Reaction to Pope Benedict XVI’s recent remarks to the bishops of England and Wales were swift and indignant — among certain elements of British society.
Terry Sanderson, president of Britain’s National Secular Society, for example, claimed that the Pope’s upcoming visit to England, “in which he has already indicated he will attack equal rights and promote discrimination,” would saddle British taxpayers “with a bill of some £20 million.”
And an editorial in The Guardian wondered if the Pope “has got his Scripture mangled with the Daily Mail.”
What got their dander up was a talk Pope Benedict gave at the Vatican Feb. 1 to visiting English and Welsh bishops. Observers felt the Pope was encouraging the bishops to fight a proposed U.K. “equality” law.
Benedict’s remarks gave his critics a chance to fire a warning shot several months before the Holy Father’s September visit: Leave your opinions at home.
The Pope’s speech would indicate that he has no intention of keeping silent on important matters that affect his flock, whether they are in Rome or London.
“Your country is well known for its firm commitment to equality of opportunity for all members of society,” he told the visiting bishops. “Yet as you have rightly pointed out, the effect of some of the legislation designed to achieve this goal has been to impose unjust limitations on the freedom of religious communities to act in accordance with their beliefs. In some respects it actually violates the natural law upon which the equality of all human beings is grounded and by which it is guaranteed. I urge you as pastors to ensure that the Church’s moral teaching be always presented in its entirety and convincingly defended.”
It’s obvious from that last sentence that the Pope was not instructing Parliamentarians how to vote on this or that bill. But those charged with the preaching of the Gospel, he said, should do so wholeheartedly when unjust laws are being formed.
Such is the equality law — putting, as it does, same-sex “marriage” on par with traditional marriage.
Such is the requirement that all schools provide a spectrum of information on matters sexual to children as young as 5. The curriculum proposed by the government includes imparting information on contraception and how to obtain emergency contraception.
And it would apply equally to Catholic schools.
The Pope’s speech seems to have been the straw that broke the camel’s back. Equalities Minister Harriet Harman had fought vigorously for the bill’s most controversial clause, which would have made churches’ decisions not to employ homosexuals an illegal form of discrimination. The Catholic bishops protested in December that, because of the amendment’s ambiguous wording, it would in effect become “unlawful to require a Catholic priest to be male, unmarried or not in a civil partnership.”
An embattled Harman lost her bid in a narrow vote in the House of Lords to preserve the clause. Left reeling by the Pope’s unexpectedly strong condemnation and by the public support it immediately garnered from the Church of England and from Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, she backed down and told legislators she would not reintroduce the amendment.
Benedict’s short speech was notable, too, for powerfully summing up themes he has expressed in other contexts, including the liberating power of truth and the necessity to resist the “dictatorship of relativism.”
“If the full saving message of Christ is to be presented effectively and convincingly to the world, the Catholic community in your country needs to speak with a united voice,” he told the bishops.
“Make it your concern ... to draw on the considerable gifts of the lay faithful in England and Wales and see that they are equipped to hand on the faith to new generations comprehensively, accurately, and with a keen awareness that in so doing they are playing their part in the Church’s mission,” he continued. “In a social milieu that encourages the expression of a variety of opinions on every question that arises, it is important to recognize dissent for what it is, and not to mistake it for a mature contribution to a balanced and wide-ranging debate. It is the truth revealed through Scripture and Tradition and articulated by the Church’s magisterium that sets us free.”
Finally, he invoked an Englishman he has long admired and whom he is likely to beatify this fall: Cardinal John Henry Newman.
“Cardinal Newman realized this, and he left us an outstanding example of faithfulness to revealed truth by following that ‘kindly light’ wherever it led him, even at considerable personal cost. Great writers and communicators of his stature and integrity are needed in the Church today, and it is my hope that devotion to him will inspire many to follow in his footsteps.”
Cardinal Newman himself once spoke of his lifetime of resisting relativism, then referred to as “liberalism.” His words are as fresh and relevant today as they were in the 19th century, when he wrote them: “Never did Holy Church need champions against it more sorely than now, when, alas! it is an error overspreading, as a snare, the whole earth. ... Liberalism in religion is the doctrine that there is no positive truth in religion, but that one creed is as good as another. ... It is inconsistent with any recognition of any religion as true. It teaches that all are to be tolerated, for all are matters of opinion.”
England, Wales, Western Europe, and many other nations are engaged in a relentless imposition of relativism in every sphere of ordered life in society. Pope Benedict’s ringing appeal for men and women to follow in Cardinal Newman’s footsteps is urgent.
In the meantime, he seems to be doing well filling those venerable shoes himself.