It’s fascinating to observe the pope’s visit to the United Kingdom from afar. Fascinating on several levels. 1) There’s the beatification of John Henry Newman with all of its implications for Anglican-Catholic relations. 2) There’s the ongoing fallout from the sexual abuse crisis. 3) The crises within Anglicanism over sexuality and gender. In the latter case, the ordination of women bishops complicates relations further. 4) There’s the pope himself.
On the latter point, the pope made remarks about the role of religion in English society. England, like other European countries, has struggled with the role of religion in a multicultural society.
“Even in our own lifetime, we can recall how Britain and her leaders stood against a Nazi tyranny that wished to eradicate God from society and denied our common humanity to many, especially the Jews, who were thought unfit to live. I also recall the regime’s attitude to Christian pastors and religious who spoke the truth in love, opposed the Nazis and paid for that opposition with their lives. As we reflect on the sobering lessons of the atheist extremism of the twentieth century, let us never forget how the exclusion of God, religion and virtue from public life leads ultimately to a truncated vision of man and of society and thus to a “reductive vision of the person and his destiny”.
Many interpreted what he was saying to link Nazism and Atheism. In fact, he seemed to be arguing that excluding religion from public life results in an impoverished understanding of human nature and society. One might argue the merits of this, but it seems silly to discount those thinkers who have developed a deeply human and humane understanding of the human person and society without recourse to religious language.
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-à-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.
Here he argues that the slave trade and twentieth century totalitarianism were products of the misuse of reason, which could have been avoided had reason taken into account religious understandings. Of course, to use his examples, religious thinkers applying reason, found what they thought were “objective moral principles” that supported both slavery and totalitarianism.
In the final paragraph at Westminster, he goes even further:
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.
I read a little essay by Juergen Habermas on the place of religion in secular society just as the Pope’s visit to Great Britain began. Habermas, the great German philosopher, has engaged questions of the role of religion in secular society in the last few decades.
In a few paragraphs, Habermas outlines the problems. The liberal state, he argues, relies not on conformity to its principles, but on “a mode of legitimation founded on convictions.” It “requires the support of reasons which can be accepted in a pluralist society by religious citizens, by citizens of different religions, and by secular citizens alike.” For religion to thrive in such societies, “the content of religion must open itself up to the normatively grounded expectation that it should recognize for reasons of its own the neutrality of the state towards worldviews, the equal freedom of all religious communities, and the independence of the institutionalized sciences.”
One wonders what Habermas makes of the current controversies in the US over mosques and Quran burnings. It seems the Pope feels the Catholic Church (or Christianity) may soon be persecuted in Great Britain in similar fashion. I’m also always suspicious when someone starts talking about the “unique role” of religion or Christianity in European or American society.