[WESTMINSTER] I've just come out from Pope Benedict XVI's address to "representatives of civil society" in Parliament's Westminster Hall, feeling like I've witnessed a genuine historical moment. The Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, told the Pope that "what was once thought inconceivable seems now natural", citing the fate of his 153rd predecessor as chair, St Thomas More, who was sentenced to death in the sixteenth century for refusing to accept the King as head of the Church. Bercow also mentioned a discussion that took place in Westminster Hall in 1374 between a Franciscan, a Dominican and a Benedictine, on the proper relations between the papacy and the temporal power. "They didn't reach agreement", he noted, but said it was right to continue to ask the question.
The setting - Westminster Hall is the oldest room of its kind in Europe, dating from the eleventh century -- was imposing, but a Band of the Coldstream Guards and an parade of Yeoman of the Guard, who stood against the ancient windows above the dais, added pageantry and fanfare. The Catholic Church, it is often said, knows how to put on a good show. The British state did well today.
It started 40 minutes late, which meant that the cream of the British political and civil establishment -- including a row of prime ministers: Gordon Brown, Tony Blair, John Major, Margaret Thatcher (now very wobbly) -- had to sit waiting patiently until the successor of St Peter arrived. That, in itself, was rather extraordinary -- a nightmare scene for secularists -- but even more extraordinary was what followed when he finally arrived, flanked by the Archbishop of Canterbury: a massive round of applause.
The event itself turned out to in many ways more important than what the Pope said -- not because it wasn't, as promised, a powerful address, but because it was at times hard to hear, short, and probably flew considerably above the heads of many there. The power of the moment lay in the setting, and the way centuries of often vexed relations between the papacy and the English temporal power seemed distilled into those few minutes.
Pope Benedict recalled Thomas More, his integrity in following his conscience at great personal cost -- a theme he will take up again on Sunday, during the Mass for the Beatification of Cardinal Newman -- and the way in which the dilemma he faced raised "the perennial question of the relationship between what is owed to Caesar and what is owed to God". This question, he said, offered him the opportunity to relect on the proper place of religious belief within the political process.
The rest was, perhaps, one of the most cogent arguments ever made in such a short speech in favour of politics and religion remaining intertwined. Here are some of the gems:
"If the moral principles underpinning the democratic process are themselves determined by nothing more solid than social consensus, then the fragility of the process becomes all too evident; herein the real challenge for democracy".
Policy has an ethical dimension -- as Parliament's great achievements, such as the abolition of the slave trade, have shown.
In determining the ethical framework for political choices, the role of religion is to "purify and shed light upon the application of reason to the discovery of objective moral principles". Religion is distorted when "insufficient attention is given to the purifying and structuring role of reason within religion". In other words, they need each other.
Religion "is not a problem for legislators to solve, but a vital contributor to the national conversation". Hence, he went on, "I cannot but voice my concern at the increasing marginalization of religion, particularly of Christianity, that is taking place in some quarters."
There are "worrying signs of a failure to appreciate not only the right of believers to freedom of conscience and freedom of religion, but also the legitimate role of religion in the public square."
For there to be continued cooperation between faith and policy, "religious bodies -- including institutions linked to the Catholic Church -- need to be free to act in accordance with their own principles and specific convictions based upon the faith and the official teaching of the Church." In this way, he said, rights such as freedom of religion, freedom of conscience and freedom of association are guaranteed.
He ended by reminding his listeners of the angel carvings above our heads. "They remind us that God is constantly watching over us to guide and protect us. And they summon us to acknowledge the vital contribution that religious belief has made and can continue to make to the life of the nation."
From Westminster Hall, Pope Benedict went on to Westminster Abbey, to pray for unity with the Archbishop of Canterbury. More on that tomorrow.