Stand-offs, Echoes, Assertions: Benedict XVI, John F. Kennedy, Stephen Hawking

  • September 17, 2010

Arguably everything in the news the past few weeks has been about the key importance of tolerance and freedom, especially religious tolerance and freedom. Three different moments capture a sense of the forces at work.

 

Benedict XVI’s visit to the United Kingdom, which started on Thursday, provoked numerous reflections on the nature of anti-Pope bigotry and it’s deeper uglier anti-Catholic bigotry on the part of Brits and throughout the world. In the first day alone, Benedict made clear that despite the criticism, he was intent on fighting back the tide of secularism and insisting on the need for religious liberty. In his first sermon, the Pope, as is his wont, delved into history for evidence of the evil that can flow from the desire to kill off God and Religion. He was referring to Nazism but it seemed to require a media interpretation to calm the secularists. But as is often the case, the reality of a Papal visit can soothe and charm, though of course the jury is still out.

 

The Papal visit, and its attendant arguments about ‘extreme’ atheism and religious liberty comes in the same week as the 50th anniversary of a critical talk given by John F. Kennedy while running for President. It’s difficult to imagine now, but in that campaign the idea that a Catholic might be President was the subject of bitter debate. And the young candidate traveled to a meeting of the Greater Houston Ministerial Association where he delivered a plea and forged an argument about religious tolerance, liberty and the distinctions between “rendering unto Caesar and rendering unto God”. By all accounts it defused the issue and made his Presidency possible. But while possibly creating the space for Catholics in politics, the long-term result may have been to render Catholic values in politics difficult, or so argues Archbishop Chaput of Denver and a former Communications officer with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

 

Stephen Hawking creates the third corner of this triangle of tolerance and liberty. The physicist made news this month with the assertions in his new book of the ‘non-necessity of God’ in the creation of the universe. This is a shift from his thinking as expressed in early works. Hawking used to believe the universe needed a prime mover but now believes the Universe came into existence on its own. The list of people unimpressed is extensive and includes philosophers, a Jesuit Physicist and thinker, columnists and theologians. The intriguing think about Hawking and the God issue is the ease with which much of the media assumed that if Hawking says so then it must be so. The reality is that an assertion by Hawking that God didn’t exist is still an assertion, not a fact, which takes us back to the ideas of religious freedoms, religious tolerance and the dangers of extreme atheism.


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