What the Pope Said

So now we have various people claiming the Pope was misunderstood. Let's have a closer look:
The name of Holyroodhouse, Your Majesty’s official residence in Scotland, recalls the “Holy Cross” and points to the deep Christian roots that are still present in every layer of British life. The monarchs of England and Scotland have been Christians from very early times and include outstanding saints like Edward the Confessor and Margaret of Scotland. As you know, many of them consciously exercised their sovereign duty in the light of the Gospel, and in this way shaped the nation for good at the deepest level. As a result, the Christian message has been an integral part of the language, thought and culture of the peoples of these islands for more than a thousand years. Your forefathers’ respect for truth and justice, for mercy and charity come to you from a faith that remains a mighty force for good in your kingdom, to the great benefit of Christians and non-Christians alike. 

We find many examples of this force for good throughout Britain’s long history. Even in comparatively recent times, due to figures like William Wilberforce and David Livingstone, Britain intervened directly to stop the international slave trade. Inspired by faith, women like Florence Nightingale served the poor and the sick and set new standards in healthcare that were subsequently copied everywhere. John Henry Newman, whose beatification I will celebrate shortly, was one of many British Christians of his age whose goodness, eloquence and action were a credit to their countrymen and women. These, and many people like them, were inspired by a deep faith born and nurtured in these islands. 
If he'd said "Chrisitanity has sometimes been a force for good," no reasonable person would quarrel.  He goes too far, though, making it seem as if Christianity has been the wellspring of other forces for good:   "Your forefathers’ respect for truth and justice, for mercy and charity come to you from a faith..."  He seems to say:  religion is the sole or main source of all morality.  That interpretation is confirmed by the rest of the speech.  Why were the Nazis so evil?  They were lacking that thing which is the source of all morality:  religion. 
Even in our own lifetime, we can recall how Britain and her leaders stood against a Nazi tyranny that wished to eradicate God from society and denied our common humanity to many, especially the Jews, who were thought unfit to live. I also recall the regime’s attitude to Christian pastors and religious who spoke the truth in love, opposed the Nazis and paid for that opposition with their lives. As we reflect on the sobering lessons of the atheist extremism of the twentieth century, let us never forget how the exclusion of God, religion and virtue from public life leads ultimately to a truncated vision of man and of society and thus to a “reductive vision of the person and his destiny.”
The Nazis--the "atheist extremists"--excluded God, so "denied our common humanity to many, especially the Jews."  Who stood up to them? He points to "Christian pastors and religious who spoke the truth in love..."  Message: The source of all morality was missing in Nazis, but present in the pastors and also--we are supposed to see--present in the British in the 1940s.
Sixty-five years ago, Britain played an essential role in forging the post-war international consensus which favoured the establishment of the United Nations and ushered in a hitherto unknown period of peace and prosperity in Europe. 
 [etc etc...more good deeds and potential for further good deeds in the future]
But now Britain is in danger from "aggressive forms of secularism"--
Today, the United Kingdom strives to be a modern and multicultural society. In this challenging enterprise, may it always maintain its respect for those traditional values and cultural expressions that more aggressive forms of secularism no longer value or even tolerate. Let it not obscure the Christian foundation that underpins its freedoms; and may that patrimony, which has always served the nation well, constantly inform the example your Government and people set before the two billion members of the Commonwealth and the great family of English-speaking nations throughout the world.

Religion, after all, is the source of morality, he's already implied.  So it's to be expected he would think "aggressive forms of secularism" are a great danger.  No religion, so no morality, so no standing up to Nazis.

The problem is that the Pope is a living question mark over the alleged morality-religion nexus.  The pedophile priests who were shielded by the church--including the pope himself--were religious men, believers.  What could be more morally debased that using a helpless child for sexual gratification?  The Catholic church did not in fact stand up to the Nazis--not the Vatican, and not Catholics in other countries.  Catholic France was only too happy to deport Jews to the death camps.  And Hitler seems to have been a believer himself (follow the links there), not an "atheist extremist."

For some people, faith really is a source for the good.  That ought to be acknowledged--it would be stingy and untruthful to deny it.  It does not follow that when that source ebbs away, other sources will not take its place.  It can be true that faith helped the British stand up to Germany, but also true that today's more secular Britian would still stand up to another Germany.  To say otherwise really is a terrible insult.


Faust said...

"It does not follow that when that source ebbs away, other sources will not take its place."

It would be fruitful for people to discuss how these sources work. Both the religious and non religious sources. How is the good sourced?

Jean Kazez said...

Faust, That's a great question--I'm just saying we shouldn't assume that there's one source, and the source is Christianity. I think there are lots of sources and the whole thing is tricky and not well understood. On my reading list right now--Appiah's new book The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen. I think it might shed light...

Faust said...

Sound's interesting. I'll wait for your review.

In my opinion it's a pressing pragmatic question for atheists.


It's clear to me that this distrust about atheists is not particularly rational, but it's also clear that "atheists" are not perceived as having any way to source the good. Atheism might as well be equivalent to nihilism from the point of view of the average Joe.

I think that Sam Harris' current project is actually a response to this problem: he wants to show that there is a way to source the good out of science. Personally I think his approach is doomed, but I think his instinct that a positive vision for the Good is necessary for atheist public relations is correct.

crystal said...

Yes - depressing for we few Catholics who disagree with the pope. Andrew Brown had an interesting post on the Nazi thing ... Pope Benedict and Nazism