Once again the mild-mannered but intellectually fierce Pope Benedict XVI has provoked criticism over remarks that challenge the secular establishment’s provincial understanding of the world. In his speech to the bishops of England and Wales in Rome last week, during their ad limina visit, the Pope encouraged them to fight against so-called equality legislation. He argued that such legislation limits “the freedom of religious communities to act in accordance with their beliefs” and in some cases “actually violates the natural law upon which the equality of all human beings is grounded” and guaranteed.
Critics immediately jumped, claiming that the pope’s critique undermined protection of women and homosexuals in the workplace and promoted discrimination. Yet as usual, the critics not only mischaracterize, they miss the larger point. Benedict’s vision goes beyond provincial English politics. His concern is to preserve real freedom by revitalizing reason and respect for truth—not to pander to current fashions of ideological equality.
One of the more contentious parts of the equality legislation requires that religious adoption organizations end so-called "discrimination" and allow homosexual couples to adopt children. In practice this means that Catholic adoption agencies will be forced either to shut down or to act against their conscience. This is clearly a loss of religious freedom, but Benedict realizes there is a lot more going on.
First, Benedict's remarks reflect one of the consistent themes of his papacy: to revitalize reason and a respect for truth in the West. In his famous homily before his election to the papacy, when he spoke of a “dictatorship of relativism,” and throughout his writings and speeches, he has challenged the limited and ultimately irrational notion of reason that dominates Western intellectual life.
Second is his defense of authentic equality. The current legislation transforms equality from a question of justice and fairness before the law to an ideological weapon to further secularist social policy and discriminates against religion. This pseudo equality manifests a vitiated concept of reason. The equality laws in Britain reflect less the British tradition than they do Rousseau's notion of radical equality, which has been the source of much socialist and liberal thought. Radical equality now has become praiseworthy as something good in itself, separated from any question of truth, common sense, or even biological realities. This is what happens when we lose a rich concept of reason: Anything goes—whatever is currently politically fashionable among the elite, or is supported by consensus. Pope Benedict understands that justice based on consensus is capricious and unstable.
Third is Benedict’s awareness of the need to protect the natural right of free association and freedom of religion within a pluralist society. The current equality legislation prevents religious and other peaceful groups within society to live according to their conscience. It also smacks of totalitarianism. The right of association has been a hallmark of free and prosperous societies, a protection for the weak and a guardian of justice. When it is undermined for ideological reasons, society suffers. Not only does it prevent people from living out their beliefs, it also reduces the power of civil society to check the state. Benedict's critique of the equality law is a defense of people’s right to join together for some project that benefits the common good.
Benedict has been harangued for claiming that certain parts of the legislation violate the natural law. What does this arcane Medieval concept have to do with modern legislation? Well, everything. The genius of English freedom has been to base its society on law, not on ideology. English legal culture is rooted in the natural law tradition. A Guardian editorial on February 3rd argued that churches have as much to gain from the legislation as they do to lose because it protects Catholics from being discriminated against when they look for jobs—and accuses Benedict of being protected by the laws he is criticizing. But Benedict realizes that if law is not grounded in reason and truth and becomes unhinged from reality, then justice gets reduced to power—Might makes right. As a young man in Nazi Germany, Joseph Ratzinger experienced a society where power was separated from reason and justice. He knows what violations of the natural law mean in practice. Critics miss that Benedict is the one promoting real equality and equal protection against a theory of justice guided by whatever happens to be the fashion at the time.
Andrew Brown—also at the Guardian—writes, “Just when it seemed that Roman Catholicism was a normal and natural part of the English religious scene, Pope Benedict has to come out with a statement that raises every residual Protestant hackle in the country.” Brown conjectures that the pope didn’t expect to be heard. But of course he did. And precisely because the last thing Benedict wants is Catholicism to be a normal part of the current English religious scene. This may be what Mr. Brown wants, but a church that does nothing more than sway with the prevailing winds neither inspires nor draws people—nor does it have the strength to stand up against injustice and abuse.