Edward Pentin’s Vatican Notebook
It was never meant to be a speech by a Pope, but it is now being regarded as one – and with all the significance that a papal address brings.
On April 1, the day before John Paul II died, in the Italian town of Subiaco, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger – now Pope Benedict XVI – spoke about the crisis of culture in Europe.
The continent, he said, “has developed a culture that excludes God from the public conscience”. The consequences of this, he continued, will lead Europe “to the edge of the abyss, to man’s ever greater isolation from reality”.
As part of a wide-ranging response by the Church to save the continent and Western civilisation from “modern Enlightenment philosophies” he called on the faithful to emulate historical figures such as St Benedict of Nursia. To gain some insight into the Pope’s thoughts I spoke with theologian and author Michael Novak, a director at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think-tank, and author of The Universal Hunger for Liberty: Why the Clash of Civilisations is Not Inevitable. Below are excerpts: What is your opinion on Pope Benedict’s view of secularism, particularly in Europe?
That is the leading issue. He would be evading reality if he did not address it. It’s not simply that Europe is becoming more secular and that’s not Christian. It’s really that that’s very dangerous to the European conceptions of rights. There is a humanism that has been built in Christianity well since Christ... Many of the best things of the Enlightenment were actually Christian values in secular terms but now they’re without their Christian grounding.
It’s said that such a destructive form of secularism might be the cause of a “clash of civilisations”. How might that happen in your view?
If you look at the new Islam, the secular political movement, one of the main strains has been the appalling record of the secular West... They find themselves spiritually far superior in depth and in their sense of God to what they see [and] they particularly single out France for this, and Turkey. To them [a godless society] is a distressingly lowbrow, low value basis for civilisation, and it opens the way to hedonism and nihilism. I would think so. This will have an impact on family life, on morale, on confidence in the future, even – though it may be a little bit strong – its stability. AForeign Office spokesman says there has been a “good response” to the advertisements placed in the press for the position of Britain’s new Ambassador to the Holy See – the first time that an ambassadorial post has ever been openly advertised to the public.
The date for receipt of applications has now passed and, according to one inside source, “the number of candidates with double-barrelled surnames is endless”. Some previous ambassadors are also known to have submitted their CVs, making the competition particularly fierce.
Yet one aspect of the recruitment process is causing some perplexity and confusion: the advertisement stated that there would be no discrimination on grounds of gender, marital status, race, disability, age or sexual orientation. However, religion is conspicuously absent.
In the past there is known to have been an unwritten rule that the post would only be given to non-Catholic diplomats. The Foreign Office denies this, but no Catholic has ever held the post.
This has been a serious bone of contention for generations of Catholic diplomats in the Foreign Service, many of whom over the years have raised their concerns directly with respective Archbishops of Westminster.
Consequently, on this occasion the Catholic hierarchy and King Charles Street have been in negotiation for many months to try to resolve this anomaly. Now, in light of this advertisement, some are beginning to question whether the government wishes to maintain its anti-Catholic rule. Possibly the post has already been earmarked for someone, for example Lady Powell. The FCO spokesman said he “did not know” why there was an omission.
“You can only put so many words in an advertisement,” he added, and pointed out that such discrimination might be illegal according to British employment law.
However, it is baffling why it was deemed less important to make that clear in the advertisement yet include the other categories, especially considering the historical discriminatory practices surrounding this particular ambassadorship. This only casts further doubt on whether the Foreign Office is being entirely straightforward with the Catholic community about its plans for the embassy and the ambassadorship.