The importance of speaking in the public square
April 11th, 2017
By Archbishop Eamon Martin
Here is an excerpt of a speech by Archbishop Eamon Martin of Armagh, Northern Ireland, on March 25 in Belfast at the inauguration of the Northern Ireland chapter of the Iona Institute, a Dublin-based group that “promotes the place of marriage and religion in society.”
Every time I am asked to speak on this topic I find myself returning for inspiration to the story from the Acts of the Apostles (Chapter 17) of St. Paul in the agora of ancient Athens – that great meeting place of government, commerce and ideas. Paul could see the city was full of idols, and Acts tells us his spirit was “provoked,” but still he held his ground and witnessed to Christ. His testimony was of particular interest to the philosophers, who enjoyed discussing all the latest news and fashionable ideas of the time.
They brought him before the Areopagus, where Paul remarked on all the objects of worship he had seen in the city, including an altar with the inscription, “To an unknown god.” Paul proclaimed that what the Athenians worshipped as “unknown,” was in fact “the God who made the world and everything in it.”
It is God that you are all seeking, he went on, God who is not far from each one of us; God “who gives life and breath to everything,” God “in whom we live and move and have our being,” God who created us so that we might seek after him! God calls us to repent, Paul added, and he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world by a man whom he has raised from the dead.
At the mention of resurrection of the dead, Paul’s audience in the ancient public square immediately interrupted him. Some mocked him, but others said, “We will hear you again about this.” Acts concludes the story with these words: “Some joined him and believed, among them Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them.”
Two-thousand years later, when we speak in the modern public square we may expect a similar reaction. Some will mock us; some will want to hear more; others will believe and change their lives to join the flock of Jesus Christ.
But how can they change unless someone challenges them? In another place, Paul writes (Romans 10:14): “But how are men to call upon him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without a preacher?”
Friends, today we are the ones who are sent to speak into the public square. This is our responsibility and our privilege.
More than just politics
But, first, it is worth exploring what we mean by the public square nowadays. There is a temptation to confine the meaning of the public square to the realm of politics, which, in my view, is a rather narrow and impoverished view of the term. I imagine the public square to be more like the ancient Athenian agora and Areopagus – a place where ideas are developed and shared and tested.
The media and entertainment world, therefore, has a claim to attention in the public square, and, if you’ll allow a “virtual” space, then social media has a major contribution to make. Important discussion also takes place in the boardrooms of business and industry. The arts, music and sport clearly influence the public agenda. From all of these emerge messages which shape our understanding of the truth and how we live our lives. So also, of course, does education, through academic research and discourse.
So, if the voice of faith is to be heard in the public square, then people of faith must inhabit and contribute to all of these worlds and discussions, and indeed, to anywhere people meet to share opinions and ideas – the pub, the hairdressers, the dinner party and the staff coffee room.
The Second Vatican Council was clear that the church has a voice right in the center of the modern world, in the heart of the public square, in the hustle and bustle of people’s lives. The council fathers pointed out the duty of the church to “scrutinize the signs of the times and interpret them in the light of the Gospel.” The great Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes (“Joy and Hope”), famously puts it: “The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the (people) of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ.”
But what message do we bring as people of faith to the public square? “Gaudium et Spes” again puts it well, “The future of humanity rests on those who are capable of handing on to the coming generations reasons for living and hoping.” Our interventions in the public square therefore draw from transcendent ideas of truth, beauty and goodness, and from an understanding of the human person that is rooted in the natural law and which strives for the common good. Ultimately everything we say is founded on the Gospel of Jesus Christ, our risen Lord, who calls people to repentance and conversion, and promises hope and everlasting life.
We do not enter the public square simply to win arguments through the clever use of reasoning and debate. When we speak, we draw upon both reason and faith and upon an integral vision of the dignity and vocation of the human person linked to the common good. We seek to present in public discourse “a coherent ethic of life,” based on natural law, which includes for example, our teaching about the sacredness of human life and the dignity of the person, about the centrality of the family, about solidarity and the need for a fair distribution of goods in the world. Our vision is of a society marked by a culture of justice and care for all, especially the most vulnerable.
The difficulty for us, of course, is the tendency in public debate to relegate to the private sphere discussion about the nature of the identity of the human person and his or her dignity. Society nowadays is inclined instead to prioritize a limited conception of freedom, often understood in a reductionist and limited fashion which doesn’t always lead to human flourishing.
The voice of faith or religion is not simply for the privacy of our homes and churches. The Gospel is meant for mission. It is not to be cloistered away from the cut and thrust of public discourse.
Since Paul first stepped into the agora at Athens, many have argued that the transcendent moral norms presented by believing Christians have no place in the public discourse. There is little tolerance nowadays for the idea of absolute moral truths or for stable moral reference points – something is intrinsic to the content of Christian interventions in the public square.
Archbishop Rowan Williams prefers to see the church as part of the “community of communities” that is the state. It is therefore up to us to be courageous enough to argue our case, to ask awkward questions when necessary, e.g., about the impact of economic policies on the most vulnerable or to point out contradictions of populism, all the while being careful not to become too sensitive to criticism or always claiming to be offended. We need a broad back in the public square and particularly so on social media where people of faith often have to endure insult or ridicule or even personal attack simply for being present in the public square at all.
Of course, the Catholic Church in Ireland has seen great damage to its credibility on account of the child abuse scandals and other shameful episodes of our past. Many people feel they can no longer trust our message because they have been hurt and betrayed by their experience of church. The sins and crimes of sexual abuse in the church have not only had tragic consequences in the lives of victims and their families, but have also, as Pope Benedict XVI put it, “obscured the light of the Gospel.”
When we speak in the public square about the right to life of the unborn, some are quick to point to the child abuse scandals and to shameful stories about mother and baby homes and other institutions. In my view, however, the failures of the past must help us learn lessons for the present about where church and society might be similarly marginalizing the poor, stigmatizing the unwanted or failing to protect the most vulnerable.
We in the church can tend to react defensively to criticisms – sometimes by denial, claiming unfairness, even conspiracy – rather than being thankful that the lid has been lifted on a terrible and shameful chapter of our history and at last giving a voice to those who for years had been carrying a lonely trauma. If it seemed at times that the church was being unfairly targeted or singled out, then so be it. In hindsight, this was a price that had to be paid in order to put the safety of children first.
Despite all that has happened, the Catholic Church remains of great interest to the media and society today. The church is often countercultural and a sign of contradiction in the secular world, just as it was for the Athenians when Paul spoke. It is therefore an object of fascination to many, of bewilderment or curiosity to others, and of hostility to some. Our challenge is to find ways of presenting the beautiful, edifying and spiritually inspiring lives of people of faith which reflect the beauty and goodness of God.
I believe that today, when so many people are tempted to despair, we need to rediscover the ways of lifting people up, giving them, as St. Peter put it, “a reason for the hope that lies within us.” With so much conflict, hatred and division in the world, it would do all our hearts good to celebrate more often the commitment of people of faith to peace and justice, love and understanding.
A lot of Catholics, as members of society, find themselves easily drawn to support the liberal democratic culture and politics of the state. The politicians Catholics vote for, the media stories we like to read, are not unlike those that the majority of people in the public square seem to want or support. Catholics, precisely as Catholics, need to allow their faith to influence their participation in society and the state.
That is why we need opportunities to meet like-minded Catholics and Christians who have begun to question the superficiality of much of what surrounds us. Our faith has a lot to say about the nihilism and despair of a throwaway culture that has driven young people to self-destruction. Our church’s teachings would seriously question such a limited view of individual rights that would dispute the equality of life of a mother and her unborn baby.
Our arguments in these debates must aim to balance charity and truth. They must be at once gentle and patient but firm and persuasive.
Retrieved from originsonline.com, Catholic News Service documentary service.
From April 13, 2017 issue of Catholic San Francisco.