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God and Caesar Seen From Down Under

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Cardinal Pell Analyzes Religion's Role in Modern Life

By Father John Flynn, LC

ROME, NOV. 19 , 2007 (Zenit) - How to reconcile moral principles with the political and social demands of a secularized society is one of the main underlying fault lines in many contemporary debates. Some valuable reflections on the subject are contained in a book just published in Australia.

"God and Caesar: Selected Essays on Religion, Politics, and Society," jointly published by Connor Court Publishing and the Catholic University of America Press, is made up of 10 essays by Sydney's archbishop, Cardinal George Pell.

In the introduction to the essays, Cardinal Pell acknowledges that his central concerns are religious. Therefore, philosophical writings should not be seen as a substitute for the need to follow Christ's call to conversion, but rather as a contribution to dialogue with the surrounding society.

Law and morality is the topic of the first essay. While the law must be applicable to all, regardless of their beliefs, the supposition that law and morality must always be separated is questionable, Cardinal Pell maintains.

In fact, the morality that most seek to exclude is almost always Christian. This silencing of morality is based on false premises, the cardinal argues. For a start, any law implicitly contains a certain moral view of society. A law that legalizes abortion or euthanasia, especially if it appeals to some sort of right to these procedures, is clearly posited on an argument that is moral in its nature.

Moreover, many Christian moral principles are based on arguments drawn from reason, such as the dignity of the human person, and are therefore more universal than precepts drawn from a particular religious position. The essay challenges, "Is defending life on the basis of the inviolable dignity of the person really the same thing as imposing one's personal views on the rest of the community?"

Arbitrary decisions

Referring to Pope John Paul II, Cardinal Pell notes that democracies are having difficulty in defining rights and run the risk of falling into a situation where fundamental questions are decided in an arbitrary manner. When freedom is exalted as an absolute without any limits, then it finishes in relativism. In turn, this deforms law from being a protector of life and society, into a force that undermines them.

"Freedom today, in its everyday sense, means the limitlessness of possibility: Whatever you want, whatever you like, you can do it," the cardinal notes in one of the book's essays.

Cardinal Pell asks if democracy really require us to live in a situation where we are afflicted by millions of abortions, a flourishing pornography industry, high levels of divorce and marriage breakdown, legalized euthanasia and research using embryos.

The challenge here for Christians, the cardinal observes, is to formulate in human, nonreligious terms, "why the protection of the moral ecology is necessary and important for society." This requires, he recommends, respect for others, engaging in dialogue, and the creation of trust and friendship.

Another essay in the book warns, however, of a possible pitfall in this dialogue concerning human rights, namely the error of putting as an exclusive absolute the concept of the primacy of conscience. Too often, Cardinal Pell warns, "the primacy of conscience is being used to justify what we would like to do rather than discover what God wants us to do."

Individual conscience, he continues, does not confer the right to reject or distort the principles of morality contained in the Bible and subsequently affirmed and developed by the Church.

In addition, if we deny the role of a truth that is greater than our own preferences, we run the risk of undermining both reason and human rights, Cardinal Pell affirms. "The denial of truth makes impossible an enduring concept of justice that genuinely serves human life and love," he adds.

Law and morality

Turning to the question of the Church and politics, Cardinal Pell warns against forgetting the vertical dimension of religion, which would result in reducing the kingdom of God to the building of a just society. Church leaders need to speak out on certain matters where public morality is at stake, but there are many other issues where it is not the role of ecclesiastical authorities to enter into the details of political debate.

The roles of government and church are clearly different. Nevertheless, he added, it is important to keep in mind that while "Catholics can acknowledge that not all immoral activities should be illegal, it does not follow that all legal activities are thereby moral."

One valuable contribution that the Church and believers can make to the state is to provide a source of values. The temptation of individualism and materialism cannot be countered adequately by a purely secular approach, said Cardinal Pell.

In fact, in the essay "Catholicism and Democracy" the archbishop of Sydney observes that many of the institutions of modern society, ranging from universities to hospitals and schools, owe their origin and development to Christianity.

Attempts to privatize religious belief are justified by an appeal to the importance of maintaining neutrality in the public arena, the cardinal notes. Nevertheless, this is not real neutrality, but a way of silencing opponents and imposing a specific cultural view.

In a democracy, religion can play a vital role through its influence on the family and daily living. Christianity also serves as a counterbalance to the excesses of a rights culture that only too often forgets we also have duties.

The natural right for children to be loved and reared by a father and a mother, for example, is a matter of justice that should be supported by society and the state. Unfortunately, Cardinal Pell laments, the state today only too often encourages the breakdown of marriage and the family.


"Supporting marriage and the family is just one way in which strong religious belief and belief in human rights combined can help expose the pseudo-rights of modernity," the cardinal observes.

Religion can also play a key role in favor of love and not violence, for service and not for triumph. It is important, therefore, that the efforts of dogmatic liberalism that seek to silence the Church not triumph. In theory, Cardinal Pell adds, liberalism ought to be concerned about giving everyone an equal voice. Only too often, however, "dogmatic secular liberals increasingly use liberalism to exclude the voice of the Church."

Faced with such attacks Cardinal Pell advises an approach in which it is made clear that many Christian moral arguments are based on not only revealed truth, but also on natural law truths, which are acceptable to all regardless of their religion.

Another point to keep in mind is to avoid making an absolute of democracy, as if it were endowed with some species of infallibility. "The legitimacy of a democracy, as of any form of government, stands or falls on whether it serves the common good, and does so well," according to Cardinal Pell.

Resolving conflicts about rights, he continues, would be well served if society were to take seriously the concept of natural rights. Democracy needs to be legitimated by a concern for the common good and basic human rights. Rights that are founded on the moral truth about the person. A truth only too often lost from sight in many countries today.


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Pell, Flynn, God, Caesar, Moral, Social

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