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Although it is tempting to point to economic and social disadvantages as the root cause of the recent unrest in the United Kingdom, it is refreshing to find that part of Prime Minister David Cameron’s assessment is moral turpitude. In addressing the nation, he said that the “slow-motion moral collapse” of the youth is due to the unwillingness “for too long to talk about what is right and what is wrong. We have too often avoided saying what needs to be said, about everything from marriage to welfare to common courtesy.”

In contrast to British society’s failure to speak the truth on the things that matter, Pope Benedict XVI, like his predecessor John Paul II, is not afraid to challenge the young to moral excellence. Recently there was another gathering of youth in another capital city in Europe, although this gathering did not lead to anything remotely resembling the scenes of destruction broadcast from London. Over a million young people from the 193 countries of the world gathered peacefully in Madrid, Spain to celebrate World Youth Day. These triennial events began in 1985 to offer the youth of the world an opportunity to encounter each other and deepen their own personal sense of faith. The theme for this year’s event was “planted and built up in Jesus Christ, firm in the faith” (cf. Col 2:7).

In each World Youth Day message from the past, the Roman Pontiff has been the only world leader to consistently call youth to a high moral standard of living. He is the lone voice entreating the young to pursue greatness. In his message inviting the youth to participate in this year’s event, Pope Benedict XVI speaks directly to the attendees recognizing that the world has offered them the easier way, the choices which are “ultimately deceptive and cannot bring you serenity and joy.” He observes that the “eclipse of God” and moral relativism do “not lead to true freedom, but rather to instability, confusion, and blind conformity to the fads of the moment.” Not a bad description of the events in London.

The pope’s phrasing here highlights a common theme of his assessment of Europe’s moral crisis. By untethering the anchor of Judeo-Christian values, society has no moral grounding and begins to drift. If moral relativism is allowed to be the centering principle of one’s life and society all decisions are equally valid and “truth and absolute points of reference do not exist.” The economic and social “causes” for the riots in London (and now the “flash mob” crime scenes here in the U.S.) are really manifestations of a moral crisis in society.

Pope Benedict XVI reminds us that “it is vital to have roots, a solid foundation! This is particularly true today. Many people have no stable points of reference on which to build their lives, and so they end up deeply insecure.” Centering one’s life on following Christ will be a major theme of the Pope’s addresses to those gathered in Madrid as he encourages the youth of the world to form their character through good moral choices. By living under the Nazi regime and from his pastoral experience, he recognizes that without a solid moral grounding of one’s life spiritual atrophy is inevitable.

Euclid taught in his Elements that a circle must have a center or it becomes a different shape, it becomes something else. Without the fixed point anchoring the peripheral line of the circle there is anarchy, “without ruler.” The human person and the society in which he lives must have a center or they, like Euclid’s circle, will morph into undesirable and unintended forms. If there is no self-rule and mastery, human life and society devolves into anarchy. As the scenes from the London riots allow us to see, the moral center of the contemporary West is no longer clear, if indeed it exists at all.

This week an octogenarian pontiff will travel to the social, economic, and geographic center of Spain challenging people two generations younger than himself to ground themselves in Gospel values. In less than a two-week span, the world will have witnessed two alternatives for the future of civilization: one, a further slide into anarchic, frenzied destruction; the other, a return to Christian living. The rioters in London demonstrated a certain kind of spiritedness in the past few weeks: a spirit of total disengagement and disrespect for their culture. A very different kind of spirit was on display in Spain: the Holy Spirit of God, which offers an opposite vision of a world transformed by love, joy, and hope. Let us pray that this new generation of youth gathered in Madrid will stand up in faith against what Yeats would have called the “blood-dimmed tide” by witnessing to the liberating power of the precious blood of Jesus Christ.

Ben Akers, S.T.L. is the director of the Denver Catholic Biblical School and Catechetical School.

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