Christians and the followers of other religions in Britain sometimes come up hard against an aggressive secularism. This seeks to exclude religion from public discourse and even prevent its inclusion in our historical narratives, except as something foreign and regrettable. Such adversaries are generally forgetful of – or deliberately in denial of – the influence of religion in the formation of every great civilisation.
In his address to politicians in Westminster Hall in 2010, Benedict XVI described our political system in glowing terms, as one would expect on such an occasion:
This country’s parliamentary tradition owes much to the national instinct for moderation, to the desire to achieve a genuine balance between the legitimate claims of government and the rights of those subject to it. While decisive steps have been taken at several points in history to place limits on the exercise of power, the nation’s political institutions have been able to evolve with a remarkable degree of stability. In the process 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, with a strong sense of the individual’s rights and duties, and of the equality of all citizens before the law.
At a time when we witness daily on our screens the appalling effects of civil war in the Middle East, the growing threats to the peace of Europe by the Russian president, the absurd but worrying actions of the surviving communist leader of North Korea and – to change our focus and level of concern – when we see the undignified and personally recriminatory election debates in America, we can take comfort and even pride in the way our country is dealing so far with the problems of exit from the European Union. But we ought to be careful that we do not take an exaggerated pride in the maturity of our systems.
There are divisions in our countries that were not there a few decades ago. There have been parliamentary laws which have given credence and effect to ideological positions contrary to our Christian traditions. There has been a diminishing of respect for the essential nature of marriage as held not only in our own faith but also in that of other religions in our country. There have been threats to our freedom of conscience, and all the while a continuing complete disregard for the rights of the unborn child. There is fear now in our camps that the predicted ability to determine more accurately whether a child has that extra chromosome which will label it as a Down’s syndrome member of the community will result in not one of them surviving to birth. In practice, even the right to life is measured by public opinion and the law itself is weak in the face of powerful lobbies.
Such considerations raise questions about the origins of law, the nature of conscience and the source of authority in determining what is right.
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