We must defend our faith in the public square

By  Charles Lewis, Catholic Register Special
  • November 24, 2010
Recently I was speaking as part of a panel at a conference about how the media covers religion, and specifically the Catholic Church. It was sponsored by the archdiocese of Toronto so the audience was made up of mainly Roman Catholic university students.

During the question-and-answer period, three students mentioned how poorly equipped they felt to defend their faith in the public square, though they did not express it quite that way.

One young man said that the multi-faith room at his school had now turned into a de-facto mosque and felt uncomfortable using the room to meet with fellow Catholics for prayer time. He did not feel confident enough to demand equal time.

A young woman talked about sitting with friends watching an episode of Sex and the City in which one of the characters says bluntly how she can’t stand Catholics. Her friends laughed at that line and she became tongue tied and embarrassed.

And finally one very earnest young man, part of a Catholic club, wondered whether his group should play down the “pro-life” aspects of Church teaching to avoid division and problems on campus.

My response was this: “You have to push back. You have as much right to be here as anyone else.”

But I think they were genuinely frightened. Not because they were afraid of physical violence but because they feared being ostracized for simply being faithful.

What they were experiencing is something I’ve learned a lot about over the past three years as religion reporter for the National Post and as editor of Holy Post, our religion blog. In fact, much of what I have reported on has been the conflict between church and state or the religious and the secular. They have ranged from the right of an evangelical social agency to set its own Christian code of conduct to the rights of doctors and pharmacists to employ religious ideals as they go about their work.

These cases, and the examples the students raised, were part and parcel of the fight being waged between religious and secular groups. And so far it appears the secular side is winning.

In September, Pope Benedict addressed this issue when he spoke at Westminster.  

“This ‘corrective’ role of religion vis-à-vis reason is not always welcomed, though, partly because distorted forms of religion, such as sectarianism and fundamentalism, can be seen to create serious social problems themselves. And in their turn, these distortions of religion arise when insufficient attention is given to the purifying and structuring role of reason within religion. It is a two-way process.

“Without the corrective supplied by religion, though, reason too can fall prey to distortions, as when it is manipulated by ideology or applied in a partial way that fails to take full account of the dignity of the human person.

Such misuse of reason, after all, was what gave rise to the slave trade in the first place and to many other social evils, not least the totalitarian ideologies of the 20th century. This is why I would suggest that the world of reason and the world of faith — the world of secular rationality and the world of religious belief — need one another and should not be afraid to enter into a profound and ongoing dialogue, for the good of our civilization.”

In other words: religion without the secular can become sectarianism and the secular without faith can become ideology.

I believe Pope Benedict is right. We must reach a point where religion gets back its rightful place in the public square. As I have written before, and will continue to write, religious people work, they are taxpayers and they volunteer to care for society’s most vulnerable. There is no Christopher Hitchens shelter for the homeless that I know of.

But as much as this situation is the result of ardent secularists, who see every step of religion into public debates as a sign of theocracy, the religious themselves have to take much of the blame. Too many churches educate their young but never bother to re-educate their adults. If you are going to be religious, then you better understand what your faith is actually about.

Those who oppose religion only have to call belief mumbo jumbo or point to some event hundreds of years ago to make their point. Those defending faith have a much tougher challenge, but it should not be avoided.

(Charles Lewis writes about religion for the National Post and is the editor of the religious blog Holy Post.)

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