Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Christianity as politics?

In yesterday's post I suggested that Cardinal Danielou had a fundamentally correct insight in arguing that we ought not to be shy of a circumstance where a Christian culture (though the example countries to which he referred were in fact historically Catholic countries) provides a matrix that encourages the practice of Christianity by its people. At the end of that post, I pointed out that the implicit question that Cardinal Danielou did not address in his writing was that of whether or not the presence of a Christian culture should also comprise an exercise of political power by the Church.

In the example countries that the Cardinal cited - countries like Spain, Italy and the Catholic countries of South America - there has been a historic perception that the Catholic Church in those countries has at times and in certain ways been allied to former governments. My knowledge of history is not good enough to really understand how far this should be seen as an exercise of political power by the Church. The other recent chapter in the story is that of the Christian Democrat parties in countries such as Germany and Italy.

The contemporary model for how the Catholic Church sees its relationship to the exercise of political power is that of Pope Benedict XVI. Pope Benedict speaks of an "appropriate" or a "healthy" secularity, by which he wishes to recognise the rightful autonomy of the exercise of political and legislative power from the provisions of any one particular religion. At the same time, he does not allow that this secularity should constitute a hostility towards religion and insists that it should allow all citizens to live according to their religious beliefs in the public sphere as well as in their own private lives. The ethical element of Pope Benedict's model was expressed in his address in Westminster Hall (my emphases added):
The central question at issue, then, is this: where is the ethical foundation for political choices to be found? The Catholic tradition maintains that the objective norms governing right action are accessible to reason, prescinding from the content of revelation. According to this understanding, the role of religion in political debate is not so much to supply these norms, as if they could not be known by non-believers – still less to propose concrete political solutions, which would lie altogether outside the competence of religion – but rather to help purify and shed light upon the application of reason to the discovery of objective moral principles.
It is very easy to indicate a distinction in principle between the Christian culture of a nation, and the exercise of political power by the Church in that nation, and to say that the legitimate existence of the former is not dependent on the latter. Events on the ground might well blur the distinction. Perhaps the situation in Ireland, for example, does demand a stronger sense of "appropriate secularity" or separation of Church from State. Archbishop Martin of Dublin recognised something of this in his homily for 17th July 2011 (worth reading in full):
Great damage has been done to the credibility of the Church in Ireland. Credibility will only be regained by the Church being more truly what the Church is. Renewal will not be the work of sleek public relations moves. Irish religious culture has radically changed and has changed irreversibly. There will be no true renewal in the Church until that fact is recognised.

The Church cannot continue to be present in society as it was in the past.
How far a flawed political/cultural presence of the Catholic Church in Irish society has contributed to the poor response to allegations of the abuse of minors is difficult to tell without a much closer knowledge of the actual events themselves than I have. As Archbishop Martin recognises, though, it is a question for reflection.

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