14th May 2007
Address by the Bishop of Limerick, Bishop Donal Murray, at the Conference on Religion and the European Project: The Irish Contribution, which was held in All Hallows under the auspices of the European Society for Catholic Theology.
Religious Identity in Europe: Ireland’s Leadership Role
All Hallows College – Monday 14 May 2007
The title I have been given for this intervention is interesting but ambiguous. If it presumes that Ireland has, or should expect to have, a leadership role in relation to Europe’s religious identity, it strikes me as somewhat pretentious or presumptuous. It might of course be taken to point to some kind of historical review of the undoubted role of leadership which Ireland has exercised in the history of Christian Europe, but that is not my field. I prefer to take it that the title is raising the question as to what would be required if Ireland is to play a significant and positive role in re-shaping the religious identity of Europe today. The first thing to be said is that, interpreted that way, it is not, first of all a question about our relationship with the rest of Europe but a question about our own society. As Pope Paul VI said:
The Church is an evangeliser, but she begins by being evangelised herself. She is the community of believers, the community of hope lived and communicated, the community of brotherly love, and she needs to listen unceasingly to what she must believe, to her reasons for hoping, to the new commandment of love. She… has a constant need of being evangelised, if she wishes to retain freshness, vigour and strength in order to proclaim the Gospel .
In considering the topic, therefore, we should reflect first on what is necessary in order that the living of faith by believers in Ireland today would have the freshness, vigour and strength which might have an influence on the religious identity of Ireland and of Europe. This is a particularly dramatic question for Ireland today. In about 40 years, we have passed from a situation in which the religious identity of our culture was not a matter of any great discussion or doubt to a situation in which the Catholic Church, and perhaps organised religion as a whole, is looked on by many elements in society as being on its last legs and as having been responsible for delaying the advance of modern enlightenment and for keeping the country in a state of backwardness.
In the 1960s in Ireland, the vast majority of people were practising Catholics and almost everybody was a believing Christian. Those who were not believers were thought of as a small and unrepresentative minority. Today in Ireland and indeed in Europe, Christians increasingly feel that it is they who have somehow become the unrepresentative minority whose culture is underrepresented, and sometimes ridiculed in public discussion. This is strange, to say the least, since in Ireland practising Catholics remain a majority of the population of Ireland.
The language and experience of faith has become like a foreign language. Journalists and broadcasters and prominent figures referring to religious events or devotions frequently feel the need to make it clear that they do not feel at home in this context. There are, of course, notable exceptions, but being a believing Catholic is not perhaps the best way of enhancing one’s journalistic or popular credibility.
I have some doubts about the recent survey on religious knowledge. It seems, though I may have read it wrongly, that in some instances it required not just knowledge but an ability to read the minds of those conducting the survey. Nevertheless, the results showed a lack of knowledge about basic facts – only half could name the first book of the Bible; only a quarter could recite the first commandment of the Decalogue; only two thirds could name the four evangelists . In Italy a recent survey for the newspaper Il Giornale produced very similar results .
The believer today lives most of his or her life in a world where religion does not appear to be important, and where the truths of faith are rarely mentioned. It is appropriate, therefore, that we look first of all at the challenge to believers. They live in a culture which, most of the time seems indifferent to or hostile to faith, in a culture which lives ‘etsi Deus non daretur’ – as though God did not exist’. In many places, and certainly in Ireland, this process of religion moving from the centre to the periphery of public life is more profound now than it was when Pope Paul VI expressed the challenge:
The split between the Gospel and culture is without a doubt the drama of our time, just as it was of other times. Therefore every effort must be made to ensure a full evangelisation of culture… .
Religious identity for the Christian Churches means, by definition, becoming what we are meant to be: “the community of believers”:
A leap forward in the quality of people’s Christian lives is needed, so that they can bear witness to their faith in a clear and transparent way. This faith, as it is celebrated and shared in the liturgy and in works of charity, nourishes and reinvigorates the community of the Lord’s disciples while building them up as the missionary and prophetic Church .
If we are to build a religious identity for the new century, we have to address the aching thirsts which lie, often unrecognised, at the heart of human life. “Faith requires a connection between the words of the church’s creeds and our hunger for meaning, belonging, affirmation, forgiveness, empowerment and happiness. These are the thirsts which the Good News addresses in our lives, offering us the water which “will become in [us] a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (Jn 4:14). We need to reflect on our own thirst for that water if we are to address the thirst that may lie deeply hidden in the heart of the person shaped by a secularist culture.
In this paper I will look at a few of these thirsts and at some of the things the Gospel has to offer in response to them.
THE COMMUNITY OF FAITH
The first agent of creating a Christian religious identity is the faith community. I am not simply talking about ‘building community’. No community that we could build could ever satisfy our thirst for belonging. Every community we build is flawed and fragile. It is a question of entering more fully into the community that the Lord is already building. The consummation of history is the gathering of the human race around the Risen Christ, who is the “the centre of humanity, the joy of all hearts and the fulfilment of all aspirations” . In his homily on the day of the solemn inauguration of his Petrine Ministry, Pope Benedict repeatedly said that those who believe are never alone – not that they should never be alone but that they are never alone. That too was the theme of his Apostolic Visit to Bavaria. If secularisation makes believers feel alone and powerless, this points to an urgent need to strengthen our awareness of belonging to the community which the Lord is building.
We are surrounded by a culture which seems uncomfortable with religion and which seems to regard its own assumptions as entirely self-evident. Some elements of our culture regard Christian faith as a survival from the past which will quickly fade away before the clear light of science and the capacity of the modern mind to detect and reject irrationality!
The sense of being alone as a believer, of living in a society which regards faith as unimportant, or outdated, can be demoralising. The temptation is to respond by confining one’s beliefs to the private sphere rather than to risk exposing them to rejection or ridicule.
It is true that Christianity has lived a great part of its history in hostile environments. It is also true that faith often blossomed in such environments. But it did not blossom by remaining silent and fearful or embarrassed in an Upper Room. The heroes and martyrs of Christian history professed their faith courageously and openly. In doing that they were sustained and strengthened by the faith of their believing community. This is what contemporary believers often lack – a sense that they belong to a vibrant, supportive community with, a mission, a community which cannot regard its faith as a mere private possession.
The life of community is necessary because without it the Church cannot be what she is called to be and will lack “freshness, vigour and strength”.
An awareness of the community into which we are called is necessary not only because of the nature of the Church but also because of the nature of our society. The destruction or decline of community is one of the consequences of the secularisation that exists in much of Europe today. One of our most basic thirsts is for that sense of belonging.
Community consciousness tends to decline in the face of secularisation for several reasons which I may be forgiven for pointing to in a brief and perhaps oversimplified way:
a) Genuine community is not formed on the basis of merely functional and anonymous interactions, but on the basis of a sharing of ourselves. The culture of secularisation does not favour that kind of sharing because of its tendency to measure relationships according to their usefulness and productivity.
b) A true community needs some shared guiding vision or at least some recognition of the importance of questions about the meaning of life and the value of the human person. Our culture is probably unique in imagining that it can function with little or no reference to these questions. Yet the question of meaning is one of our basic thirsts.
c) A secularised society comes to think of itself more as a State, or an economy, or a legislative and administrative framework than as a community of persons. Because there is no common attention to the fundamental questions of the meaning and purpose of human life, the criteria of success and failure and the goals of social life become divorced from the genuine growth of human relationships and of human persons.
All of this leads to an increasing sense of isolation and alienation. Having spoken about alienation in Marxist societies, Pope John Paul pointed out that “alienation – and the loss of the authentic meaning of life – is a reality in Western societies too. This happens in consumerism, when people are ensnared in a web of false and superficial gratifications rather than being helped to experience their personhood in an authentic and concrete way”
When an individual person feels alienated and dissatisfied in his or her culture, this produces a sense of powerlessness and frustration, because it is almost impossible for an isolated individual to challenge a culture. A culture can only be challenged effectively by a counter culture which is strong, positive and confident.
The sense of community even among Christians is damaged and weakened by the anonymity and superficiality of the culture in which we live. We need to become more conscious of the fact that the Church, the believing community has a purifying critique to offer to every culture.
For all of these reasons, the religious identity of the Church, of Christians in general, and of faith communities, means becoming a counter culture, a community, in which believers can deepen their faith. That is the context in which we can regain the “freshness vigour and strength” to proclaim the Gospel.
This counter culture cannot be a refuge in which we hide away from the world. It cannot even be a place of rest where we leave the challenges of a secularised culture behind us -secularised culture is within us; we are part of it. Our role as followers of Christ is to be missionary – to live in our society as a leaven, as a source of new hope, as pointing to the new creation.
Secularisation is not always a bad thing: the secular dimension of life has its own autonomy. The danger lies in the tendency of the secularised culture to become secularist, that is, to believe that religion is irrelevant to its life, that there is nothing more to life than what is material and passing.
The community of faith can be a place in which we reflect together on the questions posed to us by secularism, and also by new technologies, new possibilities and new dangers (such as climate change and the scarcity of resources), new challenges of global justice and development, new issues raised in the worlds of industry, media, politics, economics, new kinds of moral confusion, religious dialogue and conflict. These are issues that no generation of Christians has ever faced in the same way before. Pope John Paul’s words in Ireland are still true today: “Each generation, with its own mentality and characteristics, is like a new continent to be won for Christ” . The Christian counter culture is essentially missionary.
That new continent can only be won by a vision which is positive and life-giving. In his address to the Irish Bishops on our ad limina visit last year, the Holy Father said:
So often the Church’s counter-cultural witness is misunderstood as something backward and negative in today’s society. That is why it is important to emphasize the Good News, the life-giving and life-enhancing message of the Gospel (cf. Jn 10:10). Even though it is necessary to speak out strongly against the evils that threaten us, we must correct the idea that Catholicism is merely “a collection of prohibitions”.
Several responses are emerging to this need for a counter culture. They include Parish Pastoral Councils and other parish groups and movements which understand their role not just as ‘helping the priest’ or ‘organising parish events’ but as evangelising themselves in order to serve the parish’s need to be evangelised in order to evangelise; they include prayer groups and lectio divina groups, movements and associations; they include the growth of family ministry; they include initiatives in adult religious education and youth ministry.. There is need for a great ‘untidy’ variety of responses. It is essential that the Church in a secularised world recognises the importance of providing contexts for praying, reflecting, celebrating and living the faith in a world which can so easily silence it.
It might be useful, before concluding my remarks on importance of the community of faith, to reflect on some areas of life (and here I confine myself to Catholic life) where we can clearly see the weaknesses that obstruct the evangelisation of our secularised societies.
i) The believing community is rarely experienced by the Christian as a support and a challenge and as life-giving in a way that fills his or her life. The best of people see the religions dimension of life as something to be ‘fitted in’. If sharing in the faith and worship and activity of the believing community does not affect the whole of the believer’s life, does not fill the believer with the mission to share the good news, then those who are not members of the community are unlikely to see the Gospel for what it is – the word of the infinite God and not some human insight (cf. I Thess 2:13). Nor will they see the Church for what it is – the Body of Christ and not just a human association. ii) One of the fundamental needs in a secularised world is to know what Pope John Paul called the “most stupendous attribute” of God – his mercy. This is a world which, for all its attempts to ignore God and to make individual conscience supreme, is filled with “gigantic remorse” . There is the guilt of our betrayal of future generations by our destruction of the environment; there is the guilt of being rich and comfortable in a world where most human beings are hungry and poor; there is the guilt of knowing that our priorities are wrong and that we prefer things to people, possessions to relationships, having to being. The weakness of our witness in this matter is obvious in the decline in the celebration of the sacrament of Reconciliation. iii) Family ministry, education about the meaning of marriage, recognition of the role of families in the life of the parish and wider community are all priorities which have become more important for the Church but which require a great deal of development. A secularised world favours relationships that are superficial and impermanent. The Christian community has within it the most powerful counter cultural witness: the sacrament of marriage proclaims a relationship which is determined not to be measured in terms of productivity and profit, but which is undertaken ‘for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health’. iv) The late Cardinal Ó Fiaich described the laity in the Church as a ‘sleeping giant’ . Perhaps most important need in order to understand better how the community of faith is the source of religious identity is the development of the theology of Baptism and of the priesthood of all believers. The counter culture needs the great variety of the Holy Spirit’s gifts to evangelise this ‘new continent with its own mentality and characteristics’. That can best be done when people who are expert in the diverse, specialised and complex spheres of modern life see themselves as the evangelisers of the areas in which they work and live. They need to feel able to express the Gospel in their lives and to make their lives a living sacrifice of spiritual worship (Rom 12:1) . A community of faith is needed to be a counter culture in the face of the challenge of secularism. It follows therefore that the strengthening of the community of faith is a fundamental element in developing a religious identity.
ACCEPTING THE GIFT
I call the second area for the creation of religious identity the challenge of accepting the gift. The encyclical Evangelium Vitae tells us what is necessary in order that our celebration of the Gospel of Life can bear fruit in the world:
[W]e need first of all to foster, in ourselves and in others, a contemplative outlook… [This] is the outlook of those who see life in its deeper meaning, who grasp its utter gratuitousness, its beauty and its invitation to freedom and responsibility. It is the outlook of those who do not presume to take possession of reality but instead accept it as a gift, discovering in all things the reflection of the Creator and seeing in every person his living image .
At first sight the statement in the encyclical seems unrealistic. However Pope John Paul was not saying that everybody needs to reach the heights of mystical prayer. He is saying that we need to open our minds to the deeper dimension of life’s meaning: we need to learn to accept reality as a gift. One vital way of deepening and communicating a religious identity must be the path of opening ourselves to receive the gift.
This is an insight which obviously has huge implications in our times for our attitude to the environment. The achievements of recent centuries have led us to think in terms of exploring and learning and controlling reality. We need to understand more clearly that we are part of that reality ourselves and that it is not of our making – it is a gift to be appreciated and respected. This is not just an imperative for our times, it is at the heart of what human freedom means.
The beginning of authentic freedom lies in an act of consent. Freedom begins in the act by which we accept reality as a gift. Paul Ricoeur expressed it like this:
To consent is in no way to surrender if, in spite of appearances, the world is the possible theatre of freedom. I say, this is my place, I adopt it; I do not surrender; I acquiesce; it is well thus, for “all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”
In our societies there is a temptation to settle for a superficial reality which lacks any sense of giftedness or depth, but is rather an attitude of possession and control of a reality in which we fail to see the reflection of the Creator. We can live much of our lives in a ‘virtual reality’ which is one-dimensional because it is not willing to see life in its deeper meaning and beauty.
That is, in fact, the temptation the Jesus experienced in the desert. The tempter suggested that he should place his trust in created things rather than in God. We are tempted to allow pleasure and comfort, popularity and celebrity, power and control to become the things that give meaning to our lives. We are tempted to allow them to become idols, to take the place that belongs to the Creator. Jesus responds to the tempter by saying that human beings live not by bread alone but by the words that come from God; we must not see God’s fidelity as something to be tested and manipulated; we must serve him alone (Mt 4:1-11; Lk 4: 1-13).
During his visit to Limerick in 1979, Pope John Paul expressed a challenge which is much more urgent for us today than when he first spoke it. It is the challenge to respond as Jesus did to the tempter:
The Irish people have to choose today their way forward. Will it be the transformation of all strata of humanity into a new creation, or the way that many nations have gone, giving excessive importance to economic growth and material possessions, while neglecting the things of the spirit?… The way of substituting a new ethic of temporal enjoyment for the law of God? The way of false freedom which is only slavery to decadence?
Those questions were first asked at a time when our dominant concerns were unemployment and forced emigration. In the intervening years we have experienced the Celtic Tiger, which has brought many benefits, but has also brought new forms of the same questions. Now questions are beginning to be asked about whether a continuation of economic growth on this scale is really what we wish to see. People are beginning to ask whether their life in society might have a more humanly satisfying purpose than to maximise affluence. A recent report described the likely shape of Ireland in 2020. It spoke of accelerating immigration, increased road building, traffic jams and continuing work-related stress. David McWilliams commented:
Maybe it is time we reassessed the basis of our economic model. Is economic growth the objective in all cases, at all levels of income and for all people? The … report offers a vision of the future. It is not the only vision, but it is the most likely outcome of our present policies and philosophies. Is this what you want? Or have you even taken a break from the rat race to consider the future?
The one dimensional reality that surrounds us, with economic growth as its primary goal, leaves little space for contemplation. It is a culture that fills itself with noise and images: with I-pods and surfing the web, with video clips and advertising, with background music and computer games, with mobile phones and constant availability.
This all seems far removed from opening ourselves to recognise that reality is a gift. It is rather a culture which does not want to look too deeply at itself. But the thirst to know ourselves cannot be suppressed: “One may define the human being, therefore, as the one who seeks the truth.”
It is important not to seek to build a religious identity as some form of escape from the real world. We cannot build a religious identity behind the wagons gathered in a circle! The fact is that the explosion of communications has also very positive possibilities. If it seems one-dimensional or superficial, is that not because we have not creatively and courageously sought to allow other dimensions to speak through what are, after all, the instruments of communication, not, in spite of McLuhan, the message itself.
As one illustration of the importance of accepting the gift, it is worth looking at the ways in which these all-pervasive forms of communication which seem to dampen our readiness to reflect and contemplate and to relate in a personal way might themselves be instruments of reflection. We are concerned, and rightly so, about the capacity of the internet to foster an anonymous and impersonal virtual communication. But perhaps that anonymity can also open up ways of meeting the thirst to belong and to believe.
There are, for instance, some remarkably successful internet sites which set out to be aids to prayer. In particular, there is the Sacred Space site run by the Irish Jesuits which is presented in twenty two languages and has had millions of hits. One could also mention Notre Dame du Web , and the prayer sections of the World Youth Day site etc .
There are many good sites which address a wide range of theological questions. There is provision for ‘distance learning’ for adults. There are many excellent Church websites and Christian websites, offering information about every aspect of Christian faith, life and worship. With the expansion of broadband availability, there is the growing possibility of making material available in various formats – PowerPoint, audio and video clips, pod casts, live streaming and possibilities we have not yet imagined. But there is one aspect of the internet’s potential which has still not been developed. If Ireland is looking for a leadership role, perhaps this is worth considering!
To build a religious identity means more than supplying information; it is more even than teaching people to pray. It is about inviting people to become part of a community of faith, of spiritual worship, of service. We have not yet sufficiently understood the potential that the interactivity of the internet offers. The discomfort of our society with public expressions of faith, the anonymity of our relationships, the focus on profit and pragmatism all make it difficult for people to express their religious questions, their difficulties about belief or Church teaching, their dilemmas about moral issues, perhaps even their attraction towards a religious or priestly vocation. They feel that there is no context in which such topics can be seriously and ‘safely’ discussed. This is a huge obstacle to creating or strengthening religious identity.
An effective interactive website would allow a person who is nervously considering such questions to raise them without initially having to reveal themselves. What is required for such a site to work would be a panel of qualified and committed and understanding people to ensure that their questions, their doubts and their sense of alienation would receive a prompt response. I am convinced that many people never raise such issues because they are too embarrassed to approach anybody face to face.
Obviously religious identity requires personal contact: “how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? (Rom 10:14) But in a society where people have little experience of contact at this level, the introductory steps might well be taken through the internet. That could only be a first stage. When it seems appropriate, the questioners could be offered the opportunity of a face to face meeting with somebody in their own area. Then, at their own pace, they might be introduced to the community of believers. There they may begin to share and celebrate more fully the vision of reality as a gift, and appreciating the gratuitousness and beauty of creation and seeing the Creator’s image in all things. It may ultimately lead them towards discovering their identity in a community whose life has its source and summit in the great act of Christian Thanksgiving for the Gift – the Eucharist.
HELPLESSNESS AND HOPE
The third challenge of religious identity is what we might call the challenge of helplessness and hope. The culture of Europe, and this is particularly true of Ireland, is one which is deeply uncomfortable with questions of faith – as distinct from controversies about Church policies and persons and moral teaching. We might recognise ourselves in the description given by Pope John Paul, when he talked about the need for silence and reflection: “afraid to be silent for fear of meeting [ourselves]” .
There are many different reasons for this reluctance to enter too deeply into oneself and into the fundamental questions of meaning. The first is the unspoken fear underlying many people’s lives today – the fear that life may be ultimately absurd. We do not wish to confront the question of meaning in case the answer proves to be that there is no meaning.
Although the number of people who classified themselves as atheists almost doubled, the figure in the recent (2006) census remains below 1,000; the number of those described as ‘no religion’, however, rose by 35% to over 186,000. One certainly gets the impression of a steep rise in the number people who publicly state that they ‘don’t believe any more’.
We live in a world which is dominated by technological advance, by the pursuit of affluence, the cult of celebrity. At the same time we live in a world which uneasily recognises that all of the achievements and the advances and the fame are extraordinarily fragile and ambiguous.
We are finally facing the possibility that climate change could profoundly alter all our lives. We may argue about how far this is man-made, but, whether it is or not, it begins to appear that we have already arrived at a point where the consequences will be dramatic and may in many respects be irreversible.
We are beginning to feel that the war against terror may not be winnable. Wars in the past were fought against enemies who were recognisable and to some extent predictable. Terrorism is a largely invisible and unpredictability is its weapon of choice. As the experience in Ireland would suggest, so long as one thinks primarily in terms of winning a war, the problem remains insoluble.
We are beginning to wonder where our voracious consumption of energy may lead the world and whether the future holds increasingly desperate conflicts about resources of energy and even of water.
Of course in our own individual lives we are also aware of the fragility that is always present – our health and the health of those we love may drastically decline; the economic situation on which so many of our hopes and plans depend may go into severe and lasting recession; we live in a time where the heartbreak of broken relationships may strike where and when we least expected it. And the inevitability of death looms over every relationship and hope.
Where then is the person who says ‘I don’t believe anymore’ to find meaning in a life where all he or she lives for may collapse? How can he or she find meaning for in a world where millions of people have not even a fraction of what we take for granted.
Many nonbelievers live lives of great commitment to justice and development and peace. But the question remains, ‘what sense can one make of a world where the injustices and suffering that so motivates that commitment continue to exist and even grow?’ Even if dramatic and fundamental transformations were made to the way our world works, as they should certainly be, it would take decades, perhaps centuries, to overcome the legacy of ill health and poor education and underdeveloped infrastructure that has blighted so many parts of the earth. It is already too late for our efforts to help the millions throughout history who have died after lives of hunger, illness, exploitation, indignity and early death.
The meaning of life cannot depend on accidents of birth or on being lucky in avoiding financial ruin, health problems and emotional disasters. That is why it is necessary to face the challenge of helplessness and hope.
Perhaps we tend to soft-pedal how countercultural the Gospel really is in our time. A person steeped in the values of the western world will have great difficulty in understanding the refusal of Jesus to accept the temptations in the desert.
Jesus would not found his ministry on providing bread for himself and others (not luxury and affluence, just bread!); he would not found his ministry on what would have been a PR person’s dream (floating down from the pinnacle of the Temple with the crowds watching); he would not found his ministry on power and coercion (which would have seemed a far more promising and practical approach). But those temptations were about a fundamental distortion and betrayal of the purpose of the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom is about a meaning which is bigger and deeper than plenty or popularity or power.
The day which Christians call Good Friday was the turning point of history. It involved a Man undergoing a cruel and unjust punishment, dying in agony, betrayed by a friend’s kiss, abandoned by most of his trusted followers, with his enemies mocking him as he died. It does not meet any of our criteria for success, and yet it was the final triumph of life over death, of good over evil. He was lifted up from the earth, drawing all people to himself (Jn 12:32). This is “the unique event of history which does not pass away: Jesus dies, is buried, rises from the dead and is seated at the right hand of the Father “once for all” .
It is not that suffering and death are good things. The alleviation of suffering, care for the dying, and the work for justice are essential to the authentic living out of the Gospel. What the Gospel offers to the inescapable fragility and helplessness of human life is something of a different order. It brings faith in God who “will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away” It brings faith in God who promises: “I am making all things new.” (Rev 21:4,5)
We live in a culture unused to contemplating the need for God and the impossibility of bringing about a just and peaceful world by our own efforts. This is a particularly difficult challenge for Christian religious identity which starkly contradicts the values and priorities of our culture. And yet it is at the heart of the challenge. Pelagius, an Irishman, gave his name to the heresy that we can save ourselves. I sometimes think it is the most fundamental and insidious heresy. It has existed since the very beginning when the serpent said: “You will be like God” (Gen 3:5).
LEARNING TO SPEAK
I said some moments ago that one has the impression of a steep rise in the number people who publicly state that they ‘don’t believe any more’. There is, it seems, an even steeper decline in the open expression of religious faith in spheres such as politics, economics, business and even peace-making and work for justice. A religious identity that is unspoken is in danger of evaporating into irrelevance. But the Christian religious identity is relevant to the whole of life.
The Gospel completely overturns priorities that are largely taken for granted in our culture. The widow’s two small copper coins were more than what was put in by all those who were contributing to the treasury (Mt 12:42,43); the first will be last and the last first (Mt 19:30); the least among all of the disciples is the greatest (Lk 9:48). Consequently, as St Peter Chrysologus said: “lest you lose by saving, gather in by dispensing. For you yourself will not possess what you would not leave to another” . Anyone who truly believes this overturning of priorities should approach issues with freedom and a readiness to question things that are taken for granted and to pursue goals that seem unattainable.
How would a person who was inspired by the radicalism of the Gospel respond the situation that exists in some of our cities, where people have to try to live their lives and raise their children surrounded by burnt out houses, by crime and drugs, by fear and gangland violence and by a context which conspires to corrode their hope? What priorities might a person with Gospel values be addressing to the canvassers about these issues during these weeks?
How would a person who was inspired by the radicalism of the Gospel react to the fact that our affluent nation has not felt able to reach the United Nations target of spending 0.7% of GNP of development aid on time?
What would it mean for our political choices if we really took seriously the belief that the Lord will address us in the name of the weakest and poorest saying “I was hungry and thirsty and sick and in prison and you did – or did not – come to my aid”.
For Christian believers, faith is a source of inspiration, of courage and of radical challenge. It is not just about the next life; it is about how we see ourselves and one another now. In his first encyclical, Pope John Paul said that when we reflect on ourselves in the light of Christian faith that reflection bears fruit not only in adoration of God but in deep wonder at ourselves:
In reality, the name for that deep amazement at human worth and dignity is the Gospel, that is to say: the Good News. It is also called Christianity
This kind of vision must clearly have a bearing on the political choices that I, or any believer, make. The idea that it would be inappropriate for us to bring this vision to any kind of expression in public life would be an impoverishment of society and would amount to telling believers not to consider social policies in any depth or with the commitment of their whole selves.
Religion provides an understanding of the human person and of the purpose of human life. It is it seriously suggested that people should discuss the priorities, the problems and the future of their society without reference to what they believe a human person is and what they believe human life is for ?
Yet there are a number of reasons why believers do not feel comfortable about speaking in the public forum about what our faith means to us and how it inspires our commitment and deepens our understanding and faces us with the radical challenge of relating to one another in our social lives as Jesus has loved us.
We have come to feel that “our beliefs are a private matter and that we should not seek to impose them on others”. Almost every word in that statement needs to be challenged.
1) It is of course true that political or economic discussion is a different kind of thing to theological discussion. Theological reasons do not determine public policy, although they may lead to a recognition that some policies would be wrong, for instance because they fail to respect the dignity of human beings. Any serious world view or philosophy must surely lead to such conclusions on occasion! The Second Vatican Council pointed out that respect for the human person carries with it the obligation to oppose whatever denies that dignity, for instance:
All offences against life itself, such as murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia and wilful suicide; all violations of the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, physical and mental torture, undue psychological pressures; all offences against human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children, degrading working conditions…
So the Christian and the Christian community cannot regard offences against human dignity as irrelevant. At the same time,
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. Yet at the same time she 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 .
It is true that we should not seek to impose our theological views on others. The fact that a particular policy is in harmony with the religious or moral convictions of some citizens is not in itself a reason for enforcing it by law – nor, of course is it in itself a reason why it should not be enforced by law! The appropriate way to address problems of social, political and economic policy is not to accept or reject them because of their perceived relationship to a particular faith or philosophy but through dialogue about what will best serve the common good – the good of society as a whole and of its individual members.
It needs to be said clearly that allowing one’s values to influence one’s priorities and choices is a very different thing from seeking to impose them on others. Pope Benedict says that the fundamentalist, who claims to be able to impose the truth by force, shows “a dangerous contempt for human beings, and human life, and ultimately for God himself” . The idea that a religious person must seek to coerce, to dictate, to impose is a distortion of the nature of faith – whether than distortion is expressed by a religious or a non-religious person.
2) People professing the same faith will not necessarily come to the same conclusion on very many of the issues facing us in the political arena. The specific policies and the precise wording of legislation by which a society can address the issues of its time and place cannot be directly deduced from the Gospel. Christianity is not a political party and it does not have a political programme. The same faith can lead people to support widely differing policies in the pursuit of justice and harmony in society. When it comes to seeking ways of addressing the specific problems Christians have to reflect and investigate and weigh up the options just as others do:
Through loyalty to conscience, Christians are joined to others in the search for truth and for the right solution to so many problems which arise both in the life of individuals and from social relationships .
They should do so recognising the right and duty of all citizens and groups to pursue the common good as they perceive it:
They should recognise the legitimacy of differing points of view on the organisation of worldly affairs and should show respect for the individual citizens and groups who defend their opinions by legitimate means
3) The third point that needs to be recognised in the claim that our beliefs are private, and that we should have the good manners not to let them be seen in public, is that seems to imply a particular attitude towards religious belief.
The implication is that such views are somewhat quaint and entirely irrational. This ignores the fact that so many of the great thinkers in history have been philosopher-theologians. To suggest that Augustine and Aquinas are examples of irrationality betrays an extraordinarily blinkered view of the history of thought. The history of thought in Europe and further afield would confirm the statement of Pope John Paul that revelation “introduces into our history a universal and ultimate truth which stirs the human mind to ceaseless effort” .
The truth revealed in Christ, the beginning of the new creation (2 Cor 5:17), the One who is drawing all people to himself (Jn 12:32), is certainly beyond what the human mind could have thought or the human heart could have imagined (cf. I Cor 2:9). We who believe that the full truth about humanity and human destiny are found in Christ, far from believing this to be irrational, believe that this deepest truth about us may find an echo in the hearts and minds of those who have not heard or do not accept his Gospel.
The real challenge to the religious identity of Europe is its need to recover its confidence in reason – not just in a narrow scientific sense, but in human reason’s ability to address the deepest questions of meaning and to bring that rational reflection to the great debates of our time. This was the challenge that Pope Benedict laid out in his address at Regensburg:
We will succeed in [broadening our concept of reason] only if reason and faith come together in a new way, if we overcome the self-imposed limitation of reason to the empirically verifiable, and if we once more disclose its vast horizons. In this sense theology rightly belongs in the university and within the wide-ranging dialogue of sciences, not merely as a historical discipline and one of the human sciences, but precisely as theology, as inquiry into the rationality of faith.
Only thus do we become capable of that genuine dialogue of cultures and religions so urgently needed today. In the Western world it is widely held that only positivistic reason and the forms of philosophy based on it are universally valid. Yet the world’s profoundly religious cultures see this exclusion of the divine from the universality of reason as an attack on their most profound convictions.
A reason which is deaf to the divine and which relegates religion into the realm of subcultures is incapable of entering into the dialogue of cultures. .
4) What is the basis for adopting the attitude that our beliefs should not intrude into the public arena? Are we, perhaps, accepting the implication that the Good News of Christ is a limitation and restriction on human freedom? Are we even accepting the idea that those who have not heard the Gospel, or who do not believe in Christ, are more free than we are and that they should be left in their fortunate freedom? What has then become in our own minds of the truth that makes us, and all humanity, free?
Is this the presumption that belief should not influence our public stances not an acceptance on our part of the distortion that sees morality merely as obedience to rules and Christianity as a diminution of humanity rather than offering an expansion into the limitless joy and truth and beauty of the divine life? Are we saying that we don’t want to speak in case our brothers and sisters might see something of the truth that would give to their lives the hope it gives to ours? Are we saying that we do not see the following of Christ as attractive and full of joy – “the fundamental and necessary way in which to practise love as something freely given and freely lived out”? Are we saying that this vision says nothing to us about how we should view the needs and priorities and future direction of our society?
5) Another point needs to be made. There is nobody who is not working out of some world view – even if all of us are less than consistent in expressing and living it. Everybody has in practice some sense of what is most important in life. Those who find that meaning in non-religious terms sometimes appear, however, to presume that their world view either utterly self-evident or that it is scientifically established. They seem to presume that it is more in keeping with what it means to be human, more suited to a modern society. None of these claims is self-evident. I believe that they are all false. Science cannot establish the answers to ultimate questions of meaning. It can answer the ‘how’ questions but not the ultimate ‘why’ questions. I will look at this in a little more detail in the next section.
The conclusions from such world views are often expressed without any recognition that they are founded on convictions that are questioned by reasonable people. But those whose understanding of the meaning of human life is based on faith are made to feel that they must not bring that understanding to the discussion on the future of society. The truth is that in the political sphere, everyone, whatever their faith or world view, is entitled to express their convictions, but they are obliged to argue their position on the basis of presenting reasons why what they propose should be seen as best for society.
6) This is another motive for our reluctance to allow the deepest questions and the Christian response to he heard. It is the fear that the Gospel does not seem credible to a world which requires strict scientific proof before anything can be believed. But Christianity is about how we relate to God and about how God loves us. Scientific proofs are out of place in dealing with relationships; these are the kind of reality which can only be analysed and tested and measured by excluding what gives them their meaning. Science is also out of its depth in attempting to measure what God may do and trying to assess the appropriateness of God’s plan for the sharing of the divine life with us.
7) We are in the midst of a General Election. One of the great concerns in many democratic countries, including Ireland, is the growth of apathy among voters. If one were to set out to create apathy, I suspect that one very effective way of doing so would be to persuade people that politics has nothing at all to do with their beliefs and convictions as to what life is about. That would be a recipe for producing the idea that politics deals with matters which, whatever their importance, are not at the heart of the matter. It would produce the feeling that political debates lack depth and have a certain emptiness about them. People are not fired by proposals to tweak the tax system, or indeed by any particular policies and plans, however worthy and desirable. What really fires their commitment are the questions about what vision is to inspire our society, what values will shape the society and the world that their children will have to inhabit. In the run up to an election I would not dare to ask whether feelings of boredom and a sense of emptiness may exist in relation to the election. If they do, I believe that the fault is to be found in the acquiescence of our whole society in the assumption that politics should be conducted without reference to the real source of people’s hope and inspiration and commitment.
8) Let me conclude with a point about the importance of religious identity for our kind of society. Democracy is not the source of the values by which it operates. Authentic democracy is based on understanding the dignity of the person and nature of just human relationships. That is why the majority has no right to oppress a minority. That would deny the values which are the very foundations of democracy. When a Constitution expresses fundamental human rights, it is recognising those rights, not creating them. A society that does not constantly nourish itself by reflection on these roots will gradually lose sight of them.
To nourish our roots, as Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks pointed out, we need to be bilingual – we need the language of our own convictions and we need the common language of citizenship. We also need the language of our religious convictions without which we deprive our citizenship of the commitment and conviction on which it is built. But we also need to be able to express those convictions in a language of the common good in which we can dialogue with one another about what is best for society. The two languages need one another. The language of religious conviction cannot dialogue effectively with a society which has a great variety of various beliefs and non-beliefs, but the common language would be empty and lacking in conviction and depth unless it is nourished by the language of our deepest beliefs about human life and its meaning .
In the encyclical he wrote after the fall of Communism, Pope John Paul notes a strange tendency. Although democracy is founded on the truth about the human person and depends on participation, people who have strong convictions about such matters “are considered unreliable from a democratic point of view, since they do not accept that truth is determined by the majority, or that it is subject to variation according to different political trends” . Rabbi Sacks points out that, on the contrary, in a society of plurality and change, where no moral consensus is universally agreed, it is more important than ever to have “a continuing conversation, joined by as many voices as possible, on what makes our society a collective enterprise: a community that embraces many communities” .
Religious identity contributes in two ways to that collective enterprise. First of all, there is the task of religious communities for their own members. The practice of religion involves a constant effort to purify one’s reasoning of selfishness and dishonesty and prejudice and indifference to others – all of which distort and corrupt the life of society. It also gives a vision of human destiny which sees every human being of whatever culture or religion or social condition as a brother or sister. They are, for Christians, brothers or sisters of Christ who will speak in their name about our response or lack of it to their hunger and thirst. These are beliefs which clearly and continually confront all the choices we make in society. In doing so the Churches also build a social conscience, a sense of commitment – to which we fail to live up, but which is a challenge to citizenship.
The other way in which religious identity contributes to the collective enterprise is when individual believers bring those convictions, those challenges with vigour and commitment into the life of society. The truth is that for very many people in every part of our society the deepest source of the inspiration and vitality and hope that drive their lives is not in the political or economic structures but in their faith.
I am struck by the parallel between two statements over 18 hundred years apart. The Letter to Diognetus describes the relation of Christians to the world as that of soul to body:
The soul loves the flesh that hates it, and [loves also] the members; Christians likewise love those that hate them. The soul is imprisoned in the body, yet preserves that very body; and Christians are confined in the world as in a prison, and yet they are the preservers of the world. The immortal soul dwells in a mortal tabernacle; and Christians dwell as sojourners in corruptible [bodies], looking for an incorruptible dwelling in the heavens.
In 1985, Pope John Paul told the Bishops of Europe:
“The Church is called to give a soul to modern society… and the Church should give this soul not from above or from outside but from within, making herself close to the person of today. There is, therefore, the obligation to be actively present and actively to participate in the life of people today” .
The fifth and final challenge in building a religious identity is the challenge of truth, or to put it more negatively, the challenge of confronting incoherence. One of the great difficulties in a secularised world is that attempted dialogue between faith and culture is often incoherent. The incoherence is frequently unrecognised so that each ‘side’ comes to regard the other as blind or prejudiced or insincere.
This can be seen in many aspects of the dialogue, but it is most obvious in the sphere of moral debate. In areas such as bio-ethics, sexual morality and to a lesser extent social issues, what passes for dialogue is doomed to incoherence. This is so because the participants often do not adequately understand the philosophical, not to speak of the theological, dimensions of the issues about which they are arguing. Perhaps they are not even conscious that such dimensions exist!
In debates about matters ranging from embryonic stem cell research to euthanasia, gene therapy, the death penalty, the just war, and the morality of nuclear weapons, one may often search in vain for any awareness that different and incompatible systems of moral philosophy are at work. A utilitarian, a fundamentalist, an intuitionist, a natural law philosopher – sometimes the same person at different stages of the argument – are unaware that they are speaking different languages, using different criteria, asking ultimately different questions. They may become irate at the failure to achieve a meeting of minds; but any such meeting would always be illusory unless we go back to the underlying questions!
The most profound reason for the incoherence is the failure of all of them, except perhaps the natural law philosopher, to face in sufficient depth the foundational philosophical injunction, “Know Thyself”. The problem of moral incoherence and relativism, which Pope John Paul called “a real overthrowing and downfall of moral values”, is, as he put it, “not so much one of ignorance of Christian ethics, but ignorance rather of the meaning, foundations and criteria of the moral attitude” .
The real issue is that some of the moral approaches at work, because they are not founded on that first step, “Know thyself”, are, in the philosophical sense, the fruit of an “unexamined life” – a life whose ultimate meaning and purpose have not been thought through in depth. A moral approach that does not begin from a serious philosophical, indeed metaphysical, understanding of human freedom cannot be worthy of the human person. Human freedom is not adequately understood by an approach that seeks to evaluate the exercise of freedom simply in terms of the consequences that our choices produce, and to weigh these consequences in some kind of balance, however sophisticated. Human freedom is more than a mechanism for bringing about changes in the physical world.
We need to understand that our choices are more than that. They are a language in which we may acknowledge or deny the truth about other people and the truth about ourselves. Our choices do not simply produce changes in external realities. Deliberate choices also shape the doer, giving ‘moral definition’ to him or her . In other words, in our exercise of freedom, we decide not just what we shall do but what we shall be – and what we ought to be can only be known in the light of a proper understanding of what it is to be human.
That knowledge is the fruit of a quest for the truth, the truth about ourselves, about creation and about our Creator. That is the quest which underlies Evangelium Vitae, Veritatis Splendor, Fides et Ratio and the teaching of Pope John Paul back to Redemptor Hominis.
But the problem of incoherence and absence of deep philosophical roots is found more widely than the sphere of morality. In the homily that Cardinal Ratzinger preached as he entered the conclave that elected him Pope, he said:
Today, having a clear faith based on the Creed of the Church is often labelled as fundamentalism. Whereas relativism, that is, letting oneself be “tossed here and there, carried about by every wind of doctrine”, seems the only attitude that can cope with modern times. We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires .
The frame of mind that is criticised in those words was expressed on a banner carried in a Roman protest march some years ago: “L’unica legge è il desiderio” (Desire is the only law). It claimed, in other words, that ‘my ultimate goal is my own ego and desires’.
The notion that everything is relative and that one person’s truth is as valid as another’s, is often stated or assumed but, when it comes to the point, that position is uncomfortable and unsatisfying. Even as our culture proclaims that the other person is entitled to his or her opinion, that we must agree to differ, we are silently telling ourselves that he or she is blind, or stubborn, or cruel, or narrow-minded!
This mutual incomprehension is found in the relationship between science and religion and in the whole sphere of culture and faith. It has its roots in the fact that our dialogues are often based on too narrow a view of the truth, too narrow a view of ourselves. The encyclical Fides et Ratio talks about levels or modes of truth:
Most (modes of truth) depend upon immediate evidence or are confirmed by experimentation. This is the mode of truth proper to everyday life and to scientific research. At another level we find philosophical truth, attained by means of the speculative powers of the human intellect. Finally, there are religious truths which are to some degree grounded in philosophy, and which we find in the answers which the different religious traditions offer to the ultimate questions .
And at the ultimate level, “In Jesus Christ, who is the Truth, faith recognises the ultimate appeal to humanity, an appeal made in order that what we experience as desire and nostalgia may come to its fulfilment”
The idea that only what is scientifically proven can be true is a failure to understand the limitations of science itself. Science rests upon a number of foundation stones, each of which gives rise to the question, ‘why’. Science cannot answer that question because science cannot even begin unless these foundation stones are real. Cardinal Cahal Daly expressed it in this way:
One must take as given, for example, that the world exists, when it might well not have existed; and one must ask, ‘Why?’ One must take as given that this world is ordered and intelligible, when it might instead have been ‘unorderly’, chaotic, arbitrary and absurd; and we must ask, ‘Why?’ One must take as given that the human mind can attain to objective truth, when instead all truth claims might be subjective perception or illusion; and one must ask, ‘Why?’
Failure to recognise these modes of truth leads to those all too frequent and tedious discussions which appear to assume that natural processes, for instance natural selection, operate on the same level as, and in competition with, the creative power of God. The crucial concept of analogy has been lost to view and everything is therefore univocal and competing with everything else. It is a world that has lost sight of the metaphysical dimension. And so people believe that, because they understand something of how God’s world works (as distinct from what it means), God on whom the world and its physical laws – and the people themselves – continuously and totally depend, becomes an unnecessary hypothesis!
It is no wonder that Fides et Ratio calls for a philosophy with a ‘genuinely metaphysical range’ which recognises “that reality and truth do transcend the factual and the empirical”. The Pope went on to say that “We face a great challenge at the end of this millennium to move from phenomenon to foundation… Even if experience does reveal the human being’s interiority and spirituality, speculative thinking must penetrate to the spiritual core and the ground from which it rises”.
Once again we are faced with the issue of who we are. It is perhaps the key question of our time to understand ourselves: the meaning of our lives, our freedom, our relationships, our death. Reflecting on the sudden implosion of the Soviet bloc, Pope John Paul pointed to the inherent weakness of any attempt to build a culture without a transcendent dimension. It is not possible to uproot the need for God from the human heart “without throwing the heart into turmoil”:
At the heart of every culture lies the attitude that the human being takes to the greatest mystery: the mystery of God. Different cultures are basically different ways of facing the question of the meaning of personal existence.
There is a basic thirst for coherence if we are to live in a society together. This does not meant that we have to have complete agreement on our approach to the greatest mystery. What we do need is an awareness of the importance of the question of ultimate meaning and an understanding of how fundamental beliefs can and should influence the fields of politics and economics and so on.
This is perhaps the form that the split between faith and culture, the ‘drama of our time’ will take in the twenty-first century. History is forcing us to address what is called the ‘clash of cultures’, which is a clash about how faith and culture can interact in a world which contains such a vast mixture of religious and non-religious beliefs and value systems. How do we find a way in which a culture which sees little difference between religion and politics can coexist with one which appears to believe that they should have nothing to do with one another? Perhaps this is the most urgent and the most fruitful path of evangelisation, because it addresses an inescapable question about our identity as individuals and as communities.
Ireland’s role was certainly of great significance in the religious history of Europe. But it is not a matter of thinking to ourselves: We are the ones who were prominent in revitalising faith in Europe in past times of crisis; we have been leaders in bringing Christian faith to many parts of Europe and the world. But before we say ‘look to us; we will lead the way’ we need to make sure that we have something to offer! I have been trying to point to some of the areas where our leadership, if that is what it is going to be, is in serious need of development – living as the community which is Christ’s Body, recognising the sheer gift of life and of God’s love, facing our fragility and realising that the Good News is that in Christ weakness is transformed into strength, finding the courage to speak and the right way of speaking, confronting the incoherence of much of what appears to be dialogue.
The challenge we have to communicate along all these various paths is the challenge of St Paul: “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom 12:2).
That is the challenge of religious identity in Europe. Perhaps Ireland will have a leading role in responding to the challenge – that is up to us – but I hope that we will at least participate creatively in the essential process of giving a soul to twenty-first century Europe.
Bishop of Limerick