One standing temptation for Christians is to withdraw from the public square to the privacy of the home or the church, or some other private place. Desirable as that is as part of one’s prayer life, it is less so as a corporate response – not least because there is nothing more that some secularists would like. It has long been a staple of that line of argument that religious belief is fine, as long as it is kept in a quiet and private place. Those who advocate that belief like to portray it as an attitude of neutrality to faith – but it is nothing of the sort. It presumes that the public square can be occupied by a variety of secularist discourses, but that the bodies which represent the beliefs of millions of our fellow citizens should keep quiet; that is not neutrality, that’s a polemical position trying to pretend it is not one.
Each of our societies is the inheritor of different traditions of how the State and the Church, or churches and other faith groups, interacts. I am not fond of the phrase ‘faith groups’, but it is a convenient way of including all those in our societies who have religious faith as part of their identities – and that may be a point worth remembering. Faith groups have in common an ultimately non0materialist view of man’s ultimate fate, and of the purpose of human life and, indeed, of what constitutes the ‘good’ life; there is, there, a common belief that human standards are best when they align with those revealed by God. Once that would have been a commonplace – now it is almost a revolutionary proclamation. That belief gives all of us a common ground in arguing for the importance of being able to proclaim our beliefs in the public square.
We are, we are often told, in an era of ‘identity politics’. If that is so, then it is as well to remind our politicians that people have many identities – not just one. So, if I look at myself, I am a man, I am a father, I am a husband, I am an historian, I am a university professor with responsibilities to my students and the colleagues whom I lead; I am an Englishman; I am a former Anglican who is now a Roman Catholic. These are all parts of my identity. It will be the same for you, the reader. None of us appreciates being told that some aspects of our identity can be discussed in the public square, but not others. If my concerns as a parent and a husband and a worker are ones which politicians pay attention to, then my other concerns are equally legitimate occupants of the public square. I do not ask for my Christian concerns to be given greater priority, but I do expect them to be given equal priority, not least when they are shared by millions of my fellow countrymen and women.
I can understand some agitation here from the millions of my fellow countrymen and women who do not share my beliefs, but their concerns, however loudly expressed by those with their own agenda, do not negate my rights – and more than mine do their rights. If we take that hottest of issues in the USA, the right to abortion. The State has allowed that. No faithful Catholic can in good conscience abet an abortion. But what should be our attitude to the law? It should be what we would want from those where our own rights are concerned – which is that we should be able to express our views in the public square and vice versa.
That can be a hard one for us as Catholics. We feel a sense of outrage at what, to us, is infanticide, and sometimes we wish to express that forcefully. But we need to remember it is a public square and we are dealing with an act which, however abhorrent it is to us, is legal, and which, to millions with no religious faith, is a ‘woman’s right’ which, in their view, trumps all other arguments. It is when that attitude meets with a similarly intransigent attitude from our side that bad things can happen. A silent and prayerful witness outside an abortion clinic is one thing, and some here will think that hardly enough, but even the giving of pamphlets to a young woman who feels frightened and vulnerable, could seem, to her, like harassment; that would never be our intent, but we can hardly expect others to be sensitive to our motives if we do not return the favour.
The moment we, as Christians, act as though we have the right to dictate what can and cannot be said in the public square in terms of actions the State defines as legal, we place ourselves in danger. We cannot dictate such actions, and if we look as though that’s what we want to do, we play into the hands of those who would argue that actually, for all our talk of plurality, all we really want to do is to go back to the days when the Church could dictate what was said in the public square, and should, therefore, be pushed entirely into the private sphere. Our moral outrage, their moral outrage, everyone’s moral outrage needs to be expressed in a manner which acknowledges the need for a plurality of views to find space in the public square;as we would be done by, we must do to others.