The intolerance of the secular

By  Peter Kavanagh, Catholic Register Special
  • January 25, 2008

{mosimage}If it wasn’t so serious it might be funny, the way perceptions and conventional wisdoms can be turned on their head. Intolerance is often seen as the hallmark of religion, the critique raised when the secularist wants to curtail or restrict the role religion occupies in modern societies.

It’s that unthinking assumption that if people believe something to be true they aren’t open to discussion, argument or negotiation about what that belief entails or means in the day-to-day ordering of society. So when a small group of faculty members and students at Rome’s La Sapienza University succeeded in preventing Pope Benedict XVI from speaking there recently we were all left with a mirror image of tolerant and intolerant. Suddenly the religious is the open welcoming point of dialogue and academia, that bastion of free speech and inquiry without limit, is the source of militant, vigilant intolerance.

Some would argue that this is just one more battle in what seems to be an intensifying war between all religions and the fundamental secularists that seem intent on engaging and defeating religion everywhere and anywhere. But it is possible that the farce that took place at the university founded by Pope Boniface VIII in 1303 speaks to a more confusing and dangerous situation than a stare down between believers and disbelievers.

Ostensibly, the protest against Benedict speaking at the university was linked to the Catholic Church’s trial of the scientist Galileo in the 17th century. In 1990, when Benedict was Cardinal Ratzinger and head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he commented that the trial of the astronomer in 1633 was reasonable and just, given the times and the circumstances. For holding that view, the protesting academics decreed that the Pope, an acclaimed academic, was unfit to speak. And yet if he had spoken, he would have told the audience:

“La Sapienza was once the Pope’s university but today it is a secular university with the autonomy that has been part of the nature of any university, committed only to the authority of truth. In its freedom from political or ecclesiastic authorities the university finds its particular role, (a role which is) even for modern society, which has a need for such an institution.”

The academics insist there is no room to argue over the assertion that Galileo’s trial was just but insist on using strength and force to prevent anyone, especially Benedict, who holds that view from expressing it. This is a far cry from a commitment “only to the authority of truth.”

Unfortunately this appeal to strength to silence opinion and speech seems to be on the verge of becoming the norm.

The Human Rights Commission actions against Maclean’s magazine by the Canadian Islamic Congress, Catholic Insight by a complainant angered by that magazine’s stance on homosexuality, the student councils at universities in Canada being dragged before commissions because of their refusal to recognize pro-life student groups and the continuing arguments about whether publishing the Danish cartoons about Islam are hate literature are all examples of how we are losing our ability to talk, argue and agree to disagree that once was a fundamental aspect of liberal democracies. This abbreviated list of actions tells us that both the religious and the secular are willing to seek out the means to silence their opponents.

The danger is that no one wants, or should want, those we disagree with to be gagged by the state or by force of any kind. As human beings seized with minds and reason we have to understand and accept that preventing someone from voicing an opinion doesn’t mean that their silence is evidence that they agree with our view. Arguably, silencing an opinion might be the truest way of ensuring its continued survival.

If Benedict had been allowed to give the speech, that’s what he intended to say: “What has a Pope to do or say at a university? Certainly not to impose the faith on others in an authoritarian way, which can only be given to others in freedom.”

Benedict, ironically as a figure imbued with a claim to infallibility, knows this better than most. He acknowledges, and would have acknowledged at La Sapienza University that the church has erred, that mistakes have been made, that assertions were wrong. Imagine if others, scientists for instance, were willing to do the same. When science corrects an error or revises faulty thinking, they claim it is the strength of science that it does so. And science is right to so claim.

The strangeness is that such a belief in the corrective and progressive power of inquiry and intellectual contests is not extended to others. The sadness is that we all have to learn this lesson again and again.

(Kavanagh is a senior producer at CBC Radio in Toronto.)

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