Mission impossible?

Here…”early one spring morning…”

Some encouraging words for Christians who might be feeling beleagured just now by the forces which they might feel are ranged up against them in the world at large – either in hi-jacked democratic institutions or in a full-scale onslaught on life and limb.

“Mission impossible: No other expression can summarize the command given to a small group of people on the Mount of Olives, early one spring morning at the dawn of the Christian era: ‘You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and then you will be my witnesses not only in Jerusalem but throughout Judea and Samaria, and indeed to the ends of the earth’ (Acts: 8). Christ’s last words had all the appearance of insanity. Neither rich nor learned nor influential, how were those simple people
from this lost corner of the Roman empire supposed to carry to the whole world the message of a recently executed man?

“Within the span of three hundred years, a large part of the Roman world had converted to the Christian way of life. The doctrine of the Crucified had conquered the persecutions of the powerful, the contempt of the learned, and the hedonist’s resistance to moral demands. Christianity is today the world’s greatest spiritual force. Only God’s grace can explain it. But his grace has worked through men and women who lived up to the mission they received.”

Blessed Alvaro del Portillo

Religious hostilities have increased in every major region of the world

The share of countries with a high or very high level of social hostilities involving religion reached a six-year peak in 2012, according to a new study by the Pew Research Center. A third (33%) of the 198 countries and territories included in the study had high religious hostilities in 2012, up from 29% in 2011 and 20% as of mid-2007. Religious hostilities increased in every major region of the world except the Americas. The sharpest increase was in the Middle East and North Africa, which still is feeling the effects of the 2010-11 political uprisings known as the Arab Spring.1 There also was a significant increase in religious hostilities in the Asia-Pacific region, where China edged into the “high” category for the first time.

Read the Pew report here.

“The most abused Faith on earth”

One of Irish television leading public square venues, The Frontline, recently took up the question of whether or not Irish faith communities were under attack from an aggressive secularism. It was, to say the least, a somewhat inconclusive debate. It might have been much better had it been asked to confront Michael Coren, whose latest book, Heresy: Ten Lies They Spread About Christianity has just been published.  

Coren, English born Canadian journalist and broadcaster, of Jewish antecedents, convert to Catholicism (twice), has just been interviewed by Charles Lewis in the National Post and spells out his view very clearly. In the West generally, he believes, Christians are now

“marginalized, they’re mocked, they’re told their views don’t belong, they’re told to keep their views out of the public square and keep their religion at home. And where it can be quite sinister is at universities where Christian students are told that their ideas are stupid. I’ve even seen it with my children who are in university. Somehow Christianity is not a valid area of thought any longer. You can bring your socialism, your feminism, your homosexuality, your anti-Zionism into the class but if you bring your Christianity that’s not to be taken seriously.”

No Christian carrying a banner for their Faith in the cultural mainstream of the West today would have any difficulty producing evidence to uphold every one of these assertions.  Any Catholic in Ireland today, seriously faithful to the teaching authority of that Church knows full well that they are on the frontline of a battle with a very militant force opposing them on all and more of the issues listed by Coren.

Coren calls Christianity the most abused faith on Earth. “I believe the evidence is overwhelming,” he writes.

 “I believe… that Christianity is the main, central, most common, and most thoroughly and purposefully marginalized, obscured, and publicly and privately mis-represented belief system in the final decades of the twentieth century and the opening years of the twenty-first century.” He rails that the same intellectual class that so quickly condemns anything Christian will do cartwheels to explain away Islamic terrorism.

Lewis put it to Coren in his interview that there is a lot about Christianity that can seem unreal: the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection of Jesus. Is it any surprise that people sometimes have trouble taking it seriously? To this Coren replies that these are really side-shows in the mocking game and that what they are really mocked for are the moral consequences of their beliefs: that life begins at conception and ends at natural death, that abortion is wrong, that promiscuity is wrong. “We live in a culture where no one wants to hear the word ‘no’” he says.

He lays bare the culture of intolerance facing orthodox Christianity:

“Intelligent people will give other ideologies and other religions a great deal of room to try to understand. When it comes to Christianity they seem to assume that any sense of fairness or sympathy should be thrown out the window. They will say things that are blatantly stupid.

“The idea that because a tiny number of Catholic priests acted in an appalling manner should jaundice everything said by the Roman Catholic Church is also so illogical. You might as well say that no comment by a Canadian should ever be taken seriously because there are some serial killers in Canada.”

On the issue of orthodox Christians’ position on homosexual acts he says they are being told our view on homosexuality is somehow wrong and called homophobic. “They’re going to be called homophobic whatever they do. I think the Catholic Church has spent too much time worrying about the reaction it might get rather than reacting itself.

“If someone calls me a homophobe because I believe marriage is between one man and one woman, then I would rejoice in that. But frankly, with gay friends, I try to avoid the subject. They know I am opposed to gay marriage and they also know I’m fond of them as people and would defend them against personal attack. But let me be clear, anyone who hates gay people is a moral criminal.”

 In the book Coren defends, but also contextualizes, the fact that the abortion question has such a high profile for Christians in the culture wars. In the first place it is because they feel intensely that they’re part of an institution given by God. This institution upholds the sacredness of all human life. Because of that “they feel it more when the most vulnerable are destroyed. And they feel it more intensely than other people. I guess we are obsessed because it is such a tragedy. And if we dare to mention it, the world tells us to be quiet.”

In his book Coren takes on Dan Brown’s ludicrous but astonishingly popular The Da Vinci Code. Why, his interviewer asks, given that by now Brown’s pot-boiler has become somewhat passé?

“Well,” he says, “it has influenced millions of people. They’ve been led by the book to read other books that oppose Christianity. Brown quotes real people and he makes a lot of it seem like non-fiction. I thought it was worth taking on again.” Above all he wanted to make sure that what is in The Da Vinci Code is shown again to be false.

So, the next time Radio Telefis Eireann, the BBC or any other broadcaster, takes up the issue of whether or not militant secularism is a reality, perhaps they should get an airline ticket for Michael Coren and bring him on to give us his formidable point of view.

The Spirit of the Maccabees

The history of the Jewish people tells the story of what is regarded as the first religious persecution of the Graeco-Roman world. This is the account of the ruthless, brutal but ultimately futile attempt by Antiochus IV to Hellenise the culture of the Jews by destroying their own religion. The biblical version of the story, contained in 1 and 2 Macabees, recounts an event which typifies the persecution at its height – the martyrdom of a widow and her seven sons who refuse to deny their God and submit to the self-styled god-ruler, Antiochus. The story of the persecution culminates with the eventual revolt against the persecution by the old priest, Mattathias and the subsequent war against the tyrant led by his son, Judas Maccabeus.

It is a story which resonates down through history, century after century, millennium after millennium. It still does so today. Pope Benedict XVI might well be a latter-day Mattathias when he recently exhorted his brother bishops of the United States of America to resist the encroachments of what he even suggests may be a new tyranny facing those who put a value on their religion to the extent that they see it as an essential part of their very way of being in this world.

When a culture attempts to suppress the dimension of ultimate mystery, and to close the doors to transcendent truth, it inevitably becomes impoverished and falls prey, as the late Pope John Paul II so clearly saw, to reductionist and totalitarian readings of the human person and the nature of society.

Pope Benedict, speaking to the US bishops on their recent visit to Rome, reflected on America’s historical experience of religious freedom, and specifically the relationship between religion and culture. At the heart of every culture, the Pope said, whether perceived or not, is a consensus about the nature of reality and the moral good, and thus about the conditions for human flourishing. In America, that consensus…was grounded in a worldview shaped not only by faith but a commitment to certain ethical principles deriving from nature and nature’s God. Today that consensus has eroded significantly in the face of powerful new cultural currents which are not only directly opposed to core moral teachings of the Judeo-Christian tradition, but increasingly hostile to Christianity as such.

Pope Benedict spoke to the bishops of the United States but he might equally have said this to all the bishops and all the Christians of the wider Anglo-world – Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Britain and Ireland. In all these countries a clear agenda is emerging from the dominant political classes which is not only seeking to “liberalise” laws and custom but is seeking to marginalise out of existence any who seek to live by and speak out in favour of another way, a way which they argue is the one which best serves mankind’s true flourishing.

Just recently in Ireland, a member of the Dáil (the country’s lower house of parliament), Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, said to be a ”major influence” on the Education Minister, Rory Quinn, spoke openly to The Irish Catholic newspaper, saying ”that religious ethos has no place in the educational system of a modern republic”. The remarks follow an accusation by the Labour Party that Catholic schools are breaking the law over enrolment policies in the way that they admit Catholic children to their classrooms.

Deputy Ó Ríordáin said  ”I see no reason for to give a faith-based school any protection” to ensure that it can fulfil its mission to provide a faith-based education in line with the denominational ethos of the school by way of an admissions policy.

Dr John Murray of Dublin’s Mater Dei Institute of Education said the Labour move amounted to an attempt to ”intimidate” the schools. ”It is nothing less than an attack on the religious freedom of denominational schools,” he said. Nor did he see it as just a Catholic issue: ”A curb on the enrolment policy of denominational schools would hit Church of Ireland schools particularly hard because Church of Ireland children are often a small minority in their own communities and if their schools couldn’t admit Church of Ireland children first, then they would face the prospect of having to turn away the very children they were established to serve,” he said.

Mr Ó Ríordáin’s views do nothing to reassure Christian denominations of the sincerity of Minister Quinn’s words a few months ago that ”religious education will have an important place in the future of education in Ireland”. Minister Quinn makes no secret of his atheistic secularism. In his view Ireland is a post-Christian society in the making – if not already made.

In some critical instances, of course, laws and constitutional roadblocks are thwarting this process – Ireland’s Constitution has so far successfully protected her society from abortion on demand. However, this remains constantly under pressure and the present Irish government’s recently established “expert” study group looking into the matter is now the focus of national and international media speculation as to whether or not the pro-abortion lobby will eventually succeed in getting the legislation it wants.

The remodelling of the Irish education system, a system which currently has a strong commitment to education in a context of religious faith, is another plank on the secularist platform.  There are more. All these planks are designed to chip away and erode the overall Christian cultural ethos of the society. The most sinister of all is probably the one to which the Pope himself refers in his address – the drive to push out of the public square anyone who speaks of ideas which connect in any way with their religious faith.

This agenda, for example, concedes no rights to a Church which, in Benedict’s words, alluding to Vatican II’s Gaudium et spes, not only proposes unchanging moral truths but proposes them precisely as the key to human happiness and social prospering (cf. Gaudium et Spes, 10). To the extent that some current cultural trends contain elements that would curtail the proclamation of these truths, whether constricting it within the limits of a merely scientific rationality, or suppressing it in the name of political power or majority rule, they represent a threat not just to Christian faith, but also to humanity itself and to the deepest truth about our being and ultimate vocation, our relationship to God.

The people driving this agenda have no time for the Pope’s justification of the Church’s defence of a moral reasoning based on the natural law and grounded on her conviction that this law is not a threat to our freedom, but rather a “language” which enables us to understand ourselves and the truth of our being, and so to shape a more just and humane world. Nor do they believe him when he says that the Church proposes her moral teaching as a message not of constraint but of liberation, and as the basis for building a secure future.

The Pope agues coherently that the Church’s witness is of its nature public: she seeks to convince by proposing rational arguments in the public square. The legitimate separation of Church and State cannot be taken to mean that the Church must be silent on certain issues, nor that the State may choose not to engage, or be engaged by, the voices of committed believers in determining the values which will shape the future of the nation.

Benedict XVI does not mince his words and has no qualms about describing what he sees as grave threats to the Church’s public moral witness presented by a radical secularism which finds increasing expression in the political and cultural spheres.

Of particular concern to him are the attempts he sees being made to limit the freedom of religion. In the American context he alludes to concerted efforts being made to deny the right of conscientious objection on the part of Catholic individuals and institutions with regard to cooperation in intrinsically evil practices. Others have spoken to me of a worrying tendency to reduce religious freedom to mere freedom of worship without guarantees of respect for freedom of conscience.

To help counter all this the Pope calls for an engaged, articulate and well-formed Catholic laity endowed with a strong critical sense vis-à-vis the dominant culture and with the courage to counter a reductive secularism which would delegitimize the Church’s participation in public debate about the issues which are determining the future of American society. His call can apply to all societies which have the right to call themselves genuinely democratic.

He concluded his address: No one … can ignore the genuine difficulties which the Church encounters at the present moment. Yet in faith we can take heart from the growing awareness of the need to preserve a civil order clearly rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition, as well as from the promise offered by a new generation of Catholics whose experience and convictions will have a decisive role in renewing the Church’s presence and witness in American society. The hope which these “signs of the times” give us is itself a reason to renew our efforts to mobilize the intellectual and moral resources of the entire Catholic community in the service of the evangelization of American culture and the building of the civilization of love.

Things are unlikely to get as bad as they were when the Jewish people faced the forces of Hellinisation some 2200 years ago. Nevertheless the spirit of Mattathias and his sons, expressed in different ways and with different means, seems to be very much what the Pope is calling for  – and not just in America but right across the Anglo-world.