2/12/04 Michael Littleton Lecture 2004: The Christian in the Public Square

2/12/04 Michael Littleton Lecture 2004: The Christian in the Public Square

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The Christian in the Public Square
Most Rev. Diarmuid Martin
Archbishop of Dublin
R.T.E. Radio Centre, 2nd December 2004

“It is of supreme importance, especially in a pluralistic society, to work out a proper vision of the relationship between the political community and the Church, and to distinguish clearly between the activities of Christians, acting individually or collectively in their own names as citizens guided by the dictates of Christian conscience, and their activities along with their pastors in the name of the Church”.  These are words of the Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes of the Second Vatican Council concerning the relationship between the political community and the Church.
I want to reflect on the role and the contribution of the Christian to the formation of political thought and policy within the public square of a modern, dynamic pluralist society.  I have addressed the question mainly from a Christian perspective and with examples especially from my own tradition in Christianity. Most of what of what I have to say, I am sure, applies to the role and place of the other religious voices which today fully belong to our pluralist Ireland.  
The first thing to note is that 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 for 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.  Gaudium et Spes indicates two reasons why this is so.  Firstly it notes that: “The Church being founded on the love of the Redeemer contributes to the spread of justice and charity among nations and within the border of nations themselves”.  These truths of the Gospel are presented in Church teaching but also through the life witness of its members. 
The second reason given by Gaudium et Spes is that “our horizons are not bounded only by the temporary order”, and that even while living on the level of human history we preserve “the integrity of our eternal destiny”. 
There are few who would find exception with the first affirmation. Most people would recognise that the Christian message contains many elements which have influenced and have come to form part of the common heritage of Western civilization.   Most would recognise the witness and the leadership of persons, men and women, who have been inspired in their social and political commitment by those principles of justice, love and truth which are essential for a healthy society and which are also those values through which we anticipate in the here and now the kingdom of God.  Religious conviction can be a powerful motivating force for good.

I can remember at the beginning of my own international experience, I was slightly surprised to find that a very large number of the then heads of UN agencies were Roman Catholics.  As I came to know the persons I found that this was not in any way due to some sort of corporate lobbying, but because these men and women, as young professionals, had acquired a passionate inspiration for the international precisely in the teaching of the Second Vatican Council and in Gaudium et Spes in particular, which had driven and motivated them right throughout their international careers.   Religious conviction was for them a powerful motivation for service to the international community.

Not everyone will agree with the second reason proposed, namely that concerning an eternal destiny.  This, many would object, is the type of religious concept which belongs entirely to the private sphere of the individual believer.


First of all let it be repeated that 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.


I recall a fascinating address by President Vaclav Havel at the Annual Meetings of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund which were held in Prague in the year 2000.   He referred to the skyline of Prague with its many Church spires and he asked the question “why did someone in long bygone times engage in the construction of such costly edifices which appear to be of so little use by today’s standards”.


“One possible explanation”, he replied, “is that there were periods in history when material gain was not the highest value in human life and when humankind knew that there were mysteries they would never understand and before which they could only stand in humble amazement and perhaps project that amazement into structures whose spires point upwards.  Upwards in order that they might be seen from far and wide. Upwards to that which is beyond our sight, that which by its mere silent existence appears to preclude for humanity any right to treat the world as an endless source of short term profit and which calls for solidarity with all those who dwell under its mysterious vault”.


President Havel had opened his address referring to the current global civilization, which he described as “the first ever civilization which is basically atheistic, notwithstanding how many billions… profess the various existing religions”.   This means he noted that “the underlying values of this civilization do not relate to eternity, to the infinite and to the absolute.  In many decision-making centres we therefore observe a decline of regard for that which will come after us and for a truly common interest”.


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.


Religious expressions contain lessons which are relevant to political thought and to the elaboration of policies. These insights can be extremely profound and at the same time have practical implications.  The famous injunction of Jesus, for example, “to render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s”, clearly stresses the legitimacy of political authority, and the distinction between religion and political power.  But it is also an implicit rejection of any attempt to make political authority divine or absolute.  Jesus’ teaching rejects despotic use of power and any rendering of political interests above other concerns.   The human person is greater than politics or economics.


In his own life Jesus made it clear he was making no claim to be a political messiah, clearly distancing himself totally from the forms in which political power was exercised in his time.  Once again he rejects any form of despotic power and notes that leaders who are his followers must not consider themselves benefactors, but rather be the servants of all.


Let me come back to the Second Vatican Council.  It is interesting first of all to note that forty years ago the Council was already very much at home with the concept of a pluralist society.  But it saw the Church not as an outside observer but much more as a true player in the construction of the underlying values of pluralism.    It saw that the Church has a contribution to bring within a pluralist society and a contribution which it should not be timid in bringing.  Christians have an obligation to be present in the world in which they live.  The Christian cannot eschew the public square.


Gaudium et Spes notes that it would be a mistake to think that because we have here no lasting city, but seek the city which is to come, we are entitled to evade our earthly responsibilities. It stresses unambiguously that “the Christian who shirks his temporal duties, shirks his duties towards his neighbours, neglects God himself and endangers his eternal salvation” (#43).  The Christian, at one and the same time a believer and citizen, has only a single conscience, a Christian conscience and it is by this the he or she must be guided continually in both the secular and religious domains.


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. 


A Church contribution must also be visionary.  It is no coincidence that much of biblical language is poetic and symbolic, helping people to reach beyond themselves, and setting out rich ideals for humankind to achieve.   But the Christian message indicates that such ideals can be achieved.  In this sense charity goes beyond justice, if charity is understood in its biblical sense.  Charity is not “do-goodism”, but a genuine disinterested love of the other, reflecting God’s gratuitous love for us.  This can be the key to going beyond setting out human rights, and moving towards self giving, in order to ensure that the other can fully enjoy his or her rights and humanity to the full.  So often in history the great defenders of human rights did so renouncing their rights.
But it takes two to dialogue.  Those who do not share religious faith can rightly be asked to recognise that the life of the man, Jesus of Nazareth, who was fully divine but also fully human, can offer insights into the truth about humanity.   Likewise the religious belief that all human beings are created in the image and likeness of God can open a path in which the truths revealed by Jesus can resonate in all people of good will.


The believer, on his or her part, must be open to truth whatever its source and whoever brings it to the fore.  God is active in the Church, but also in the world.   The believer will find insights into the truth in the most unexpected quarters and must have the honesty to admit that.


This requires gifts of discernment and the ability to see what is good and what is problematic within a situation of rapid cultural evolution and uncertainty about values. I remember the advice given to me by Pope John Paul II when I attended the various United Nations International Conferences on social issues in the 1990’s, where as one can imagine there were many controversial issues for a Delegation of the Holy See.  The Pope said that the Holy See Delegation should “endorse everything that is positive in the vision which was emerging within the consensus of States, and reject decisively what it felt was not for the long term good, but it must do both”.  That “both” is very important!   On the one hand, it is all too easy to go along uncritically with cultural evolution.  On the other, it is easy to denounce and run.  What is not easy is to have honest, critical engagement.  But that is the role of the Church.  It may not make you popular always, but people will always respect the one who genuinely poses fundamental questions.


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 on the same vision of the dignity of the human person, without any compromise with popular opinion.


I have looked a little of the terms within which I see the engagement of the Christian in the public square.  What are the core values which might inspire such dialogue?


The concept of transcendence, as I said, offers an important contribution to reflection that is rooted in something more than the transient or in ideology or in single issue trends.  Catholic social reflection stresses that the world is not our own, but a gift we have received in trust.  This leads to a vision which attempts to maintain a balance between three fundamental goods, in the light of God’s design for his creation:  the dignity of each individual, the unity of the human family and the integrity of creation.   It is a balance between the rights and the responsibilities of persons, which protects individuals but avoids individualism.  It is a balance which stresses common responsibility, but which rejects collectivism.   It is a balance which respects human autonomy but also what Pope John Paul calls “those prior rights which creation itself possesses”.


Let me look at each of those three fundamental goods or principles individually.   Every human person possesses unique dignity, basic rights and personal capacity.  The Christian must be an advocate in the public square for the most inclusive vision of the human person.  The Christian should be an advocate for human rights but also for a vision of justice in the economic order which will enable those human rights to flourish and for the person to fully realise his or her capacities.  The Christian will be in the public square as an advocate but also as an activist, personally building up that caring environment which puts flesh and blood on policies.  Likewise the Christian will be a proponent of an inclusive ethic of life, embracing the rights of the unborn, to the rights of the elderly and the weak, as well as the social and economic rights which enhance people in their capacities in whatever situation of their lives.


For many the major disagreement with Church positions will fall within the area of marriage and the family and how the individual believer or the Christian in public life is called to protect the institution of marriage and family life and fundamental rights within marriage.


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 may, in certain circumstances, be in the public interest to provide legal protection to the social, fiscal and inheritance entitlements of persons who support caring relationships which generate dependency, provided always that these relationships are recognised as being qualitatively different from marriage and that their acceptance does not dilute the uniqueness of marriage.


The second principle I mentioned by the unity of the human family.  I have seen in my own experience how Christian social thought can present concrete challenges to the way we construct of our modern global community, with all its complexities.   Take for example the balance between the market and the need to protect basic human needs.  Pope John Paul II in his Encyclical Centesimus Annus stressed the importance of the market.   He notes “the free market is the most effective instrument for utilizing resources and responding to needs. But this is true only for those needs… and resources which are marketable” (#34). The Pope recalls that “there are collective and qualitative needs which cannot be satisfied by market mechanisms.  There are important human needs which escape the market’s logic. There are goods which by their very nature cannot and must not be bought or sold” (#40).


The Pope notes “there is a strict duty of justice and truth not to allow fundamental human needs to remain unsatisfied and not to allow those who are burdened by such needs to perish” (#34).   This requires a strong commitment for solidarity within both the local and the global community. 


The biblical teaching is that when God created the goods of this world he created them for the benefit of all.  The Church has always taught respect for private property but it has never elevated it to the rank of an absolute principle.  Traditionally this principle of the universal purpose of the gifts of creation was applied to land and natural resources. In today’s knowledge-based economy this principle must be applied also to the fruits of human genius and to intellectual property.  The Pope has recalled that intellectual property is subject to that same “social mortgage” as any other form of private property. This has important implications in the dialogue around intellectual property rights and health needs in the current HIV/AIDS pandemic.  Medical research is costly, but its primary purpose is not just profit, but service to health where it is most needed and to the human community.


The same ethical principle of the universal purpose of the goods of creation might be applied to equitable access to the decision making processes which concern the future of the community of nations.  So many international norms are lopsided in favour of powerful interests, with the result that the human family becomes a dysfunctional family.  The credibility of the international system will depend on its ability to push through reforms of its own institutions as well as the sense of responsibility which all parties are called to use within those institutions. We will see how the reform proposals which have been presented in these days for the U.N. system will be received.  
In a world dominated by economic and utilitarian values it is useful to recall the words of Pope John Paul: “The economy is only one aspect and one dimension of the whole of human activity” (CA, #39).


What kinds of concerns and priorities can best help ensure that market-driven economic growth can be accompanied by equity and by explicit concern for those who are marginalized?   What principles and inspiration can the Church offer?


Poverty is not simply a question of lack of economic resources or lack of access to certain services.  Poverty is primarily the inability of people to realise their God-given potential.  Fighting poverty means that we invest in human capacity, that we enable people to be the people that God wishes them to be.   This means that we rejoice whenever people can realise their capacities, equal in dignity to us.   It means that we personally feel hurt when there are others in our society who are unable – for whatever the reason – to have the same opportunity to fully realise themselves as we are. 


The fundamental principle of any policy on social advancement is today therefore that of enhancing human capacity.  People are not the objects of social and economic policy.  They are its subjects because subjectivity is of the essence of being human.
The person living in poverty or in situations of disadvantage must be looked on as a brother or sister, having the same dignity and the same fundamental rights as I have. People living in poverty show immense creativity and ingenuity simply through surviving.   They want to be able to place their human talents at the service of their own future and that of their families.  They want above all voice.  They want to be the subjects of their own future and that of their communities.
Wherever he went, Jesus healed people and healing meant bringing people back in the mainstream of life.  Likewise, Jesus freed those who were possessed of evil spirits. That means he freed the human spirit from those factors which imprisoned it.  That is also the challenge of a Christian presence in today’s world, through an education which enhances the person, young and old.   A true sense of solidarity creates community and community is the best way to fight exclusion, as well as the resentment which can feed criminality and violence.  If I were to identify one single feature of change in Irish society which distressed me most on my return to Dublin after living abroad for over thirty years, it is the new violence in our societies.  I am shocked by the callous violence of criminal gangs, the tragic violence into which too many young people are drawn through a culture of alcohol and drugs, of knives and weapons.  Even the elderly have become easy prey for this violence.
The final principle which I noted was the integrity of creation. The biblical teaching is that we have been given this cosmos in trust, to care for its own innate harmony.  Here is one area where Christians were challenged to seek a deeper understanding of their own biblical teaching by a movement of the times, by the environmental movement.  The concept of the integrity of all creation is one which seeks to identify the place of the humankind within a creation which offers us nurture but is also the only home for us and for the generations to come.
I tend to use the term cosmos rather than planet, because there are already areas where we are exporting our problems and our way of resolving them, as well as economic ambitions, beyond our planet into that cosmos about which we still have so much to learn.  There is need to update rapidly our international norms about weapons and weapons systems in space.  We need to be aware of the huge economic interests surrounding the cultivation of plants and species in space for commercial gain.
I have attempted to give some examples from Catholic social reflection which show how principles of religious origin can effectively be applied to complex situations of the modern pluralist world
Christianity and Catholicism are also pluralist. The Vatican Council notes that it can easily occur that Christians, as believers and citizens, might come to different legitimate conclusions about the best way to address issues in society.   I was struck to hear someone recently talk of substituting a “global perspective” for “a narrow catholic one”!  But etymologically Catholic and global mean much the same thing!    We have to rediscover the pluralism that exists within Catholicism, and which is at the root of the term Catholic.   There is a verity of talents, offices and charisms in the Church. The Church has to realise Catholicity more fully within its own structures.


The Church is not just the Bishops.  The Bishop who feels he can do and know everything himself has a false notion of the Church. But the temptation is there!   As one commentator said “Catholics have the bad habit of thinking of the Church as the hierarchy.  This is a false equation theologically and a fatal equation politically.  If the Catholic voice is merely the voice of the hierarchy – as eloquent and holy as they might be – the game is up.  If the hierarchy is neither eloquent nor holy the game will not even get started”.
This means moving away from a clericalist vision of the Church to a more participative one.  Leadership will have to take on the characteristic of listening to which I have referred on many occasions since I became Archbishop.  I cannot guarantee that I have always been a good listener.  I am naturally a doer and indeed someone impatient to see things done.  But where I know that I have listened, this has invariably been of great value to me and to the quality of the decisions I have had to take.
The dialogue will be two way.  The Bishop can create a forum to support lay people in their reflection on the implications of the Gospel for the personal and professional lives.  The bishop will also welcome the competence of the professional within the decision-making structures of the Church itself.
I am more than happy to entrust the financial administration and many other dimension of administration of my diocese to the hands of competent lay persons. I am pushing for the establishment of parish structures to facilitate a more effective presence of lay people in the evangelizing work of the Church.  I have repeated on many occasions that I have been very fortunate to have at my disposal in Dublin a professional child protection service which offers me competent advice and has helped to put into place necessary child protection measures and initiate training programmes for those who work, clergy and laity, with children and young people.  I find that it is a sign of the competence of my advisors and co-workers that they are happy to have their work audited and verified by a further independent outside professional.   Bishops and priests must show that they are capable of working together with, and are not threatened by, the professional, especially in such a crucial area as child protection. 
But it would be wrong to think that the presence of the Church in the public sphere was only in the social justice and service area, or in the area of problems which arise for the Church. 


The principal presence of the Church is that of presenting its religious message, a message of faith, to all society, as a message which generates meaning and hope in their lives.  Some aspects of this dimension of the Church’s work will only be done within the Church buildings that skirt the edge of the public square.  But that work is not irrelevant to what happens outside.
I was somewhat surprised when I found a recent newspaper profile of my first six months as Archbishop of Dublin that never once mentioned the name of Jesus or seemed to attach no societal value to the scores of occasions in which I stressed the importance of evangelization and renewal of the Church.  There are some who seem to feel that religious convictions are to be relegated to the private sphere unless they serve to raise controversy. 


I spend most of my time visiting parishes and church gatherings, meeting with priests and lay leaders, encouraging the more active participation of lay women and men to follow fully the inspiration of the Gospel and to witness to their faith in a complex world.   I reject any implication that this activity has no societal value. The Church is about exploring the heights of transcendence in order to go deeper into the depths of what our existence is about. Christian faith is a radical option to allow ourselves to be loved by Jesus and to reflect that love in an undivided way with others. 


A bishop is primarily a witness to faith in God, but not to some sort of generic deity.   For the Christian, the revelation of God is not just a theory, an ideology or a series of intellectual propositions, it is the revelation of something concrete, that of a God who loves, who so loved the world that his son would give his life for the salvation of all.   For the Christian, revelation is about a person, Jesus Christ, who revealed to us that God is love and taught us how to live according to that love.   That concept of the of Gods’ gratuitous love is the most powerful antidote to a consumerist, market driven culture, where everything has a price-tag, where everything seems somehow marketable.   This is the message that is at the root of an immense Christian presence of caring and service, a remarkable contribution to the benefit of society.  This is at the heart of the contribution of religious education to the public good.


There are also many who can tell you that they find the strength to keep going in public commitment only because they also take time occasionally to leave the public square, to seek renewal, support and spiritual nourishment. 


Inevitably the Church will change and will have to change in the years to come.  I am convinced that the Church will bring its caring witness in the future much less through a massive institutional presence, and more through the quality of the service that it provides, its best practice, and the way it reaches out to those whose needs are not met by others.


I would like to see a greater presence of Church personnel and services in ensuring the highest possible quality of life for the elderly in society, in order to avoid institutionalisation.  This would be complemented by the extraordinary work being done by hospice organizations who give witness to the value of human life, even when it is in its weakest moments.  There are moments in our lives in which we will be in the happy position to realise ourselves but there will also be moments in our lives when we will need to be carried, supported encouraged and enhanced.


May I ask a final question?  Why is it that the Church in Ireland, which has such a record of caring, appears at the same time to many as a distant institution, or worse as a vested interest which places its own survival or reputation before other dimensions. This is a question which all within the Church will have to face more directly if the voice of believers is to be heard authentically in the pluralist public square.


Faith is a risk.  It is the risk of committing oneself to the unknown demands of a God who is love and “who scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts” (Lk 1:51).    Faith has its own certainty, but faith in a Lord “who is to come” reminds us always that the way of the Church must be a way of “purification and renewal so that the sign of Christ may shine more brightly over the face of the Church”. (Lumen Gentium, 2 n.15)


Jesus teaches with authority.  But that is not a licence for his disciples to be authoritarian.  The Church’s authority is in the authority of its teaching.  Tomorrow’s Church will be a more humble, listening Church, which realises that the fundamental obedience is obedience of the Church itself to the word of God which alone has the strength to change the world according to God’s plan.


The Church will be more a pilgrim Church, which journeys with all those of good will who work for goodness and honesty and who genuinely seek the truth.  An enquiring, caring public square will be enriched by the presence of  enquiring, caring Christians, who bring that same message that brought enrichment to the public squares and dust tracks of Palestine  over two thousand years ago by Jesus, the Nazarene, who revealed the strength of God by humbling himself.