Catholics as 'bearers of light' in a secular culture

Catholics as 'bearers of light' in a secular culture

Bishop Peter J. Elliott

The following are extracts from Bishop Peter J. Elliott's homily in St Patrick's Cathedral, Melbourne, on 2 February 2009, at the Annual Red Mass for the opening of the Legal Year in the State of Victoria.

The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (December 10, 1948) states, 'Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion: this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practices, worship and observance.'

Families and individuals are free to practise their religion, to live according to its moral laws, to teach its precepts to their children, to worship in conscience according to customs. Yet today the right to freedom of religion must be distinguished from freedom to worship.

Secularists believe in freedom to worship. But do they really believe in freedom of religion, at home, at work, at school and in a pluralistic public forum? Many of them do not understand people of faith. Being children of the darker side of the Enlightenment, they imagine they are the centre of the universe, that their atheistic opinions are the norm. For them religion is a quirky private hobby, best filed away under 'multiculturalism'.

However, the right to freedom of religion is not bestowed by the State. Nor should that freedom be rationed out by any civil authority, as hard-won exceptions or concessions grudgingly granted to those who beg for them. That would reinforce another secularist attitude that these weird religious people may be tolerated - as long as they keep in their place.

Related to that view is the implication that religious freedom should be restricted in these times - 'these people who take religion seriously', are they not dangerous 'fundamentalists'?

Here in Victoria, shamefully callous and crude abortion legislation is now in place, without, at this stage, any assurance of freedom of conscience for the medical profession. Unborn humans have no rights here.

How have we descended to such depths?

It was all planned. Fifteen years ago at the United Nations sponsored meetings in Cairo, Copenhagen and Beijing, in the Delegation of the Holy See, I observed how universal access to abortion was being pushed by ambiguous language: 'reproductive health' or 'reproductive rights'. We recently heard the same words in this State from the voices of the culture of death.

What was planned years ago has now trickled down to the legislatures of nations. International groups monitor this gradual process, now coming out openly as pressure for a new 'human right', which is, believe it or not - the right to abortion.

Pluralist society

What then is the duty of the Catholic in a society where unjust and immoral laws are in place? Once that question was only raised within the confines of a totalitarian society.

As the secularists wish, we can privatise our religion, opting out: 'Oh, personally I believe this and that, howeverÉ.'.What would St Thomas More say to that? What would our courageous forebears in the faith say? Would Archbishop Daniel Mannix expect us to hide in the sacristy?

Christians should not be intimidated by an imposed 'tolerance' that, in practice, muzzles free discourse. In these times more than ever we all need an open exchange of views in a democratic pluralist society.

Every victory for secularist social engineering erodes what we value. The pedagogy of the law means that political decisions made or administered do influence human behaviour. Children and grandchildren are deeply influenced by the social milieu, by peer groups, media, internet, etc, and we confront this every day in our schools.

Likewise when legislation and the application of law condone that fashionable fascism of the mind, political correctness, then we ourselves can easily lose sight of reality. Right and wrong are realities, not subjective matters of taste, preference or 'choice'.

Now whether or not a natural community of persons can be the subject of rights, at least there can be broad agreement that parents have rights and responsibilities: to have children, to raise them, and educate them according to conscience and culture.

Parents are the primary educators of their children. Teachers in all schools act in loco parentis. This is no legal fiction or myth. It was affirmed in the Declaration on Christian Education of the Second Vatican Council. The principle of parental rights in education is derived from the Natural Law, hence included in the United Nations Declaration.

This is why Catholic parents expect that the morality of our faith should be taught in our own schools, without hindrance, external interference or vexatious distraction. In the same way, parents should peacefully pass on those values of Christ and his Gospel at home.

The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council named their greatest document, on the Church, Lumen Gentium - the 'Light of the Nations'. The Council's fresh vision of the Catholic Church in the world as light to all peoples is a challenge and an invitation. As the members of this Church, each of us is called to be a bearer of light, to be positive, pro- active.

By keeping that flame of faith 'burning brightly', we are saying yes to a culture of life, yes to procreation, to marriage and family, yes to educating our children and young people in love, goodness and freedom, yes to justice for poor families.

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