Benedict at Westminster

The text of Benedict’s keynote speech on his trip to the UK is here; video of the speech can be found here.

Obviously, you read or watch the speech in its entirety, but I will present a few highlights for readers:

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.

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.

In recent years it has been encouraging to witness the positive signs of a worldwide growth in solidarity towards the poor. But to turn this solidarity into effective action calls for fresh thinking that will improve life conditions in many important areas, such as food production, clean water, job creation, education, support to families, especially migrants, and basic healthcare. Where human lives are concerned, time is always short: yet the world has witnessed the vast resources that governments can draw upon to rescue financial institutions deemed “too big to fail”. Surely the integral human development of the world’s peoples is no less important: here is an enterprise, worthy of the world’s attention, that is truly “too big to fail”.

If you are interested in the pope’s themes explored more fully, I strongly recommend reading John Paul II’s encyclical “Fides et Ratio.”

My own reaction is that while not much of this is new (except for the sly winking at the “too big to fail” theory), it is a well-articulated and direct confrontation to the secular world. In part, Benedict’s speech lays out the two alternatives using examples. You use religion integrated with the state, and can accomplish great moral good (the ending of slavery); or you can set the state against the religion of some (St. Thomas More, who died b/c his religion was at odds with the state). In this, the pope brilliantly turns back the accusation often raised against the Church by British secularists about how religion results in war and divisiveness by analogizing the persecution of More and the persecution of modern Christians: both refused to accept the terms of religion offered to them by the state.

Standing in the hall where Thomas More accepted his sentence, this was a powerful comparison. Indeed, the cameras panned to the main British political figures during this section and they all looked rather uncomfortable. Whether or not they will seek to change their policies is a question no one knows the answer to, but it is clear that Benedict did what he could to offer British leaders the guidance of grace and Catholic teaching. As he pointed out towards the end of the speech, there are many shared goals between England & the Vatican (care for 3rd world poor & the environment among them) but they can be best secured only if England accepts a role for religion in its democracy. Otherwise, democracy ceases to be democratic and liberty fails.

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