A new calling for the Church
In hindsight, Private Eye tapped deeply into the national consciousness back in February. On its cover it ran the terrifying painting Christ in Limbo by a follower of Hieronymus Bosch. The headline, in red, proclaimed: “How Britain will look after Brexit”. A speech bubble attached to a horrible creature spewing humans from its mouth said: “Mr Cameron did warn you this might happen.”
The satirical magazine was, of course, lampooning apocalyptic predictions by some campaigners opposed to Britain leaving the European Union. But, like the best jokes, it lingered long after you grasped the punchline. It is now clear why: it anticipated the quasi-religious reaction to the leave campaign’s narrow victory last Friday.
As what quickly became known as “referendum rage” spread across Britain’s social networks, an American observer tweeted: “This is what it looks like when a life-orienting faith (in this case: faith in [a] certain vision of progress) is shattered.”
But sublimated religious instincts were evident not only within the remain camp. Some voted leave because they were disenchanted with the cold, distant, technocratic leadership of the EU. They longed for a warmer, more intimate community based on something deeper than an alignment of economic interests.
Pope Francis has anticipated the prevailing public mood well. Ever since his election he has tried to narrow the gap between leaders and the led. That, perhaps, is the hidden purpose behind his chatty, maverick style. He recognises that many see the Church as a remote, affectless institution and that is why he insists that it act like a tender mother. Hence also his emphasis on mercy, which, he says, “makes the world less cold and more just”.
Could Catholics span the emerging gap between the rulers and the ruled?
Long before most, the Pope grasped who feels most alienated from the bureaucratic order: the poor. Through his personal example, he is encouraging Catholics to commit themselves radically to the needy. Commentators have described the leave victory as a “working-class revolt”. Could it be that the Catholic Church is called, at this turning point in British history, to dedicate itself anew to the poor? Could Catholics span the gulf between the rulers and the ruled, which the vote has dramatically exposed?
As a “new Britain” emerges, the Church must play what Benedict XVI called a corrective role. In his 2010 speech at Westminster Hall (worth rereading now), he identified an alarming weakness of 21st-century Western democracies. “If the moral principles underpinning the democratic process are themselves determined by nothing more solid than social consensus,” he said, “then the fragility of the process becomes all too evident – herein lies the real challenge for democracy.”
The “fragility of the process” is painfully evident to Britons this week. But we must shun despair: our faith can supply the moral underpinning our nation needs, if we articulate it as clearly and confidently as possible.
The alternative – becoming a more cautious and inward-looking community – would be a betrayal of the common good. As Benedict XVI put it: “Without the corrective supplied by religion ... reason too can fall prey to distortions, as when it is manipulated by ideology, or applied in a partial way that fails to take full account of the dignity of the human person.”
Catholics are often described as Britain’s largest minority. As followers of Jesus Christ, in communion with a billion others around the world, we must be a reconciling, outward-looking and creative minority.
On May 13, Cardinal Antonio Cañizares, the Archbishop of Valencia, preached a homily about family life and the threats that it faced. On June 3, a Valencian LGBT group filed a criminal complaint against the cardinal accusing him of the “hate crimes” of male chauvinism and homophobia. Just this week, though, a judge has thrown out the case, saying that he can find no evidence of incitement to hatred in the cardinal’s sermon, and that the accusation was vague and generic.
That the cardinal has been absolved of
Cardinal error hate crime is very good news. If this case had gone any further, it would have meant that any Catholic cleric preaching about Church teaching would have been risking criminal prosecution. It is also reassuring to see that this intellectually lazy attempt to link Catholic teaching to hate has been dismissed by a legal expert.
At the same time, one is surprised and saddened that this case got as far as it did. Cardinals and others have a duty to preach, and some people may not like what they say; but they need to realise that no one should have the right to ban expressions of opinion with which they disagree. At the same time, of course, Church leaders should avoid hurtful or inflammatory language. As Pope Francis noted on his flight from Armenia in response to a question about the Orlando massacre, gay people “must be respected and accompanied pastorally”.
The Cardinal Cañizares case shows us not just the necessity of free speech, but also the limits of the right not to be offended. As for the cardinal, may he continue to proclaim the Catholic faith without fear of prosecution.
CATHOLIC HERALD, JULY 1 2016 3