GOD AND CAESAR: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Selected Essays on Religion, Politics, and Society by Cardinal George Pell
, February 2, 2008
A Christian voice in public lifeGOD AND CAESAR: Selected Essays on Religion, Politics, & Society
by Cardinal George Pell
(Victoria: Connor Court)
Paperback: 193 pages
Rec. price: $29.95One of the most persistent aims of 20th-century secularism, taken from the French Enlightenment, was first to marginalise then eliminate religion from political life in the Western world.
It is a matter of record that in many parts of the Western world, the secularists largely succeeded, in part because of their dominant influence in the universities and the media of public communication, but also because of the failure of most Christians to put forward an intelligent defence of their position.
The effect of this can be seen in the triumph of relativism and situation ethics, and the ascendency of utilitarianism which essentially professes that morality depends on outcomes, not objective principles.Erosion of standards
The consequences are all around us: the decline of Christian belief and practice in the West; the adoption of value-free education; a steady erosion of standards in film, radio, TV and the Internet; and an ethical free-for-all in the field of bioethics which began with the abandonment of the traditional Christian position on contraception in the 1960s and ended in legalised euthanasia and experimentation on early human life.
In my view, the decline in public morality in the West has been a significant contributor to the upsurge of radical Islam which utterly rejects the corrupting influence of contemporary Western culture, just as the depravity of German society in the 1920s, so well depicted in the musical Cabaret
, contributed to the rise of Nazism.
In the contemporary world, there is a pressing need for people who uphold the idea of objective morality to engage in the public debate to reclaim the culture. This is a particular challenge for religious leaders who, according to the arbiters of secular culture, are excluded from this debate in a democracy.
Many Christian spokesmen try to do this by asserting the authority of the Bible. But this fails utterly to convince those in contemporary society who do not accept it, or who deny its relevance to current moral, ethical and political issues.
It is a distinguishing mark of Cardinal George Pell that he engages in public debate from a Catholic and Christian perspective, in terms comprehensible to all who accept that we live in a free and open democratic society. He makes no appeal to higher authority, except logic and common sense, and fully accepts that issues will be decided in a democracy by a complex interaction between public opinion, the media and political processes.
This collection of essays is an outstanding exposition of the classical dilemma posed to Jesus by the Pharisees, recorded in the Scriptures by Matthew and Luke: whether a person should pay taxes to an oppressor and, more broadly, what contribution Christians should make in the whole field of contemporary public policy, particularly where that culture is hostile to Christian values.
Jesus' reply neatly answered the immediate challenge while side-stepping the troubling questions of what belongs to God, and what belongs to Caesar.
Cardinal Pell attempts to answer the question by arguing that Christians, and more specifically Catholics, are entitled to put forward their views in a democracy, and to fight for acceptance of their position in the public square.
This collection of essays is based on papers given by Cardinal Pell over recent years to academic audiences and to a number of private-sector think-tanks. The first section, titled Catholicism and Democracy, contains five papers which deal with law and morality, the church and politics, Catholicism and freedom, and secular democracy.
In all these, Cardinal Pell makes a convincing case that Christianity provides the rational foundation for an open and free society, whereas secularism leads ultimately to exploitation and coercion. He does not, however, over-state the case by pretending that Christians, and specifically Catholics, have always acted in this way, and willingly concedes the failures of believers, both in our own country and throughout history.
The second section, Faith, Reason and Life, deals with the application of Christian principles to some of the great issues of contemporary society. In this, he adopts as his starting point the deep insight of Pope John Paul II, that religious faith - properly understood - is consistent with reason, and with the good of society.
The essay which, to me, gave the deepest understanding of Cardinal Pell's understanding of his own role as a Bishop and public leader, is his essay, "The Role of the Bishop", in which he puts himself squarely behind John Paul II and Benedict XVI, the two foremost Christian leaders and thinkers of the present era.
He argues that it is the role of the Bishop to give leadership, pointing to the failure of the Catholic Church in the 1960s over contraception, which, he argues, provoked a crisis of confidence within the Church, and played "a major role in discrediting and casting doubt on the teaching capacity of the Church on moral matters, especially on sexuality".
This book cannot be read in a single sitting: it deserves to be savoured, and reflected upon. From an Australian perspective, it is undoubtedly the best contemporary analysis of the relationship between religion and politics.