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A culture devoid of God

VATICAN CITY - Most modern democracies have ended up hurting religious freedom in their effort to be "neutral" toward their citizens' diverse beliefs, said Cardinal Angelo Scola.

Under the guise of "objectivity" and respecting diversity, many governments are really upholding and giving legitimacy to a culture that is devoid of God and hostile to the church's legitimate place in the public square, he said.

The cardinal-archbishop of Milan, a prominent theologian, made his comments Dec. 6 during a prayer service on the eve of the feast of St. Ambrose, a fourth-century doctor of the church and patron saint of the city. The Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, published a large part of the speech.

Religious freedom was born with the Edict of Milan, Cardinal Scola said. The edict, whose1,700th anniversary will be marked next year, was a proclamation of tolerance of Christianity throughout the Roman Empire.

The proclamation introduced, for the first time in history, the cardinal said, the ideas of "religious liberty and secularity of the state," which are "two critical aspects of the good organization of the political realm."

St. Ambrose called on Christians to respect civil authority, which, in turn, had to safeguard the personal and social freedoms of its people so that both governments and citizens would be cooperating for the common good, he said.

However, the separation of religion and state progressively has lost a healthy balance, the cardinal said, with many democracies questioning, if not outright eliminating, its core "anthropological framework" that recognized the religious dimension.

"The classic problem of the moral assessment of laws has increasingly turned into a problem of religious liberty," he said.

That problem was explicitly evident, Cardinal Scola said, in the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' battle against the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services contraception mandate requiring employers to include in employee health plans coverage for contraceptives, sterilization and some abortion-inducing drugs free, even if the employer is morally opposed to such services.

In governments' attempt to protect everyone's religious freedom by being "neutral" or "indifferent" to religion, a well-intentioned secularity "has ended up becoming a model that is ill-disposed toward the religious dimension," he said.

People mistakenly believed a problem lay in divisions between people of differing beliefs instead of the real dilemma of the deep divide between secularism and religion, Cardinal Scola said.

That confusion meant "the just and necessary nondenominational character of the state ended up hiding - behind the idea of neutrality - the state's support of a secular world without God," he said.

Therefore, the so-called "neutral" state has actually ended up belonging to "a specific culture - secularism - which, through its legislation, becomes the dominant culture and ends up adversely exercising power against other identities, above all religious communities," by either marginalizing or expelling them from the public sphere, the cardinal said.

In a pluralistic society, one can expect to encounter people who are atheists, agnostics or simply indifferent toward God, he said. However, the state itself should not be party to or a proponent of that particular worldview. And when it is, the state "inevitably ends up limiting religious liberty," he added.

The solution, Cardinal Scola said, is a nondenominational state that has a "renewed" sense of religious liberty.

"A state is needed that, without making its own specific vision, doesn't interpret its nondenominational character as a 'detachment,'... but that makes room for every individual and organization to contribute toward the building of the common good," he said.

The threats against religious liberty, which needs to be seen as the linchpin in the hierarchy of rights, indicate that there is a much larger challenge at heart: respecting the pluralistic nature of modern societies while bringing everyone together to promote the common good, he said.

The church "is called to work for the transformation of its presence in a pluralistic society," he said, showing how "Christians can give witness to the importance and usefulness of the faith in the public sphere."

"A good life and good government go hand in hand," he said.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 1970