Tuesday 20 September 2022

Two Popes in Kazakhstan

There is a striking comparison to be made between the visit of Pope St John Paul II to Kazakhstan in September 2001 and the more recent visit of Pope Francis in September 2022. The records of the two visits can be found at the website of the Holy See: Pastoral Visit to Kazakhstan (John Paul II) and Apostolic Journey to Kazakhstan (Pope Francis).

In his press conference during the flight home from Kazakhstan, Pope Francis said that he had found the social and cultural development of the country a surprise, that he had know little or nothing of the country before his visit. However, his main address during the visit reflected, as did the addresses of St John Paul II during his visit, a familiarity with Abai Kunanbai, perhaps the Kazakhstan's greatest thinker. And, in slightly different ways, both Pope Francis and St John Paul II focussed on the question of freedom of religion and the relationship between religious believers and the society in which they live.

In his 2001 visit, St John Paul II took part in a meeting with representatives of the world of culture. Speaking only a few years after Kazakhstan had gained its independence from the former Soviet Union, he referred to the range of influences that had given rise to a "vibrant local culture, rich in creative developments".

One of your country’s great thinkers, the teacher Abai Kunanbai, put it this way: "A man cannot be a man unless he perceives the evident and the hidden mysteries of the universe, unless he seeks an explanation for everything. Anyone who fails to do this is no different from the animals. God distinguished man from the animals by giving him a soul... It is absolutely necessary that we constantly extend our interests, increasing the knowledge which nourishes our souls. It is important to realize that the goods of the soul are incomparably superior to the benefits of the body, and that carnal needs should be subordinated to the imperatives of the soul" (Sayings of Abai, Chapter 7)....

 St John Paul went on to identify the religious character of such questions, and to give an account of how the Christian believer, whilst convinced that Jesus Christ represents the answer to these questions, bears witness "in full respect for the search which other people of good will are engaged in along different paths":

Questions like this are religious by their very nature, in the sense that they appeal to those supreme values which have God as their ultimate foundation. Religion, for its part, cannot fail to grapple with these existential questions; otherwise it loses contact with life.

Christians know that in Jesus of Nazareth, called the Christ, a complete answer has been given to the questions dwelling deep in the human heart. Jesus’ words, his actions and, in the end, his Paschal Mystery, have revealed him to be the Redeemer of man and the Saviour of the world. Of this "good news", which for two thousand years has been on the lips of countless men and women in every part of the earth, the Pope of Rome comes before you today as a humble and convinced witness, in full respect for the search which other people of good will are engaged in along different paths. Whoever has encountered the truth in all the splendour of its beauty must necessarily feel drawn to share it with others. Rather than an obligation based on a law, the believer feels the need to share with others the supreme Value of his own life.

St John Paul II goes on to draw the conclusion for the right to religious freedom in the secular state:

Consequently – even in the context of a soundly secular State, which is obliged in any event to guarantee to each citizen, without distinction of sex, race and nationality, the fundamental right to freedom of conscience – there is a need to acknowledge and defend the right of believers to bear public witness to their faith. Authentic religious practice cannot be reduced to the private sphere or narrowly restricted to the edges of society. The beauty of the new houses of worship which are beginning to rise up almost everywhere in the new Kazakhstan is a precious sign of spiritual rebirth and a sign of promise for the future.

The centre piece of Pope Francis' visit in 2022 was his speech at the opening of the VII Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions. In a passage that has echoes of St John Paul II's earlier visit, Pope Francis urged that "Religion is not a problem, but part of the solution for a more harmonious life in society":

Abai challenges us by asking a timeless question: “What is the beauty of life, if one does not go deep?” (Poems, 1898). Another poet, pondering the meaning of life, placed on the lips of a shepherd in these vast lands of Asia an equally essential question: “Where will this, my brief wandering, lead?” (G. LEOPARDI, Canto notturno di un pastore errante dell’Asia). Questions like these point to humanity’s need for religion; they remind us that we human beings do not exist so much to satisfy earthly interests or to weave purely economic relationships, as to walk together, as wayfarers, with our eyes raised to the heavens. We need to make sense of the ultimate questions, to cultivate a spirituality; we need, as Abai says, to keep “the soul alive and the mind clear” (Book of WordsWord 6).

Dear brothers and sisters, the world expects us to be examples of souls alive and minds clear; it looks to us for an authentic religiosity. It is time to realize that the fundamentalism defiles and corrupts every creed; time for open and compassionate hearts. It is also time to consign to the history books the kind of talk that for all too long, here and elsewhere, has led to distrust and contempt for religion, as if it were a destabilizing force in modern society. These lands are all too familiar with the legacy of decades of state-imposed atheism: that oppressive and stifling mentality for which the mere mention of the word “religion” was greeted with embarrassed silence. Religion is not a problem, but part of the solution for a more harmonious life in society. The pursuit of transcendence and the sacred value of fraternity can inspire and illumine the decisions that need to be made amid the geopolitical, social, economic, ecological, but fundamentally spiritual crises that many modern institutions, including democracies, are presently experiencing, to the detriment of security and concord among peoples. We need religion, in order to respond to the thirst for world peace and the thirst for the infinite that dwells in the heart of each man and woman.

And like St John Paul II before him, Pope Francis goes on to insist on the necessity of religious freedom, though now with a reference to inter-religious dialogue: "Each person has the right to render public testimony to his or her own creed, proposing it without ever imposing it".

For this reason, an essential condition for genuinely human and integral development is religious freedom. Brothers and sisters, we are free. Our Creator “stepped aside for us”; in a manner of speaking, he “limited” his absolute freedom in order to enable us, his creatures, to be free. How can we then presume to coerce our brothers and sisters in his name? “As believers and worshipers”, Abai once again tells us, “we must not claim that we can force others to believe and worship” (Word 45). Religious freedom is a basic, primary and inalienable right needing to be promoted everywhere, one that may not be restricted merely to freedom of worship. Each person has the right to render public testimony to his or her own creed, proposing it without ever imposing it. This is the correct method of preaching, as opposed to proselytism and indoctrination, from which all are called to step back. To relegate to the private sphere our most important beliefs in life would be to deprive society of an immense treasure. On the other hand, to work for a society marked by the respectful coexistence of religious, ethnic and cultural differences is the best way to enhance the distinctive features of each, to bring people together while respecting their diversity, and to promote their loftiest aspirations without compromising their vitality. 

A post at the blog Where Peter is draws attention to four challenges to religions that Pope Francis describes in his address: Pope Francis' message to world religious leaders. H/T to this post for drawing my attention to Pope Francis' visit to Kazakhstan.

From two different angles, one from the point of view of culture and society and the other from the point of view of dialogue between religions and society, St John Paul II and Pope Francis arrive at the same understanding of the importance of religious freedom for the life of (secular) societies.

It is also worth noting the high regard given by both St John Paul II and Pope Francis to the present day situation of Kazakhstan and to its rich cultural history, in part a result of a geographical location which has prompted a particular experience of encounter with different influences at different times.

Wednesday 7 September 2022

Freedom of Religion or Belief - and abortion

 At the beginning of July the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office of the UK Government hosted an international ministerial meeting on "Freedom of Religion or Belief". My attention was first drawn to this meeting by Mgr Michael Nazir Ali's article in the September/October issue of FAITH Magazine: Is Freedom of Religion or Belief now politically mainstream? My attention was drawn again by the BBC's reporting of the reaction of an abortion provider to the appointment of Therese Coffey as Secretary of State for Health and, indeed, to Liz Truss's appointment as prime minister: Therese Coffey's views on abortion concerning, charity says

Mgr Nazir Ali's article makes reference to "fringe" events that took place on the sidelines of the main conference, addressing violations of freedom of religion and belief in different situations around the world. Aid to the Church in Need ran one of these "fringe" events, discussing the persecution of Christians in Syria and Iraq: Christian persecution never ended in the Middle East. This page indicates the activities of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Freedom of Religion or Belief at the time of the ministerial meeting.

However, though Mgr Nazir Ali does not mention it, there also appears to be an assimilation of an idea of "conscientious choice for abortion" into the notion of freedom of belief, as evidenced by what the executive director of Humanists UK said during the opening ceremony of the main conference:

“If FoRB is to be for everyone everywhere, we must all resist the temptation to impose our beliefs on others. This is how so many violations of FoRB originate. That is true of the Christian in China whose atheist government prevents her from congregating freely as her conscience leads her and of the non-religious woman in the West when Christians in her Government block her conscientious choice of an abortion or any other practice. Illiberal totalitarianism, whether atheist, Christian, Islamic: many forces limit freedom of religion or belief today. All of us are in the minority somewhere and all of us have brothers and sisters subject somewhere to the vilest of persecution.”

 The main conference resulted in number of statements that participating nations were invited to sign up to. The statement that has brought particular attention to Liz Truss, who at the time of the conference was the UK Foreign Secretary, is the one about freedom of religion or belief and gender equality. The "final" version that now appears on the FCDO website is here: Freedom of Religion or Belief and Gender Equality. However, the first bullet point of the original version (my italics added) indicated a commitment to:

uphold and protect gender equality, non-discrimination and freedom of religion or belief. Discriminatory personal status laws, laws that allow harmful practices, or restrict women’s and girls’ full and equal enjoyment of all human rights, including sexual and reproductive health and rights, bodily autonomy, and other laws that justify, condone, or reinforce violence, discrimination, or inequalities on the grounds of religion, belief or gender should be repealed.

That bullet point now reads:

uphold and protect gender equality, non-discrimination and freedom of religion or belief. Challenge discriminatory laws that justify, condone, or reinforce violence, discrimination, or inequalities on the grounds of religion, belief or gender and that restrict women and girls’ full and equal enjoyment of human right.

 The change appears to have been made after the conclusion of the conference, and Liz Truss has defended it in parliament on the grounds that it allows a greater degree of unity among conference participants.

But once again, what is to be seen here is an advocacy in favour of abortion based in a consideration that does not reference the ethical rights or wrongs of abortion but a contrived assimilation of a rather distinct consideration. In the case of America's Roe vs. Wade judgement it was a consideration of privacy as expressed in the US constitution; in the case of the extension of legalised abortion to Northern Ireland it was a consideration of whether or not travel to access abortion was degrading treatment; and now it is a contrived inclusion of gender as a consideration in freedom of religion or belief. 

Whilst Christians should certainly advocate for the freedom of others with regards to their differing religion or belief, in a way that is absolute and universal, there is a need to resist the absorption into that universality advocacy for falsely contrived rights that do not exist as rights properly so called.

Sunday 4 September 2022

The Angel's Salutation

 The Septemer/October 2022 issue of FAITH Magazine contains an article entitled The Angel's Salutation, referring to the greeting offered by the Angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary at the moment of the Annunciation. Previous issues of the magazine are available online - FAITH Magazine - but this issue has not yet found its way there. If/when it is posted online, it will be worth reading the whole of Fr Conrad's article. The article is a developed version of a homily. UPDATE: The article is now online and can be read here.

One of the ideas indicated by Fr Conrad in the earlier part of his article is that, from a linguistic point of view, the greeting we know in Latin, Dominus Tecum, traced back to Hebrew or Aramaic roots, would have a sense of "Lord with-you". In other words, it is not so much an offering from celebrant to congregation that the "Lord (may) be with you" but a recognition by celebrant for the congregation that "the Lord (is) with you". Fr Conrad traces this usage in several Old Testament episodes.

Towards the end of the article, Fr Conrad draws suggestions from this for the celebration of the Liturgy.

The Angel's Salutation resonates in the Liturgy. At the beginning of Mass the celebrant greets the people: Dominus vobiscum, "The Lord (be) with you". We are gathered in Jesus' Name, hence he is present in our midst. Before reading the Gospel, the deacon repeats Dominus vobiscum. For in the words of the Gospel the Father's Word continues to speak to us, salute us, attune us to his meaning. At the beginning of the Eucharistic Prayer the celebrant again says, "The Lord be with you". Jesus comes to us beneath the appearances of bread and wine, as he promised..... Finally, having received the Holy Eucharist, we are sent out with prayer Dominus vobiscum, "The Lord be with you", sent out to live by the Gospel we have heard, to imitate the Sacrifice we have been drawn into, to be what we have received ...

It is the implication of Fr Conrad's reflection for how we understand the greeting at the beginning of Mass that I find most striking. It demonstrates the poverty of a celebration in which "Good morning, everyone...Good morning, Father"  is accepted as the introductory greeting.

This is not the only consideration in this article, and the whole is rich and well worth finding and reading.