COMMENTARY: Morality on the decline?

c. 1999 Religion News Service

(Andrew M. Greeley is a Roman Catholic priest, best-selling novelist and a sociologist at the University of Chicago National Opinion Research Center. Check out his home page at or contact him via e-mail at agreel(at)

UNDATED _ Pundits, talking heads, many clerics and some academics love to over-interpret.

Thus, anything that happens has to be seen not as a random incident but rather as a result of an overwhelming and irresistible social trend.

The Oklahoma City bombing, for example, was the result of the"rise"of the militia and not the work of two troubled young men. The O.J. Simpson case was proof of a growing black rage and not the result of an idiot decision by a prosecuting attorney to choose a venue for the trial where he would have a mostly if not entirely black jury.

Similarly, the Clinton case is seen not as the result of Linda Tripp secretly recording a trusting young woman's phone calls and running to Kenneth Starr with them, but as evidence of a decline of traditional morality among the 1960s generation.

Is"morality"really in decline in our country?

It is not an easy question to answer because morality is in fact a collection of diverse norms which are not necessarily closely linked to one another. Moreover, some norms may be honored more in one era and others in another era. Thus, the younger generation is more likely to engage in premarital sex but it is also much more likely to devote time to often arduous volunteer service.

Is chastity more morally important than charity? Presumably anyone who reads the New Testament will have to opt for charity.

Finally, what some people may think of as a decline may seem to others to be an improvement. Is greater toleration for homosexuals a sign of a moral decline or of increased respect for the dignity of all human beings?

However much debate there may be on these points, it seems to me there has been notable moral improvement since, let us say, 1960. Racism and anti-Semitism seem to have declined and in most contexts are taboo. The terrible evil of sexual abuse of children may not have declined but at least is no longer a secret about which no one will talk. Discrimination against women is more dangerous than it used to be as is physical abuse of women.

While one may disagree with some of the enthusiasms of environmentalism, surely concern about our planet and the species we share it with represents an improvement in human morality.

The volunteer movement is also a major change in the personal concern of Americans about their fellow humans. Americans are the most likely of any people in the world to volunteer and also have the highest rate of charitable giving.

Students still cheat, businessmen still embezzle, politicians still take bribes, some men are still habitually unfaithful to their wives. While all these behaviors are deplorable, the prophets of doom would be hard put to prove they are more popular today than they have been before. Indeed crooked businessmen and politicians seem at greater risk than in the past. Crime has fallen dramatically all over the country, without the police brutality in New York City being required in most places.

Drug use is down. Abortions are down. Alcohol consumption is down. Americans have not become a nation of saints and sin has not become unpopular.

Yet, perhaps, it is not more popular.

What about the"collapse of the family?"_ by which is meant the collapse of some families.

In fact divorce rates leveled off more than 15 years ago. The increase during the 1970s seems to have been the result of women being more able to end abusive relationships because they had better control of both their fertility and their finances. While one may lament the ease with which some people violate commitments, it is not virtuous to stay in an abusive relationship.

However, statistics on divorce, abortion and premarital sex are not the only indicators of morality available to us. On many other indicators Americans seem to be more moral rather than less.

Those who rant about a decline morality mean a decline in sexual morality. In their world that is the only kind of morality. Compared to sexual immorality nothing else really counts. Again one does not find evidence of such an obsession in the New Testament.