Pope Benedict, formerly Cardinal Ratzinger and head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, has been visiting the UK this week. Fortunately, by the time many of you will read this his visit will have ended and he will back in his pseudo-state of the Vatican. His visit to the UK prompted protests and much commentary and his own speeches whilst here are fascinating in their own way.
In one of his most prominent speeches the Pope attacked "aggressive secularism" and suggested that Christianity was not receiving sufficient tolerance here. Both assertions are somewhat surprising. The previous Labour government was one of the most active in recent years in promoting Christian schools, otherwise known as "faith schools" and in placing emphasis on a "moralization" of society that drew explicitly, in Tony Blair's case, on Christianity. Blair was an odd case, it is true, since he also stated that his proudest moment was passing the Civil Partnership legislation that gave substantial marriage rights to gay couples. However, after he ceased being Prime Minister he converted to Catholicism.
The new government, whilst including an atheist as Deputy Prime Minister, has indicated every intention of following in Blair's footsteps with Baroness Warsi recently indicating that, on her view, the previous government insufficiently emphasized the role of "faith groups" in society. So it is somewhat surprising that the Pope chooses Britain, of all places, as a spot in which "aggressive secularism" reigns. Britain is also somewhat unusual in having a state church resided over by the sovereign of the country. We also reserve a place for religious leaders (particularly Christian ones) in the upper house of our legislature.
Given all this it seems lamentably clear that Britain is not, as one might hope it should be, a leader of "aggressive secularism". Secularism is a somewhat misused term since some assume it to be the same thing as atheism whilst others assume it is just a by-word for consumerism. Secularism can, however, be defined quite simply: it is the principle of the separation of church and state. It need not be the case that religion is thereby ordered out of the "public sphere" entirely but it is true that for religious leaders and groups to play any serious role in such a sphere they need to put their case in terms of principles that are capable of commanding general assent and do not rely on special pleading based on invidious interpretations of supposedly sacred texts. Such a principle is worth fighting for and even being "aggressive" about. Certainly a sense of adherence to it enables tolerance of minorities, including religious minorities. It should be celebrated and not condemned and Britain could do with rather more of it, sufficient, for example, to disestablish the Anglican Church and to remove all special place for religious leaders in our legislature. Oh, and to cease recognising the claim of state-hood made by the Vatican, a ridiculous and contemptible claim!