Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster

Living as a Creative Minority in the UK

Benedict XVI Memorial Lecture 2016 given at  Archbishop's House on 8 March 2016.  

A few weeks ago, I entered the Chapel Royal in Hampton Court to celebrate Vespers. For the first time since the 1550s a Cardinal was to lead such prayer. It was another step in the ‘healing of an ancient wound’, to quote a phrase used at the first ever visit of a Pope to this country in 1982. 

The Hampton Court Vespers were yet another affirmation of the resilience of religious faith to overcome difficulties from within and without, and to strive constantly for new horizons which we perceive to be of the will of God. 

Following centuries of exclusion, the structure of the Catholic Church in England and Wales was re-established in 1850. Our journey from that time, as a religious minority, has been remarkable, meeting both hostility and friendship, needing patience, courage, flexibility both in public and in private, working through disagreements and finding accommodations, while staying faithful to our central beliefs and teachings. 

At the heart of this journey has been education, for the first meeting of the newly appointed bishops of the Catholic Church, in 1852, (called the Synod of Westminster although it actually took place in Birmingham), decided that before any church building was to be constructed a school was to be established. The school, said the bishops, would form and support the living stones of the Church. 

In our story, education holds a central place and I believe it will do so long into the future. 

Why is this so? 

It is in its education that a society shapes its future. It is in its education that institutions and groups express their best aspirations and concerns. Through education preparations are made for the challenges, conflicts and oppositions to be faced in any age. Education, then, reveals what is truly important, establishes partnerships around those priorities, shapes perceptions of what might otherwise be unknown or suspect, and helps to establish trust.  

Let me be more specific. At the heart of Catholic education lie four main tasks:  to contribute to the maximum personal and professional competence of its students; to help them to explore what it means to be human, and what every human being has in common thereby seeking a world view of the human person; thirdly, to form in every pupil a personal commitment to building a better society and, fourthly, to express and explore that openness to the spiritual and the transcendent  which is a formative characteristic of every human being. In Catholic education, this last dimension, which illuminates and deepens the other three, is of course centred on the person of Jesus Christ. 

Now I put forward these four dimensions of our understanding of education not simply because they make clear the road by which we have travelled as a religious minority but for two other reasons. 

First, I believe that these dimensions are fundamental to a sound and healthy life, both of the person and of a society. And I believe that these aims are widely shared by many people of good will. 

Every person needs the opportunity to develop their potential and see it contributing to the effort of a society as it strives for prosperity. Every person benefits when they see what is truly distinctive about our shared humanity, about the call of the heart, of the pathway of beauty, of creativity and diversity. Every person, and every society, needs constantly to grasp the challenges of living justly, of poverty and wealth, of right and wrong, of the distinction between law and morality. And every person, every society, gains when it is understood that religious belief is not a problem to be solved but a great treasure to be rediscovered. 

Sometimes it has been, and continues to be, the role of this Catholic minority, among others, to stand for this range of values in all their breadth when pressures might push some to the margins of awareness. I think particularly of the role of religious education, not in the narrow sense of R.E. putting forward a single perspective, but in the traditional Catholic sense of studying respectfully the work of God in every religion as a requirement of our own firm and joyful belief in God’s work in Christ and in the Church. 

Today we hear much about ‘British values’ variously expressed but essentially those of democracy, the rule of law, tolerance and ‘equality’. 

I believe that what  I am describing as the radical aims of all sound education, lie at the foundation and heart of all true values: that such a formation will help a person strive to achieve their best, in service of society; to awaken an innate understanding of human nature and its dignity so that we act accordingly towards our neighbours, no matter our differences; that a sense of justice and fair play are part of our character and that laws are best fashioned in true and searching dialogue and not government diktat or favour; that the most profound core of the person, the true source of their dignity and rights, lie in the transcendent nature of their being: everyone is a spiritual being, living not simply within the contingent  horizons of sovereignty, science and space but within those of eternity. 

To be passionate about such values is to serve all that is best in this new Britain and in every society. The religious belief that inspires them, properly understood and lived, is not a problem. It is a great friend. 

My second reason for putting forward these qualities of education and the values they serve is that we are all intensely aware of the threat of extremism: extremist views, extremist actions. But we are less sure about how they are to be described. And without some sound definition, countering extremism is not only difficult to fashion but dangerous in the premises it might unwittingly adapt and the alienation it could consequently engender. 

What exactly are the ‘socially unacceptable’ patterns of thought and behaviour that might be determined to come under the outer reaches of the umbrella of extremism? How do we begin to define what can reasonably be seen as inimical to the society we wish to shape, and protect? Is it all religious belief, as some would wish? Does it include religious convictions that, at this time, do not accord with contemporary culture and preoccupations? 

My own inclination would be to develop a framework of 'acceptability' around the four qualities of education, which I have already outlined. Thus actions and values would be considered 'unacceptable' if they clearly and unreasonably impeded the development of professional and personal competences fit for our economy and professional standards, such as the denial of education on the basis of gender or ethnicity; or if they contradicted the shared, fundamental principles that emerge from  reflection on the dignity of every person as both an individual and a social being, such as female genital mutilation with all its terrible personal and indeed social consequences; or if they undermine the call for a just society in which the dignity of each is recognised and the balance of needs and resources is constantly scrutinised and challenged, such as employment which excludes the recognition of the rights of labour, as in domestic or sexual slavery; or, finally, if they refused to recognise or deny an openness to the spiritual dimension of the human person and respect for religious freedom, in both public and private, that is its consequence. 

I accept that these are quite complex criteria. There will always be points of divergence and discussion about where a balance is to be struck. But better this way than any simplistic, popular criteria of acceptability which would smuggle in a ‘loyalty’ test and its damaging consequences. 

In recent years, a high point of Catholic presence in this country came with the visit of Pope Benedict XVI in 2010. This evening is dedicated to the memory of that visit. Speaking in Westminster Hall, to the leaders of our society, the Pope made a clear and fundamental appeal. It is a challenge which still stands. He said: ‘Each generation, as it seeks to advance the common good, must ask anew: what are the requirements that governments may reasonably impose upon citizens, and how far do they extend? By appeal to what authority can moral dilemmas be resolved? These questions take us directly to the ethical foundations of civil discourse. 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 lies the real challenge for democracy.’ 

He went on to explore the complementary roles of faith and reason in facing this challenge: faith offering fresh light to reason, and reason testing faith and purifying it. Then he appealed for a profound and ongoing dialogue between the world of secular rationality and the world of religious belief. 

In our experience, education continues to be a field in which this dialogue can take place well. There are many other fields, of course, which are also to be explored, such as response to poverty and social exclusion. But it is through such dialogue that belief must be able to give a truly rational account of itself (not a positivist, quasi-scientific account) just as reason must show itself, from its own foundations, not be closed to the transcendent. 

In our task of integration, knowing that in Britain today we have a truly respectful, pluralist society, sound and lasting education is an important pathway. This is the evidence of our experience of being a religious minority for a number of centuries. I offer it, with humility and thankfulness, for our consideration this evening. 


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