Among his other claims to greatness, Blessed John Henry Newman preached the most eloquent and prophetic sermons in English history. In his 1873 sermon “The Infidelity of the Future”, he depicted with uncanny prescience the spiritual condition of today’s Britain. He warned that faith would be marginalised: “Christianity has never yet had experience of a world simply irreligious.” He foresaw that “you will find, certainly in the future, nay more, even now, even now, that the writers and thinkers of the day do not even believe there is a God”. He predicted the decline of the Protestant churches which had shielded the Catholics. And he warned that “the thinking, speaking and acting England” would turn on the Catholics as “the enemies, as will be thought, of civil liberty and of national progress”. Newman even had a premonition of the damage that scandal could do to the Church in an age of mass media: “With a whole population able to read, with cheap newspapers day by day conveying the news…it is plain that we are at the mercy of even one unworthy member or false brother.”
All this has come, or is coming, to pass. Newman’s dire prophecy provides the background to the unprecedented agitation that surrounded last month’s papal visit to Britain. Seen from afar, the British seemed to have taken leave of their proverbial sense of humour and proportion. The historian David Starkey stigmatised not only Newman but six million of his countrymen when he told the BBC: “I think it’s very difficult to be authentically English and Catholic.” In Benedict’s native Germany, there was dismay at this “mood of hatred and aggression”; Cardinal Kasper compared Britain to “a third-world country”. He was left behind to nurse his gout.
Yet when the Pope arrived in Scotland to be greeted by the Queen, this ugly mood dissipated almost immediately. Not only was there a palpable warmth and lively curiosity in the welcome he received: all but the most inhumane of the humanist camp felt abashed. On the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, the Pope praised the British for defeating the heathens of Nazi Germany, thereby turning the tables on his atheist critics. Against the odds, the papal visit was a success: not bad for a third-world country.
So when the Pope gave his address in Westminster Hall to Newman’s “thinking, speaking and acting England”, there was something in the air. The echo of a remote past, symbolised by the medieval surroundings, prompted the stirrings of a new openness to persuasion. As Benedict set out the need for faith to “purify” the moral foundations of politics, quietly explaining that religion was not a problem but a vital contributor to the national conversation, there were murmurs of assent. Indeed, David Cameron took up the theme of the national conversation in his farewell speech to the Pope, insisting that Britain would not succumb to exclusive secularism on his watch.
Not every part of Benedict’s message was congenial, however. He was quietly insistent that the State must not deny freedom of conscience to Catholics and other religious people. If it does, the Church enjoins passive disobedience. What the Pope means by “the legitimate role of religion in the public sphere” is the development of an idea he set out in the book Without Roots that he wrote with Marcello Pera: “A civil Christian religion that can shape our conscience as Europeans.” Benedict’s civil religion embodies the moral principles of the Judaeo-Christian tradition. Such a minimalist civil religion, designed to allow space for religious freedom within our secular polity, has much in common with the Anglican settlement, with its self-denying ordinance not to make windows into men’s souls; but the very notion of an established religion is now decaying fast. Christians, Jews and others fear that faith is now increasingly identified in public discourse with what the Pope calls “distorted forms of religion such as sectarianism and fundamentalism”, especially in their Islamic varieties. But Benedict reminds us that reason without faith will also take pathological forms, whether totalitarian ideology or eugenics. Faith and reason need one another, declared the Pontiff, “for the good of our civilisation”.
It would be naive to suppose that such entreaties could alone deflect the course of the secular mainstream. No sooner was he gone than the political class wallowed in its own “religious” festival: the party conferences. But the national conversation has benefited from Benedict’s call to listen out for the still small voice of God. Newman confessed that, “were it not for this voice, speaking so clearly in my conscience and in my heart, I should be an atheist”. We all have an inner voice that we call conscience, and whether we believe its source is divine or not, we cannot and should not try to silence it.