In this extract from his Corbishley Lecture Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor confronts the alarming
new secularist intolerance of religion
16i.perfect relationship of religion with the public forum has never yet been discovered. There is always a tension. The attempt by a state to proclaim a particular religion as true and to force its observance on people is inimical to Christianity itself. Truth and freedom need each other, which is why from its beginnings the Christian Church proclaimed the distinction between temporal and spiritual, between what St Augustine described as the City of God and the Earthly City. The Catholic Church has not in the past been innocent in this regard; which is why the clear principle articulated at the Second Vatican Council that the Church should not resort to temporal power to persuade people was one of the great developments of the 20th century. The freedom and dignity of every person a freedom and dignity which reside in our being made in the image of God himself are sacrosanct before the power both of Church and State.
At the other extreme, some hold that nothing matters except individual autonomy, and that the State must be entirely neutral. This means that religion must be excluded from public life. Ever since the Romans, the State has been wary of Christianity, because Christianity defends the law of God, which places limits on the State's power. Faith points to a power and authority which the state cannot control. In late 19thand early 20th-century European history, at a time of economic and technological progress not unlike our own today, the State in some countries sought to stand apart from religion, to make faith a purely individual matter. This meant, in practice, that the state was self-sufficient, answerable to no higher authority. This is why, in some European countries, the step from a liberal to a totalitarian state was so easily made. In stark contrast, Britain resisted this trend by its continued inclusion of religion in the public sphere, and we remained democratic.
But the secular state, which we now risk adopting in Britain, seeks a politics entirely independent of religion, in which religious principles have nothing to say in the "real" world of political action. The choice of the State to side with the secular is said to be neutrality; and it is usually justified by an appeal to equality. But this is in itself ideology, divorcing religion from the public realm on the pretext that religion is divisive. This sets up great tensions in society. The more determinedly secular a itate becomes, the more pressure mounts for religious beliefs to assert themselves. We then no longer have a common search for truth on the basis of shared reason, but a series of monologues in which each side excludes the other. People talk past each other. There is little reasoned thinking. There is no adequate civil discourse. Society is then at risk of the fragmentation of its moral structure.
What concerns me is that we are travelling in that direction blindly, without stopping to look back to the democratic ways from which we are departing. The United Kingdom, said a House of Lords Select Committee in 2003, "is not a secular state". Indeed, the Lords went on, "the constitution of the United Kingdom is rooted in faith specifically the Christian faith, exemplified by the established status of the Church of England". The Glorious Revolution of 1688 was made in the name of rights in general and of religious freedom in particular. However, I should point out that Catholics and Jews were not part of this tolerance. For us eventually, though, it led to the Catholic Emancipation Act and our integration back into the life of the nation. Our democracy has always believed passionately in that religious freedom, not because our forbears regarded the state as neutral but because their faith taught them that our choices in daily living determine our eternal destiny and that we are responsible for our choices. The idea of divine judgment presupposes freedom. We cannot be held responsible for that which we were coerced into doing. Our human freedom mirrors the freedom of God. It is not the freedom to dispense with God. Religious freedom, in other words, is not a by-product of democracy but a driving force of it. And that religious freedom includes the right to manifest our beliefs.
Indeed, the founders of our Western democracies warned against the possibility that diversity, when taken to an extreme, could destroy the very means by which diversity could be tolerated and promoted. It is a large leap from the view that religion and politics operate in distinct spheres, to the view that therefore the State must exclude religious beliefs from the public sphere. How paradoxical it is that in the name of a principle of equality so consonant with religion, the State seeks to separate itself from religion.
Britain's democracy has stood out among nations both by its tolerance and its traditional respect for the value of religion in the public sphere. These are not principles in contradiction. Indeed, British democracy has been exemplary precisely because these two principles are mutually reinforcing. There is no room for intolerant secular dogmatism or cynicism towards Christians. But I fear we may be seeing now exactly the appearance of such attitudes. So when Christians stand by their beliefs, they are intolerant dogmatists. When they sin, they are hypocrites. When they take the side of the poor, they are soft-headed liberals. When they seek to defend the family, they are Right-wing reactionaries.
I do not think it an accident that this new secularist intolerance of religion has been accompanied by the State's increasing acceptance of anti-religious thinking. There is a modem British law, not actually on the statute book but widely observed, that politicians, in the famous words of Alistair Campbell, "don't do God". Politicians should stay clear of religion, and treat all religions alike. They are free to believe what they like, because the state "has no beliefs".
What looks like liberality is in reality a radical exclusion of religion from the public sphere, and such an exclusion does deep harm to the tolerance and inclusivity which has worked so well for so long. Yet this doesn't sit easily with what the State often wants from religion. If one looks at Catholic schools, for example. one cannot deny that they are among " the most popular schools in British society. Most of them are Oversubscribed: they work hard at integrating pupils and are among the most socially diverse. Where they can, they are happy to receive a significant number of people from other faiths or from none. Whenever I meet politicians, of whichever particular party persuasion, they invariably comment on how much admired our Catholic schools are. But I always say to them: "You cannot have the fruits without the roots." Catholic schools are rightly recognised as gems in our education system but we must bear in mind that they are underpinned by a community of faith lived by ordinary families, families who are happy to contribute to the common good of our society. Remove the faith which motivates those parents' choice of a school and you remove the heart from those very schools.
How strange that our Catholic adoption agencies, which seek homes for some of the most vulnerable and difficult to place in our society. should be seen as discriminatory, when in accordance with religious belief and practice they ask only for the freedom for themselves to choose for those children an environment which in their professional wisdom is the one most likely to promote their happiness and well-being.
I begin to wonder whether Britain will continue to be a place which protects and welcomes the works of people shaped and inspired by the Church.
I wonder how far we can still claim as British the assumption that if a religious organisation serves the public interest according to its own rights, it has a legitimate claim on public resources.
I wonder also how far we will be able to continue proudly to declare that the respect of the State for the exercise of religion in the public sphere recognises the energy and the commitment of the religiously motivated to serve society to the benefit of the common good.
r my own part, I have no difficulty in being a proud British Catholic citizen. I have always believed in the traditions of British justice and equality, seeing in these the fruit of the free exercise of religious conscience. But now, it seems to me, we are being asked to accept a different version of our democracy. one in which diversity and equality are held to be at odds with religion, and indeed the justification for putting religionin a box marked "private". We Catholics and here I am sure I speak, too, for other Christians and all people of faith do not demand special privileges, but we do claim our rights. We come not to impose, but to serve, according Co our beliefs; and to be given the freedom and support to do so, as long as these do not undermine the rights and freedoms of others. I appeal to the good sense and fairness of the British people, and to the traditions which have shaped this great nation. I appeal to the need to keep faith with those traditions, lest we pass into a new intolerance which will over time shake the tree of our democracy free of its spiritual fruit.
My fear is that, under the guise of legislating for what is said to be tolerance, we are legislating for intolerance. Once this begins, it is hard to see where it ends. While decrying religion as dogmatic, is dogma to prevail in the public square, forcing to the margins the legitimate expression and practice of genuine religious conviction? My fear is that in an attempt to clear the public square of what are regarded as unacceptable intrusions, we weaken the pillars on which that public square is erected and we will discover that the pillars of pluralism may not survive.
The question is whether the threads holding together pluralist democracy have begun to unravel. That is why I have sounded this noteof alarm. It is as a British Catholic citizen, pleading for the continuation of our proud democratic tradition of respect for the exercise of religious belief, that I have spoken. I am conscious that when an essential core of our democratic freedom risks being undermined, subsequent generations will hold to account those who were able to raise their voices yet stayed silent. Christian witness does not permit us to be silent on the fundamental importance of the free exercise of religious belief. Those who proclaim Britain as a nation under God must be allowed to continue to work freely for His Kingdom here in Britain. That is our tradition. And I believe it is the tradition which British people wish to maintain. We should now engage in tolerant. reasoned and democratic debate on what is clearly the beginning, not the end, of this question.
This is an extract from a lecture, entitled "Religion and the public forum", delivered on March 28 at Westminster Cathedral Hall, London, in honour of the Jesuit priest Fr Thomas Corbishley, The full text is available at www.rcdoworg .uklcardinal