One of the aims of The Iona Institute is to highlight, and to do what we can to counter the rise of aggressive secularism and the consequent and growing threat to freedom of religion and conscience.
Since our launch in January 2007 we have continually drawn attention to what is happening in this regard both in Ireland and overseas.
Just how relevant this work is, was highlighted by remarks made both by Pope Benedict XVI and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, during the Pope’s visit to Britain which ended yesterday.
The big theme of the Pope was the growing marginalisation of religion in many Western societies, including Britain, at the hands of aggressive secularism, and the threat to freedom of conscience and religion typified by the forced closure of Catholic adoption agencies in the UK, the sacking of Christian civil registrars, and the suspending from work of a nurse who offered to pray for a patient.
Upon meeting the Queen on the first day, he asked that Britain “always maintain its respect for those traditional values and cultural expressions that more aggressive forms of secularism no longer value or even tolerate.”
Later that same day at Bellahouston in Glasgow, he spoke of the ‘dictatorship of relativism’ and how it “threatens to obscure the unchanging truth about man’s nature, his destiny and his ultimate good. There are some who now seek to exclude religious belief from public discourse, to privatise it or even to paint it as a threat to equality and liberty.”
And of course in his keynote address in Westminster Hall last Friday he expanded on these themes and drew particular attention to the threat to freedom of conscience and religion.
He stated: “There are those who would advocate that the voice of religion be silenced, or at least relegated to the purely private sphere. There are those who argue that the public celebration of festivals such as Christmas should be discouraged, in the questionable belief that it might somehow offend those of other religions or none. And there are those who argue – paradoxically with the intention of eliminating discrimination – that Christians in public roles should be required at times to act against their conscience. These are worrying signs of a failure to appreciate not only the rights of believers to freedom of conscience and freedom of religion, but also the legitimate role of religion in the public square. (Our italics) I would invite all of you, therefore, within your respective spheres of influence, to seek ways of promoting and encouraging dialogue between faith and reason at every level of national life.”
He said that religious bodies, “including institutions linked to the Catholic Church – need to be free to act in accordance with their own principles and specific convictions based upon the faith and the official teaching of the Church. In this way, such basic rights as religious freedom, freedom of conscience and freedom of association are guaranteed.”
Attentive observers will have realised that this was a reference, among other things, to the forced closure of Catholic adoption agencies because they reject adoption by same-sex couples.
At Lambeth Palace when meeting the Pope, Archbishop Rowan Williams spoke in a similar vein and argued for the right of Christians to speak out on matters of public importance.
He stated: “We do not as churches seek political power or control, or the dominance of Christian faith in the public sphere; but the opportunity to testify, to argue, sometimes to protest, sometimes to affirm – to play our part in the public debates of our societies. And we shall, of course, be effective not when we have mustered enough political leverage to get our way but when we have persuaded our neighbours that the life of faith is a life well lived and joyfully lived.”
There are still differences that divide the various Churches, but they are united against the attempt to drive them from public life. This is a trend The Iona Institute will continue to highlight.