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Work for good in the public square

by
23 March 2010

Churches should join forces with liberal secularist society, argues John Saxbee

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The Church and Secularity: Two stories of liberal society
Robert Gascoigne
Georgetown University Press £18.75
(978-1-58901-490-9)

THIS IS an important, topical, and timely book. Important, because it explores ways in which Churches can be in alliance with, rather than always at odds with, liberal secular societ­ies.

Topical, because whether the Churches choose to define them­selves in relation to, say, beginning-and-end-of-life ethics and sexual ethics, or in relation to socio-economic and justice issues, has never been more important.

Timely, because it is written from a pro-Vatican II Roman Catholic perspective, and develop­ments under Pope Benedict indicate that some degree of regression to a pre-Vatican II ethos may be in evidence.

By a “liberal society” Gascoigne means a society in which appeal to tradition is not sufficient to con-strain or limit individual freedom. Of course, Churches are closely identified with received tradition; so there is a built-in tension be­tween them and liberal society. By analysing the “two stories” told by liberal society, however, Gascoigne argues that it is possible to find a means of resolving this ten­sion.

The first of these stories is of individual freedom as the opportunity to use tradition as a resource to promote the common good and the participation of all people, and especially the most marginalised people, in the decisions that affect their destiny.

The second story is of individual freedom as purely self-indulgent acquisitiveness, in which traditional virtues and values are left behind in the rush to secure one’s own inter­est. It is the difference between positive and negative freedom; be­tween non-instrumental and instru­mental relationships; between love of neighbour and love of self.

In dialogue with the likes of Oliver O’Donovan, Charles Taylor, Andrew Shanks, and William Cavanaugh, and drawing heavily on Vatican II’s Pastoral Constitu-tion on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, and Augus­tine’s City of God, Gascoigne shows how the positive story told by liberal society can enable Christianity and secularity to work together in the public square for the sake of the common good.

Indeed, when the Churches re-late to such a positive story in a positive way, then it can bring to bear on liberal society the virtues of humility, reverence, and self-giving, as well as enabling it to be strength­ened and inspired by hope in order to flourish and sur­vive.

But all this does require Churches in general, and the Roman Catholic Church in particular, to be prepared to see liberal society as a partner in affirming human rights and the dignity of the individual rather than as a pariah wedded to non-ecclesial moral stances based more on polit­ical correctness than theological integrity.

Indeed, when the Churches re-late to such a positive story in a positive way, then it can bring to bear on liberal society the virtues of humility, reverence, and self-giving, as well as enabling it to be strength­ened and inspired by hope in order to flourish and sur­vive.

But all this does require Churches in general, and the Roman Catholic Church in particular, to be prepared to see liberal society as a partner in affirming human rights and the dignity of the individual rather than as a pariah wedded to non-ecclesial moral stances based more on polit­ical correctness than theological integrity.

This looks like a tall order for Roman Catholicism, given its current in­transigent attitude to equal rights for gay people and women in the Church; but moves within Anglican­ism to put issues of global justice and human rights before personal ethics when it comes to creating positive partnerships with like-minded secularists does hold out some hope that Gascoigne’s chal­lenging vision can be realised in the future.

Dr John Saxbee is the Bishop of Lin­coln.

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