Monday, September 20, 2010

Pope Benedict and Secular Britain: Lessons on How to Engage Post-Christian Culture

Pope Benedict XVI has thought long and hard about the issue of modern secularism and his Augustinian theology and deep commitment to historic Christian orthodoxy and morality give his words a kind of gravitas that is so often missing from the fawning, appeasing, shallow remarks made by so many Christian leaders today in the public square.

Here are some excerpts from a story in the Daily Telegraph about Benedict's leadership during his recently concluded trip to the UK. Instead of it being a PR disaster, as many liberal Catholics feared, it was another Benedictine triumph, just as the trip to the US was and the trip to France and so on. People who essentially have no message for the secularized, late-modern Western world cannot seem to believe that traditional orthodoxy can have so much power and beauty in the midst of a secular society.

In an article with the headline: "We will not be silenced, Pope tells secular Britain."

Delivering the most important speech of his historic visit, he attacked the politically correct ideas that Christmas should not be celebrated for fear of offending minorities and that the faithful should be forced to keep their beliefs to themselves.

Speaking in Westminster Hall before an audience including four former prime ministers, the Pope declared that politicians must not interfere with the running of Roman Catholic institutions, in what would be seen as a reference to those adoption agencies and faith schools that felt under attack from the previous Labour government.

Here Benedict tells it like it is - no big surprise there to those who have followed his ministry up to now - but the real surprise is the reaction:

He spoke earlier in the day of the threat posed by “aggressive secularism”, words that were echoed by Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks.

Cheering crowds had lined the streets of London to welcome Benedict XVI, first in Twickenham, then in the centre of the capital.

Cheering crowds? Support from the "Ever-Waffling One" and Rabbi Sacks? Isn't Christendom over? Is not the Roman Catholic Church dead? Do people really still believe that stuff anymore?

Here are come choice quotations from Pope Benedict's address to Parliament in Westminster Hall:

Thank you for your words of welcome on behalf of this distinguished gathering. As I address you, I am conscious of the privilege afforded me to speak to the British people and their representatives in Westminster Hall, a building of unique significance in the civil and political history of the people of these islands. Allow me also to express my esteem for the Parliament which has existed on this site for centuries and which has had such a profound influence on the development of participative government among the nations, especially in the Commonwealth and the English-speaking world at large. Your common law tradition serves as the basis of legal systems in many parts of the world, and your particular vision of the respective rights and duties of the state and the individual, and of the separation of powers, remains an inspiration to many across the globe. . . .

This country’s Parliamentary tradition owes much to the national instinct for moderation, to the desire to achieve a genuine balance between the legitimate claims of government and the rights of those subject to it. While decisive steps have been taken at several points in your history to place limits on the exercise of power, the nation’s political institutions have been able to evolve with a remarkable degree of stability. In the process, Britain has emerged as a pluralist democracy which places great value on freedom of speech, freedom of political affiliation and respect for the rule of law, with a strong sense of the individual’s rights and duties, and of the equality of all citizens before the law. While couched in different language, Catholic social teaching has much in common with this approach, in its overriding concern to safeguard the unique dignity of every human person, created in the image and likeness of God, and in its emphasis on the duty of civil authority to foster the common good. . .

The central question at issue, then, is this: where is the ethical foundation for political choices to be found? The Catholic tradition maintains that the objective norms governing right action are accessible to reason, prescinding from the content of revelation. According to this understanding, the role of religion in political debate is not so much to supply these norms, as if they could not be known by non-believers – still less to propose concrete political solutions, which would lie altogether outside the competence of religion – but rather to help purify and shed light upon the application of reason to the discovery of objective moral principles. This “corrective” role of religion vis-√†-vis reason is not always welcomed, though, partly because distorted forms of religion, such as sectarianism and fundamentalism, can be seen to create serious social problems themselves. And in their turn, these distortions of religion arise when insufficient attention is given to the purifying and structuring role of reason within religion. It is a two-way process. Without the corrective supplied by religion, though, reason too can fall prey to distortions, as when it is manipulated by ideology, or applied in a partial way that fails to take full account of the dignity of the human person. Such misuse of reason, after all, was what gave rise to the slave trade in the first place and to many other social evils, not least the totalitarian ideologies of the twentieth century. This is why I would suggest that the world of reason and the world of faith – the world of secular rationality and the world of religious belief – need one another and should not be afraid to enter into a profound and ongoing dialogue, for the good of our civilization.

Religion, in other words, is not a problem for legislators to solve, but a vital contributor to the national conversation. In this light, I cannot but voice my concern at the increasing marginalization of religion, particularly of Christianity, that is taking place in some quarters, even in nations which place a great emphasis on tolerance. There are those who would advocate that the voice of religion be silenced, or at least relegated to the purely private sphere. There are those who argue that the public celebration of festivals such as Christmas should be discouraged, in the questionable belief that it might somehow offend those of other religions or none. And there are those who argue – paradoxically with the intention of eliminating discrimination – that Christians in public roles should be required at times to act against their conscience. These are worrying signs of a failure to appreciate not only the rights of believers to freedom of conscience and freedom of religion, but also the legitimate role of religion in the public square. I would invite all of you, therefore, within your respective spheres of influence, to seek ways of promoting and encouraging dialogue between faith and reason at every level of national life.

Speaking as a non-Roman Catholic, it is so inspiring to hear a high-profile Christian leader like the pope speaking so forthrightly about the need for faith and the dangers for Western democracies of trying to marginalize faith and Christians in a misguided drive for total secularism. The realm of the secular is the invention of Christianity and is good; secularism is to make the secular into an idol which is made absolute and worshiped. In order to maintain the sphere of the secular a society needs Christianity to supply the rationale and moral fiber necessary to keep the secular from being turned into an idol.