Last week the first Muslim mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, chose to make his opening address to the people of London from Southwark Cathedral. It was an inspiring vision. London’s status as a multicultural, meritocratic city in which even the immigrant Pakistani son of a bus driver can make it to the top has been underlined.
Arguably, however, we are still just as far away from a society in which faith itself is able to play a full role in public life. Or one in which faith-based arguments are seen as legitimate in debates on contemporary topics. As a former politician, I know too well how arguments based on faith are often written off as irrational, prejudiced or, at best, one-sided in a complex world of competing, diverse, religious and non-religious viewpoints. Sometimes a public – or even a private – faith strongly held is deemed impossible to reconcile with high office. The easiest answer for most politicians is just to avoid any mention of faith or God.
But if we accept the privatisation of religion – or the thesis that religion is a purely personal matter – society will be significantly poorer for it.
That is why I think the launch of the Benedict XVI Centre at St Mary’s University last week was an important moment. Drawing inspiration from Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s insistence that faith and reason should not stand in opposition to each other, but complement each other, the Centre is an important new initiative which I hope over time will equip the Church and Christian laity with rational arguments to deploy in public debates. It will bring together academics and practitioners in religion, theology and the social sciences to have a robust and academically rigorous dialogue. If successful, it should help enable a strong Catholic voice to emerge in the public square.
Already a series of seminars based on Catholic social teaching has been scheduled; a study of the implications of Humanae Vitae and a reevaluation of its role almost 50 years after its publication is underway, as is as a major research project on religious attitudes in Britain.
The initiative is essential if we are to underpin public policy debates with the arguments and insights – and facts – necessary to deepen the Catholic understanding of current issues and win over opponents, at a time when it is more important than ever for believers to frame their arguments in a way which can appeal beyond those who share their faith.
It is significant, too, that these debates are happening in a university context. With religion increasingly marginalised in political debate, and virtually absent from the Chamber of the House of Commons, the role of a Catholic university becomes even more important. At St Mary’s we have been challenging ourselves to work through the implications of an increasingly secular political culture for our ethos and mission. Arguably, Catholic universities have a particular responsibility to provide a platform for controversial debates to take place, to challenge and if necessary confront society’s norms and beliefs.
Indeed, Fr Friedrich Bechina, the Vatican’s Undersecretary of the Congregation for Education, who attended and spoke at the launch of the Centre, made clear how important universities could be in preserving and enhancing the Catholic voice on public policy issues. In previous generations real academic freedom, he said, was often perceived as a threat to the dogmas of faith handed down through hierarchy and tradition. The Church authorities were much more concerned about making sure that Catholic universities were doctrinally sound – that there was conformity – than they are today. Now in this generation, under the banner of academic freedom, rigorous academic debates in university settings in which theology and ethics play their proper role, can act as a bastion against an increasingly aggressive secularism.
So how do we interpret our role at St Mary’s? Well, first, it is essential that we don’t try to blur our Catholic identity.
We need to be clear, as we are, about the distinctive mission and role of a state-funded, faith-based institution, as a significant player on the public stage. Second, we have to provide a safe space for debate: a platform for people whose voices would otherwise not be heard. Third, we need to be genuinely inclusive – of people and voices from other faiths, or no faith – and welcome genuine dialogue and debate between different intellectual traditions.
If we get this right, over time, we could see the emergence of a new type of politics, based on a richer conception of the common good of humanity. Not one in which faith is squeezed to the margins of society, and areligious values placed at the centre of our political culture, but one in which faith is openly expressed, and views of human wellbeing arising from faith are debated, challenged and scrutinised alongside others. I hope that St Mary’s – and the Benedict XVI Centre – will play a role in making this happen.
Ruth Kelly is Pro Vice-Chancellor at St Mary’s University and a former Education Secretary.
This article first appeared in the May 13 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here.