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The Christian in the Public Square

Some challenges from the Catholic Social Justice Tradition
Most Rev. Diarmuid Martin, Archbishop of Dublin, Primate of Ireland

Archbishop Martin of Dublin
Where are the principal points of contact and indeed the principal points of conflict between the Christian message and contemporary culture? Where should the Christian be engaging within the complex public square of our times in order to witness to the light of Christ in the most effective way?
Light brings illumination into the darkness. Light brightens up our lives. Light above all permits us to see and to discern. The Christian in the public square must be one who knows how to discern and not just discern on individual issues, but discern about the deeper dimensions about being a person and to lead others on this same process of discernment. The message of Jesus Christ is neither a single readymade political manifesto, nor the multi-choice menu list of a catalogue. It is a call, which requires a deeply personal response, a response which involves the depth of one’s own personhood.

The principle focus of Christian discernment today must be anthropological. It must be about the nature of being a human person. It must lead people to focus on the nature of the human person, male and female, created in God’s image and likeness; it must deepen reflection about humanity created as a family; it must guide reflection on the integrity of the creation given to humankind as its home. This reflection must result in a challenge to people as to how they should behave and how they should work towards building the future.

The message of the Church is however not just one programme among many for constructing justice, peace and the integrity of creation. The message which the Church brings is that life and all creation are gifts, fruits of the work of a God who is love.

The Church’s task in the fight for justice, for example, is not in the first place the elaboration of a catalogue of denunciations of injustices. Neither is it just an agenda of focussed social programmes and interventions. It is not simply the enunciation of theological principles. It is all of these. The key point, in today’s world, is to deepen our understanding of what consequences flow from responding to the message of God’s redeeming love for us.

That message is in a sense an otherworldly one, but our living out of it must take place in this world. Being a Christian in the market place involves a dialogue with the fruits of human sciences and social investigation in order to place the good of the human person, created in God’s image, at the centre of the social reflection and action of the Church and of its contribution to society.
The Church’s viewpoint on the issues of the day in politics and society is in the first place a theological one. It is one which draws the attention of all to the nature of God and thus to a particular understanding of life as gift and of the unique role of the human person in God’s plan. It is one which stresses that the human person is created by God in love and thus shares in the same vocation to love.

How will such a theological vision be received in the public square of a self-declared secular society? Is there space for dialogue between two such different visions of the human person and of the world?

Pope Benedict XVI gives us some indications in this regard in his Encyclical Deus Caritas Est. In the first place he stresses the distinction between Church and State: “Fundamental to Christianity is the distinction between what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God (cf. Mt 22:21), in other words, the distinction between Church and State, or, as the Second Vatican Council puts it, the autonomy of the temporal sphere.”.

In addition he stresses the specific role of politics as distinct from that of the Church, in a way which goes beyond what many in the past might have imagined: “The just ordering of society and the State is a central responsibility of politics”. “Building a just social and civil order, wherein each person receives what is his or her due, is an essential task which every generation must take up anew. As a political task, this cannot be the Church's immediate responsibility”. And in an even more radical expression the Pope adds: “The Church cannot and must not take upon herself the political battle to bring about the most just society possible. She cannot and must not replace the State…A just society must be the achievement of politics, not of the Church”.

This does not mean that the Church sees no role for itself in addressing social questions. “[The Church] cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice. She has to play her part through rational argument and she has to reawaken the spiritual energy without which justice, which always demands sacrifice, cannot prevail and prosper”. “The Church wishes to help form consciences in political life and to stimulate greater insight into the authentic requirements of justice as well as greater readiness to act accordingly, even when this might involve conflict with situations of personal interest. Yet, since it is also a most important human responsibility, the Church is duty-bound to offer, through the purification of reason and through ethical formation, her own specific contribution towards understanding the requirements of justice and achieving them politically”.

The Pope recalls that “Faith by its specific nature is an encounter with the living God—an encounter opening up new horizons extending beyond the sphere of reason. But it is also a purifying force for reason itself… Faith enables reason to do its work more effectively and to see its proper object more clearly. This is where Catholic social doctrine has its place: it has no intention of giving the Church power over the State. Even less is it an attempt to impose on those who do not share the faith ways of thinking and modes of conduct proper to faith. Its aim is simply to help purify reason and to contribute, here and now, to the acknowledgment and attainment of what is just”.

The public square can thus in many ways be called predominantly “the square of reason”. It is the space in which men and women are challenged to find the appropriate ways to establish a just social order. In this sense the public square will be especially the workshop of Christian lay persons.

We must be respectful of the fact that lay Christians especially are called to make decisions regarding the world on which they work and that Church authority must respect their legitimate autonomy in that sphere. The teaching authority of the bishop does not extend into areas where there is no specific mandate that derives from the message of the Gospel. The task of the mediation of principles into policies belongs especially to lay persons. The oft-quoted teaching of Gaudium et Spes reminds us: “Laymen should also know that it is generally the function of their well-formed Christian conscience to see that the divine law is inscribed in the life of the earthly city; from priests they may look for spiritual light and nourishment. Let the layman not imagine that his pastors are always such experts, that to every problem which arises, however complicated, they can readily give him a concrete solution, or even that such is their mission. Rather, enlightened by Christian wisdom and giving close attention to the teaching authority of the Church, let the layman take on his own distinctive role” (GS 43). Through dialogue, interaction and criticism Church authorities must lead lay persons to a greater maturity in exercising their proper responsibility, which is also derived from the radicalism of the Gospel.

Lay persons in their turn must be proud of the fact that our Church provides them with such a body of teaching as Catholic Social Teaching to help them identify and apply criteria. I say this because we have many “Nicodemus Catholics” who will tell us by night how much they appreciate our teaching but who would then go into the daylight putting that teaching into a privatised sector of their lives, as if it had no relevance for society nor no right to citizenship in the public square and in the building up of institutions. Gaudium et Spes anticipated this temptation: “This council exhorts Christians, as citizens of two cities, to strive to discharge their earthly duties conscientiously and in response he Gospel spirit. They are mistaken who, knowing that we have here no abiding city but seek one which is to come, think that they may therefore shirk their earthly responsibilities. For they are forgetting that by the faith itself they are more obliged than ever to measure up to these duties, each according to his proper vocation. Nor, on the contrary, are they any less wide of the mark who think that religion consists in acts of worship alone and in the discharge of certain moral obligations, and who imagine they can plunge themselves into earthly affairs in such a way as to imply that these are altogether divorced from the religious life” (GS 43).

We have to find new models for making the social teaching of the Church better known and understood. The lay Christian is present in the public square as an integrated “lay-Christian”, not as a lay person who happens privately to be a Christian. It is useful to recall what Pope Benedict in Sacramentum Caritatis called “Eucharistic consistency”, a quality which the lives of Christian lay persons are called to embody.

The Christian is present in the public square with a message and a witness that is profoundly religious, even if the public square has a growing tendency to consider religion as belonging to the private sphere of the neighbouring streets. There is no evidence, however, that a totally “religiously neutral secularist society” is the best space in which to foster dialogue about the deeper questions of life. Pope Benedict XVI has noted that: “The pathology of religion is the most dangerous sickness of the human spirit. It exists within the religions, yet it exists also precisely where religion as such is rejected and relative goods are assigned an absolute value”. There are indeed forms of secular society in which hostility to religious values force religious groups into a dangerously narrow perception of their culture and thus sharpen religious differences.

Inter-religious dialogue has an important role to play in reflection on the values which should inspire our increasingly pluralist societies. But all faiths have to avoid any form of fundamentalism, fundamentalism in their own faith, fundamentalism about the role of religion. Religions are obliged to respect the legitimate autonomy of the secular order and of reason. Religions do not have a worked out political programme as to how to run the world or how best to preserve the integrity of creation and to cultivate it responsibly in the name of the Creator. These are matters to be worked out in detail by reason, a process which always includes free debate among diverse opinions and respect for different approaches. Imposing a specific political programme in the name of God is to make yourself into God. I quote from an earlier writing of Benedict XVI: “Whenever a religiously motivated moralism sidesteps this often irreducible pluralism, declaring one way to be the only right one, then religion is perverted into an ideological dictatorship, whose totalitarian passion does not build peace, but destroys it”.

Catholics also must recognise that there is a need to avoid fundamentalism in seeking to formulate a Christian response to complex issues: “Often enough the Christian view of things will itself suggest some specific solution in certain circumstances. Yet it happens rather frequently, and legitimately so, that with equal sincerity some of the faithful will disagree with others on a given matter. Even against the intentions of their proponents, however, solutions proposed on one side or another may be easily confused by many people with the Gospel message. Hence it is necessary for people to remember that no one is allowed in the aforementioned situations to appropriate the Church's authority for his opinion. They should always try to enlighten one another through honest discussion, preserving mutual charity and caring above all for the common good” (GS 43).

Does this mean that the Christian presence in the public square will be marginalised into one corner, with little interaction with the broader activities of the square? Will a dominantly secular culture inevitably lead Christians to a certain demoralization which will tempt them, by their own choice, to exit from the public exchange about the good of society, so as not to be contaminated by a hostile environment?

The world needs the Christian message. Lay persons have the specific mission to sow the seeds of that message in every dimension of culture and society, through critical dialogue. Critical dialogue involves being part of the fray. The Christian message is always incarnational and never one which flees into an unreal safe zone. What are the criteria which can guide this critical dialogue?

Some time ago I was surprised by a remark on the role of religion in modern society from an unexpected source. Speaking on a German television talk show Gregor Gysi, the leader of the German Communist Party, when asked about his worries about German society said: “Ich fürchte eine Gottlose Gesellschaft”, “I fear a Godless society”.

It was an unusual comment from the leader of a communist party with its roots in the former East Germany. As the television debate continued, this declared atheist noted that German society needs the moral framework which only those Christian roots embedded in his society can give. He noted that even the highly moralistic code of the communist ideology in the German Democratic Republic was effectively rooted in Christian principles.

These comments struck me in particular since the speaker was never a Christian. He is personally of Jewish background and the territory of the German Democratic Republic was that part of Germany where religious practice was always and still is exceptionally low.

It is hard to deny that there is a sense then in which our Western societies even when they appear to be de-Christianised still retain vestiges of a Christian culture which possesses a unique capacity for moral cohesion. No other philosophical or political basis has ever done so quite so well.

My own country, Ireland, is undergoing today a process of secularisation which many would see moving towards the situation described by Gysi: a secularised society which still turns to a cultural religious ethos to hold together and build the most effective consensus possible around a network of values which society needs – at least at certain moments. Belief is a complex matter. Because of its nature it is difficult to quantify. People will answer questions about belief in different ways. Belief is not identical with Church affiliation. There are non-practising Catholics who are genuine believers and there are also many who practice but who may not really believe.

Faith is about a relationship and relationships can be of differing quality. Measuring the level of faith in society is not just a question of numbers but above all of the quality of the faith relationship.

In ordinary language having faith in a person is about trust. Faith is something that goes beyond seeing or knowing. There is a deeply personal dimension to the concept of faith, as opposed to seeing or knowing. Faith requires personal trust and is impossible without that love which recognises the fidelity and the trustworthiness of the other in whom I place my trust.

Religious faith is faith in God, but not in some generic God of our own creation. For the Christian, God is not an anonymous element or power within or above the universe; God is first of all a face. Christians believe in a God who has spoken, who has revealed himself, who has entered into dialogue with humankind, a dialogue of love. Indeed the Christian God is in himself relationship, that relationship of the Trinity which is driven by the desire to reveal a saving love that is superabundant and gratuitous.

Too often that faith based on love and forgiveness has been distorted into an exacting, negative rule book. Others have distorted the concept of freedom and security which faith should bring. I am amazed, for example, at the insecurity that surrounds the faith of so many. Faith should be a relationship which makes people free and secure in a mature fashion. A relationship which engenders insecurity, anxiety and fear is not the Christian relationship of faith in God.

There are, moreover, forms of new religious experience today which seem to provide security, but what they really offer is only flight from insecurity. They seem to leave people secure because they help people evade reality in its fullness and to avoid especially the risk which is an essential dimension of faith. Faith in God must be mediated within the realities of the world in which we live. Christian faith, as faith in Jesus Christ, is incarnation and not flight.

I have gone to some lengths to describe what Christian faith is like. It is far from just a vague “cultural Christianity, whether this is “cultural Catholicism” or “cultural Anglicanism”, terms which at times seem to reflect a brand, a corporate culture or even a tribe, rather than what is essential in faith.

Even more so, faith is not just a vague “cultural spirituality” Spirituality despite the seemingly obvious meaning of the word may in fact be entirely material, with no true openness to the transcendent. I remember at the UN Conferences of the 1990’s we would have debates on the appropriateness of UN documents containing references to “spirituality” and spiritual values. In general, the pluralist European countries were not enthusiastic as they feared that this might imply some positive reference to religion (which would be a secularist mortal sin). On the other hand, the Russia of the early Gorbachev administration was appealing for spirituality and even the Chinese supported the requests of the Holy See conceding that their system admitted spirituality: “Chinese socialist spirituality”, the Ambassador hastily added.

Many today will find their path in secular spirituality and they will live out their worldview with dedication, idealism, generosity and satisfaction. For others, seeking spirituality may indeed be a sign of seeking the transcendent and be a first opening to faith. The originality of faith is however that it is not of our construction, it is response to a personal action of God. It is response to an invitation made to me in my personal situation. Faith is the recognition that God loves me personally.

In that sense faith is always surprise and risk. It is the surprise that God has sought me out personally and asks me to respond. Many in our society fail to make the leap to faith, because we, as Church, as an institution and as a community of believers, have never made that leap to the full. We have never fully abandoned ourselves to the God who can make us free, but still cling on to the things we falsely feel can bring us security. Faith is always a leap in the dark, but in the confidence that Jesus has not left us orphans. We will never be able to lead others into the depths of faith and the joy of our hope if we remain entrapped in the limitedness of our current world vision.

On the one hand, the possibility of living faith is influenced by society. Faith cannot be lived in isolation from culture and reality. Faith needs a social and cultural environment which will allow it to grow, to flourish in freedom and to make its contribution to society.

On the other hand, for faith to interact with culture, believers must be more coherent in their engagement with the realities of the world. Prayer, for example, is the moment in which our faith is expressed in its deepest and most concrete form. But prayer is not a flight from the world. It is the moment in which we recognise that the God who is other is a real dimension of our reality, of the reality of my life. When we pray we recognise the lordship and the transcendence of God. Recognising the lordship and transcendence of God we recognise that we did not create the world with our own hands and that we should never attempt to set ourselves up in the place of God. If creation is the Lord’s, how can we not share the wealth of the world equitably, how could we squander the resources of creation, how could we maltreat or abuse or exploit any other person? The deeper the faith of the believer, the more he or she will bring their irreplaceable contribution to the dialogue concerning the good of society.

In some areas this dialogue with society may have to be counter-cultural. Our Catholic tradition has long insisted that some choices are incompatible with respect for human dignity and for the common good. As stated in Veritatis Splendor: “Reason attests that there are objects of the human act which are by their nature ‘incapable of being ordered’ to God, because they radically contradict the good of the person made in his image. …. The Second Vatican Council itself, in discussing the respect due to the human person, gives a number of examples of such acts: ‘Whatever is hostile to life itself, such as any kind of homicide, genocide, abortion, euthanasia and voluntary suicide; whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, physical and mental torture and attempts to coerce the spirit; whatever is offensive to human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution and trafficking in women and children; degrading conditions of work which treat labourers as mere instruments of profit, and not as free responsible persons: all these and the like are a disgrace, and so long as they infect human civilization they contaminate those who inflict them more than those who suffer injustice, and they are a negation of the honour due to the Creator" (VS 80). The believer, if he or she is to be true to his or her deepest convictions, must be willing to oppose such evils in the public arena.

At this time there is a particular challenge for Catholic believers to articulate an understanding of marriage and the family as fundamental institutions that must be protected if human society is to flourish. The family, based on the mutual and exclusive love of husband and wife, constitutes a value which is unique and irreplaceable for the community. The State and society have obligations to protect the family and to ensure that families have the necessary support to carry out that role. Church teaching stresses that marriage is exclusively between a man and a woman, because this is part of the basic structure of the complementarity of the sexes, something rooted in creation, and not simply a social or cultural construct. It is not possible to reconcile every contemporary trend with the Gospel. We have to find ways of stressing the value of mutuality in marriage and the value of marriage as an institution, and not just in sacramental terms, but in terms of what it signifies for society. If we simply stand aside and drift along with contemporary culture we will have failed to bring to our societies precisely the type of constructive engagement between the Gospel message and contemporary culture that is needed.

Debates about fundamental issues in society will require a willingness to enter into the political arena and we must be attentive to reflect on the precise scope of that arena. Such reflections will serve to define specific parameters in the dialogue between faith and culture. The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church reminds us: “Political power… comes from God and is an integral part of the order he created. This order is perceived by human conscience and, in social life, finds its fulfilment in the truth, justice, freedom, and solidarity that being peace”

There is then in the reflection of the Compendium on political authority a constant link between the good, conscience and the dignity of each person, called to live in society in peace and in an orderly manner. However, “this order must be discovered gradually and developed by humankind” (#384). This is the opposite of any type of religious fundamentalism which tends to affirm that a ready-made plan for secular realities can be drawn directly from a religious message. The message of Jesus respects human freedom and must be mediated into the concrete situations of the world. Naturally, it is necessary to recall here the true nature of freedom which is not arbitrariness but is profoundly linked with truth.

Veritatis Splendor, drawing on the insights of the Second Vatican Council, puts it elegantly: “Patterned on God's freedom, man's freedom is not negated by his obedience to the divine law; indeed, only through this obedience does it abide in the truth and conform to human dignity. This is clearly stated by the Council: ‘Human dignity requires man to act through conscious and free choice, as motivated and prompted personally from within, and not through blind internal impulse or merely external pressure. Man achieves such dignity when he frees himself from all subservience to his feelings, and in a free choice of the good, pursues his own end by effectively and assiduously marshalling the appropriate means’” (VS 42).

Today the question arises in pluralist societies as to what is morality and where the public morality of the pluralist democratic State in rooted. This is probably one of the greatest challenges that our societies have to face. We live in a culture marked by a strong moral relativism, which tends to at least tolerate a variety of moral options or even to reject any real possibility of knowing the truth. At the same time, moral relativists can show enormous intolerance of these who start out from moral principles founded on reference to absolutes. At times, such concept of relativism and tolerance are applied to the teaching of the Church and Church life.

The Compendium takes up the predominantly positive judgment of Pope John Paul II on democracy. “The Church values the democratic system inasmuch as it ensures the participation of citizens in making political choices, guarantees the governed the possibility of both electing and holding accountable those who govern them, and of replacing them through peaceful means when appropriate” (#406). It is not so much a ringing approval of democracy, but an indication of what democracy can achieve if it functions correctly. The Compendium notes that “an authentic democracy is not merely the result of a formal observance of a set of rules but is the fruit of a convinced acceptance of the values that inspire democratic procedures: the dignity of every person, the respect of human rights, commitment to the common good as the purpose and guiding criterion for political life. If there is no general consensus on these values, the deepest meaning of democracy is lost and its stability is compromised” (#407). History shows, the Compendium notes, that “democracy without values easily turns into an open or thinly disguised totalitarianism” (#407).

Where there is no consensus on fundamental values, laws may be passed which contradict basic truths concerning the dignity and worth of human life. Even if these “laws” seem to have majority support they have no moral force. As is pointed out in Evangelium Vitae: “Laws which authorize and promote abortion and euthanasia are therefore radically opposed not only to the good of the individual but also to the common good; as such they are completely lacking in authentic juridical validity. Disregard for the right to life, precisely because it leads to the killing of the person whom society exists to serve, is what most directly conflicts with the possibility of achieving the common good. Consequently, a civil law authorizing abortion or euthanasia ceases by that very fact to be a true, morally binding civil law” (EV 72).

When he or she enter into debate in the public arena, the believer should not feel inhibited in giving voice to views that may have profound religious roots. Pluralist does not mean secular. The public square is that space of dialogue on public issues where different viewpoints are aired and debated in a process of tolerance and respect and where decisions come to be made which respect differing opinions. A pluralist society will not request people to leave their religious values at home or on the street corner before they enter into the debates of the public square. Religious expression has its place in such a pluralist public square, just as any other expression. It does not seek a privileged place; it has every right to a prominent place.

There is no way in which the Christian believer can or should impose his specifically religious beliefs on any other in society. But it would also be unacceptable should valid insights which spring from religious concepts and language be excluded from the public square just because they are religious in origin. Religious language can in fact bring an original contribution to the values which should inspire our society, especially in a world where so often everything is considered quantifiable and marketable.

Belief in God, in transcendence, should not close the person to the realities of the world which we all share as our home, but can lead the believer and others to rise above the contingent and the politically opportune to seek values that are enduring.

There is however a strange dichotomy in which modern society welcomes the contribution of religious insights when they are popular, for example on questions of social justice, and rejects even the right to speak on other areas, such as on sexual or conjugal morality, not observing that the positions of the Church on justice or on sexual ethics might be founded in the same vision of the dignity of the human person, without any compromise with popular opinion.

What, then, are the terms in which the Christian should be engaged in the realities of the public square in the context of today? Obviously there can be no coercion or imposition of religious belief. This flows from the very definition of Religious Freedom which comes once again from the Second Vatican Council. There it is stressed there that “free enquiry, with the help of instruction, communication and dialogue” are the only path to faith and that it is only “by personal assent that we must adhere to the truth that we have discovered”.

The presence of the Christian in the pluralist public square will be a presence based on dialogue with all persons of good will who desire to establish a fair and just society. Human rights discourse can be a useful instrument in this dialogue. It can offer a bridge towards reflection which crosses cultural backgrounds and can provide a framework of language that engages all.

This dialogue must, if it is to be fruitful, be premised on a careful discernment of the true nature of human rights. Evangelium Vitae reminds us that human rights are of our making nor are they the creation of positivist jurists: “It is therefore urgently necessary, for the future of society and the development of a sound democracy, to rediscover those essential and innate human and moral values which flow from the very truth of the human being and express and safeguard the dignity of the person: values which no individual, no majority and no State can ever create, modify or destroy, but must only acknowledge, respect and promote”. There can also be abuse of human rights language, where some use the language of human rights only to give a rhetorical legitimacy for their own preferences without any foundation in the truth of the human person.

The role of free media is important in ensuring that all people are informed well of what is at stake and what is taking place within the democratic process and that all voices are allowed to contribute to public debate. The media must be free from political interference. It is also important to avoid the creation of monopolies in media information through the concentration of ownership by a small number of individuals or groups. The Compendium notes the danger that arises when media monopolies are accompanied “by ever closer ties between governmental activity and the financial and information establishments” (#414). It is also important that the media and its operators act in an open and responsible way, not manipulating or trivializing of information in one way or another.

Sociological evidence also offers believers renewed confidence in their right, and obligation, to contribute to the public forum. One of the underlying tendencies of secularism is to believe that religion has had its day, and that enlightenment and prosperity bring with them the definitive instrument for the reduction of people’s interest in religion. This is a theory that needs to be looked at more closely, because there are good scientific indications to show that it is not the case. Some of you may know the work of the – secular – United States research think tank The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, perhaps the most prestigious think-tank of religion and public life. It is well worth looking at it website and publications. The overall thrust of the research, which is of course very nuanced, is the feeling that, as one expert noted, “God is winning”. Religion is booming in many countries and indeed democracy has offered new opportunities to religion as also have new means of communication. “God is winning” in that the role of religion in world politics is increasing, as is the percentage of the world’s population which looks on religion as important in their lives and society.

Christians must learn to live in an increasingly secularised society but never in a resigned or passive way. Christians cannot accept retiring from the public domain or accept a vision of the political sphere as somehow absolute. Giving to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s means not just separation of Church and State, but also that Caesar is not God and should not be playing God.

The principal contribution of Church institutions in an increasingly secular society is, as Pope Benedict noted in a recent interview, “to witness to God in a world that has problems finding Him… and to make God visible in the human face of Jesus Christ, to offer people access to the source without which our morale becomes sterile and loses its point of reference”.