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Posted December 13, 2011

The Repercussions of Pope Benedictís visit to England

John Allen
National Catholic Reporter

During the six years of Benedict's papacy, there have been several much-ballyhooed public relations meltdowns, but there have also been surprising triumphs, perhaps none as remarkable as the pontiff's bravura performance during his Sept. 16-19, 2010, trip to the United Kingdom.

The trip began amid predictions of disaster, including proposals from high-profile atheists and human rights activists to slap handcuffs on the pontiff for his role in the sexual abuse crisis. Yet in the end, Benedict led what amounted to a four-day national seminar on dialogue between religious faith and secular culture, and he seemed to get through. Prime Minister David Cameron told him, "Holy Father, you forced us to sit up and listen!"

This week, Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster delivered a lecture at Netherhall House, an Opus Dei-affiliated residence for university students in London, extending Benedict's argument by identifying three areas where religion can play a positive role in a pluralistic and tolerant secular milieu.

Those areas, as Nichols sees them, are:

First, "the search for community," over against "the pressures of individualism and the fact of isolation." Nichols argued that religious groups have vast experience reconciling the individual and the communal, which is wisdom post-modern cultures desperately need: "Give up on respect for diversity, and we become either dominators or dominated. Give up on the search for universality, and ... we splinter into a thousand fragmented and isolated groups or even individuals."

Second, Benedict's notion of "human ecology" as a basis for ethical consensus. The Christian moral tradition, Nichols argued, can help strike the right balance between several human tensions: between being both relational and individual; between the spiritual and the corporeal; between existing in the present, but also as historical beings.

Third, "the work of caritas, or practical care for the poor and those in need." The Christian contribution, Nichols said, is a reminder that poverty can never be reduced to a technical or policy problem -- "there is always a profoundly human dimension to poverty" that must elicit "human love, accompaniment and solidarity."

Taken together, Nichols suggested, these areas of constructive engagement between religion and secularity point "a new place for religious belief in the public square."

That new space, Nichols said, is being marked out "not with a power or desire to impose religious beliefs or their consequences, but with the recognition that a mature and enlightened public square should reflect the beliefs of those who share its space ... The secular public square should not be faith-blind, but faith-sensitive, welcoming and testing reasoned argument."

It will be interesting to see whether the makers of manners in the U.K. take up Nichols' invitation to test reasoned argument -- even if it's rooted in something a pope had to say.

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[John L. Allen Jr. is NCR's senior correspondent. His email address is jallen@ncronline.org.]