'The papal visit has revealed the new atheists' attempt to abolish the boundary between church and state, to the detriment of the former'
“Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” We owe this demarcation between church and state to these words of Jesus Christ. But where do we draw the line? Is Caesar entitled to monopolise the public sphere and to privatise God? How far are the religious entitled to ignore or disobey Caesar? After 2,000 years of strife, this border dispute between sacred and profane appeared to have been resolved, in the West at least, by the strict separation of church and state. In the new millennium, however, Western public opinion is once again divided about the proper relationship between the secular and the religious realms.
In Britain, the first papal state visit has brought latent hostilities into the open. The Catholic Church stands accused of protecting paedophile priests, rather than handing them over to the secular authorities. Such scandals, though not unique to their celibate male priesthood, have dismayed Catholics as much as anybody else, not least because of the apparent impotence of a sclerotic hierarchy.
For some, however, the child abuse crisis is only a pretext to deny the Church a legitimate public voice. The anti-Catholic writer Philip Pullman says: “I hope the wretched organisation will vanish entirely.” The papal visit has revealed the new atheists’ attempt to abolish the boundary between church and state, to the detriment of the former. If they have their way, the Church should no longer expect to preserve its institutional or doctrinal autonomy. As a leaked Foreign Office memo made clear, the cosmic nonconformity of Catholicism is no longer acceptable or even comprehensible to the secular mindset of modern Britain. To many people, Pope Benedict XVI is either a criminal who should be put on trial (pace Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Geoffrey Robertson QC) or an embarrassment (none of the three party leaders had a good word for Church or Pontiff when they were questioned about the papal visit during a pre-election TV debate). There is no place in the national conversation for Catholic discourse about the rights of the unborn or the wrongs done to the dying, about libertine morals or materialist metaphysics, about the Church’s duty to care for the destitute — let alone about the things that are God’s.
How different is the debate that has erupted in New York about Cordoba House, a proposed mosque and Islamic cultural centre near Ground Zero. There President Barack Obama and Mayor Michael Bloomberg, backed by the majority of the transatlantic media, have weighed in on the side of the mosque, in the name of the constitutional right to religious freedom. The president and the mayor have deliberately glossed over not only the dubious ideology and affiliations of Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, whose brainchild Cordoba House is. Bloomberg argues that the motives and finances of the mosque are irrelevant, but US public opinion is strongly against the 15-storey complex, which is seen as an intrusive and even sinister presence at the site of a mass grave.
The “right to build a place of worship on private property in lower Manhattan”, as Obama put it, is not absolute. The location makes all the difference. It is worth recalling that when Carmelite nuns built a convent at Auschwitz, provoking Jewish outrage, Pope John Paul II ordered them to move it elsewhere, to spare the injured feelings of the victims. Even if the Ground Zero mosque is motivated entirely by the desire for reconciliation, even if it were erected without a penny of Iranian or Saudi money, it could one day be abused as a platform by supporters of the aims, if not the methods, of the 9/11 terrorists. Dawa, the duty to proselytise, is in any case incumbent on Muslims, and Feisal published a book in Indonesia entitled: A Call to Prayer from the WTC Rubble: Islamic Dawa from the Heart of America Post 9/11. A base for the propagation of Islam arising from the ashes of Ground Zero smacks of triumphalism. Hence the sensitivities of the victims should be respected, especially as no memorial to their loved ones has yet been erected. Even 70 years after the war, feelings on all sides remain raw; how much more so after less than one decade.
The boundary between the secular and the religious realms must be constantly renegotiated. It cannot, though, be right to marginalise the Church, despite its strenuous, at times agonised, efforts to respond to unsparing criticism, while exempting Islam’s doctrines or advocates from scrutiny. The state should be balanced in its treatment of church and mosque; so, too, must the media subject Tariq Ramadan or Feisal to no less rigorous scrutiny than popes and priests. Benedict XVI has nothing to fear from the comparison.