Cardinal Pell on the role of religion in a secular culture: a message of hope
GOD AND CAESAR:
Selected Essays on Religion, Politics, and Society
by Cardinal George Pell (Edited by M.A. Casey)
(Connorcourt, 2007, 189pp, $29.95)
God and Caesar is a collection of addresses and papers given by Cardinal George Pell, Archbishop of Sydney, from 1997 to 2004 to various institutions and organisations both here in Australia and overseas. The common theme is that of the role of the Church and religion in a secular society. The overall message is one of hope and optimism.
It is becoming apparent in the modern world that without a solid foundation of moral values on which to base its laws, a secular society is unable to provide lasting stability and a flourishing culture. This makes the Church's role more relevant and more important than ever before as secular societies are ripe to hear the truth and reason that Christianity can provide.
Cardinal Pell discusses a wide range of issues about which a Christian in a secular society needs to be educated and then to act upon.
Of particular concern is the prevailing relativism of the Western world, which makes it extremely difficult for Christians to get a hearing in political debates. The belief that there is no such thing as absolute truth and no moral right or wrong leads to situations where it is merely the views of the majority, or the powerful, that prevail.
A society based on relativism emphasises the individual's rights and desires, rather than duties and responsibilities in a community. In the name of selectively chosen 'rights' it fails to protect the weak or vulnerable and ignores Natural Law, especially in regard to sexuality and life issues.
In this regard, Christians are thought by secularists to have no place in political life since they will only 'impose' their moral absolutes.
While Cardinal Pell affirms the necessity of separating Church and State he insists the Church must have a voice in political dialogue and that a State which ignores the place of religion in society has the potential to descend into totalitarianism and the abuse of human rights.
In the first essay in this collection, titled 'Law and Morality', Cardinal Pell points out that millions of people were slaughtered during the 20th century by regimes that were anti-religion and anti-God: 'Three of the four most murderous regimes, those of Lenin and Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot, openly proclaimed atheist materialism, while Hitler's regime was avowedly pagan. All four tyrannies were radically opposed to religion, morality, and law.'
In an essay titled 'The Church and Politics' the author poses the important question as to which values should underpin a secular society. Without truth or moral absolutes on what basis can a good society be created?
In several places, Dr Pell reminds us of the role that the Church played in shaping the ethos behind modern democratic societies and the institutions within them. 'Most people', he writes, 'are little aware of the influence of Catholic teaching in social and political thinking, but without this the United Nations Charter, the constitutions of the United States and other nations, and the common law tradition would be very different from their present forms.'
A secular society without firm moral values, he reminds us, often ends up employing 'harm minimisation' strategies whereas Christianity's approach is radically different: 'Christ did not go around urging people to be careful if they cannot manage to be good. He had a stronger belief in the human potential. Nor did he go around handing out condoms and syringes, literally or metaphorically. He had greater confidence in weak and foolish humanity.'
In his paper titled 'Only Secular Democracy?', Dr Pell argues that a secular democracy is based on fear while democratic personalism, as articulated by John Paul II, is based on hope. Secular democracy is based on fear because it emphasises the freedom and rights of the individual and hence leads to fear of others who may impede these.
A Christian faith gives hope to believers with committed Christians generally having more children than non-believers. On the other hand, the low fertility rates indicate the fear that permeates secular democracies. While most young people are taught about the dangers of overpopulation, it is depopulation that is the greater threat to the modern world.
Need for truth
The problem of depopulation is of course linked to abortion, and what John Paul II termed 'the culture of death'. In his essay titled 'The Role of the Bishop' Dr Pell notes that 90,000 abortions were carried out in Australia in 2004, while Holland, where the Catholic faith has all but disappeared, has become the 'euthanasia capital of the world'.
In the face of these and many other negative features of secular societies, the Catholic Church in particular offers the means necessary to save modern democracies from themselves. As Cardinal Pell asserts in 'Theology and the University', the Christian faith is based on a 'philosophical rationality' that needs to be insistently communicated to a world desperately in need of the truth.
In another essay titled 'God, Evolution and Conscience', the Cardinal reiterates the great philosophical arguments of St Thomas Aquinas, that we can come to belief in the existence of God through reason. Moreover, the weight of scientific evidence makes it increasingly difficult to accept that our vast and complex universe occurred by chance. As Dr Pell aptly puts it in 'The Case for God' we are 'working intellectually with the wind behind us.'
Cardinal Pell's collection of essays and addresses, taken as a whole, constitutes an uplifting call-to-arms for Christians in secular societies. As Msgr Brian Ferme notes in his foreword to God and Caesar, 'St Jerome would have been calmed if he knew that, despite the moral catastrophe of much of modern Western democracy, a churchman had vigorously and intelligently confronted it. He would find such a churchman in Cardinal Pell.'
Catherine Sheehan is a research officer with the Thomas More Centre.