Addressing a group of political, cultural, business and religious leaders at Westminster Hall on the second day of his state visit to Great Britain, Pope Benedict discussed what he described as “fundamental questions” about the moral responsibilities of government, and the role of religious faith in society. Decrying how Christianity has been marginalized in some Western societies, he urged leaders to engage in a “profound and ongoing dialogue” between reason and faith “for the good of our civilization.”
The Pope reflected on the significance of Westminster Hall as the site of the British Parliament, symbolic of the democratic political tradition which has influenced history and the modern world in profound ways. He drew particular attention to the figure of Saint Thomas More, “the great English scholar and statesman” who was imprisoned and executed in 1535 for obedience to the Church over the King of England.
“He followed his conscience,” the Pope noted, “even at the cost of displeasing the sovereign,” and “chose to serve God first.” The case of St. Thomas More, he continued, raised “fundamental questions” about the nature of government and the role of religion in society. “What are the requirements that governments may reasonably impose upon citizens, and how far to they extend?” More fundamentally, “By appeal to what authority can moral dilemmas be resolved?”
Merely resorting to a social consensus as is done now, Pope Benedict pointed out, cannot sustain the democratic process which has been central to life in Great Britain and the English-speaking world for centuries. “If the moral principles underpinning the democratic process are themselves determined by nothing more solid than social consensus,” he explained, “then the fragility of the process becomes all too evident – herein lies the real challenge for democracy.”
Comparing the political situation of Western democracies with the financial instability which had culminated in a global economic crisis, he observed that a “lack of a solid ethical foundation for economic activity” had clearly “contributed to the grave difficulties now being experienced by millions of people.”
“So too in the political field,” he commented, “the ethical dimension of policy has far-reaching consequences that no government can afford to ignore.” The central question in contemporary politics, the Pope asserted, “is this: where is the ethical foundation for political choices to be found?”
Drawing upon Catholic tradition, which holds that the basic truths of morality can be known by human reason, Pope Benedict clarified that “the role of religion in political debate” is “not so much to supply these norms ... but rather to help purify and shed light upon the application of reason to the discovery of objective moral principles.”
The Pope explained how the Catholic faith, in its commitment to reason, natural law, and the common good, differs essentially from “distorted forms of religion, such as sectarianism and fundamentalism,” which negate or sharply restrict the role of reason, and prevent a productive engagement with the broader society.
However, he also articulated a danger involved in relying purely upon reason in public decision-making. “Reason too can fall prey to distortions,” he observed, “as when it is manipulated by ideology, or applied in a partial way that fails to take full account of the dignity of the human person.” The misuse of reason, he noted, had played a significant part in the development of institutions such as slavery and modern totalitarianism.
“This is why I would suggest, that the world of reason and the world of faith –the world of secular rationality and the world of religious belief—need one another and should not be afraid to enter into a profound and ongoing dialogue, for the good of our civilization.” Religion, the Pope said, “is not a problem for legislators to solve, but a vital contributor to the national conversation.”
“In this light,” he continued, “I cannot but voice my concern at the increasing marginalization of religion, particularly of Christianity, that is taking place in some quarters, even in nations which place a great emphasis on tolerance.” Some political and cultural voices, he said, “would advocate that the voice of religion be silenced, or at least relegated to the purely private sphere,” often preventing the freedom of believers from acting in accordance with their own consciences.
To counteract this movement toward a radical secularization of society, the Pontiff urged the leaders in attendance “to seek ways of promoting and encouraging dialogue between faith and reason at every level of national life.”
“Your readiness to do so is already implied in the unprecedented invitation extended to me today,” he stated. “And it finds expression in the fields of concern in which your Government has been engaged with the Holy See,” such as global peace, human rights, development, and environmental responsibility.
The Holy Father called particular attention to the need for “effective action” and “fresh thinking,” to improve living conditions of peoples in the developing world. Emphasizing the contrast between government aid to financial institutions and the needs of the developing world, he observed that “surely the integral human development of the world's peoples is no less important: here is an enterprise ... that is truly 'too big to fail'.”
Pope Benedict concluded by reminding his listeners that within the society of Great Britain “there are many areas in which the Church and the public authorities can work together for the good of citizens,” provided that “religious bodies, including institutions linked to the Catholic Church” are “free to act in accordance with their own principles and specific convictions based upon the faith and the official teaching of the Church,” in order to preserve their freedom of conscience, action, and association.
Noting the carved wooden angels which adorn the beams of Westminster Hall, Pope Benedict said they were a reminder to government officials and all people “that God is constantly watching over us to guide and protect us.”
“And they summon us,” he concluded, “to acknowledge the vital contribution that religious belief has made and can continue to make to the life of the nation.”