U.K. Bishop: Defeat Relativism With ‘Authentic Humanism’
Bishop Philip Egan of Portsmouth discusses his role as shepherd in an increasingly secular society.
PORTSMOUTH, England — A leading bishop in the U.K. says that the modern, troubling view of humanity that stems from relativism is best countered by Christians living the Church’s full vision of the human person.
Bishop Philip Egan has led the Diocese of Portsmouth on England’s south coast along the English Channel since the autumn of 2012, and he has distinguished himself for his consistent efforts at teaching his flock and for his care for evangelization.
In a phone interview earlier this year, Bishop Egan gave a compelling case for the need for Christians to present, as an alternative to the nihilism and relativism of contemporary culture, an “authentic humanism.”
Following is a transcript of the conversation, edited for clarity.
Your excellency, I’ve been very edified by your efforts to teach in your diocese, with the number of pastoral letters you’ve issued of late; thank you for that.
You know, obviously, a bishop has three roles: the triple munera of sanctifying, teaching and governing — being a pastor. But I think, in this day and age, that role especially of proclaiming the word and teaching is so critical. Not just for its own sake, because we have to proclaim the truth of Christ, but also because of the culture in which we live. In many ways, I think the Church has a kind of therapeutic mission in contemporary culture, and the truth is what we have, and I think it’s important to proclaim it.
Here in the States we’re in the midst of legal battles in our courts around the funding of contraceptives and the nature of marriage, and arguments are often made on the basis of religious freedom or freedom of conscience; but I think a firmer grounding for an argument would be appealing to the reasonableness of our positions.
It is a very complex field, and I would have to say that I haven’t thought through all the elements of it; it’s sort of something we’re discovering as well, so there’s an element of trial and error. But particularly with the contraceptive thing, it’s a splitting of the procreative and the unitive. I can understand why someone could put forward the freedom-of-conscience and freedom-of-religion grounds. It’s a ground, a good ground, but often our arguments are cumulative. As [Blessed Cardinal John Henry] Newman would speak of, they’re links in a chain; all the bits together form the strong argument.
It shows why we’re preferring to put forward an alternative version of the human person, because I think, ultimately, that’s the issue. The secularism found in contemporary culture is a fertile breeding ground for a new conception of humanity – it’s sort of utilitarian anthropology, a new version of what it means to be human. And I think our task is to show that the Christian, the Catholic approach is the natural way of life, graced in Christ – which is the way to an authentic humanism, a true happiness; it’s a happy way, and this is the full vision of the human person.
In your address in March at King’s College London, you said, “Christianity proposes an authentic humanism,” which I appreciate, because the term humanism has been so co-opted; it’s good for we Christians to realize that humanism is not a bad word.
I don’t know that I want to be as strong as this, but when we say the Creed at Mass, ‘we believe’ — or ‘I believe,’ as we now say — but ‘We believe in one God,’ we really mean also, we believe in man, we believe in human beings, we believe in the full vision of the human person, redeemed in Christ, and that is the way to authentic happiness and the authentic humanism that we’re speaking of now.
I think it’s important to say ‘authentic’ humanism, but it’s all there in St. Paul, really: It’s Christ the new Adam; it’s the new man. It’s Gaudium et Spes: Christ is the perfect man; he is the model, or type, of the new creation, which we’re called to. And by following that, it’s an alternative anthropology to the kind of nihilism that underlies so much of contemporary culture.
Please don’t misunderstand me in this, because I think we live in a wonderful world, and a fascinating world, a world of new discoveries, and a fascinating century now, the 21st century. Yes, there are many injustices and huge problems humanity needs to face, but I’m not wanting to say the world is bad or contemporary culture is bad. Many of those secular values of course are derivative from underlying Christian values, but they’re often distorted in different ways; so I’m not taking a sort of black-white approach here, but I am very anxious that, little by little, we’re moving into a new type of anthropology here in contemporary culture, a new vision of man that’s very, very different from the tradition we’d received and from what I’d call the natural way of life in Christ.
What you said, about the new type of anthropology, reminded me of the trilogy, especially the last book — and The Abolition of Man; it’s a theme running through a number of his works, really.
Yes, yes, the thing with C.S. Lewis — and I know you’re interested in apologetics — which I find very problematic, to be honest, is that at the time of C.S. Lewis and those mid-20th century apologists, they belonged to a culture in which there was “common sense” which people went with; the phrase in England was “The man on the Clapham omnibus” — the person you can speak to, appeal to; that everyone understands x or y, and everyone would agree with this or with that. But the problem, in a way, since the Second World War, but certainly since the 1960s — and we’ve got it over here in a big way — is the sheer globalization of pluralism, of contemporary Western cultures, where there doesn’t seem to be the common language anymore, whereas C.S. Lewis could appeal to something everyone knows, that we all agree with.
That makes apologetics today much more complex, and I’m not saying we can’t do it, but the real apologetic is the authenticity, to use that word again, of the Christian witness. I think that speaks very strongly to people in the heart; it makes a big impact upon them. The “Gosh, that man or that woman, they believe what they say, and they live by it. There’s something of the holy, something really genuine about them.” That can be very convincing. But written, rational apologetics is problematic, because the demise of faith is also the demise of reason.
In what sense?
Well, I think in the postmodern thing, there is a lack of conviction, which has become popularized. Philosophers’ ideas have filtered down onto the popularized level — that somehow the truth is now very relative. As you said before, the relativism, and the liberalism that comes with that, we can’t appeal (against); even reason is no longer robust, because “You say this; I say that,” and then someone says, “Well, hang on, what about that …”
Now, natural law: If I use a concept like natural law, as Catholics we probably agree on that, but all of a sudden it’s impossible to talk about it outside Catholic discourse. You say it’s natural for a man and a woman to get married, because the response is “Why can’t two men get married? I know someone; he fell in love with him, and she fell in love with her”; and they bring up all the exceptions, or they appeal to anthropologists, and say, “Well, there’s a tribe in so-and-so that acted in that way.” It’s quite difficult, actually, even to use terms like natural law outside of Catholic discourse.
As I am a convert, having had no religious upbringing, it was that problem of relativism that drew me to objective truth and to the Catholic Church, so I always have trouble relating to this difficulty.
In a way, you can’t have faith without reason, which would be the Catholic position. … But then I would also argue you can’t have that conviction of truth in the way particularly Newman, and many of the great thinkers of Church history, had it, without also having grace.
So we’re back to the very things Pope Benedict was talking about, particularly here in the House of Commons in Parliament, and then the Regensburg lecture, and the Berlin Bundestag speech — some of that in the middle bit of the talk I gave at King’s. So I think a passion for the truth is something graced, and as I was saying in the pastoral letter I put out to the diocese, the truth is always graced — when you speak the truth, it’s laden with the Holy Spirit, piercing the heart of the listener, and wooing or inviting them to accept that truth. You can always refuse it, of course; the Psalm has that: “Oh that today you would listen to his voice, harden not your heart.”
But if we speak the truth, and we do it lovingly, and gently, and appropriately, but also with conviction and prayer, there’s always the hope that someone will actually accept it in their hearts; they might not do it there on the spot, but maybe later on, will actually hear that and appropriate it to themselves, and the words of God can transform that person.
Also in your address at King’s College you mentioned the importance of developing an “effective Catholic apologetics,” and it reminded me of a series of posters made by Catholic Truth Society showing the importance of the faith in realms of scientific endeavor. Are those an example of what you mean by an effective apologetics?
I think that’s excellent. There’s a series of booklets; it’s a course for people becoming Catholic, but one of the pamphlets goes through in every chapter showing the impact on culture, on history, that Catholicism has had, including of course some of the greatest scientists. There is a kind of triumph of scientism, and scientific thinking, that’s captured us: that science gives us the truth, and it’s delivered all these wonderful advances; which of course we wouldn’t say it hasn’t, but it’s only part of human knowing. So there’s a kind of epistemological argument that needs to be done; I think that would be part of apologetics too.
The thing I like about the posters you mentioned is it’s an example of capturing the imagination. I think that in the time of Pope John Paul, and the mid-to-late 20th century, there were big clashes of reason going on, but I’d say today, not only is that important, but also, who is capturing our imaginations? Who is controlling our imaginations? How do we express the Gospel in a way that strikes the heart and captures the imagination and kindles good feelings? And of course as Catholics it’s been very difficult, with the abuse crisis and all of those things: Lots of Catholics are hurting, and that makes it kind of a bit difficult, really. So there’s an internal apologetics, as well as an external.
But I think there’s a big thing about not only arguing the great arguments, the ideologies, but also dealing with: How do we capture people’s imaginations? And as I return to the topic of apologetics: An authentic disciple of Christ can really be a powerful witness. Holiness really is central to apologetics.
You mentioned the importance of capturing imaginations. Is that why you said the most important part of the New Evangelization is promoting our Christian patrimony?
I do think elements of our patrimony are very important, actually, in the New Evangelization; an example of that is the use of Gregorian chant and the Latin liturgy. I can’t do the extraordinary form, but I’m very happy to support the use of that in the diocese where people want it. Certainly I’d be keen, in a gentle way, within the diversity of the whole liturgy of the diocese, to encourage the use of chant, Gregorian chant and the Latin liturgy, because I think for younger people it’s very clear what that is, and it reminds everyone of the catholicity of the Church across space and time. So that’s an example of what I mean about appealing to the patrimony and reviving it and ensuring it’s part of the ongoing transmission of the faith — it moves the heart.
By Latin liturgy, are you referring to the extraordinary form?
Not necessarily. I’m very happy the extraordinary form is available in the diocese, but I think most people won’t be attracted to the extraordinary form. But I think in the ordinary form, the Novus Ordo Mass, it’s very helpful, occasionally and in different places, to ensure that there is Gregorian chant and Latin; I think it’s very attractive to young people.
Actually, at the moment, I’m engaged in the opposite enterprise to that here in the cathedral: I’m trying to put into place a very contemporary music ministry. But going with that is a second project, to establish a Gregorian schola, so we can ensure that we’ve got that as well. We’re working on a Mass for our university students — we have huge numbers of students in Portsmouth — and so I think part of the outreach there is part of it.
More substantially, the centrality of the holy Eucharist, and Eucharistic adoration, and falling love with Christ, and all the means of helping people to grow in prayer — all of that is part of a piece, really, but in terms of the patrimony, that’s an example of what I mean by it.