The freedom to express and live out religious convictions is an important part of what it means to live in a plural and democratic society, the spiritual leader of Roman Catholics in England and Wales has said in a major public lecture.
The comments came as part of Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor’s 30th Thomas Corbishley Memorial Lecture – and at a time when the church is facing criticism for its opposition to equalities legislation in areas such as adoption.
The Cardinal chose as the topic of his lecture on Wednesday 28 March 2007 'The Kingdom of God and this World: the Church in Public Life'.
The lecture series is organized by the Wyndham Place Charlemagne Trust and is held in memory of Fr Corbishley, former Master of Campion Hall, Oxford, and the first chair of Christians in Europe, an ecumenical group dedicated to educating church people about the European Community.
Cardinal O’Connor said that there was a need for reasoned debate on the role of religion today so that society could forge a meeting place for all. A public space that is genuinely plural requires the presence of religion, he said, expressing concern about its increasing marginalisation.
The Cardinal spoke of religious freedom as being more than the freedom to worship; "it is the freedom to serve the common good according to the convictions of our faith". He emphasised this point not just for Catholic belief, but for the sake of democracy and British culture as a whole.
"The freedom to put religion into practice is vital to the health of British democracy. True democracy offers a framework for a peaceful exchange of differences, because in the civilised interplay of opposed beliefs, truth and justice have a better chance of being discerned. A democracy is, essentially, an act of faith in human goodwill and reason. The faith that what we have in common is greater than what divides us, and therefore in the public sphere we must always seek to include rather than exclude what we disagree with. As a lawyer wittily concluded, we should not show "liberal tolerance only to tolerant liberals," he said.
"If modern Britain faces a challenge today, it is to recover the language and the spirit of the age of democracy, to forge a meeting place for all citizens. The public sphere is the forum of collective reasoning, and it cannot be a space empty of tradition and particular belief. A tolerant society is not one without constitutive beliefs, since its tolerance flows from a very constitutive belief. There is an ethical hunger in our society and it would be tragic if religious convictions did not have a voice in meeting that hunger."
In 2000 Cardinal O’Connor shocked many commentators by suggesting that Christianity had been ‘almost vanquished’ in public discourse. But others have suggested that the problem is not with Christianity per se, but with a particular vision of the faith based on Christendom – the alliance of church and governance, and the expectation that the church’s convictions should automatically shape public life and public institutions which exist to serve a wider constituency.