Friday, 17 September 2010

The fragility of social consensus

This afternoon, the Holy Father spoke at Westminster Hall, part of the Palace of Westminster. Once again he praised Britain warmly - for the Parliament which has been so influential, and for the common law tradition. He recalled St Thomas More and this was the launching-point for the main point of his discourse. He pointed out that the fundamental questions at stake in Thomas More's trial present themselves anew:
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?
He then warned:
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.
As an example of the ethical dimension of policy, he mentioned the abolition of the slave trade as one of the British Parliament's notable achievements.

The Holy Father recognised the problems of sectarianism and fundamentalism which can arise when religion does not take account of the purifying and structuring role of reason. However, in a brilliant return to the example of the slave trade, he noted that there 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.
The passage that will be most quoted in the papers tomorrow spoke of Christmas, but it is worth considering the whole paragraph:
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.
Later he expressed his conviction that the Church and public authorities in Britain could work together in many ways but said:
For such cooperation to be possible, religious bodies – including institutions linked to the Catholic Church – need to be free to act in accordance with their own principles and specific convictions based upon the faith and the official teaching of the Church.
This is a clear reference to the Catholic adoption agencies in England which have been forced to close or to agree in principle to assist in the adoption of children by homosexual couples.

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