Tuesday, 14 February 2012

"We stand side by side with the Pope in fighting for faith"

Baroness Warsi has written a most interesting piece in the Daily Telegraph today, with the title We stand side by side with the Pope in fighting for faith. It begins:
Today I have the honour of leading the largest ministerial delegation from the United Kingdom to the Vatican – our reciprocal visit following the momentous State Visit of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI in September 2010.
and it includes the observation that the diplomatic relationship between the United Kingdom and the Vatican is not only the oldest of the United Kingdom's diplomatic relationships but, as a result of the visit of Pope Benedict XVI in 2010, also one of the strongest. Baroness Warsi has also written a piece entitled "Common Goals" for l'Osservatore Romano, the text of which is being carried, here, by news.va. But to return to the piece in the Daily Telegraph:
I will be arguing that to create a more just society, people need to feel stronger in their religious identities and more confident in their creeds. In practice this means individuals not diluting their faiths and nations not denying their religious heritages.

This is a message I’ve delivered on these pages before. But today I will be taking the argument one step further. I will be arguing for Europe to become more confident and more comfortable in its Christianity. The point is this: the societies we live in, the cultures we have created, the values we hold and the things we fight for all stem from centuries of discussion, dissent and belief in Christianity.

These values shine through our politics, our public life, our culture, our economics, our language and our architecture. And, as I will say today, you cannot and should not extract these Christian foundations from the evolution of our nations any more than you can or should erase the spires from our landscapes.

My fear today is that a militant secularisation is taking hold of our societies. We see it in any number of things: when signs of religion cannot be displayed or worn in government buildings; when states won’t fund faith schools; and where religion is sidelined, marginalised and downgraded in the public sphere....

I am not calling for some kind of 21st century theocracy. Religious faith and its followers do not have the only answer. There will be times when politicians and faith leaders will disagree. What is more, secularism is not intrinsically damaging. My concern is when secularisation is pushed to an extreme, when it requires the complete removal of faith from the public sphere. So I am calling for a more open confidence in faith, where faith has a place at the table, though not an exclusive position
My own observations:

1. It is, of course, interesting to see a Muslim arguing for "Europe to become more confident and more comfortable in is Christianity". And it is doubly interesting to see this being done in a way that is in such close agreement with the stance of Pope Benedict. The interest is not just political - though that would be enough in itself - but it is also religious in nature. What we have here is an interesting example of inter-religious dialogue in practice. A common interest in the recognition that religion has a place in the life of peoples provides the basis for a common action.

2. I would like to unpack more carefully Baroness Warsi's use of the terms "faith" and "religion". This becomes more apparent when you read the whole text, rather than just my excerpts above. There has been a certain fashion for referring to "faith" in public and political discourse rather than to particular "religions", as if you could prescind from considering the specific religions, both those historically present in the United Kingdom and those whose presence has grown more recently, in the discussion. It is a fashion that has a secularising tendency towards the place of religion in public and political life. If I have understood Baroness Warsi correctly, she appears willing to refer to religion in the more specific way.

3. One should not underestimate the international perspective of Baroness Warsi's words. Some of the references in the penultimate paragraph of my excerpt above are to events in Fance and Italy as well as this country; and they also have some reference to the experience of Muslim communities and not just Christians. This gives here words an added political significance.

4. In the light of this post, I would wish to distinguish "secularism", understood as an appropriate separation of the state from the promotion of one religion over others, from "secularisation", understood as the denial to religion(s) of any place in the public and political life of a country. Baroness Warsi's condemnation of "a militant secularisation" is clearly aimed at what I would term "secularisation". When she writes of "secularism" as something not intrisically damaging in the last paragraph of my excerpt above she appears to go some way towards what I have understood by that term. It is interesting to see this kind of position being developed by a Muslim.

5. Some have observed that they rather wish the Catholic Bishops would come out with statements as strong and clear as that of Baroness Warsi. One could argue in response that this lecture by Archbishop Nichols addresses from a different angle many of the issues underlying Baroness Warsi's words and is equally clear in arguing for a place for religions in the life of our society. I suspect, too, that it would be possible to find other examples among the words of our Bishops. But the real point is that Baroness Warsi can "say something" that a Bishop or Imam cannot, and this because of her office as a politician and as a holder of politcal office, rather than as being someone who holds an office in religion. The real challenge of her words is to prominent Catholics who are politicians or hold political office, and not to the Catholic Bishops.

6. It will be interesting to see what different sections of the Islamic world make of Baroness Warsi's words, particularly with regard to her not advocating a modern form of theocracy.

7. Baroness Warsi's article does have a particularly moving element in so far as ituggests something about her contacts with Pope Benedict XVI. In the light of recent events in the UK, it is quite something for a prominent Cabinet member to give, in quite a personal way, an "absolute commitment to continue fighting for faith in today's society":
When I met the Holy Father in 2010 he told me that he had heard what I had been saying and urged me to carry on making my case robustly....

So when I have my second audience with the Holy Father tomorrow afternoon, I will not just be looking back on his remarkable visit. I will be giving him my absolute commitment to continue fighting for faith in today’s society. I hope this is something we can share in and I hope it reinforces this extraordinary relationship between the UK and the Holy See.

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