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Pope warns Britain's leaders: don't marginalize faith

September 17, 2010

Pope Benedict XVI warned against the “increasing marginalization of religion” in a memorable address to the political leaders of British society, delivered on September 17 in Westminster Hall.

With virtually all of nation’s political leaders in attendance (the exception was Prime Minister David Cameron, who was attending his father’s funeral), the Pope delivered a speech that compared Catholic social teaching with the British legal tradition. He echoed the theme of his famous Regensburg lecture by arguing that reason and faith must work together, correcting and supporting each other, to provide a proper understanding of moral issues.

The Holy Father began his talk with strong words of praise for the British political tradition, with its respect for pluralism, the rights of subjects and the limits of government authority. He mentioned that as he stood in Westminster Hall he recalled many of the great figures in the nation’s political history, with St. Thomas More foremost among them.

The example of St. Thomas More, the Pope continued, illustrates a problem that every political body must face: “the perennial question of the relationship between what is owed to Caesar and what is owed to God.” With that introduction, the Pope arrived at the main point of his talk: “the proper place of religious belief within the political process.”

The British political tradition, the Pope argued, has important points in common with the social doctrine of the Church:

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 key question to be addressed, the Pope said, is how moral debates should be resolved in a pluralist society. Questions of principle cannot be decided by majority vote, he argued:

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.

Attempts to cobble together pragmatic solutions, without addressing fundamental problems, are dangerous, the Pope said. As evidence of that point, he cited the breakdown in the world’s financial system. On the other hand, he said, one of the British Parliament’s great achievements, the abolition of slave trade, “was built upon firm ethical principles, rooted in the natural law, and it has made a contribution to civilization of which this nation may be justly proud.”

How can society’s leaders fix such firm moral principles, then? The Pope answered that question with an appeal to recognize the authority of natural law. The laws recognized by all men of good will are not based on sectarian beliefs, he said: “The Catholic tradition maintains that the objective norms governing right action are accessible to reason, prescinding from the content of revelation.”

Enlarging on that point, Pope Benedict revisited the argument that he had developed in his Regensburg address. Reason and religion should correct and complement each other, so that secular politicians do not ignore the moral dimensions of major issues, and religious leaders do not exploit faith to serve partisan causes.

Properly understood, the Pope said, faith can play an important role in public life, enriching the political debate without raising sectarian tensions. “Religion, in other words, is not a problem for legislators to solve, but a vital contributor to the national conversation.”

Today, the Pope warned, some secularists are working to eliminate the contributions that religion makes to society:

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.

Before concluding his address, the Pope observed that by extending the invitation for him to speak at Westminster Hall, the government had shown a willingness to continue the vital partnership between Church and state. He thanked the British government for working cooperatively with the Holy See on a number of important issues, most notably the effort to ease world poverty.

In an editorial praising the Pope’s remarks, the Daily Telegraph said that the address proved that the Pontiff “is a Christian statesman, not just a Roman Catholic one.”

"Something unexpected is happening during the papal visit to this country,” the Telegaph noted: “the British public is listening with curiosity and genuine respect to Pope Benedict XVI.” The paper rebuked angry protesters—and, indirectly, the media reports that have given those protesters so much attention:

Pope Benedict's critics have underestimated him. They worked themselves into a state of indignation at the visit of a man about whom they knew only a few things – and most of these turn out to be wrong, on closer inspection. Anyone who thinks that Joseph Ratzinger is a former Nazi, or that he actively conspired to protect child abusers, has not done his or her homework.

John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter remarked that the Pope’s speech “could have been an explosive address, given the clear difference between the Catholic Church and the UK on any number of hot-button issues.” Instead, he said, the Pope “delivered an ‘Affirmative Orthodox’ tour de force.”


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