By Anna Arco
Warning: listening to Radio 4 while cooking may be hazardous. Apoplectic rage at the tag-line for the BBC's The Moral Maze two weeks ago made me drop a scalding pot of soup, curdle my Beamaise and burn my hand when I checked on the beef. By the time the guests arrived for dinner (late) I was a bit of a wreck. To be sure, moaning about the BBC's anti-Catholic bias is old hat, but the corporation's programming feeds the flames almost every week.
What were the offending words this time? "The triumph of secularism was celebrated too early: the rise of militant Islam in the East and fundamentalist Christianity in the West and the peaceful invasion of half a million devoutly Catholic Poles has made faith a political issue. But should it play a part in our politics? "
Michael Buell, as the modulated and persuasive voice of reason, precluded any real debate by announcing the programme thus. Underneath the rhetoric the subtext was clear: reason allows for only one narrative, namely a secular one which regards religion as a dangerous anachronism. Buerk seemed to equate religion with either militant fundamentalism or a foreign set of beliefs that belong to a hard-working community of immigrants who, by the nature of the work they can get in this country, are perceived as poorly educated and backward.
Before the debate even began, religion in all its forms had been damned to the hell of fundamentalist nutterdom. For the sake of "reasonable and objective" debate, the programme trotted out the Catholic writer Clifford Longley and the Anglican canon of New College, Oxford, Dr Jane Shaw. While they defended the place of religion in politics admirably, it was clear that they had lost the discussion before they had even started.
They found themselves in that sickening situation that is becoming familiar to those who harbour religious beliefs in the West, and are not necessarily of the jihadist or holy-roller persuasion. Anyone who dares to differ from the overriding anti-religious narrative is clearly on the verge of lunacy, if not already inhabiting Bedlam. Our ability to reason is discredited before we even open our mouths. Not only was such a discussion divisive, rather than constructive, because it isolates religion and ignores the existing dialogue between the secular world and world religions, it was also overly broad in its aims. It failed to take into account that it was really trying to tackle two very different issues: the role of politicians with religious convictions and the role of religious leaders in politics.
I don't think that any of us would advocate a theocracy—one need only look at the murderous consequences of Calvin's Geneva or the intolerance of Khomeini's Iran to see that it is out of the question. But to not allow political leaders personal religious convictions and the freedom of a moral conscience is simply taking the division between Church and State too far. Render unto Caesar and all that, but we live in a nominally Christian country, one which ought to allow us to pursue our religious convictions (a fairly recent luxury for Catholics) even if we were to be inpolitics.
Enough about the BBC, politics and religion, and being thought unreasonable by dint of our faith; the burns from my disastrous cooking efforts have healed even if I am still sputtering with rage.
I had spent the day that particular Moral Maze was aired with an inspiring group of devout young Catholics. who were everything but boggle-eyed loonies. These eloquent, inquisitive, rational and charming young people are all taking almost a year out of their otherwise busy lives to take part in a programme at St Patrick's in Soho, Central London, aptly called SPES ("hope"). During the week they take part in lectures on subjects ranging from self esteem to the Catechism. They live together. eat together and spend their days in study and prayer, not only learning their faith but living it. In their afternoon class, they were coveting the Fifth Commandment; instead of being the glazed staring fanatics that violent secularists might expect, they asked clever and relevant questions, probed deeply into the meaning of "Thou shalt not kill" and took the time to analyse difficult premises of certain syllogisms.
It was humbling and uplifting to share in their rosary and their midday prayers; humbling because one so often forgets to find the time to pray in the humdrum hustle and bustle of daily life, and uplifting because it is so strengthening to take part in communal prayer. I left with the feeling that this sort of young, energetic and educated Catholic is the backbone upon which the Church of the future should and will be built. They are driven not by blind faith, but by faith and rationality combined with education, a clear grasp of the secular world and a desire to understand deeply. They are wellequipped to embark on the seemingly labyrinthine journey that we young people face in today's world.
Many of the young people came to SPES through the World Youth Days, which brings me to sonic good news about Pope John Paul II. According to the blog, Whispers in the Loggia, the Vicariate for Rome, which is in charge of much of the process for the beatification of that hero of Catholic youth was offering free pieces of one of JPII's cassocks to those writing in to request them. These relics are for private devotion only, as the Pope has yet to be beatified. Demand has grown so much in a week that the Office of the Postulation has had to stop sending them for free as it is fears bankruptcy from the postage fees alone. However, they can still be applied for and received with a small donation to cover the postage cost. E-mail Postulazione .GiovanniPaololl0 VicariatusUrbis.org or write to Postulazione Giovanni Paolo 11, Vicariato di Roma, Piazza San Giovanni in Lateran 6A, 00184 Rome, Italy, for your very own tangible piece of John Paul II's legacy. For updates on the beatification process, check out www.vicariatusurbis.org/Beatificazione/