Three 20-something women trying to figure out what it means to be lay, Catholic, and modern all at once.

September 24, 2010

Sacred or Secular: Thoughts on the Pope

Now that I have finally gotten through Pope Benedict's speeches and homilies from his trip to the UK last week, I am again reminded of the fact that I simply love our German Pontiff. One of the more interesting themes that came up repeatedly was the need for the secular space in society to be preserved. This might seem strange at first glace, given that Catholicism has not always had the most friendly views toward a growing secularization - think French Revolution and German's Kultur Kampf.

But Benedict's desire to the secular space of society preserved is not for rampant secularism to dominate political ideologies - it is in fact rather, as Professor Zachary Calo calls it, "an invitation to resacralize the political life of modernity." (Quote taken from an article for the Journal of Catholic Social Thought 7:2, 2010 p. 236). Benedict XVI calls for a secular space in the public square so that a religious voice can be clearly heard and taken seriously. Consider, for example, what he says in his recent address to British dignitaries, political representatives, and academics on September 17th. This passage is worth quoting at length:
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.
While Benedict XVI is an academic and this long quotation might seem at first glance a little bit involved, what he is saying to us is that Catholic ethics in the public sphere are first and foremost available to all through common sense. You don't have to be a Christian to understand that you should always do the right thing and be nice to people. Religious beliefs should not necessarily dictate political laws and policies, but it should help to guide the public in key ways - and also be tempered by it so as not to give way to fundamentalism or sectarianism.

Pope Benedict's proposal is a reminder to us of what we continually strive to achieve as Catholics - a steady relationship between faith and reason - with each guiding one another and bringing out the best in each other as all good relationships should. How grateful I am for our Pope who has the courage to speak out in defense of Christianity's place in Europe and in the West more generally. Just imagine, readers, what we could achieve by heeding this advice and not being afraid to speak as our minds as followers of Christ.

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