Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor, Archbishop of Westminster and head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, has penned a newspaper editorial examining the phenomenon of secularism. Granting that secularism has led to some increased acceptance of Catholics, he criticized the new intolerance directed against those who maintain pro-life and pro-family views.
Writing in The Independent, the cardinal noted that religious belief presently tends to be treated as “a private eccentricity” rather than as “the central and formative element in British society that it is.”
Saying that atheism has become more vocal and aggressive, the cardinal said the phenomenon of secularization has helped religious believers realize “what we have in common as Christian believers is infinitely more important than what divides us.”
This common ground extended to all three monotheistic faiths, the cardinal continued.
“It is significant that one of the most articulate and respected defenders of religious values in Britain today is the Chief Rabbi.”
One benefit of secularization, Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor argued, is more tolerance for Catholics.
“Over the past 40 years, social prejudice against Catholics has largely disappeared, and Catholics have been fully assimilated into the mainstream of British life.”
However, this has not extended to intellectual and cultural acceptance. In the cardinal’s view, there is a “widely perceived conflict” between religious belief and the prevailing notion of what a “liberal” and a “tolerant” society should be.
Describing a “dislike of absolutes” current in modern Britain, he suggested this dislike “stems from an entirely understandable revulsion for totalitarianism” and is well-founded when approaches to ethical problems are in fact “too absolutist.”
“But as the ongoing debate about faith schools has demonstrated, the intolerance of liberal skeptics can be as repressive as the intolerance of religious believers,” Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor continued.
Conflict is most evident for Catholics on issues like “the absolute value of every human life” and “the central importance of the family and the institution of marriage as fundamental pillars of a rightly ordered society.”
“Catholics are not alone in watching with dismay as the liberal society shows signs of degenerating into the libertine society,” he added, saying Catholic positions are shared by other Christians, Jews, and Muslims.
Still, the cardinal added, “I think it is fair to say that the Catholic Church bears the brunt of ‘liberal’ hostility on both fronts.” He suggested this is due to natural “serious tensions” between Christian belief and the habits of a secular state.
The cardinal welcomed the fact that diversity and pluralism are increasingly accepted, but warned that such a fact could undermine institutions such as marriage and the family to the detriment of society.
“The vocal minority who argue that religion has no role in modern British society portray Catholic teaching on the family as prejudiced and intolerant to those pursuing alternatives,” he wrote in his editorial. “Catholic teaching is clear that all unjust discrimination is wrong, but this teaching cannot accept the relativistic acceptance that all approaches are equivalent. British society champions tolerance and freedom, but that freedom is dependent on responsibility.”
“A simplistic belief that right or wrong is an individualistic construct denies our responsibilities to neighbor and wider society,” Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor said.
He advocated an “open, tolerant and vibrant public square” to be maintained, especially as individual rights come into conflict with the rights of religious groups.
“The task of British Catholics – together with our fellow Christians and all believers of goodwill – is not to opt out of the debate or to fall back on anathemas, but to work by reasoned argument, and, above all, by the example of our own lives, to strengthen the many features of British society we believe to be good and to correct those we believe to be wrong,” the cardinal’s essay concluded.