In major speech, pope lays out vision of religion’s role in public life

LONDON – In a major address to British cultural and political leaders, Pope Benedict XVI warned that Christianity risks being marginalized in Western societies and said the “voice of religion” must be heard in the public square.

The pope’s speech Sept. 17 laid out his vision of how religious belief can influence the political process and preserve the ethical principles necessary for true democracy. Religion, he said, is “not a problem for legislators to solve, but a vital contributor to the national conversation.”

The German pontiff addressed about 2,000 leading figures in politics, business, the arts and diplomacy in Westminster Hall, a site rich in church-state history. State trumpeters greeted the pope with a fanfare, and he was escorted into the hall by the Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod, whose official duties include the welcoming of outside guests.

An ovation filled the hall as the pope, wearing a red cape, took the podium and delivered a speech televised across the country.

The pope recalled that Westminster Hall was where St. Thomas More, the 16th-century English scholar and statesman, was sentenced to death for opposing King Henry VIII’s break with the Catholic Church. He said the saint’s trial underscored a perennial question about how much governments can impose upon citizens and their religious beliefs.

Modern democracies, he said, face a particular challenge: making sure that fundamental moral principles are not determined by mere social consensus.

The pope said the church teaches that the ethical foundations for political choices can be found through reason; the church does not dictate these norms as religious truths, but it does promote them in a “corrective” role, he said.

This contribution of religion is not always accepted, he said, in part because “distortions of religion” like fundamentalism are seen as creating serious social problems. But he said reason, too, can fall prey to distortions, as when it is manipulated by ideology.

In short, he said, the world of reason and faith need each other, and their relationship is a “two-way process.”

Pope Benedict then turned to the present and warned about what he called “the increasing marginalization of religion, particularly of Christianity,” which he said is occurring even in countries that have a reputation for tolerance.

He said there are some who argue, for example, that Christmas should not be publicly celebrated because it might somehow offend those of other religions or of no religion. He also complained of a failure to appreciate freedom of conscience and the legitimate role of religion in public debate.

Some, he said, openly advocate that “the voice of religion be silenced, or at least relegated to the purely private sphere.” On the contrary, religion and politics need to be in dialogue, he said, and one step in that direction was the “unprecedented invitation extended to me today.”

In his speech, the pope was returning to a favorite theme, one he has written and spoken about for years. At Westminster, to better drive his points home, he connected these arguments with some real-life situations – including a pointed reference to the U.S. banking bailout over the past two years.

The pope said it was clear that global poverty requires fresh thinking and firm financial commitments by richer countries in order to improve living conditions in areas such as family support, jobs, clean water, education and health care.

“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 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,’“ he said.

The pope said the global economic crisis, which has severely impacted millions of people, reveals the inadequacy of pragmatic, short-term solutions to problems caused in part by “the lack of a solid ethical foundation for economic activity.”

The pope also offered an example of where ethical and moral influences have brought about a notable achievement: the abolition of the slave trade by the British Parliament in 1807.

In Westminster Hall, which is part of the Parliament complex, the pope said that “the angels looking down on us from the magnificent ceiling” were a reminder of the traditional religious element in British democracy.

“They remind us that God is constantly watching over us to guide and protect us. And they summon us to acknowledge the vital contribution that religious belief has made and can continue to make to the life of the nation,” he said.

Among those welcoming the pope was House of Commons Speaker John Bercow, who spoke of a “healthy tension” in the relationship between church and state in Great Britain, including robust debate on social, scientific and sexual issues.

Bercow endorsed one of the pope’s main points when he said: “Faith is not a relic, either in political discourse or in modern society, but is embedded in its fabric.”

Before leaving, the pope briefly greeted a number of dignitaries, including former Prime Minister Tony Blair, who became a Catholic after leaving office three years ago.

Catholic Review

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.