesting that wealth — however honestly or arduously earned — is intrinsically evil, while poverty is a holy state.
His core point was that no distinction should be made between the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor — which to him clearly conjures up Dickensian nightmares of workhouses, cruelty and destitution.
This distinction was, indeed, a key concept in Victorian times. However, after the development of the Welfare State, the idea that any poor people could be considered ‘undeserving’ was ruled out of court.
Contrary to the beliefs of the founder of the Welfare State himself, William Beveridge, it became the accepted view that it was odious to hold any poor people responsible for their own poverty. The question of individual behaviour and its consequences was airbrushed out of the welfare picture altogether.
This was in large measure because Left-wing thinking — in the famous aphorism — replaced Methodism with Marx. And Marxist analysis holds that people are not responsible for their own circumstances, but are instead helpless tools of the capitalist system.
Obviously, many do become poor through cruel twists of fate. But others certainly contribute to their poverty through their own behaviour.
For example, many women choosing to have babies without a permanently committed father on board doom themselves and their children to poverty and a host of other terrible disadvantages.
Of course, some lone mothers are the innocent victims of desertion. But it is crucial to offer all poor people assistance which will give them a leg up and out of poverty rather than kick away the ladder of opportunity from beneath their feet.
Yet leaving them stranded with no escape route is precisely what the ‘non- judgmental’ view of poverty represented by Dr Williams has brought about.
Which is precisely the woeful state of affairs that the Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith is determined to end.
True, Dr Williams paid dutiful credit to the Government’s welfare reforms for its ‘clear intention to put things in place that will actually reduce poverty and help people out of the traps of dependency’.
But clearly, he simply doesn’t understand that this depends to a large extent upon restoring the distinction between the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor that he finds so abhorrent.
That is because it is not motivated by an absence of compassion, as he implies, but by its precise opposite — a deeply principled desire to end the trap of permanent poverty. And the way to do that is encourage behaviour that will end it, through viewing the poor as governed by the same impulses as everyone else.
Dr Williams’s view, however, effectively treats the poor as less than human. The essence of being human, after all, is to be capable of moral choice. And all of us, rich and poor, are capable of making those choices.
The choice to be honest rather than fiddling the benefits system. To work, however demeaning the job, in preference to taking state charity. To bring children into the world only where there is a committed father to help bring them up.
But if people who make immoral — or amoral —choices benefit from these, that creates a fundamental injustice throughout society. For there is no surer way of undermining and demoralising those who refuse to cheat the system or who are living lives of self-restraint and responsibility.
Yet that is precisely what our non-judgmental culture of dependency has given us — the moral degradation of an entire society.
You might think that the Church of all institutions would be in the forefront of fighting such cultural collapse. So why does Dr Williams put himself on the wrong side of the moral tracks?
Well, his disapproving reference to the Victorians is more than a little revealing.
For during that period, it was Christians who spearheaded the great social reform movements which turned Britain from a society riven by crime, illegitimacy and drunken squalor into a tranquil country in which the traditional family was the crucible of social order.
That transformation came about through a profoundly moral view of the world rooted in a muscular Christianity. This upheld the dignity of every human being and the optimistic belief that people could redeem themselves through their own behaviour.
It was these Christian attitudes that led to the abolition of slavery and a host of other reforms. Yet Dr Williams has in the past apologised for the role of the church during this period, radiating deep embarrassment about religious impulses which once were a synonym for progressive attitudes.
This is rooted in a collapse of religious belief within the Church of England which has been going on for decades. Accordingly, it has steadily eroded its commitment to the moral codes embodied in the Bible and embraced instead the secular alternative – the religion of Left-wing ideology.
Thus Sunday school was replaced by social work, morality by expediency and holy war by class war.
Dr Williams undoubtedly wants to do good in the world. And he is far from being a stupid man; he is considered to be a profound thinker and theologian.
But it took Iain Duncan Smith, in the striking article he wrote for this paper last week, to use without embarrassment the Biblical figure of Joseph to illustrate one of the key antidotes to permanent poverty — the committed father.
The fact is that what Mr Duncan Smith is doing embodies Christian conscience in a way that appears completely to elude the leader of the Anglican communion.
When a politician boldly links morality, religion and compassion while a religious leader can only spout Left-wing cliches, a society’s foundations have become shaky indeed.