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Archbishop Fisher on secularism and religion today

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  1. Secular Assumption

After the horrors of the Second World War, in which more systematic perpetration of evil conceived by human minds and crueller things were done to human bodies than at any time in history, it took a great act of faith and hope in humanity for Pope Pius XII to reaffirm the ancient faith of the Church and define as divinely revealed “that the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory”. The dogma of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary was, amongst other things, a declaration of reverence for the human body as something that will be renewed rather than shed in the resurrection, and for the human mind as something capable of better than that terrible war – that terrible century of wars – had demonstrated. Yet in this most secular of ages, to declare that a woman’s body had gone ‘up’ to ‘heaven’ with her ‘soul’ seems bizarre, almost defiant in its benightedness.

Even stranger, perhaps, is the fact that civil society marks the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin with a public holiday in so many countries – Andorra, Austria, Belgium, Bénin, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cameroon, Cape Verde, Central African Republic, Chile, Republic of Congo, Croatia, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cyprus, French Guiana, French Polynesia, Gabon, Gambia, Georgia, Greece, Georgia, Guadeloupe, Guatemala, Guinea, Haiti, Holy See, Italy, Ivory Coast, Lebanon, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Madagascar, Malta, Martinique, Mauritius, Mayotte, Monaco, Montenegro, Paraguay, Poland, Portugal, Réunion, Romania, Rwanda, San Marino, Sénégal, Seychelles, Slovenia, Spain, Syria, Timor-Leste, Togo and Vanuatu – to name a few. Some parts of Germany, New Caledonia, Panama, Switzerland and Venezuela also mark the feast with a civil holiday. Even defiantly secular France, with its Law of Laïcité forbidding religious involvement in government affairs and vice versa, has a public holiday for l’Assomption. Perhaps someone should propose to our Catholic Prime Minister that in response to the push to abolish prayers at the beginning of each parliamentary day he should introduce a public holiday on 15 August!

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Whatever Australian parliamentarians pray, Catholics traditionally concluded their prayers by glorifying the Blessed Trinity with “Glory be to the Father…”, a prayer that ended in sæcula sæculorum, literally ‘from age to age’ or ‘forever and ever’. From this same word sæculum for temporal or worldly, we get our words secular, secularity and secularism. The word ‘secular’ is used in contradistinction to ‘sacred’ (or religious, churchy) to mark out a non-religious sphere of responsibility and action; the profane or temporal is said to have its own particular goals, principles, methods and actors. The word ‘secularity’ typically denotes not only a distinction but a separation of the secular and the sacred, the Church and the State, at least for certain purposes, with each sphere having a certain freedom from interference by the agents or activities of the other. The word ‘secularism’ is the philosophy underpinning such a separation and it ranges from moderate forms to more absolutist ideologies. A moderate secularism advocates a secularity that protects the community and its individual citizens from theocracy (control of government by religious leaders, imposition of a particular faith through civil laws etc.) and that protects religious institutions and their faithful from state religion (control of religion by state officials, imposition of a particular faith or unbelief upon all); instead it allows that people be left free to believe and profess their particular faith (and faith-based ethics) or indeed none at all. Moderate secularisms acknowledge, tolerate, even celebrate, a rich variety of views on such matters and advocate that people give each other the space to profess and live those views. Absolutist secularism, on the other hand, tries to minimise the role of religion in every person’s life, to exclude it altogether from the public square, and to remove religious institutions from having any influence over government, law, media, schools, universities, the arts, workplaces, social customs, civil discourse, even the civic calendar…

  1. Secularity – Son of Christianity

Before we get too critical of secularism, however, we might notice that it is not just the name but the idea that comes from Christianity. Most previous or parallel civilisations put sacred and profane power in the hands of the same people or caste and identified their interests; one way or another, religious leaders and texts controlled much of civil law and policy. And while it is undeniable that Christianity at various times and places has been tempted or forced into similar arrangements, it has retained a strong sense that there are some things to render unto Caesar and some to render unto God, as Jesus put it (Mt 22:21); or that there is a city of God and a city of man, as Augustine put it, even if the two interpenetrate each other and we rightly bring one Christian conscience to both. In this way, liberal democracies, with their sense of independence (if also interdependence) of Church and State, are in many ways a bi-product of Christianity.

In The Forge of Christendom Tom Holland describes the West around the year 1,000 AD with its caliphs and kings, knights and raiders, cathedrals and castles, slaughter and vendettas. He argues that the fateful meeting between Pope Gregory VII and the Emperor Henry IV marked one of the most significant departures in history, as Western Europe emerged as a distinctive culture and expansionist power. The disappointment of millennial hopes and the settling of a much clearer separation between church and state was to give Christendom its particular energy and focus. Already a thousand years old, the Christian understanding of church-state relations would continue to evolve and assume various hues in the subsequent millennium.

In much of contemporary Western Europe, for instance, as in the communist East of the recent past, the tendency is to say with respect to church and state that “ne’er the twain shall meet”. Governments and courts increasingly marginalize believers and their institutions. Absolutist secularists – whose position has moved so far from true secularity that it can often be hard to distinguish it from dogmatic atheism – would ban Christmas decorations from public places, church bells from towers, crucifixes from schools or nurses’ necks, veils from Muslim women’s faces, and so on. No matter that religious believers are the majority and democracies are supposed to take majorities seriously. No matter that freedom of religion is a fundamental right and democracies are supposed to protect rights. Religion is presumed to be so benighted, intolerant, violent, indeed inimical to democracy, that it must be radically constrained and ultimately eradicated.

If there are countries in which state or culture-imposed atheism is dominant, there are others in which religion seeks to dictate terms to government and society, including to people who do not share that faith, and to control every aspect of life. We think, for instance, of some Middle Eastern theocracies. While Holland and others contend that it was Christendom that first clearly distinguished the spheres of God and Caesar, even some Christian leaders have blurred those lines in pursuit of their own or their church’s interests as in the ‘wars of religion’ at the Reformation.

American culture and society is a mix of both extremes, with lots of public religious rhetoric, as if faith were compulsory, and bans on public prayers and cribs, as if it were forbidden. For all its much vaunted religiosity and rights culture, the U.S. government famously – or perhaps infamously – ordered nuns to provide abortifacient coverage for their staff, in a clear violation of their right to act in accordance with their faith. Reflecting on the way things are sliding there, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago once provocatively predicted that he would die in bed, his successor as Archbishop die in prison, and his successor die a martyr in the public square.

Here in Australia we have a unique take on these things: we distinguish between church and state, and recognize that each has its own sphere of activity, goals, methods, actors. Though we were not as self-consciously the paradise of dissent that our new world neighbours across the Pacific imagined (and still imagine) themselves, and we are still to this day to enact any meaningful legal protections of freedom of religion (apart from a ban on the Commonwealth establishing a state church), Australia was from the colonial era (and before) a nation with space for people of many faiths and none. The early Catholics in this country, for instance, enjoyed greater freedom even to celebrate their popish rites than did their counterparts in the British Isles; the first Lutherans found they could breathe a freer air in South Australia than they could in Prussia; and Jews, Muslims – indeed, members of all faiths – though encountering some initial hostility like the Irish Catholics did, have over time found hospitality and respect here. Church and state in Australia mostly leave each other alone; where they intersect, they are sometimes rivals but more often they find ways to collaborate to their mutual advantage (as they largely do, for example, in education, health, welfare). This ‘live and let live’, ‘don’t wear religion on your sleeve’ Aussie secularity has mostly meant peaceful co-existence between people of all faiths and none, and allowed secular society to build on Christian social capital and vice versa. Its downsides are a certain intellectual laziness, practical atheism, and lack of vigilance regarding religious liberty, even amongst believers.

Australian secularity has generally been more respectful than most of both religious and democratic institutions. But today we encounter a more virulent secularism that would exclude faith and the faithful from public life, root out Judeo-Christian heritage from law and culture, and confine faith to an ever-narrowing field of private life. Believers are pressed to renounce their most deeply held beliefs, stay silent about their dirty little secret, or else adopt a kind of dual personality. Secularity may be a child of Christianity, but like an adolescent bucking against its parent, absolutist secularism resents its Christian heritage and is determined to end its influence.

  1. The Prodigal Son of Secularism Leaves Home

It’s partly due to this mild, ‘keep it quiet’ form of Australian secularity that Australians don’t talk much about religious liberty. It wasn’t a foundational issue for us as it was for ‘the American experiment’. After the terrible wars of religion in Europe the United States was supposed to represent a new religious tolerance; whereas Australia accepted a version of ‘Anglicanism lite’ as the state religion, required its early governors and state officials to swear that there was no transubstantiation in the sacrament of the Holy Table, and then merrily allowed Catholic worship even before it was legal in the British Isles. American presidents, judges, journalists and church leaders rehearse debates about the meaning and importance of America’s separation of church and state on a very regular basis; Australians just take it for granted. I want to suggest tonight that that’s dangerous. We can’t presume that religious liberty will always be respected here or that the religious capital upon which so much of secular society relies will not be squandered and ultimately obliterated by this Prodigal Son. Independent reports on religious liberty worldwide suggest that Christians have never before been as persecuted as they are right now. There are more martyrdoms each year than there were at the height of the persecutions by the Roman emperors. The risk for Australians is that because we are free of that sort of persecution we don’t recognize more subtle forms.

More subtle attacks on religious liberty might include laws in both Victoria and Tasmania requiring Catholic (and other) doctors to ignore their consciences and assist in or refer for abortions – or else leave the medical profession; these are the models for laws that activists hope to impose across Australia, and not just with respect to abortion. Another example might be the regular imputation of ‘discrimination’ and ‘homophobia’ to anyone who for religious or other reasons supported traditional marriage in the recent plebiscite or has misgivings about the gender fluidity ideology behind some school and university ‘education’.

For all its putative open-mindedness and despite its profound debt to Judeo-Christianity for its laws and customs, our culture is becoming less and less tolerant of such religion. The recent change to the legal definition of marriage raised concerns on this topic and occasioned the establishment of the Review of Religious Liberty Protections in Australia led by Hon. Phillip Ruddock. After several months the Commonwealth government has still not released the report or indicated how it will respond, if at all. But if recent trends in Australia and overseas are anything to go by, religious institutions that maintain a traditional view of marriage may well face challenges regarding their ceremonies and sacred spaces, their employment, enrolment and accommodation policies, the message they preach or curriculum they teach, their charitable status or eligibility for government grants and contracts, and so on. People of faith may find themselves the victims of vilification, ‘lawfare’ or disadvantage in employment, commerce, academic or professional admission, parenting or otherwise, if they are known to hold or dare to voice old-fashioned views on marriage or other matters.

The recent legalisation of euthanasia in Victoria represents not only the first state-sanctioned killing of citizens in that state since the abolition of capital punishment, but also new challenges for people of traditional ethics practising healthcare or running health or aged care facilities. Will they be required, as some jurisdictions now require regarding abortion, to perform, refer for or otherwise collaborate in this now-legal activity? In what other ways do we face a gradual move to state-sponsored irreligion in Australia?

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse drew attention to the terrible harm done to many young people, especially by clergy, religious or other church workers in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, and to the disastrous failure of some religious leaders to respond appropriately. That Commission has made many important recommendations that will be embraced by all right-thinking Australians. But as the Commissioners themselves recognized, some recommendations touch upon states of life and sacraments, and might be thought to overreach the proper boundaries between state and church. Many other examples of controversies touching upon religious liberty today might be given. Each would merit long and nuanced discussion, and occasion divergent views amongst us. No one would envy the task of lawmakers, judges and practitioners, in reconciling the supposedly non-derogable right recognized in international law freely to hold and practice religious beliefs with other rights, responsibilities or interests. Nevertheless, the recent legislation, proposed or enacted in several states and territories in Australia to force priests to break the seal of confession attempts no such balance: it simply rides roughshod over belief and believers, and thus over the traditional Church-State divide.

Just last month an editorial in the Weekend Australian suggested that enough was enough with the federal government’s attacks on the Catholic Church: first by inaction on the long promised religious liberty protections; secondly, by defunding the schools; and thirdly, by the Charities Commission’s threats to axe the charity status of Catholic Education Melbourne and imprison its executive director. If a Catholic lay leader could be threatened by the Charities Commission with gaol for standing up for the interests of Catholic school parents of modest means who are facing rising fees and school closures; if a Catholic archbishop (who was a Sydney priest) could be threatened by the Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Tribunal with fines or imprisonment for distributing a bishops’ pastoral on the Church’s teaching on marriage; The Australian wondered aloud whether “other church bodies might face similar treatment for campaigning over asylum-seekers, for example, or future legislation on contentious issues such as voluntary euthanasia, abortion or marriage”.

  1. The Prodigal Son Returns to Defend Religious Liberty

How are we to think about such matters? Christ’s teaching about rendering to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s (Mt 22:5-21) is an excellent starting point, but it raises questions about what properly belongs to each realm, what respecting each demands, and what to do when they overlap – in a word, it raises the very questions that are at the heart of the concept of secularity. Any hard and fast distinction between private and public does not seem to cut it; nor do appeals to general principles of public order and non-discrimination alone.

As a first step, we need to be clear in our own minds: religious liberty is not an ‘exemption’ or ‘exception’ from the ordinary norms of justice allowed to certain benighted groups who either force the hands of the majority or are grudgingly tolerated. Rather, justice requires respect for religious freedom. The rights to freedom of conscience, opinion and expression, of religious belief and practice, are enshrined in international covenants to which Australia is a party and justified by sound moral and political philosophy. Why does freedom of religion matter?

One practical reason would be this: without freedom of religion, religious bodies would not be able to do many of the good things they do. For example: 5.2 million people self-identify as Catholics in this country, gathered into 1400 parishes; hundreds of thousands of these regularly attend Mass and many serve in various ways, making the Catholic church the biggest pastoral care provider in this nation by far. Those parishes own, sponsor, feed, neighbour or otherwise relate to 1700 Catholic schools and a growing number of pre-schools and OOSHs, open to people of all faiths and none, making the Catholic education sector the biggest non-government educator, employer and charity in Australia. The Catholic community also provides 10,000 hospital beds, 20,000 aged care places, 45,000 tertiary education places, halls and chaplaincies alongside secular universities, chaplaincy to ethnic groups, hospitals, prisons and the services, and innumerable acts of welfare provision to the hungry, homeless, disabled, orphaned and troubled every day. Add the contributions of the Church to culture, science and other spheres, and the contributions of other churches and religions in similar ways, and it is clear that without religious groups active in our community so much that is enriching would be missing or would become a burden upon government and taxpayers. Religious liberty allows space for such contributions to individuals of many religious backgrounds, and to the social fabric for all.

A deeper secular reason for respecting religious liberty is that it allows for a range of ‘intermediate’ bodies and more local initiatives between government and the individual. We might think of St Vincent de Paul conferences, local youth groups or CatholicCare counselling services. These are not merely ‘service providers’ with a religious inspiration. They are part of a society that is more than just government instrumentalities, corporations and citizen-worker-consumers. Rather than centralising all not-for-profit activity in government and expecting them to understand and respond to every need, charitable organisations exist as representatives of a ‘subsidiarity’ and diversity that enriches our democracy, as communities of volunteers with a passion for justice or charity, and thus as a very important part of our social, cultural and moral infrastructure.

A third and even more fundamental reason for recognizing a generous freedom of religion is the good of religion itself. Human beings are spiritual beings and they ask spiritual questions. Even if the census says a quarter of us don’t claim any religion, three quarters do and even the others ask the big questions such as where did I come from? Where am I going? Does my life have any meaning? Is there a God? Is there a life after this one? The atheist Richard Dawkins once complained on Q&A that these are the wrong questions to ask, but like it or not, people keep asking them. Human beings, it seems, are irremediably religious animals.

Reflecting upon Scripture, Tradition and long human experience of politics, the Second Vatican Council taught that the purpose of law and government is to serve ‘the common good’ of all the citizens, that is ‘the social conditions necessary for human flourishing’. That means ensuring that people have reasonable access to those basic human goods which contribute to their physical, emotional and spiritual wellbeing. And religion is one such good. To pursue the good of religion is to consider whether there is a greater-than-human source of all that is, and of the truth, beauty and goodness of such things, and then to respond by way of personal prayer, common worship, further theologizing, sharing that with others, enacting it in works of charity, and so on. To do these things, alongside pursuing the other basic goods of human flourishing, is how human beings find fulfilment.

Fourthly, many who are proudly Australian, or who aspire to be after fleeing persecution, treasure the generous space traditionally allowed in our law and culture for people to believe different things and practice their most deeply held beliefs. Having the freedom to order one’s life to reflect the conclusions of a sincere judgment on these matters has generally been regarded as a fundamental human right here, not merely a second-order privilege granted by the State, and moves to impose an absolutist secularism here would be a radical change to the social compact. By extension, Australian families have traditionally been allowed to guide the religious development of their children and help them to exercise their religious freedom as they grow and mature. And churches have been left well alone to ‘do their thing’, as well as embraced as partners both to individuals and to governments in serving the good of individuals and the common good of the community.

Not that Australians have any monopoly on such mutual respect and collaboration: international law insists that such liberties must be respected and promoted by civil authorities. In Chalice of Liberty Frank Brennan and Michael Casey argue that freedom of religion underpins and structures many of the assumptions and practices of secular liberal democracies such as Australia. The most fundamental reason for respecting freedom of religion is that this is required if we are to respect human persons, the requirements of their flourishing, and the proper role of civil authority; to abandon this would be to undo some of what is best in Australian civilisation. Every Australian has a stake in defending the right to ask the big questions in life and to live authentically in this pursuit. A moderate secularity returns to the Father after its prodigal adventures, ready to support freedom of religion.

  1. The Prodigal Father’s love for the secular

Pope Francis has pointed out on several occasions that we cannot evangelize our culture effectively if we do not first understand where it is and where it is tending. As the English author Aldous Huxley once pointed out, ‘the only corner of the universe you can be sure of changing is yourself’, so we should start there. If we are being swayed by powers such as the media, we need to cultivate a certain scepticism; if we are being secularized by our culture and disoriented by its confusion about the human person and relationships, we should return to the sources of Christian beliefs in such matters and better inform ourselves. In other words, we need to engage in a sort of examination of conscience with respect to the challenges of the age. If we are to do our bit to address big challenges like absolutist secularism and religious freedom, we need to be well informed and formed ourselves. It means reading widely and deeply, and not just people who think like us. It means knowing our own tradition and so thoroughly acquainting ourselves with resources such as the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

In societies that are fast forgetting how to listen, to reason something out, to have real dialogue and debate, true secularity – that is, rendering unto Caesar and God what are Caesar’s and God’s – insists that we must all do what we can to improve the quality of our own conversations – in our homes, workplaces, polity. After all, the proper relationship between Church and State is one of friendship and thus dialogue. Of course, conversation is a risky business, since there’s no telling exactly where it might go. Try as we may to tame it, if it is more than mere propaganda, sloganeering or brow-beating, it has the potential to explore, share, teach, inspire and change us. But if two (or more) parties agree to walk and talk together for a while, with receptive minds and hearts, who knows what they might discover? On a pilgrimage last year to the Holy Land, I was deeply moved by meeting a group of Israeli and Palestinian women who have in common the grief of having lost husbands or sons, often to violence. They build on that shared grief by, first of all, listening compassionately to each other. We might ask ourselves how well we do this in our own lives and relationships, as individuals and as a community, and look for ways to improve our conversation.

The Second Vatican Council opened its document on The Church in the Modern World with the memorable words: “The joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the people of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted – these are the joys and hopes, griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts.” The Church has always taught that creation is fundamentally good, even if damaged by sin; so we should not fear the ‘secular’ world or treat it as a junk yard, but rather reverence it and seek to renew it under grace. The Church likewise has always taught that humanity is fundamentally good, if damaged by sin, and so we should not fear or abuse ‘secular’ society or individuals, but rather reverence, serve and raise them up. The relationship of church and state, mundane and transcendent, religious and secular, is never properly a matter of ‘us against them’; we never give up on humanity or the world. There is a story told of St Catherine of Siena who, driven almost to despair by the corruption of her society, its violence and division, went to the church to pray that God end it all. But the figure on the crucifix spoke to her saying, “Turn around and see what I loved so much I would die for.” She turned around and saw broken humanity, the halt and lame, corrupt and innocent, sinners and saints.

  1. Conclusion

Whether through constitutional or positive law, through public education and dialogue, through advancing concepts of ‘fair go’ and neighbourliness, or in other ways, every community needs mechanisms to safeguard the rights of citizens and resolve conflicts between them. I would say that Australia has mostly been good at this, if not always or in all respects. The militant secularism in the air at the moment, like the colonialism, sectarianism, racism and sexism in the air at other times, threatens to unravel Australian respectfulness in religious matters and historic balances between Church and state. It’s not just the annual barneys over whether councils can wish people a Merry Christmas on their street banners or state school choirs sing carols. Rather, there is now a more hard-edged determination to minimise the role of faith in every life and exclude it altogether from the public square. The pressure is on to eradicate Judeo-Christian ideas such as the sanctity of life and love from our laws and customs, to inoculate people to faith or make them embarrassed or secretive about it, and to enforce a kind of practical agnosticism on the whole community. Nearly a century ago G.K. Chesterton presciently observed that Thomas More, whom he saw as a martyr for conscience and religious liberty, “is more important at this moment than at any moment in his life… but he is not quite so important as he will be in about a hundred years’ time.”

People of faith will, I trust, continue to work to renew that ‘Australian secularity’ which ensures freedom of religion; to ensure respect for the dignity of all, not just believers, and freedom of conscience for all, not just their co-religionists; and to collaborate with civic authorities in pursuit of the common good. There will be challenges ahead for us all, leaders or citizens of the realm of Caesar or of God or both. As Pope Francis has prayed, “May this be the path we take: rejecting pointless disagreement and closed-mindedness… fostering everywhere the peaceful encounter of people of different beliefs… pursuing genuine religious freedom. It is a path to be taken together, for the good of all, and with hope. May our various religions be wombs of life, bearing the merciful love of God to a wounded and needy humanity. May they be doors of hope breaking open the walls of pride and fear.”

Blessed Virgin Mary, Assumed into Heaven: pray for us!

Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP, Annual Warrane Lecture, Warrane College, University of New South Wales, 15 August 2018

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