Will the Pope Make Britain Sit Up and Think?

Posted on September 21, 2010


Conservative Party Co-Chairman Baroness Warsi was reported last week to have pledged that the Coalition Government will ‘restore faith to the heart of Britain’.

Her comments came on the eve of the first ever State Visit by a reigning Pope to Britain. During his visit the Pope spoke strongly on several occasions about the role that faith can play in public life. In an Address to British Society in Westminster Hall, the place where Sir Thomas More was condemned to death, he spoke eloquently of the ‘corrective’ role that religious belief can play vis-à-vis reason in public discourse. ‘Religion’, he argued, ‘is not a problem for legislators to solve, but a vital contributor to the national conversation.’

If faith is to take up a place in public discourse, then it is time for a much overdue revolution in State thinking about the meaning of the term ‘subsidiarity’. As it is often understood in Britain, and indeed across the European Union, subsidiarity means central government setting the agenda and then delegating tasks to subordinate institutions in order to keep them busy. Local government, voluntary groups and so on, are viewed as co-operators with central government in helping it achieve the aims it has set for the nation. A correct understanding of subsidiarity involves the reverse of this process. Families and local communities set the agenda, and are then helped by governmental institutions which put expertise and resources at their disposal. National Government provides help which of its nature cannot be provided by subordinate arms of government, and co-ordinates the work of all, as well as being watchful that the agenda set by local communities does not run counter to the common good, or violate the country’s deepest cultural traditions.

Baroness Warsi’s comments run counter not only to the tone set by the previous government, but also to many of the sounds heard coming from front-bench members of the Coalition. Whilst the Prime Minister has spoken on a number of occasions about his dream of a ‘Big Society’ in which the role that religious charities can play in the public sphere is given greater recognition, this role was obviously not envisaged to include Catholic adoption agencies being permitted to continue their excellent work without being forced to consider homosexual couples for adoption, since he voted for measures which resulted in them being forced to choose between their religious conscience and legislation passed by parliament, as Sir Thomas More was almost five centuries ago.

The Deputy Prime Minister, meanwhile, has argued that faith schools should teach children that homosexuality is ‘normal and harmless’, arguing that they should not become ‘asylums of insular religious identity’. For one who is a Liberal to argue that faith schools should be made to teach children his own particular views about homosexuality as fact, against the wishes of the parents who fund those schools and send their children to them to be educated in accord with their own wishes, is a particularly lucid example of something the Pope warned of in his speech: without the corrective role played by religion in public discourse, ‘reason too can fall prey to distortions, as when it is manipulated by ideology’. Liberalism, warped by ideology, has become fundamentally illiberal. The preacher of tolerance preaches intolerance in the name of tolerance.

British people will be looking to see whether this government is one capable of recognising and promoting the positive role that faith can play in public life, or whether we shall have an increasingly authoritarian central government setting its own agenda and delegating some tasks to religious charities working in the sphere of international development and climate change. ‘You have really challenged the whole country to sit up and think’, said the Prime Minister to the Pope before he departed for Rome on Sunday. Let us hope that this Government does just that.