Faith Matters

Nuala O'Loan: Christians have a duty and right to bring their beliefs into the public square

Christians have not only a duty but also a right as citizens to be involved in the public square and to bring their beliefs into the world, argues Baroness Nuala O'Loan

Nuala O'Loan

Baroness Nuala O'Loan delivering the annual St Brigid's Day lecture in St Brigid's Parish, Belfast. She spoke on the theme 'Christian and Citizen?'. Picture by Declan Roughan

ADDRESSING the topic 'Christian and Citizen?' invites reflection on the nature of what it is to be a Christian, and on what the call to follow Christ - the call to holiness in all its manifestations - means for one's life as a citizen.

It almost suggests that there may be an incompatibility between citizenship and Christianity.

There are certainly those, and they are quite vociferous, who invite - indeed command - us to keep our Christianity separate from our public lives.

But I have learned that life cannot be like that. It should not be like that, for what I believe informs everything I do, and I believe that God has called each of us, as Cardinal Newman said, "to do him some special service".

That service, for most of us, will be lived out in the world in which we live, work and socialise.

It will not be something separate from the place to which we are called. It will be integral to all our relationships with those whom we encounter on our pilgrim journey.

The Catholic Church is very clear on this. The American bishops, in their document launched in December last and prepared for the purposes of the forthcoming US presidential election, said: "In the Catholic tradition, responsible citizenship is a virtue, and participation in political life is a moral obligation."

This position is quite contrary to the public position, often quoted by secular politicians, that religion should be a private affair, and that no-one should attempt to formulate their understanding of how things should be by reference to their religious beliefs.

Moreover, there is almost an assertion that by bringing our beliefs as Christians into public life, we are behaving in an inappropriate and undesirable way.

I suppose my first question must be, why must the assertions of secularists be more acceptable than the proclaimed belief of a Christian?

After the Second World War, following the devastation and genocide, there were attempts to work out how many people died in those six short years.

To this day nobody really knows. They estimate that between 70 million and 85 million people died as a result of the war between 1939 and 1945.

That we do not even know today how many died is a terrible indictment.

We were reminded of this most recently on January 27, International Holocaust Memorial Day, when we remembered the millions of Jews who perished in the gas chambers of Auschwitz and elsewhere, as well as the Romanies, the Catholic priests, the homosexuals and so many others whose lives were extinguished in those terrible places.

We should not be silenced. Nor should we be embarrassed or afraid to be Christian in an increasingly secular world. It is our duty to manifest our faith, to proclaim the Gospel 

We pledged ourselves never to forget what happened and to fight anti-Semitism and discrimination wherever we meet it.

In an attempt to ensure that never again was such inhumanity allowed to prevail, the states of the United Nations agreed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

It was proclaimed by the UN General Assembly in Paris on December 10 1948 as a common standard of achievements for all peoples and all nations, listing the fundamental human rights to be universally protected.

It was followed by the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, also known as the European Convention on Human Rights.

It gave effect to certain of the rights stated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and made them binding on signatory states. Agreed in 1950, it came into force in 1953.

Article 9 of that Convention provides for freedom of thought, conscience and religion: "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance."

I would wish to emphasise that this freedom is exercised "either alone of in community with others and in public or private".

Further, states Article 9, that freedom shall "be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others".

It seems to me that these rights have been much diminished in recent years.

It is time we remembered again the fundamental principles and rights upon which our society is based.

Those us who have faith have the right, then, to articulate that faith in the public domain.

We should not be silenced. Nor should we be embarrassed or afraid to be Christian in an increasingly secular world. It is our duty to manifest our faith, to proclaim the Gospel.

Cardinal Hume, writing in 1996, was very clear about this. Religion, he said, "is always personal, but never just a private affair".

"Discipleship involves seeking God in this world, as well as preparing to meet Him in the next," he said.

For a true Christian, citizenship is fundamental to discipleship. That desire to participate in the life of a community, to make a difference, is part of us.

As Pope Francis said in Evangelii Gaudium, authentic faith "always involves a deep desire to change the world, to transmit values, to leave this earth somehow better than we found it".

"The earth is our common home and all of us are brothers and sisters," he said.

"If indeed the just ordering of society and of the state is a central responsibility of politics," then the Church, "cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice".

Christians believe in the Gospel, and in answering that most basic and fundamental element of our call to holiness - that we love God as he has loved us, that we try to know that Christ is there always, not only in the quiet calm but also in moments of danger, challenge and uncertainty, and that we must love him not just when we encounter him in the hearts of all who love us but also in friend and stranger.

Christian fundamental values of respect for life... seem to those of us of religious faith to be unchallengeable. Yet in the modern secular world they are much challenged

Each of us is on a pilgrim journey. For some it will be a lower profile journey: not everyone seeks election as a politician, for example, but in every aspect of our lives we have opportunities to be what St Theresa of Avila reminds us of when she said: "Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours..."

The opportunities are ours and as citizens we have so many avenues to live that calling to be the body of Christ on earth.

It may be that we are called to care for the sick, those who live with disabilities, those for whom life has become limited; it may be that we are called as parents or uncles and aunts to nurture the children of today, so that they become worthy citizens of this world; it may be that are called to act in a work context, in a social context, as a volunteer: so many opportunities to live out the calling to love one another as he has loved us.

Cardinal Danneels spells it out like this: "The Kingdom of God grows primarily outside the Church, in the field, among the people, in the world.

"You can help us most by making Christ's Spirit present in your home, in your work, in your profession, in the world of economics and politics, in culture, in schools, in health care institutions.

"To be present in the world and in life, to discern therein what is in conformity with the gospel, and to bear witness to it all: this is not merely a prelude to the coming of the Kingdom of God.

"It is a kingdom itself already established and founded."

So what about this world of ours?

Christian fundamental values of respect for life from beginning to natural end, of compassion, of offering one's life for another, of caring for the weak and the vulnerable, of respecting, not isolating and forgetting, the old and the sick, of providing education and health care, and of doing all in the name of the Lord can seem to those of us of religious faith to be unchallengeable.

Yet in the modern secular world they are much challenged.

What about things like the new abortion law which was imposed on the people of Northern Ireland without consultation, or consideration of its impact on our stretched and broken health service?

At the moment we have no law regulating abortion here; it is a strange and terrible time.

There is no longer the protection which existed before October 22 last year.

We are awaiting regulations which will give effect to our new law. We do not know what they will say but the trend is pretty clear.

Once they are placed before Parliament they will become law. We will not be able to amend them and we don't have the numbers to defeat them.

The stated aim of the pro-abortionists is for abortion on demand to birth.

At present abortion can in reality be carried out to birth when a baby has a cleft palate, club foot, Down's Syndrome or what they call a fatal foetal anomaly.

Abortion is a multi-million pound industry. To give one example, Simon Cooke, chief executive of the Marie Stopes family planning charity, earned £434,000 in 2018, including bonuses - up from £300,532 in 2017. It speaks for itself.

We face, too, an inevitable move to create a legal right to assisted suicide or euthanasia.

Canada changed its law to provide for medical assistance in dying in 2015. By March 2018, 6,794 people had been killed.

It is also reported that in 2017, 15 years after the Netherlands decriminalised euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide, more than 25 percent of all deaths in the nation were induced.

There were 6,600 cases of euthanasia, 1,900 suicides and some 32,000 people killed through a practice called palliative sedation.

Holland has a population of 17.8 million. The greatest growth in assisted deaths in Holland has been in those who have been diagnosed with dementia or are suffering from depression or other mental illness.

This is what they want to bring to us, north and south, in Ireland.

Abridged from Baroness Nuala O'Loan's St Brigid's Day lecture, given in St Brigid's Parish, Belfast last week.

Next week, she discusses the Christian's duty to defend the right to life and the challenge of living out the Christian faith in today's secular world.

Baroness Nuala O'Loan delivering the annual St Brigid's Day lecture in St Brigid's Parish, Belfast. She spoke on the theme 'Christian and Citizen?'. Picture by Declan Roughan

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