In what used to be called Christendom, as well as in lands settled by those originating there, we are in a post-Christian era. The relationship between the State and the Churches has taken many forms across the ages, and no one model has worked for everyone, so it would seem unlikely that any one model will replace it. Looking globally, we see a variety of practice, from countries like China which insist on regulating Churches very tightly (to no good effect, it seems the gerontocracy refuses to learn from history that the best way to encourage Christianity is to attempt to control and suppress it), to the USA, where there is no established Church and a formal separation of Church and State, through varieties of Establishment in places such as England (and I specify England because neither Scotland nor Wales have an Establishment).
The post-Christian element is important because it means that most of our governing elites have some ideas about Christianity, mostly formed, as some of them are happy to admit, by listening to the loudest voices in the public square – which is why some of them are so hostile to Christianity. Whether we like it or not, Christianity is, for them, just one of a number of faiths which have to be listened to – or not – and our demands in terms of laws have to compete with other ‘human rights’. It is precisely because it is so easy to mistake a liberal elite consensus for the norm that it is done, and so our Governments proceed on the assumption that what they and those whom they know want, is what everyone wants; when that is challenged, the assumption is that those doing the challenging are wrong. We sometimes get a vivid insight into how members of the elite feel on such occasions, the most notable recent one was President Obama talking about people clinging to their Bibles and their guns. This is not the sign of a failure of empathy, it is a sign of the contempt in which some members of the liberal elite hold those who disagree with them. We see a version of this in social media, where so many expressions of liberal hostility to conservatism are cast in personal form. It is not enough to say, for example, that the former Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan-Smith is pursuing policies which are misguided and which have bad effects – rather, it was de rigeur to insist his motives are evil and that he hates the poor. Similarly, the notion that in defending the rights of the unborn, Christians are doing just that, is set aside by charges that they are in some sense ‘anti-women’ (when more females babies are aborted than male?) and oppressive.
As one might expect, the battle lines are fiercest in ares where the liberal consensus has moved furthest away from Christian conceptions of morality – abortion, sexual activity outside marriage, homosexuality. On one side are Christians outraged at such a departure, on the other, those who have nothing to do with Christianity and the Churches and cannot for the life of them see why the State should pay any attention to the Churches. Both sides tend to take up entrenched positions, and to the majority who don’t, the Christian position often seems incomprehensible. To a population which knows little about Christianity, the cry ‘if whatever they are doing is legal and concerns only themselves, what’s the problem?’ As we saw in Ireland, a Church mired in a history of clerical child abuse, and which was widely held to have been oppressive when it had the upper hand, failed to make much headway against the campaign to allow gay marriage.
The biggest danger to the Churches lies in the repetition of this phenomenon across a wide range of issues. Many Christian Churches have not yet grown accustomed to being one of many voices, or seen the danger coming from the more aggressive secularists who, mistaking their own position for the norm, want to ban all voices which conflict with their views. At the very least, we have to insist on the right to a plurality of voices in the public square – but that means recognising the rights of others to speak there too. It also means working within education and politics to ensure a degree of literacy abut faith – a task in which we will find ourselves welcomed by those of other faiths. If we have not even catechised our own flocks, and if as a consequence many of them have little idea of even the rudiments of Catholic teaching, then we have a mountain to climb in getting there with governing elites who often look on us with hostility and incomprehension.
It is easy enough to turn from the task and glory in the world being hostile – Christ said it would be – and in the end it always will be. But that does not absolve us from the task of bearing witness in a way that makes people interested in what such people believe, rather than recoiling from our biliousness.