B16 in Twickenham: remember the bigger picture

[TWICKENHAM] Pope Benedict's UK campaign against secularism has continued this morning at a Catholic university college in south-west London, where he has given three addresses which amplified the clear theme of this visit -- that pluralism depends on opening up to faith.

The first speech this morning, delivered in the chapel of St Mary's College, Twickenham, was to religious men and women involved in education, had some powerful messages for secularists who resent the popularity of Britain's 2,300 Catholic schools and argue that the tayxpayer should not fund them. (The Labour government tried some years ago to impose quotas of non-Catholics to appease the critics of Catholic school "segregation"; after MPs were bombarded with letters, the Government backed down, after witnessing the formidable loyalty which church schools inspire.) Since the Butler Act of 1944, Catholic schools became part of the state system; Church and state agreed to co-fund the schools: the Church contributes around £20m a year to the capital costs of the schools, which educate around 800,000 pupils.

Catholic schools are not under threat -- and even less under this new Government. But state-funded Catholic schools are of the faultlines in the secularist-Christian confrontation, and the Pope's first address had some pointed messages for their opponents.

He recalled the contribution of monastics to Catholic education in Britain. "Often you laid the foundations of educational provision long before the State assumed a responsibility for the this vital service", he said. In other words: the Church was educating long before the state became involved; and remember that it is civil society, not the state, which educates (even if the state regulates).

The presence of religious in Catholic schools, he went on, "is a powerful reminder of the much-discussed Catholic ethos that needs to inform every aspect of school life. This extends far beyond the self-evident requirement that the content of the teaching should be always in conformity with Church doctrine. It means that the life of faith needs to be the driving force behind every activity in the school, so that the Church's mission may be served effectively, and the young people may discover the joy of entering into Christ's 'being for others' (Spe Salvi, 28".

In other words: the Catholic ethos behind Catholic schools is what makes them popular. You can't have the fruits without the roots.

He concluded with an oblique reference to clerical sex abuse, which of course has affected schools -- all the more apposite because outside St Mary's College angry protesters were earlier gathering. (And the BBC's editorial line has been to point out that this morning's event would remind victims of the abuse they had suffered). "The life of faith can only be effectively nurtured when the prevailing atmosphere is one of respectful and affectionate trust", he said, thanking those who worked to ensure a environment for children and young people."

Then he came out into the sports arena for an hour-long event in front of 4,000 delilghted young children and teachers which was connected over the web to the nation's schools and many abroad in what was possibly the largest school assembly in history.

There he invited them to become saints -- to "put our deepest hopes in God alone" for "only He can satisfy the deepest needs of our hearts" -- before three times mentioning the "bigger picture". In Catholic schools, he said, there was always "a bigger picture over and above the individual subjects you study"; and he asked them to keep in mind that while specializing in subjects was right and proper, they should remember that every subject "is part of a bigger picture". If they hadn't got the point, he warned them: "Never allow yourselves to become narrow". And he added: "We need good historians and philosophers and economists, but if the account they give of human life within their particular field is too narrowly focussed, they can lead us seriously astray". Catholic education was about "the whole person"; and, if they hadn't got the point, he returned -- like a good teacher -- to stress the point again: "You are a reminder ... of the bigger picture which exists outside the school".

The message was for young people -- but also another salvo against secularism. Remove faith from schools, he was saying, and you shrink education, dehumanise it, destroy its deeper purpose.

His third address, to faith leaders in the historic Drawing Room of the College, laid it out again:

"Your presence and witness in the world points towards the fundamental importance for human life of this spiritual quest in which we are engaged," he told them. Academic disciplines "do not and cannot answer the fundamental question ... They cannot satisfy the deepest longings of the human heart, they cannot fully explain to us our origin and our destiny, why and for what purpose we exist, nor indeed can they provide us with an exhaustive answer to the question, 'Why is there something rather than nothing?'"

This was a message to those who, like Stephen Hawking, believe there is no need for God in a scientific explanation of the universe, or who, like Richard Dawkin, believe that religion is immoral for undermining science.

And he made a powerful case for the point of faith, pointing out the failure of utilitarianism and empiricism as a guide to good living. 

Genuine religious belief, he said, ""points us beyond present utility towards the transcendent. It reminds us of the possibility and the imperative of moral conversion, of the duty to live peaceably with our neighbour, of the importance of living a life of integrity." Properly understood, he went on, "it brings enlightenment, it purifies our hearts and it inspires noble and generous action, to the benefit of the entire human family", motivating virtue and enabling us "to reach out towards one another in love".

Later, Fr Federico Lombardi, the Pope's spokesman, told journalists "to pay very careful attention" to what Pope Benedict is to say in just a couple of hours to 1,000 civic leaders in Parliament. Nobody doubts this will be the heart of his argument against European secularism.

And now I must finish, to put on a suit, and find my way to Parliament to hear him. The roads around Westminster are paralysed. London seems to have stopped. Security is tight -- five men have been arrested in connection with the visit, but the police are giving no details. The helicopters whir above the heart of the nation's public square, where shortly the leader of the world's billion Catholics is about to give one of the most important addresses of his pontificate. I will endeavour to tell you about it as soon as I can afterwards.

Tom Maher
6 years 9 months ago
Yes watch out for the BBC's anti-Catholic bias on display in its coverage of the pope's visit to Great Britain on the  BBC  cable channel.  It is pronounced and immeadiately observable.    But then again it only been less than 200 years since Catholics were allowed to vote in Great Britian.  Catholics were the bad guys for hundreds of years in Great Britain  and do not think that did not spill over to America.   The slaves in Great Britian were freed years before  Catholics could vote.  Give them another 200 years for Catholics to be reported on by the BBC on the same  footing as everyone else.   The BBC reporting on Catholics is way too unique.
Thomas Piatak
6 years 9 months ago
Thanks for another excellent summary of the Holy Father's visit to the United Kingdom, and thanks too for your efforts in responding to the anti-papal frenzy in parts of the British media.

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