01 March 2012

Working with Holy See towards common goals

I found very peculiar Enda Kenny’s insistence last Wednesday that the government was not for turning with regard to its decision to shut Ireland’s embassy to the Holy See, merely conceding that its stance might change if Rome were to relax its rules regarding the housing of embassies.

It’s as though the government doesn’t understand that that the point of an embassy is not to flatter the state or body to which it’s accredited, but to serve the country it represents. If Ireland’s interests are best served by having an embassy to the Holy See, there is no justification for not furthering our national interests because we don’t like the Vatican’s house rules.

The Taoiseach’s comments seemed especially ironic given that they came within a day of Baroness Warsi, the Muslim co-Chairman of Britain’s Conservative Party, having led a delegation to the Vatican where she outlined the importance of the UK’s diplomatic relationship with the Holy See.

Hailing the Holy See’s vast global reach, she explained that it made perfect sense for London and Rome to work together “to promote democracy, to fight for human rights, to encourage fair and responsible trade, to tackle climate change, and to help build stable nations.”

It’s hardly surprising that Britain should seek to realise her interest in areas of such immense global importance by building on her relationship with the Holy See in order to benefit the whole world. Baroness Warsi said that it was Britain’s hope that other countries would be inspired to work with the Holy See in a similar way, acting together in areas of common interest so that the global reach of the Catholic Church could further serve the common good.

This is often forgotten in discussions about whether or not Ireland should have a specific embassy for the Holy See; we understand that Rome is a superb listening post, but too frequently ignore how it can be an even more powerful amplifier. Ireland is a small country, but Rome can give us a big voice; we should be glad that Britain is seeking to remind us of this.

The rest of Baroness Warsi’s speech, engaging with the Pope’s Westminster Hall speech of September 2010, has proven far more contentious.

Addressing a throng of dignitaries Benedict XVI had spoken of freedom of conscience, the relationship of faith and reason, the need for ethical foundations for economic activity, and the vital contribution religion makes to civil discourse. In particular he warned against the marginalisation of religion in public life, and noted how religious bodies need to be free to act in accord with their own principles if they are to be empowered to serve society at large.

Baroness Warsi said she’d heeded these words, and that in order to encourage social harmony and ensure faith had its proper space in the public sphere, people need to feel stronger and more confident in their religious identities. Arguing that nations should not deny their religious heritage, she proclaimed that “Europe needs to be more confident in its Christianity”.

This might seem a strange line from a Muslim, but it’s worth remembering that the Jewish Jonathan Sacks had said something very similar only two months ago. Speaking in Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University, Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks said: “When a civilisation loses its faith, it loses its future. When it recovers its faith, it recovers its future. For the sake of our children, and their children not yet born, we – Jews and Christians, side-by-side – must renew our faith and its prophetic voice. We must help Europe recover its soul.”

Explaining how she had chosen to send her own daughter to be educated in a Christian school, knowing that she would be free to follow her faith there, Baroness Warsi went on to comment on how religious faith drives and inspires good works throughout the world.

Citing the examples of Irish nuns teaching in Pakistani Muslim communities and the response of organisations such as Caritas International to such tragedies as the Haitian earthquake and the East African famine, she recognised such ultimate enactments of the common good as expressions of strong and confident religious faith.

Stressing that such confidence in who we are and what we believe is necessary to guarantee openness and acceptance of others, she warned that the confident affirmation of religion was under threat in a variety of ways, notably from well-intentioned liberals and from those she described as “anti-religionists” who use a language of “secularist intolerance” in an attempt to eradicate religion from culture and the public square.

Leaving aside how I think true secularism allows faith a valuable space in public debate, I don’t see that our confidence should really be shaken by faith-denying devotees of militant secularism, however intolerant.

Puritanical atheists may be loud of voice, but they are very few in number. On the same day as Baroness Warsi’s speech, the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science published the results of a survey finding that only 6 per cent of people in the UK disbelieve in God. Britain’s National Secular Society has no more members than the British Sausage Appreciation Society. Fewer people have paid to join Atheist Ireland than worship in my home parish on a typical Sunday.

Grandstanding gadflies like John Colgan and Clive Bone may irritate, but in themselves they’re of little import. The DPP is bound to dismiss as vexatious Colgan’s complaint that a homily by Bishop Philip Boyce constituted incitement to hatred, while contrary to how the National Secular Society has spun the decision, the English High Court only supported on technical grounds Bone’s case against Bideford Town Council starting meetings with prayers.

With regard to Mr Bone’s substantive argument that his human rights were being compromised by having to sit through others’ prayers, Mr Justice Ouseley was dismissive: “I cannot see that his freedom of religion, thought or conscience is infringed by the degree of embarrassment he feels, which is no more than is inherent in the exercise by the others of their freedom to manifest their religious beliefs, and his freedom to stay without participating or to leave. It is their freedom which would be infringed were he right.”

-- From The Irish Catholic, 23 February 2012

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