The agenda here in Wittenberg means that I only catch odd snatches of the Pope in the UK. I also don’t have time to review all the commentary. But, I think I can say this: thank God that the Pope’s visit clears some space for some clear thinking to be expressed.
The Pope is German. He doesn’t show much emotion, yet his feeble voice hides an intellectual rigour that repays attention. It is too easy to write him off (from a secular point of view) because of all the stuff ‘we’ disagree with. In one sense, such sneery dismissal is simply a form of distraction therapy – it makes us feel OK about not actually engaging intellectually with what he has to say and why he says it. The Archbishop of Canterbury often evokes the same response. None of what he said was new, but he made the most of the space cleared for such talk.
In his speech at Westminster Hall he drew a straight line between Christian theology/ethics and the assumptions we now take for granted about the importance of (for example) the rule of law. This thinking did not emerge from a vacuum. This is not to make a ‘truth claim’ for Christianity, but to stake a claim for historical factuality.
He then went on to make a strong prophetic demand to a culture that values banks above people:
The inadequacy of pragmatic, short-term solutions to complex social and ethical problems has been illustrated all too clearly by the recent global financial crisis. There is widespread agreement that the lack of a solid ethical foundation for economic activity has contributed to the grave difficulties now being experienced by millions of people throughout the world.
Just as “every economic decision has a moral consequence” (Caritas in Veritate, 37), so too in the political field, the ethical dimension of policy has far-reaching consequences that no government can afford to ignore… The central question at issue, then, is this: Where is the ethical foundation for political choices to be found?
This is why I would suggest that the world of reason and the world of faith – the world of secular rationality and the world of religious belief – need one another and should not be afraid to enter into a profound and ongoing dialogue, for the good of our civilisation. Religion, in other words, is not a problem for legislators to solve, but a vital contributor to the national conversation…
In this light, I cannot but voice my concern at the increasing marginalisation of religion, particularly of Christianity, that is taking place in some quarters, even in nations which place a great emphasis on tolerance. There are those who would advocate that the voice of religion be silenced, or at least relegated to the purely private sphere…
In recent years it has been encouraging to witness the positive signs of a worldwide growth in solidarity towards the poor.
But to turn this solidarity into effective action calls for fresh thinking that will improve life conditions in many important areas, such as food production, clean water, job creation, education, support to families, especially migrants, and basic healthcare.
Where human lives are concerned, time is always short: yet the world has witnessed the vast resources that governments can draw upon to rescue financial institutions deemed ‘too big to fail’.
Surely the integral human development of the world’s peoples is no less important: Here is an enterprise, worthy of the world’s attention, that is truly ‘too big to fail’.
There you have it: the rule of law, foundations for ethical thinking that is not merely pragmatic, economic justice… all rooted in a clearly thought-through philosophical and theological anthropology.
We might not always like the logic of where his dispassionate thinking takes him, but at least he has the confidence to use his brain in a rigorous way. It is probably too much to hope that his critics will apply the same intellectual and philosophical rigour to their opposition.
However, if they do, the conversation should at least become interesting.