Friday, 24 September 2010

The Pope, the state, and freedom: Part 2

(continued from Part 1)

Since the Pope’s visit was a state visit by a head of state, it was natural that, in a speech to political leaders, he should turn to relations between the United Kingdom and the Vatican, and to areas in which the British Government “has been engaged with the Holy See.” And so he did.
I would invite all of you, therefore, within your respective spheres of influence, 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. And it finds expression in the fields of concern in which your Government has been engaged with the Holy See. In the area of peace, there have been exchanges regarding the elaboration of an international arms trade treaty; regarding human rights, the Holy See and the United Kingdom have welcomed the spread of democracy, especially in the last sixty-five years; in the field of development, there has been collaboration on debt relief, fair trade and financing for development, particularly through the International Finance Facility, the International Immunization Bond, and the Advanced Market Commitment. The Holy See also looks forward to exploring with the United Kingdom new ways to promote environmental responsibility, to the benefit of all.

I also note that the present Government has committed the United Kingdom to devoting 0.7% of national income to development aid by 2013. In recent years it has been encouraging to witness the positive signs of a worldwide growth in solidarity towards the poor. But to turn this solidarity into effective action calls for fresh thinking that will improve life conditions in many important areas, such as food production, clean water, job creation, education, support to families, especially migrants, and basic healthcare. Where human lives are concerned, time is always short: yet the world has witnessed the vast resources that governments can draw upon to rescue financial institutions deemed “too big to fail”. Surely the integral human development of the world’s peoples is no less important: here is an enterprise, worthy of the world’s attention, that is truly “too big to fail”.
It is no surprise that when it came down to specific areas of government policy, the fields that the Pope wished to speak about were the fairly uncontroversial areas of motherhood and appl peace, human rights, development (i.e. the relief of global poverty), and the environment. The Pope highlighted several specifics including the advance of democracy in the past 65 years (an odd thing for the Pope to welcome, since the Vatican is not, as far as I know, itself a democracy) - but (again, not surprisingly) his concern was largely about what governments could do help poor people in other countries.

In particular, the Pope notes “that the present Government has committed the United Kingdom to devoting 0.7% of national income to development aid by 2013.” All three main parties in the UK have had made this commitment, and it is generally considered something that all people of goodwill should support, but I do not believe that it is the duty of government to be charitable with other people’s money - and, to be honest, I don’t see anything particularly virtuous about it either.

The Pope also makes the point that if governments are willing and able to spend huge quantities of tax-payer’s money to bail out large corporations, that they should be able to do the same for poor people in poor countries. One gets the impression that the Pope’s view is that the government was not necessarily wrong to do the former, and should certainly be prepared to do the latter. In other words, when it comes to the extent and role of the state, it seems that the Pope is not just happy enough to go along with the current British political consensus - but that he also probably supports it. So, not much encouragement for libertarian principles there.

The Pope continued:
This overview of recent cooperation between the United Kingdom and the Holy See illustrates well how much progress has been made, in the years that have passed since the establishment of bilateral diplomatic relations, in promoting throughout the world the many core values that we share. I hope and pray that this relationship will continue to bear fruit, and that it will be mirrored in a growing acceptance of the need for dialogue and respect at every level of society between the world of reason and the world of faith. I am convinced that, within this country too, there are many areas in which the Church and the public authorities can work together for the good of citizens, in harmony with this Parliament’s historic practice of invoking the Spirit’s guidance upon those who seek to improve the conditions of all mankind. For such cooperation to be possible, religious bodies – including institutions linked to the Catholic Church – need to be free to act in accordance with their own principles and specific convictions based upon the faith and the official teaching of the Church. In this way, such basic rights as religious freedom, freedom of conscience and freedom of association are guaranteed. ”
Having spoken about relations between the UK and the Vatican, the Pope returned the theme of the necessity of “dialogue between the world of reason and the world of faith”. Personally, I think that this is an odd thing to say, as it implies that these are two different worlds - and possibly even that it is not possible to be a person of both reason and faith. I can see Richard Dawkins taking the view that if you have faith, then you are irrational, but I know the Pope doesn’t, so I think that he could have chosen his words better.

And finally, the Pope comes back to his earlier point, and to effectively end his address by again stating the need for such basic rights as religious freedom, freedom of conscience and freedom of association to be guaranteed. This was clearly the Pope’s great concern, for it comes out at the beginning of his address (third paragraph: “Britain has emerged as a pluralist democracy which places great value on freedom of speech, freedom of political affiliation and respect for the rule of law”) the middle of his address (seventh paragraph: “These are worrying signs of a failure to appreciate not only the rights of believers to freedom of conscience and freedom of religion . . . . .”) and the conclusion of his address. And that is good.

However, there is one thing that strikes me as particularly odd about it. The Pope, in his address, repeatedly refers to Sir Thomas More.
As I speak to you in this historic setting, I think of the countless men and women down the centuries who have played their part in the momentous events that have taken place within these walls and have shaped the lives of many generations of Britons, and others besides. In particular, I recall the figure of Saint Thomas More, the great English scholar and statesman, who is admired by believers and non-believers alike for the integrity with which he followed his conscience, even at the cost of displeasing the sovereign whose “good servant” he was, because he chose to serve God first. The dilemma which faced More in those difficult times, the perennial question of the relationship between what is owed to Caesar and what is owed to God, allows me the opportunity to reflect with you briefly on the proper place of religious belief within the political process.”
Thomas More was a faithful Catholic and a man of courage and principle, as depicted in the film A Man for all Seasons. But that is not all that he was. Thomas More was also a firm believer in the burning of heretics.

Some people might say that this was an unexceptional belief for a 16th century man, and that he should not be judged by 20th century standards. There is some truth in that. But even by the standards of the 16th century, More was remarkably enthusiastic about burning heretics. When John Tewkesbury, a London leather-seller found guilty of having a copy of William Tyndale’s book The Parable of the Wicked Mammon was sentenced to burning for refusing to recant, More declared: he "burned as there was neuer wretche I wene better worthy." There were very few other major theological writers in 16th century Europe whose words show such eagerness to have their religious opponents burned.

So, in his address, the Pope spoke passionately in favour of freedom of religion and freedom of conscience - while praising a man who was militantly opposed to both. Thomas More believed that the Roman Catholic Church was right, that everybody else was wrong, and that it was the duty of the state to burn those who were heretics. He believed that heresy should be excluded from the public square. In short, More’s policy was precisely that of those who (to use the Pope’s words) “would advocate that the voice of religion be silenced.” It seems to me that for the Pope to use Thomas More as his starting point in an address that pleaded for freedom of religion and freedom of conscience was, to put it mildly, somewhat ironic.

That Pope Benedict should choose to focus on several aspects of freedom (freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom of conscience, freedom of political affiliation and freedom of religion) in the major political speech of his visit to the UK was good news for lovers of freedom. Many religious leaders would, I suspect, not have chosen to emphasise freedom to the same extent - if at all. That he chose to speak about these freedoms as things that we in Britain need to keep valuing is particularly welcome. However, the Pope is clearly not a libertarian yet.


indigomyth said...

Excellent points regarding More.

Albert said...

Rather too busy to comment at length. But I think the point about More is well taken - I always feel a little uncomfortable about More on conscience. However, I think the point remains a fair one, provided one understands it in the context of development of doctrine.

Freedom of conscience is not a self-evident good - or at least it wasn't in the past. I think the Church needed to learn the doctrine, partly from the nature of faith (which is free - a point made by Thomas Aquinas) and partly from experience. All doctrines to do with freedom have certain limitations on them because of the unjust damage we can do to others when we misuse our freedom. Finding where the line is drawn is by no means easy - as our discussions on these pages have shown. More represents an important stage in the Church's development of this doctrine.

Young Mr. Brown said...

"Freedom of conscience is not a self-evident good - or at least it wasn't in the past."

Very true. In fact, the number of values that are self-evidently good is probably pretty small!