Saturday, 10 May 2008

Cardinal Murphy O'Connor: Faith in Britain today

Cardinal Murphy O'Connor's lecture came to my attention when I listened to coverage on Radio 4's Today programme on Friday morning. Professor Richard Dawkins, militant atheist that he is, was interviewed, observing that he didn't think Cardinal O'Connor "had said anything". Cardinal O'Connor was interviewed later in the programme.

One has to give Cardinal O'Connor credit for successfully putting the question of religious belief on the agenda (as I write this post, I have just heard a news item on the radio about today's Mass for 650 married couples at Westminster Cathedral). Whilst not all of the "Cardinal's Lectures" have been of equal value as examples of faith and culture in dialogue, I would perhaps recognise William Hague's and the Cardinal's own lecture as perhaps being the best. The surrounding media coverage, of course, represents part of the dialogue too.

There are some nice things in Cardinal O'Connor's lecture. The full text can be found at the website of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Westminster. Whilst I suspect that contemporary atheism has other roots in addition to the historic background in 17th century Deism and a growing autonomy of science from religious belief described by Cardinal O'Connor, his observation that

"it became no longer necessary to think of God at all because the world can simply be treated as a self-sustaining system"

is very significant. I believe there is a much more substantial discussion to be had around this point, and that it could legitimately become a focal point for the kind of dialogue between Christian belief and atheism that the Cardinal called for. In the lecture, however, it remains undeveloped.

"This is one of the reasons why, for this lecture series, I wanted this Cathedral to be a place for people to listen to matters pertaining to religion in the secular society in which we live here in Britain."

I can understand what Cardinal O'Connor is trying to say here - that the Church should be seen as a place in which encounter with the things of wider society is welcomed and encouraged. However, it may be the case that the Church building as such, dedicated to the worship of God particularly but not exclusively in the Liturgy, should be preserved exactly for that. The rule of St Benedict for monasteries is explicit about the oratory being used only for the Liturgy and private prayer by the brothers. Would this not provide a witness to God's life among his people to which Cardinal O'Connor referred elsewhere in his lecture? I do not intend this to be a major criticism, by the way, more an observation.

Near the beginning of the lecture, there was a rather nice quotation from a Muslim scholar. It is very relevant to an aspect of my own professional work at the moment as my local authority begins the process of revising its Agreed Syllabus for Religious Education (the statutory syllabus that applies to non-denominational schools in the authority). My contriution to discussions so far has been to argue that pupils should have the opportunity to experience religions as precisely religious and not simply as at the service of current secular agendas. The Muslim scholar is reported to have expressed admiration for Pope Benedict XVI:

"Pope Benedict knows that religion is about truth and not social cohesion."

I am going to save some further observations - about the relationship between faith and reason, religion and atheism- that arise from the lecture for another post.

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