Cardinal Pell Analyzes Religion's Role in Modern Life
By Father John Flynn, LC
ROME, 18 NOV. 2007 (ZENIT)
How to reconcile moral principles with the
political and social demands of a secularized society is one of the main
underlying fault lines in many contemporary debates. Some valuable
reflections on the subject are contained in a book just published in
"God and Caesar: Selected Essays on Religion, Politics, and Society,"
jointly published by Connor Court Publishing and the Catholic University
of America Press, is made up of 10 essays by Sydney's archbishop,
Cardinal George Pell.
In the introduction to the essays, Cardinal Pell acknowledges that his
central concerns are religious. Therefore, philosophical writings should
not be seen as a substitute for the need to follow Christ's call to
conversion, but rather as a contribution to dialogue with the
Law and morality is the topic of the first essay. While the law must be
applicable to all, regardless of their beliefs, the supposition that law
and morality must always be separated is questionable, Cardinal Pell
In fact, the morality that most seek to exclude is almost always
Christian. This silencing of morality is based on false premises, the
cardinal argues. For a start, any law implicitly contains a certain
moral view of society. A law that legalizes abortion or euthanasia,
especially if it appeals to some sort of right to these procedures, is
clearly posited on an argument that is moral in its nature.
Moreover, many Christian moral principles are based on arguments drawn
from reason, such as the dignity of the human person, and are therefore
more universal than precepts drawn from a particular religious position.
The essay challenges, "Is defending life on the basis of the inviolable
dignity of the person really the same thing as imposing one's personal
views on the rest of the community?"
Referring to Pope John Paul II, Cardinal Pell notes that democracies are
having difficulty in defining rights and run the risk of falling into a
situation where fundamental questions are decided in an arbitrary
manner. When freedom is exalted as an absolute without any limits, then
it finishes in relativism. In turn, this deforms law from being a
protector of life and society, into a force that undermines them.
"Freedom today, in its everyday sense, means the limitlessness of
possibility: Whatever you want, whatever you like, you can do it," the
cardinal notes in one of the book's essays.
Cardinal Pell asks if democracy really require us to live in a situation
where we are afflicted by millions of abortions, a flourishing
pornography industry, high levels of divorce and marriage breakdown,
legalized euthanasia and research using embryos.
The challenge here for Christians, the cardinal observes, is to
formulate in human, nonreligious terms, "why the protection of the moral
ecology is necessary and important for society." This requires, he
recommends, respect for others, engaging in dialogue, and the creation
of trust and friendship.
Another essay in the book warns, however, of a possible pitfall in this
dialogue concerning human rights, namely the error of putting as an
exclusive absolute the concept of the primacy of conscience. Too often,
Cardinal Pell warns, "the primacy of conscience is being used to justify
what we would like to do rather than discover what God wants us to do."
Individual conscience, he continues, does not confer the right to reject
or distort the principles of morality contained in the Bible and
subsequently affirmed and developed by the Church.
In addition, if we deny the role of a truth that is greater than our own
preferences, we run the risk of undermining both reason and human
rights, Cardinal Pell affirms. "The denial of truth makes impossible an
enduring concept of justice that genuinely serves human life and love,"
Law and morality
Turning to the question of the Church and politics, Cardinal Pell warns
against forgetting the vertical dimension of religion, which would
result in reducing the kingdom of God to the building of a just society.
Church leaders need to speak out on certain matters where public
morality is at stake, but there are many other issues where it is not
the role of ecclesiastical authorities to enter into the details of
The roles of government and church are clearly different. Nevertheless,
he added, it is important to keep in mind that while "Catholics can
acknowledge that not all immoral activities should be illegal, it does
not follow that all legal activities are thereby moral."
One valuable contribution that the Church and believers can make to the
state is to provide a source of values. The temptation of individualism
and materialism cannot be countered adequately by a purely secular
approach, said Cardinal Pell.
In fact, in the essay "Catholicism and Democracy" the archbishop of
Sydney observes that many of the institutions of modern society, ranging
from universities to hospitals and schools, owe their origin and
development to Christianity.
Attempts to privatize religious belief are justified by an appeal to the
importance of maintaining neutrality in the public arena, the cardinal
notes. Nevertheless, this is not real neutrality, but a way of silencing
opponents and imposing a specific cultural view.
In a democracy, religion can play a vital role through its influence on
the family and daily living. Christianity also serves as a
counterbalance to the excesses of a rights culture that only too often
forgets we also have duties.
The natural right for children to be loved and reared by a father and a
mother, for example, is a matter of justice that should be supported by
society and the state. Unfortunately, Cardinal Pell laments, the state
today only too often encourages the breakdown of marriage and the
"Supporting marriage and the family is just one way in which strong
religious belief and belief in human rights combined can help expose the
pseudo-rights of modernity," the cardinal observes.
Religion can also play a key role in favor of love and not violence, for
service and not for triumph. It is important, therefore, that the
efforts of dogmatic liberalism that seek to silence the Church not
triumph. In theory, Cardinal Pell adds, liberalism ought to be concerned
about giving everyone an equal voice. Only too often, however, "dogmatic
secular liberals increasingly use liberalism to exclude the voice of the
Faced with such attacks Cardinal Pell advises an approach in which it is
made clear that many Christian moral arguments are based on not only
revealed truth, but also on natural law truths, which are acceptable to
all regardless of their religion.
Another point to keep in mind is to avoid making an absolute of
democracy, as if it were endowed with some species of infallibility.
"The legitimacy of a democracy, as of any form of government, stands or
falls on whether it serves the common good, and does so well," according
to Cardinal Pell.
Resolving conflicts about rights, he continues, would be well served if
society were to take seriously the concept of natural rights. Democracy
needs to be legitimated by a concern for the common good and basic human
rights. Rights that are founded on the moral truth about the person. A
truth only too often lost from sight in many countries today.