Annual Warrane Lecture: Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP In Sæcula Sæculorum: Secularism and Religion Today Warrane College, UNSW, 15 August 2018
Wednesday 15 August, 2018
Annual Warrane Lecture: Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP
In Sæcula Sæculorum: Secularism and Religion Today
Warrane College, UNSW, 15 August 2018
On Wednesday 15 August 2018, the Most Reverend Anthony Fisher OP gave the annual Warrane Lecture on the timely topic of religious freedom. The Catholic Archbishop of Sydney since 2014, he studied History and Law at USYD before practising law and then entering the religious congregation of the Dominicans in 1985.
From the Assumption to secularity
Seeing as he was delivering the Warrane Lecture on 15 August, the Feast of the Assumption of Our Lady into heaven, Archbishop Fisher began his thoughts on religious freedom on that very note. “In this most secular of ages, to declare that a woman’s body had gone ‘up’ to ‘heaven’ with her ‘soul’ seems bizarre, almost defiant in its benightedness,” he said. “Even stranger, perhaps, is the fact that civil society marks the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin with a public holiday in so many countries…”
Archbishop Fisher went on to describe the origin of the English word ‘secular’. “Catholics traditionally concluded their prayers by glorifying the Blessed Trinity with “Glory be to the Father…,” a prayer that ended in sæcula sæculorum, literally ‘from age to age’ or ‘forever and ever’. From this same word sæculum for temporal or worldly, we get our words secular, secularity and secularism.” He explained how the word ‘secular’ is used as an opposite to all things religious and churchy, and typically means both a distinction and separation of the secular and the sacred, or the Church and the State. This secularism can range from moderate forms to more absolutist ideologies.
Archbishop Fisher explained: “A moderate secularism advocates a secularity that protects the community and its individual citizens from...control of government by religious leaders, imposition of a particular faith through civil laws etc., and that protects religious institutions and their faithful from state religion… Instead it allows that people be left free to believe and profess their particular faith (and faith-based ethics) or indeed none at all. Moderate secularisms acknowledge, tolerate, even celebrate, a rich variety of views on such matters and advocate that people give each other the space to profess and live those views. Absolutist secularism, on the other hand, tries to minimise the role of religion in every person’s life, to exclude it altogether from the public square, and to remove religious institutions from having any influence over government, law, media, schools, universities, the arts, workplaces, social customs, civil discourse, even the civic calendar.”
Secularity finds its roots in Christianity
Archbishop Fisher urged the boys, however, to refrain from becoming critical of secularism, considering that it has its roots in Christianity. “Christianity...has retained a strong sense that there are some things to render unto Caesar and some to render unto God, as Jesus put it (Mt 22:21)... even if the two interpenetrate each other and we rightly bring one Christian conscience to both. In this way, liberal democracies, with their sense of independence (if also interdependence) of Church and State, are in many ways a bi-product of Christianity.”
The way in which the Church and State interact is always evolving through different times and places. “In much of contemporary Western Europe, for instance, as in the communist East of the recent past, the tendency is to say with respect to church and state that ‘ne’er the twain shall meet,’” said Archbishop Fisher. “...If there are countries in which state or culture-imposed atheism is dominant, there are others in which religion seeks to dictate terms to government and society, including to people who do not share that faith, and to control every aspect of life… American culture and society is a mix of both extremes, with lots of public religious rhetoric, as if faith were compulsory, and bans on public prayers and cribs, as if it were forbidden.”
He continued: “Here in Australia we have a unique take on these things: we distinguish between church and state, and recognize that each has its own sphere of activity, goals, methods, actors… Church and state in Australia mostly leave each other alone; where they intersect, they are sometimes rivals but more often they find ways to collaborate to their mutual advantage (as they largely do, for example, in education, health, welfare). This ‘live and let live’, ‘don’t wear religion on your sleeve’ Aussie secularity has mostly meant peaceful co-existence between people of all faiths and none, and allowed secular society to build on Christian social capital and vice versa. Its downsides are a certain intellectual laziness, practical atheism, and lack of vigilance regarding religious liberty, even amongst believers.”
“Australian secularity has generally been more respectful than most of both religious and democratic institutions,” said the Archbishop. “But today we encounter a more virulent secularism that would exclude faith and the faithful from public life, root out Judeo-Christian heritage from law and culture, and confine faith to an ever-narrowing field of private life. Believers are pressed to renounce their most deeply held beliefs, stay silent about their dirty little secret, or else adopt a kind of dual personality. Secularity may be a child of Christianity, but like an adolescent bucking against its parent, absolutist secularism resents its Christian heritage and is determined to end its influence.”
Australian respect for religion and secularity is at risk
Archbishop Fisher went on to talk to the boys about the risks of the way in which Australians deal with religion and secularity. He said: “It’s partly due to this mild, ‘keep it quiet’ form of Australian secularity that Australians don’t talk much about religious liberty...American presidents, judges, journalists and church leaders rehearse debates about the meaning and importance of America’s separation of church and state on a very regular basis; Australians just take it for granted. I want to suggest tonight that that’s dangerous. We can’t presume that religious liberty will always be respected here...The risk for Australians is that because we are free of that sort of persecution we don’t recognize more subtle forms.”
He reminded the boys of some of the recent subtle attacks on religious liberty, such as laws in Victoria and Tasmania which require doctors to assist in or refer for abortions no matter their conscientious view on the manner; or the way that anyone who supported traditional marriage in the recent plebiscite is immediately deemed homophobic. “For all its putative open-mindedness and despite its profound debt to Judeo-Christianity for its laws and customs, our culture is becoming less and less tolerant of such religion,” said the Archbishop. He continued, “...if recent trends in Australia and overseas are anything to go by, religious institutions that maintain a traditional view of marriage may well face challenges regarding their ceremonies and sacred spaces, their employment, enrolment and accommodation policies, the message they preach or curriculum they teach, their charitable status or eligibility for government grants and contracts, and so on. People of faith may find themselves the victims of vilification, ‘lawfare’ or disadvantage in employment, commerce, academic or professional admission, parenting or otherwise, if they are known to hold or dare to voice old-fashioned views on marriage or other matters.”
Defending religious liberty
Archbishop Fisher put a question to the boys: how are we to think about such matters? “Christ’s teaching about rendering to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s (Mt 22:5-21) is an excellent starting point, but it raises questions about what properly belongs to each realm, what respecting each demands, and what to do when they overlap – in a word, it raises the very questions that are at the heart of the concept of secularity.” He went on to give them five steps in defending religious freedom.
The first step was to be clear in their own minds. “Religious liberty is not an ‘exemption’ or ‘exception’ from the ordinary norms of justice allowed to certain benighted groups who either force the hands of the majority or are grudgingly tolerated. Rather, justice requires respect for religious freedom.”
The Archbishop went on: “Why does freedom of religion matter? One practical reason would be this: without freedom of religion, religious bodies would not be able to do many of the good things they do,” such as the spiritual nourishment of 5.2 million people gathered in 1400 parishes in Australia; the provision of 10,000 hospital beds, 20,000 aged care places, 45,000 tertiary education places by the Catholic Church; as well as chaplaincy to ethnic groups, hospitals, prisons and the services; and welfare provision to the hungry, homeless, disabled, orphaned and troubled.
The Archbishop provided a second reason for respecting religious liberty: it allows for a range of ‘intermediate’ bodies and more local initiatives between government and the individual. “We might think of St Vincent de Paul conferences, local youth groups or CatholicCare counselling services,” he said. “These are not merely ‘service providers’ with a religious inspiration. They are part of a society that is more than just government instrumentalities, corporations and citizen-worker-consumers...charitable organisations exist as representatives of a ‘subsidiarity’ and diversity that enriches our democracy, as communities of volunteers with a passion for justice or charity, and thus as a very important part of our social, cultural and moral infrastructure.”
He went on: “A third and even more fundamental reason for recognizing a generous freedom of religion is the good of religion itself. Human beings are spiritual beings and they ask spiritual questions. Even if the census says a quarter of us don’t claim any religion, three quarters do and even the others ask the big questions... Human beings, it seems, are irremediably religious animals… the Second Vatican Council taught that the purpose of law and government is to serve ‘the common good’ of all the citizens, that is ‘the social conditions necessary for human flourishing’. That means ensuring that people have reasonable access to those basic human goods which contribute to their physical, emotional and spiritual wellbeing. And religion is one such good.”
The Archbishop’s fourth reason for the need for religious freedom is the space in our law and culture for people to believe different things and practice their beliefs. “Having the freedom to order one’s life to reflect the conclusions of a sincere judgment on these matters has generally been regarded as a fundamental human right here… By extension, Australian families have traditionally been allowed to guide the religious development of their children and help them to exercise their religious freedom as they grow and mature,” he said.
“The most fundamental reason for respecting freedom of religion is that this is required if we are to respect human persons, the requirements of their flourishing, and the proper role of civil authority; to abandon this would be to undo some of what is best in Australian civilisation. Every Australian has a stake in defending the right to ask the big questions in life and to live authentically in this pursuit. A moderate secularity returns to the Father after its prodigal adventures, ready to support freedom of religion.”
God loves the secular
“Pope Francis has pointed out on several occasions that we cannot evangelize our culture effectively if we do not first understand where it is and where it is tending,” said Archbishop Fisher to the Warrane boys. “In other words, we need to engage in a sort of examination of conscience with respect to the challenges of the age. If we are to do our bit to address big challenges like absolutist secularism and religious freedom, we need to be well informed and formed ourselves. It means reading widely and deeply, and not just people who think like us. It means knowing our own tradition and so thoroughly acquainting ourselves with resources such as the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.”
He spoke about the importance of improving the quality of our conversations: listening, reasoning, dialoguing and debating in our homes, workplaces and so on. “It has the potential to explore, share, teach, inspire and change us. But if two (or more) parties agree to walk and talk together for a while, with receptive minds and hearts, who knows what they might discover?”
Archbishop Fisher went on: “The Second Vatican Council opened its document on The Church in the Modern World with the memorable words: ‘The joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the people of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted – these are the joys and hopes, griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts.’ The Church has always taught that creation is fundamentally good, even if damaged by sin; so we should not fear the ‘secular’ world or treat it as a junkyard, but rather reverence it and seek to renew it under grace. The Church likewise has always taught that humanity is fundamentally good, if damaged by sin, and so we should not fear or abuse ‘secular’ society or individuals, but rather reverence, serve and raise them up. The relationship of church and state, mundane and transcendent, religious and secular, is never properly a matter of ‘us against them’; we never give up on humanity or the world.”
“Every community needs mechanisms to safeguard the rights of citizens and resolve conflicts between them,” said Archbishop Fisher. “I would say that Australia has mostly been good at this, if not always or in all respects. The militant secularism in the air at the moment, like the colonialism, sectarianism, racism and sexism in the air at other times, threatens to unravel Australian respectfulness in religious matters and historic balances between Church and state.”
He went on: “People of faith will, I trust, continue to work to renew that ‘Australian secularity’ which ensures freedom of religion; to ensure respect for the dignity of all, not just believers, and freedom of conscience for all, not just their co-religionists; and to collaborate with civic authorities in pursuit of the common good. There will be challenges ahead for us all, leaders or citizens of the realm of Caesar or of God or both. As Pope Francis has prayed, ‘May this be the path we take: rejecting pointless disagreement and closed-mindedness... fostering everywhere the peaceful encounter of people of different beliefs... pursuing genuine religious freedom. It is a path to be taken together, for the good of all, and with hope. May our various religions be wombs of life, bearing the merciful love of God to a wounded and needy humanity. May they be doors of hope breaking open the walls of pride and fear.’”