When the head of the Catholic Church in England asks whether British society is turning against religion, it is sure no ordinary SOS. Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor of Westminster wrote in an opinion piece in the London Times last November that religion has become a controversial topic and that news headlines of terrorist attacks in the name of religious ideology and even natural disasters are fueling pro-secular sentiment.
“Shallow multiculturalism that fails to appreciate the basis of culture in faith leads us away from social cohesion,” he wrote, adding that true multiculturalism isn’t about “banishing faith from the public square, but about admitting new varieties of faith and inviting them to join the public conversation and valuing what they have to say.”
The rise of secularism in Britain is evident in many examples, such as the best-selling The God Delusion by atheist Richard Dawkins, the government proposal for faith schools to start accepting nonbelievers and the current fight between the government and the church over facilitating adoptions to same-sex couples.
Other examples include British Airways’ suspension of an employee after she refused to remove a small cross necklace and a member of Parliament causing outrage within the Muslim community for saying he preferred that Muslim women not wear a veil when speaking to him.
Fear Of Faith
The increased resistance to religion has made some Catholics fearful of how others will react if they show their faith, particularly in the workplace, Father Shaun Church, assistant pastor at St Monica’s Catholic Church in north London, told Our Sunday Visitor.
Although they bear witness to the Catholic faith in their own way, it can be very hard to do so. “It’s a dilemma. Religion has been in the news a lot in the past year, and now people are a little bit sensitive about it,” Father Church said.
Britons are no longer living their lives according to Christian values and beliefs, which is why Cardinal O’Connor spoke out, said Bishop John Arnold, an auxiliary of the Westminster Diocese.
The cardinal also called on Catholics to stand up for their beliefs, he said.
“So we need to be speaking out about what we do believe to preserve an important fabric of our society,” Bishop Arnold told Our Sunday Visitor.
He gave other examples of how Britain is turning secular. These include legislation put before Parliament to legalize assisted suicide, ease restrictions on embryonic stem-cell research and secular campaigns to remove religion from the Christmas holiday.
Britons also are going church less. In 1980, 6 million people – 11 percent of the population – in England, Scotland and Wales said they attended church services, according to the London think tank Christian Research. In 2005, that figure had declined to 4 million, or 7 percent of the population. The English Church Census of 1989 showed that teenagers were tearing away from worship. The same held true in 1998, when studies showed 10- to-14-year-olds were leaving the church in droves.
But the exodus is leveling out, thanks to immigrants moving in. A spokesperson for Christian Research said that youth outreach also helped slow the exodus from the church.
About 1 million people left the church between 1989 and 1998, but from 1998 to 2005 only 500,000 did. Christian Research credits this to the rise in ethnic minority churchgoers, especially African and Polish immigrants. In inner-city London, 44 percent of churchgoers are now black.
And ever since Poland, the land of Pope John Paul II, joined the European Union in 2004, Catholic worship in Britain has been given a huge boost. Devout young Poles are filling out congregations that were formerly waning.
The growing secularization and subsequent threat to religious expression in Britain is an example of what Pope Benedict XVI has made an important focus of his papacy. Until recently, his focus has been more on mainland Europe; but Great Britain, now that it is part of the European Union, is equally under threat.
In a December general audience, Pope Benedict said some societies are no longer looking for the savior.
“One has the feeling that many consider God as foreign to their own interests. Apparently, they do not need him,” he said. “They live as though he did not exist and, worse still, as though he were an ‘obstacle’ to remove in order to fulfill themselves, he said, adding that at the same time they seek “a path of renewal, of salvation.”
Cardinal O’Connor is calling Catholics in England to engage the public square in matters of faith and let their voices be heard.
“I am becoming tired of the mockery of those who seem to regard faith communities, especially Christian ones, as intrusive and contrary to the common good. I label them ‘Christophobic,’” the cardinal wrote to the Times. “They wish to close off every voice and contribution other than their own.”
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