The poverty of Mrs X’s riches

The woman of 50 who refused the medical treatment which would have saved her because she did not want to become “old, poor and ugly” is an extreme example of the effects of a society that has turned its back on religion. Her life was a pursuit of possessions and self-indulgence and encompassed no fewer than four divorces as she left her husbands each time the money ran out.

The roar of consumerism, the easy abandonment of marriage and the refusal to face any self-restraint whatever sum up the age in which we live. The judge who allowed her to take the decision to die even described the woman as an indifferent mother, so thoroughly had self taken over. As the woman cannot be named (though I fail to see why; she was referred to only as “C” in court), I shall refer to her as Mrs X.

Mrs X feared no consequences of any of her actions. “Thou God seest me” had no meaning whatever. Temptation represented opportunity, not challenge. She feared no judgment at life’s end, let alone held any belief in heaven and hell. For her, comfort and wealth in this world was the be-all and end-all of existence.

I grew up in the 1950s when religious instruction was a standard part of every child’s education. Even if the parents were not believers, Scripture was still taught in schools regularly and thoroughly. The virtues of putting others first, not despising poverty, avoiding the temptations of the flesh and remembering that God sees all were consistently paraded for consideration.

When I was about 11, I saw an interview on television with a woman who had pulled back from the brink of suicide. In those days, which seem a million years before Jeremy Kyle, it was considered decent to protect the woman by showing only her silhouette. This lady cited one reason for stopping in her tracks as the thought there might be a hell. She wasn’t convinced, but the mere possibility was a potent force and she was aware of the possibility only because that was the prevailing teaching at the time.

Mrs X saw no virtue in the stability of marriage. She had grown up in a society which increasingly saw divorce as a quick solution rather than the very last resort, as something with no stigma of failure attached. It is a long way from a society where Princess Margaret told the Archbishop of Canterbury to put away his books because she had decided not, after all, to marry a divorced man.

Few would wish to return to the old days – when the divorced were ostracised and dissolving a marriage involved sordid subterfuges with private detectives sent to a set-up scene – but there is much to be said for a prevailing view that marriage should be for keeps except in serious circumstances (such as violence or multiple unfaithfulness). The opposite is now the case and Mrs X grew up absorbing that culture.

Above all, Mrs X worshipped at the altar of materialism. Money was more important than husbands or children or life itself. For all I know she may have been a generous woman who shared her wealth and engaged in charitable endeavours, but even if that were the case money was still the purpose of her existence, in direct contravention of everything Christ taught, and when it ran out there was no purpose left.

I was once talking to a class of 16-year-olds and asked them if they would rather be the Page 3 model Jordan or Mother Teresa. One girl replied that she knew she should prefer to be Mother Teresa but in reality would rather be Jordan. In short she understood that helping the poorest and making a difference were noble aims but the lure of fame and wealth was simply too great.

It is always a shock when travelling in the Third World to realise how very little we need just to live and how little they need from us to live more healthily. That does not mean I am against the huge increase in material comfort that has flooded the West and from which we all benefit. I am all in favour of enterprise and competition and the employment and progress which they bring, but there is more to life than dress size, fashion and the latest gadget.

Mrs X could not imagine a life without money and nothing in the society around her taught her otherwise. Moral disapproval is frowned on in 21st-century Britain. Religion is embarrassing. Everyone is infallible except the Pope. Everything is tolerated except intolerance.

As I said at the beginning of this piece, Mrs X is an extreme case. Most people do not prize money over life itself, but if Christ’s teachings had been given half a chance to penetrate her crazy values instead of her having them reinforced by the world around her, she might be here now – poorer but still happy.

Ann Widdecombe is a novelist, broadcaster and former prisons minister