Gregory XVI, in his encyclical letter Mirari vos (1832), (On liberalism and religious indifference) denounced as “delirium” the idea that liberty of conscience, especially liberty of worship, is the inalienable right of every human, which should be proclaimed by law. Delirium of the same degree is the belief that citizens have the right to freely spread their ideas, however false, without being restrained from doing so by ecclesiastical or civil law.

Today 75 per cent of all religious persecution is directed against Christians

Today we find such words as shocking, not to say downright offensive. (Though a libertarian worth his or her salt in the lineage of Voltaire would presumably defend the right of Gregory XVI to say what he said.)

The Church has moved a long way since then. With Vatican II, particularly with the document on human dignity, the Church crystallised and gave an authoritative stamp to the developing theological reflection on human dignity, religious liberty, relations with State and, more importantly, with society. Authentic Church teaching on the matter would state the opposite of the papal denouncement above.

This positive development on the part of the Church was not always reciprocated by secularists. A 2009 study by the American-based Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life noted that more than 70 per cent of the world’s countries impose legal or administrative restrictions which in practice annul the rights of individual believers and religious groups.

A year later the charitable foundation Aid to the Church in Need stated that today 75 per cent of all religious persecution is directed against Christians.

This persecution is not limited to so-called Third World countries. In some European countries, for example, measures are taken against gynaecologists and obstetricians who have an objection in conscience to screen unborn children for Down Syndrome if these screenings are to be used to procure abortion.

Last year, Lord Carey, former Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote that Christians in Great Britain are being “persecuted” by courts, “driven underground”, “vilified” by the State, treated as “bigots” and sacked simply for expressing their beliefs.

Lord Alton of Liverpool, during the Tyburn Lecture on 9 May 2012, said the battle for religious freedom is far from over, and shamed “the Dawkins/Hitchens school of angry atheism” as the principal challenge to Christianity in Great Britain.

More subtle and dangerous than the administrative and legal restriction is the cultural dimension of radical secularism. Benedict XVI, in an address to German Catholics in September 2011, pointed towards the infiltration of every area of life by what he described as subliminal relativism. He added that “sometimes this relativism becomes aggressive when it opposes those who say they know where the truth or meaning of life is to be found”.

These relativists first make a dogma out of the belief in the relativity of all value systems and then they seek to impose this dogmatism on others. I have recently had a public discussion with a self-proclaimed atheist whose dogmatism and fundamentalism would make a Taliban look like a libertarian!

These radical secularists, who sometimes camouflage under the more acceptable appellatives of moderates and progressives, systematically denigrate religious beliefs. They do their best to relegate all expressions of religious belief to the private sphere and seek to deny religion any influence on society.

Ironically, this attempt to marginalise religion is made in the name of pluralism and tolerance. They say religion should, at best, be confined to homes and churches as it is considered to be not just insignificant but even a destabilising force in society.

Though this relativist environment is permeating Maltese culture and way of life, many Church people still give more importance to potential administrative and legal measures that marginalise the Christian value system.

As important these may be, such provisions are less important than the development of a culture based on a relativist and individualistic mentality. This is the sector where ideas are nourished, the humus for relativist political projects is grown, secularist worldviews are formed and the belief that religion’s place is in sacristies fomented.

The proponents of this relativist culture are doing their utmost to control the public sphere and manipulate public discourse. They want us to believe that the secularist value systems and worldviews are the best for humanity. They try to ridicule those who think differently.

Lord Carey’s warning about the estimation of Christian viewpoints as bigoted is everyday occurrence in our own backyard.

There is, however, a more insidious attempt to marginalise the Christian ethos in the Maltese public sphere with the exception of its ritualistic presence on State occasions. This attempt is garbed in the language of pseudo-respect. The mantra goes something like this: “We know that the Church cannot be in favour of such measures. We understand the Church’s position and respect it.”

This statement generally follows a public policy proposal for some “alleged progress, or alleged rights, or an alleged humanism” (Benedict XVI’s words) particularly in the area of gender and family issues. Moreover, it is uttered in soft language accompanied by a welcoming smile and a respectful (read: Pharisaic) nod to Church exponents. When this statement is denuded from its intrinsic double-speak, it reads differently: “We believe that the Church is a club of hopeless bigots. You can say what you want but we will do whatever we want.”

The mantra uttered in pseudo-respect shows – at best – a measure of tolerance which is bereft of a desire to dialogue. True dialogue is made of sterner stuff. In a pluralistic society such as Malta is, there is place not just for the uttering of differing views but for a sober, strong and informed dialectical encounter between different positions. This encounter should enrich the debate, its participants and the final product. If the position of the Church and of its followers is skirted during such discussions, the democratic process and society are the losers.

If the Christian ethos no longer holds any social meaning, the dictatorship of relativism would be absolute and the human person will be impoverished. This is not acceptable. The Church’s presence in this agora is animated by the Gospel’s vision of service. In this agora it should neither be cowed nor be cocky. In the face of intolerant secularism the Church should base its positions on its millenarian experience in the human condition while buttressing them by best practices, knowledge and research.

In season and out of season the Church should continue to insist on and practice sincere dialogue and mutual respect.

joseph.borg@um.edu.mt

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