When the Prime Minister repeated his view in April 2014 that Britain is a Christian country, it was hard to forget two things – what he said to Pope Benedict on his departure from England at East Midlands airport in 2010 and his argument against the Archbishop of Westminster over the effects of welfare reforms in February.
To Pope Benedict, Mr Cameron recalled Newman’s lesson from the decline of ancient Rome, about a state that had lost its “sentiment of sacredness” and its need for a “common bond of unity” based on more than the unanimity of self-interest (Lectures on the History of the Turks in their Relation to Europe, Lecture 7, Barbarism and Civilisation). Reflecting the Pope’s observation at Westminster Hall that British constitutional values concerning power, democracy and liberty have much in common with Catholic Social Teaching, he latched onto the Pope’s “challenge” for humanity to embrace its true purpose with “the new culture of social responsibility we want to build in Britain”, of which “faith is part of the fabric”. Such responsibility is more than working for the common good. It estimates Britain in theological terms, going beyond faith as personal profession, to faith - specifically the Christian faith - as defining British civilisation and a national life together conceived on Christian lines. Thus, whatever our hard-won tradition of tolerance and personal religious liberty, nonetheless Britain is a corporately Christian state.
On Cardinal Nichols (as he now is) he observed, “Many of the great political questions of our time are also moral questions – we should not be surprised, and nor should we be dismissive, when members of the clergy make their views known. But neither should political leaders be afraid to respond… The Archbishop of Westminster … offered a critique of this Government’s welfare reforms. I respect his view but I also disagree with it deeply.”
It is hard to reconcile the two comments. First he admires a society that is unified in purpose, bears a sacred character, and thus resonates with Catholic Social Teaching. Next, when a Catholic Social Teacher “challenges” (Mr Cameron’s word!) the direction that British society’s purpose is taking - because in its effects it is unpicking the fabric of the common good of which is part - it is extraordinary that he personally goes to the lengths of arguing against the Church’s moral critique of these effects, point by point, in The Daily Telegraph (18 February). It is important to recognise that the Cardinal was not casting doubt on the decency or good faith of political reformers, let alone involving himself with the practicalities which are the concern of party politics. But in any state, especially a professedly Christian state, Christian teaching about how the Kingdom of God is served in this world has to be heeded, not just noted “with respect”. For, far from being “simply untrue”, as the Prime Minister complained, everything Cardinal Nichols had stated about people’s safety net being withdrawn came from the direct experience of priests, parishes, charitable organisations and other dioceses and Churches across Britain. Thus he was merely doing what a certain type of British politician says the Church should confine itself to – defining what is right and where people are going wrong, and thus saving people’s souls. He had acknowledged that politicians were trying to repair public finances, as well as to break dependency, stimulate more employment and improve more prosperous livelihoods in a sustainable way, with the necessary support for those at greatest risk. But he also pointed out, whatever the good intentions, that systems and the politics behind them are not neutral or occupy a different compartment of the universe from the “spiritualities” – they boil down to personal effects on individual households; and when this causes hardship, especially noticeably wider hardship, there is a moral question to be answered. Thus the Cardinal was not just expressing his “views” with which the Prime Minister felt free to disagree “deeply”; he was speaking truth unto power. Power found this “challenge” uncomfortable, weighed it respectfully, set aside what it had earlier said to Pope Benedict, and rejected the Cardinal’s application of Catholic social teaching.
So did the Prime Minister also dismiss the “sentiment of sacredness” and the “common bond of unity” arising from it? When Mr Cameron says “Christian”, he means a rather individualised version of “Protestant”. In a Protestant society, the individual believer is his or her own interpreter of the Bible, needing no mediation from the Church for access to God, faith or salvation. The Church conducts worship based on the Bible and its clergy’s preaching is authoritative because the theology tradition claims it says nothing more, nothing less than is explicit in the text. In such a society, this may be fine as long as the State likewise sees itself as subject to the Scriptures (and can thus use the Church to keep the people there too). But when the nature of the text of the Bible itself is open to question - its formation, its origins, its literary genres, its historical and social contexts, its standing as literal, analogical or allegorical truth – who is the interpreter then? What authority privileges the “view” of the Church – in other words, her teaching - when all the world is free to decide from out of the same Scriptures their own religious teaching and moral choice, rather than those of the Body as a whole?
Thus Britain, a confessionally Christian state, has abandoned the defence of marriage and family stability by facilitating divorce; it has undermined the corporate observance of Sunday and the principal Christian holy days (notably Good Friday and Ascension Day) in favour of the pressures of the market; it has engineered the exclusion of historic Catholic institutions that helped to found the nation’s childcare services from any further role in adoption and fostering; it is tacitly softening the application of the laws that strictly limit abortion and forbid euthanasia; it is barring the professional freedom of Catholics and other Christian doctors and nurses working in general practice and reproductive healthcare if they are conscientiously opposed to the termination of the lives of unborn children, or refuse to refer applicants to those who are not. There are numerous further examples.
Yet this is not because any of our succession of church-going Prime Ministers is not Christian. It is because they do not see that, beyond a moral or spiritual critique, the Church has bearing on society, and how individuals live their lives in good conscience and under the law, any more than anyone else. The individual is free to decide, the Archbishop of Westminster is entitled to his views and a Christian Prime Minister “deeply disagrees” with him. No one wants a theocracy, social rule by religious leaders. Nor do we want this or that political leader’s subjective impression of Christianity, its generalised values and supposed historic influences, rather than what it teaches and demands. Instead we need a society that is able to integrate, rather than balance off against each other, our political and our spiritual identity, one that is, as Mr Cameron himself said to Pope Benedict, a “fabric” where faith is not a patch stitched on but in the weave.
For this to happen, England needs the Christians of this country to be united, not at odds. A society with political, social, historical, moral and spiritual integrity deserves a Church that brings Christ’s voice to bear upon it because she is His Body exemplifying His wholeness in humanity; a society without wholeness even more deserves the Church that brings integrity to its political, social, historical, moral and spiritual identity for it truly to be humanity. Only the Catholic Church can provide this; not because its universal extent in time and place can be all-encompassing, but because its social teaching is the teaching of Christ about human beings and how they are designed by God in the image of Christ to make up one humanity in Him. This is not a view, or one critique among many. It is how things are from the perspective of the Kingdom of Heaven and how they ought to be conformed in the kingdoms of this world. In a Christian society, it is not merely to be taken into account by the rulers, but internalised and put into practice.
The alternative is a society defenceless against monstrosity. One hundred years ago, Britain and Ireland went to war in defence of “little Catholic Belgium”. Four years ago, the centuries-old “folk Catholicism” of Belgium and its uneasy modus vivendi with political liberalism were irrevocably shattered, when Bishop Roger Vangheluwe of Brugge admitted the sustained abuse of two nephews. Nuns were heckled in the streets, priests advised not to appear in public, the Archbishop of Brussels-Malines repeatedly assaulted with custard pies, and the retired Cardinal Danneels questioned by police. In March 2014 King Filip of the Belgians, whose uncle King Baudouin had abdicated rather than approve the legalisation of abortion, signed into law the euthanasia of children.
A remarkable recent book, Justice, Unity and the Hidden Christ, by Matthew John Paul Tan, explains what has been going on in advanced Western societies, by asking why, when there is so much need for Christians to unite in addressing the ills of society, and there are so many opportunities for the concerted social action in service of suffering humanity that Vatican II’s Decree on Ecumenism called for, Christian unity has not come to pass and the Church remains in a state of rupture. Tan locates the problem in the decision of the Church in the modern world to recognise the freedom of the world and its social, economic and political structures from the Church, allowing them to migrate beyond the realm of the Kingdom of God. The Church may seek to set the tone, but civil society and the state have autonomy in their own, separate sphere. Free from the boundaries of the reign of Christ, the state and civil society identify their own ultimate objective, which now becomes earth-and-time-bound, in preference to the end of all things - the good, and the coming of the Kingdom, such as we see in the Beatitudes and the Lord’s Prayer.
Tan sees the Church in shock and denial at the flight of its child and what it has chosen for its path to happiness. For instead of the Kingdom, the state and civil society have chosen for their own the objectives of the unfettered market. This means unconstrained personal liberty, even to the interpersonal “violence” that means one person may prevail over the rest. In this context, says Tan, it is hardly surprising that the Churches have not been able to draw together in serving the realisation of the unity of humanity in Christ, because the new “state/society/market matrix” actively prevents them from doing so. The Christian Churches have been constrained to be part of a market of choice and competition – not just with each other but with every other ware on offer. Thus the Universal Catholic Church can hope at best, if it is to engage with the world to which it has given spiritual liberty, to serve as its chaplain. It is a far cry from Newman’s state with both a common bond of unity and a sentiment of sacredness, or even Mr Cameron’s socially responsible state, with faith woven through its “fabric”. But it is what we have come to.
Tan’s remedy is to say that the Church’s diakonia – its service of the Kingdom in and for the world - whether ecclesial or ecumenical - would be impossible now, unless it is united with its leitourgia. This is not just its “liturgy” as the work of the people to worship God, but the work of God for and upon the worshipping people. By this he means that it is time for the Church to reassert itself as the alternative humanity, the “still more excellent Way”, restoring as its end the objective that points us towards God and his Kingdom. Thus humanity can recover a proper view of the human person, and of its relations with the other, that is not modelled on the untrammelled needs of the market and unfettered personal liberalism, but on the endless self-giving and mutually receiving of the persons of the Trinity, as the pattern for the people of God and the best, the only true, pattern for the whole of humanity.
With regard to our leitourgia – how we are the humanity focussed upon God and His Kingdom – Tan believes that the way we celebrate Mass and the direction we offer it actually conforms us to the “state-society-market matrix” that frustrates us so. In other words, we aim at ourselves and our own progress and development, rather than Christ and His Kingdom. This is why we are of no use to the world and why we cannot collaborate ecumenically in a lasting way that can be consolidated, in order to transform the ills of the world by looking to the transcending intervention of the Kingdom of God in our own hands as its People.
This is also why the People of God fails to exhibit itself as the Body of Christ; for, as chaplain to the “state-society-market matrix”, we are forced to pursue its objectives and not those of the Kingdom. The “matrix” will seek the Kingdom, not because the Church as its chaplain exhorts it to, but because that happens to suit its ends for the moment. People of God we may call ourselves, but we are merely “people” like anyone else, competing in the market place of ideas and offers and objectives. Hence, we need to declare our own freedom from this “matrix”, in order to reassert the sovereignty of God and the lack of society’s autonomy to direct itself as though it lies beyond the Kingdom of God and the hearing of the teaching of Christ and His Church. As Martin Luther said, “Let God be God” – not what political leaders, however well-meaning and personally devout, need Him to be and to mean from this day to that.
In 2013, a commemorative stone was set into the floor of the West Door of Westminster Cathedral, commemorating the visit of Pope Benedict XVI. Its Latin says that he “celebrated the Mass … showing what advantage faith may be to society.” Advantage? Is that all that is left for us to offer? Is faith not the “sentiment of sacredness” of a state’s very fabric, sealing that “common bond of unity” that forms society out of more than the mere coming together of otherwise divergent and sectional interests?
We are a country of wondrous diversity in which all have a stake and all possess rights and mutual obligations. Our traditions of freedom of speech, of personal and corporate religious liberty, of tolerance, equality and the rule of law have been won at the price of blood that live on in our collective memory as both defining our present identity and a warning from history. But our society is not Christian because Christianity transmits values we can all mostly sign up to, or because Christ reigns in all or some of our hearts, feebly or strongly, high in archbishops and ministers of the Crown, or low in us normal people around the altars and pulpits of our churches. It is Christian because the kingdoms of this world have become the Kingdom of Our Lord and of His Christ. This does not depend on a ministerial evaluation, or because the Church can make a convincing argument. Christ reigns in and over society, whatever we think. That is just the way humanity and the universe have been made. To this the Church holds it.