The Crucial and Legitimate Role of Religion in the Public Square

Sermon on the MountAt the end of Pope Benedict’s highly successful four-day apostolic journey and state visit to Great Britain, British Prime Minister David Cameron, on behalf of all British citizens, publicly thanked him — not in an inauthentic ceremonial fashion, but in a concrete and personal way — declaring, “You have really challenged the whole country to sit up and think, and that can only be a good thing.”

Before the papal visit, most of the talking heads in the British media were predicting that the trip would not only be a dud but an embarrassment. Some prominent atheists were ludicrously crying for him to be arrested for crimes against humanity as a result of the clergy sexual abuse crisis. Protests were being planned. Many were saying that the vast majority of British citizens, of whom only about eight percent are Roman Catholic, would just ignore the trip. Instead, the magnetism of Benedict’s meekness and the depth and clarity of his powerful discourses not only drew huge crowds to the streets and to events many orders of magnitude larger than the well-publicized protests, but Benedict startled most Brits out of their spiritual lethargy, got them to sit up, pay attention, and think. He gently but courageously challenged them to think about the meaning of their life, challenging the roots of many of the culture’s deepest secularist assumptions, as we’ll discuss next week. He also encouraged them to reflect anew on the role of religion in society and challenged them not to take for granted the necessity of a firm ethical foundation of moral absolutes based on the natural law if they wished their nation to have a glorious future to match their storied past.  

His thoughts on the importance of religious belief in society and the necessary ethical underpinnings of society should get us on the other side of the Atlantic to sit up and think as well.

Benedict’s positive, appealing challenge to the secularist assumptions of a nation many prefer to call “post-Christian” began in his speech to Queen Elizabeth at Holyroodhouse, her official residence in Scotland. “The name of Holyroodhouse,” he commented, “recalls the ‘Holy Cross’ and points to the deep Christian roots that are still present in every layer of British life.” He mentioned the monarchs of England and Scotland who have been great saints, how some of the most consequential British figures of recent times — like William Wilberforce, Florence Nightingale, and John Henry Newman — were “inspired by a deep faith born and nurtured in these islands” and how the British nation as a whole boldly “stood against a Nazi tyranny that wished to eradicate God from society and denied our common humanity to many, especially the Jews.” He cautioned that as the United Kingdom strives to be a “modern and multicultural society,” it should not forget “the Christian foundation that underpins its freedoms,” but rather should “maintain its respect for those traditional values and cultural expressions that more aggressive forms of secularism no longer value or even tolerate.”

The prophetic crescendo of his analysis of the dangers posed by the “more aggressive forms of secularism” continued in his homily at the Mass celebrated in Glasgow’s Bellahouston Park. He called attention to the “dictatorship of relativism” that is threatening British society by obscuring “the unchanging truth about man’s nature, his destiny and his ultimate good.” He said that there are some who are seeking “to exclude religious belief from public discourse, to privatize it or even to paint it as a threat to equality and liberty.” When religious belief is excluded, he stressed, society — even a cultured society like Britain, built on the foundation of Christian “cult”  — will devolve into nothing more than a “jungle of self-destructive and arbitrary freedoms.” He called on British Catholics in particular, therefore, “not only to be examples of faith in public, but also to put the case for the promotion of faith’s wisdom and vision in the public forum.”

In summoning British Catholics to that mission, Benedict led by example in his extraordinary address in London’s historic Westminster Hall before members of parliament, former prime ministers, diplomats, and thousands of the Britain’s leading political figures. After expressing his sincere esteem for Parliament, the common law tradition, the separation of powers, the vision of the individual’s rights and duties, and the equality of all citizens before the law, he got the Parliamentarians to sit up and think when he politely suggested that Parliament had violated those principles in sentencing Saint Thomas More to death for not violating his conscience in the matters of King Henry VIII’s marital status, progeny, and desire to be supreme head of the Church in England. More’s death, the Pope declared, raises “the perennial question of the relationship between what is owed to Caesar and what is owed to God” and introduces the topic of “the proper place of religious belief within the political process.” Every generation, the Pope said, must ask: “What are the requirements that governments may reasonably impose upon citizens, and how far do they extend?,” and, “By appeal to what authority can moral dilemmas be resolved?” Benedict stated, “These questions take us directly to the ethical foundations of civil discourse. If the moral principles underpinning the democratic process are themselves determined by nothing more solid than social consensus, then the fragility of the process becomes all too evident. Herein lies the real challenge for democracy.”

Benedict says that the recent global financial crisis, as well as the history of slavery and the totalitarian ideologies of the twentieth century all illustrate what happens when social policies are grounded only on the quicksand of social consensus.  He asserted that to be stable and good, on the other hand, society must be built on the rock of “objective norms governing right action… accessible to reason,” what tradition has called the natural law.

The role of religion in political debate, he said, is not to supply moral norms or propose concrete solutions but “to help purify and shed light upon the application of reason to the discovery of objective moral principles.” Without the corrective supplied by religion, “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.” Religion, itself, must in turn be purified by reason, lest “distortions of religion,” such as sectarianism and fundamentalism, arise. Religion and reason must cooperate for their mutual purification. Religion in other words, is “not a problem for legislators to solve,” but “a vital contributor to the national conversation.”

Benedict expressed his concern to the Parliamentarians at “increasing marginalization of religion, particularly of Christianity, that is taking place in some quarters, even in nations (like Great Britain) that 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.” This is precisely what is happening in England, where the government has forced Church agencies either to facilitate adoptions for same-sex couples or get out of the adoption business altogether. “These are worrying signs,” Pope Benedict summarized, “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.”

Andrew Brown, a columnist for the leftist Guardian newspaper, called Benedict’s speech, with a touch of exaggeration, “the end of the British empire,” because it challenged at its roots not only the Protestant political assumptions — and institutional anti-papal antipathy — of the last 470 years, but also many Brits’ “stubborn attachment to the notion that all you really need is decency, rather than theology.” It was “unthinkable” enough to have a Pope come to Westminster Hall, praise St. Thomas More, and refer to the martyr as an example of the proper incarnation between religion and public life, he said. It was just as revolutionary, he argued, to have Benedict make the case for the necessity of black-and-white objective moral norms as the ethical foundation of society in the midst of a culture, parliament and national (Anglican) church that cherishes consensus, compromise, and multiple shades of gray.

It’s clear that Benedict’s words and challenge got Andrew Brown to sit up and think. He wasn’t the only one. And that, as Prime Cameron said, “can only be a good thing.”

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About the Author

Father Roger J. Landry is a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts, who works for the Holy See’s Permanent Observer Mission to the United Nations. He is the former pastor of St. Bernadette Parish in Fall River, Massachusetts and St. Anthony of Padua Parish in New Bedford, Massachusetts.

After receiving a biology degree from Harvard College, he studied for the priesthood in Maryland, Toronto and for several years in Rome. After being ordained a Catholic priest of the Diocese of Fall River by Bishop Sean O’Malley, OFM Cap. on June 26, 1999, he returned to Rome to complete graduate work in Moral Theology and Bioethics at the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family.

Fr. Landry writes for many Catholic publications, including a weekly column for The Anchor, the weekly newspaper of the Diocese of Fall River, for which he was the executive editor and editorial writer from 2005-2012. He regularly leads pilgrimages to Rome, the Holy Land, Christian Europe and other sacred destinations and preaches several retreats a year for priests, seminarians, religious and lay faithful. He speaks widely on the thought of Popes John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis, especially John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. He was an on-site commentator for EWTN’s coverage of the 2013 papal conclave that elected Pope Francis, appears often on various Catholic radio programs, and is national chaplain for Catholic Voices USA.

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