Towards a democracy of hope

Cardinal George Pell has won the respect of the media with his straightforward manner and the strength of his intellect. Here he talks about Islam, Christianity and democracy.
Cardinal George Pell | Dec 17 2004 | comment  




MercatorNet: Is it possible to establish a dialogue between Christianity and Islam?

That dialogue has been going on for quite a long time. In the Vatican we have the council for interfaith dialogue. Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald now heads it, a specialist in Islam. It was led for years by Cardinal Francis Arinze, of Nigeria. There are many examples of dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Muslims.

MercatorNet: What do they have in common? How do they differ in their vision of man and society?

I'm no specialist in Islam, but I can list a few of the differences. They don't believe in the Incarnation; they don't believe that Christ was the Son of God. I don't think that they believe in Redemption. They are very strictly monotheist. Their artistic traditions are very different. They don't believe in representations of the human form. Probably one of the most obvious sociological differences is the position of women in Islam and in Christianity, not just matters of dress, but their position in society and also the fact that Muslim men can have a number of wives. They might have a different attitude towards forgiveness, too. But these are just some of the differences.

MercatorNet: There is a small but growing number of converts to Islam in Western countries, including Australia. What is the appeal of Islam?

I was asked that by an Islamic leader and I said to him that they have a clear simple message. The five fundamental principles are quite clear. They also have many people who believe quite strongly. I think that it is a religion of strength and it's probably more attractive to men rather than to women -- although some women are converting to Islam, that's for sure.

Cardinal George Pell If democracy means secularism, in its extreme form as I have defined it, then demography is against it. The statistics seem to show that those people who are religious have more children.

MercatorNet: Some Australian Muslims were alarmed by newspaper accounts of a speech you made in the US [reprinted in Quadrant]. It was reported that you said that 21st century Islam could be the successor of 20th century Communism. What did you mean by that?

I wasn't suggesting for a minute that Islam and Communism were similar movements. Communism was explicitly atheistic and generally oppressive of all forms of religion. Islam is one of the great religions. Communism was a Johnny-come-lately and it has come and gone. Islam has been with us for 1400 years.

My paper was about the vacuum at the heart of secular society and the emptiness there. What I was saying was that just as Communism filled that in the 20th Century for a percentage of people, so might Islam -- for good reasons and for less good reasons. For those who are radically discontented and inclined to violence, the terrorist cells of Islam might prove attractive. That will be a small percentage of people, we hope. But the strength and sense of purpose, community, cohesion, the fact that it is a very strong religion, could be attractive to many people in the West who are looking for a sense of purpose, looking for a sense of direction, something to hold their lives together, something to inspire a sense of self-discipline.

MercatorNet: President Bush intends to make Iraq a beacon of democracy in the Middle East. Is this naïve? Is Islam a soil too stony for democracy to take root?

I think Iraq is a hazardous project and will continue to be for some time. But the biggest Islamic country in the world is Indonesia and that has a real democracy. Turkey, a very significant Islamic country, is also a democracy. While democratic traditions, which are not very old in any society, haven't been around for a millennium amongst the Muslims, there would have to be some real chance that an effective democracy will be set up in Iraq, almost certainly led by the majority Shiites, with, we hope, adequate protections for the Sunnis and for the Kurds, perhaps in some sort of federalist system of government.

MercatorNet: What is your vision for the future? Will the 21st Century be a three-cornered contest between secular democracy, Christianity and Islam for the hearts of men?

Very possibly. But we mustn't forget Buddhism and Hinduism. Although the Congress Party has now been returned to power in India, the previous government, the BJP, was very strongly pro-Hindu and some of its members were aggressively nationalist. Certainly over the last five or ten years there have been quite a number of attacks on Christians. An Australian Christian missionary was killed there in 1999 with his two children.

The great unknown is just which way China will go. It's the next great missionary possibility. Under the Communists, and certainly with Mao's Red Guards, many of the older traditions were destroyed, especially amongst younger educated people. A lot of people in China will be looking for something. Christianity is already growing in China, as one commentator said, the way Christianity did in the pagan Roman Empire, not just amongst Catholics, but also amongst the Protestants. I wouldn't be surprised if during this century we saw a very significant Christian expansion in China.

MercatorNet: Is it filling there the same sort of vacuum there as in Western society?

It's not the same vacuum but a vacuum it is. It's something that goes with modernisation and Westernisation. The selfishness and self-indulgence which the consumer society encourages can help provoke a spiritual vacuum.

MercatorNet: But Islam isn't your main focus, is it? I gather that you are more concerned about secularism, or secular democracy, in the West. Is secular democracy democracy pure and simple, or does it have its own view of man's place in the universe?

There's no democracy pure and simple. Nearly every democracy is at the service of some set of values -- even if you're going to say that it's a democracy which only accepts human rights. That presupposes a whole set of values about the freedom and equality of all people. We're inclined to take that for granted, but historically that has been a very controversial view.

One form of secular democracy ensures that there's room for all competing sets of values. There's another, more militantly secularist type of democracy which tries resolutely to exclude religious considerations from public life. It's that that I'm opposing.

MercatorNet: You are proposing something as well, aren't you: a different vision of living the democratic ideal: democratic personalism. What is this?

A lot of it follows from the writings of French philosopher Jacques Maritain. It has been consistently espoused by our present Holy Father, John Paul II. It was at the heart of the best of Christian Democrat initiatives after World War II. A man like Konrad Adenauer in West Germany could be accurately described as a democratic personalist.

It follows from the Christian concept of the human person that everyone is made in the image of God and that every human has rights, whether they are very young or very old, whether they are sick, whether they are contributing or whether they are dependent upon the help of others. The overwhelming priority is not the economy or miliary expansion but the well-being of individuals. In contrast with the Fascists or the Nazis, the individual is not subsumed in the collectivity or the nation or the race, nor in the interests of the working class as with the Communists. Human rights and human duties are very important and they are to be used cooperatively to build a genuine community.

MercatorNet: Does it require a belief in a God, in a Christian God?

I'm inclined to think that in the long term it does. I'm not sure that it requires a belief in a Christian God. There are some people who are explicitly secularist whom I call neo-pagans. The pagans of old in the Roman Empire believed in gods. The gods might have been capricious and half-human, but at least the Romans believed in a purpose in life.

Some of the aggressively secularist people, on the other hand, believe that life is just a giant cosmic fluke, a bit like the foam on a wave. It came up by chance, goes nowhere and has no purpose. The French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre said that the life of a solitary drunkard was as worthless as the life of a great statesman. That's a profoundly unChristian point of view. Those people are obviously unable to ascribe a high value to human life. They just say that we are the most developed form of animal life. Their concept of human life would be quite different from ours. If we have an animal that's suffering too much, we eliminate it. Some of the neo-pagans would do exactly the same -- as evidenced by their enthusiasm for euthanasia.

MercatorNet: You used a nice turn of phrase in your speech: "the difference between secular democracy and democratic personalism is the difference between democracy based on fear, and democracy based on hope." Could you explain?

That does encapsulate a significant difference. If you are a militant secularist in the way I was describing it, it's very difficult to agree on what are core human values. Some of these people -- the British political philosopher John Gray, for instance -- try to avoid the values question altogether. He moves in a Hobbesian direction which says that the primary function of a society is to stop the members of that society from hurting or killing one another. Democracy is just a mechanism for the management of disputes about values, rather than about their resolution. People who think like that are more tempted to see the other people around them as strangers, as aliens. Consequently they are suspicious that they might be hurt and take steps to protect themselves.

People who are theist believe that not only that God exists, but that he is interested in us and that God is good. They are imbued with a fundamental hope about the purpose of creation and are more inclined to trust one another. We theists are more inclined to be a little less angst-ridden about the ecological crisis, for instance. The evidence might be pointing to the degradation of many factors in our physical world, but even if that were true, we believe that God is good and that there is a life beyond this world.

If democracy means secularism, in its extreme form as I have defined it, then demography is against it. The statistics seem to show that those people who are religious have more children. I think it's connected with the fact that they are actually more hopeful and more optimistic. There is a clear correlation between secularism and few or no children and faith and religion and more children.

MercatorNet: Perhaps Christians just need to wait long enough to outnumber the secularists?

There might be an erosion in the Christian ranks, too, but that's the way the numbers are running at the moment just about everywhere.

MercatorNet: Does secular democracy need to be saved from itself? Does Christianity have a role in this?

I think so. A secular democracy which is friendly to the Western tradition, which is friendly to Judeao-Christian values, and leaves space for them -- in that sense I suppose you might say it has been saved. A secularist democracy which is hostile to any religious influence in the public square will foster alienation. Certainly I am very keen that Christians of all denominations cooperate to muster a firm public defence of Christian values in the public square and present them for majority approval in our democracies.

MercatorNet: You have described personalist democracy as "a work of persuasion and evangelisation, more than political activism". What is your game plan for spreading the gospel of personalist democracy?

I don't have a big societal game plan. As Archbishop of Sydney I have got to strengthen Catholic life in Sydney as much as I can. I was out with a family of young adults last night and one of them was reminding me that I had said that Christians should go into politics. I would see that as not being confined to one party rather than another for most of our great political parties. But politicians, if they're democrats, can only do something when they have majority consent. Therefore we have to spread an understanding of what the good life means for Christians, of the benefits that brings to society. We have to persuade people of the truthfulness and the advantages that come from such a decision.

Interviewed by Michael Cook, the editor of MercatorNet



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