Ratzinger’s Clear Clarion Call

One of the most remarkable things about this papal visit has been the precise and unambiguous message that Benedict XVI has been proclaiming through the country wherever he has spoken. From Edinburgh to Birmingham, one common theme has come through his homilies – now is the time to stand up.

Standing up is certainly what people in Britain have been doing. They’ve been standing up at the msses and prayer vigils and standing up along the routes that the Popemobile has driven through the major cities of this country. At a very conservative estimate the number of people who have turned out to see Ratzinger is at least half a million – the real figure is probably double that. Compare this to the miserale turn out for the protests – a few hundreds here or there. On a matter of simple numbers God has easily won.

Of course, numbers are not everything. You might be in a minority of one, but if you have truth on your side that simly doesn’t matter. While democracy may be a good thing to be strived for, even democracies can create environments of great evil. On only has to look at Ratzinger’s homeland of Germnay to see that. And it is to issues of truth, authority and the toleration of a plurality of views that Benedict has turned his attention during this trip. He began even on the flight to Scotland by setting the context of this trip.

I must say that I’m not worried, because when I went to France I was told: “This will be a most anticlerical country with strong anticlerical currents and with a minimum of faithful.” When I went to the Czech Republic it was said: “This is the most non-religious country in Europe and even the most anti-clerical”. So Western countries, all have, each in their own specific way, according to their own history, strong anticlerical or anti-Catholic currents, but they always also have a strong presence of faith.

Benedict began by framing the trip in the context of his journeys across Europe where it has been presumed that secularism is predominant. Of course, as has been seen during the past few days, the numbers coming out to see him have dwarfed those opposed to his visit. This is, Benedict argued in his speech to the Queen later that day, because of the way that Britain’s history over the past millenium and beyond has been firmly embedded in the Christian faith.

The name of Holyroodhouse, Your Majesty’s official residence in Scotland, recalls the “Holy Cross” and points to the deep Christian roots that are still present in every layer of British life. The monarchs of England and Scotland have been Christians from very early times and include outstanding saints like Edward the Confessor and Margaret of Scotland. As you know, many of them consciously exercised their sovereign duty in the light of the Gospel, and in this way shaped the nation for good at the deepest level. As a result, the Christian message has been an integral part of the language, thought and culture of the peoples of these islands for more than a thousand years. Your forefathers’ respect for truth and justice, for mercy and charity come to you from a faith that remains a mighty force for good in your kingdom, to the great benefit of Christians and non-Christians alike.

From here the Pope moved to Bellahouston Park and developed this emerging theme of the context of Christian witness in the 21st Century.

The evangelization of culture is all the more important in our times, when a “dictatorship of relativism” threatens to obscure the unchanging truth about man’s nature, his destiny and his ultimate good. There are some who now seek to exclude religious belief from public discourse, to privatize it or even to paint it as a threat to equality and liberty. Yet religion is in fact a guarantee of authentic liberty and respect, leading us to look upon every person as a brother or sister. For this reason I appeal in particular to you, the lay faithful, in accordance with your baptismal calling and mission, 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. Society today needs clear voices which propose our right to live, not in a jungle of self-destructive and arbitrary freedoms, but in a society which works for the true welfare of its citizens and offers them guidance and protection in the face of their weakness and fragility. Do not be afraid to take up this service to your brothers and sisters, and to the future of your beloved nation.

This challenge then moved from the faithful to the combined collection of the faithful, faithless and other-faithed gathered in Westminster Hall the following day, presenting a clear challenge to the idea of a relativist democracy.

And yet the fundamental questions at stake in Thomas More’s trial continue to present themselves in ever-changing terms as new social conditions emerge. Each generation, as it seeks to advance the common good, must ask anew: what are the requirements that governments may reasonably impose upon citizens, and how far do they extend? By appeal to what authority can moral dilemmas be resolved? 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.

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.

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.

This issue of Christians being forced to act against their conscience strikes to the heart of what is meant in a modern liberal democracy by “the freedom to worship”. Is freedom to worship simply the freedom to turn up on a Sunday morning to church and then to walk out again an hour later in liberty, or does it extend to the right to carry that faith publicly through the next 167 hours till the following weekend? How is wearing a cross to work compromising pluralism? In what way does saying “God Bless You” insult someone? Can I not be equally insulted by someone’s failure to say “God Bless You” to me? If Christians cannot exhibit their faith in the workplace, then why should atheists be allowed to not talk about God?

The Pope responds to this challenge by calling the faithful to stand publicly and unashamedly in defence of what they believe to be true and to engage with a world that may not like what God is saying, but desperately needs to hear the words of forgiveness and new life that he utters.

Dear friends, let us return to the contemplation of the great crucifix which rises above us. Our Lord’s hands, extended on the Cross, also invite us to contemplate our participation in his eternal priesthood and thus our responsibility, as members of his body, to bring the reconciling power of his sacrifice to the world in which we live.

How much contemporary society needs this witness! How much we need, in the Church and in society, witnesses of the beauty of holiness, witnesses of the splendour of truth, witnesses of the joy and freedom born of a living relationship with Christ! One of the greatest challenges facing us today is how to speak convincingly of the wisdom and liberating power of God’s word to a world which all too often sees the Gospel as a constriction of human freedom, instead of the truth which liberates our minds and enlightens our efforts to live wisely and well, both as individuals and as members of society.

What an exciting challenge! We are called as the people of Christ to speak into a world that is obsessed with the deity of self and to offer instead the knowledge of, relationship with and worship unto a God who wants to spend eternity with his creation that spend so much of their efforts fleeing from him in defence of their “liberty”. As Benedict has pointed out, true liberty is to be free in Christ, not in delusioned slavery to that which can never satisfy eternally.

It remains to be seen what the response of the Government, the chattering classes and the liberal intelligentsia will be to this challenge. It also remains to be seen what the response of believers, Roman Catholic, Protestant and other, in this country will be to the clear call from the Bishop of Rome to be unashamed about the faith once received and to be prepared to witness in every aspect of their lives to his call. The one sentence that has struck me more than most of all that has been said over the past few days was this simple call, given at the Prayer Vigil last night – “Do not be afraid to give yourself totally to Jesus”.

Amen to that.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.