Pope Benedict’s annual address to the Vatican diplomatic corps caused quite a stir in certain quarters although American readers will never know of it because his remarks did not involve condoms or abusive clergy.
Riots broke out in Pakistan and the Egyptian government recalled its ambassador to the Holy See so pointed and specific were the pontiff’s remarks on the need for religious freedom in both the Eastern and Western worlds. The Holy Father highlighted the emigration of Christians from Iraq due to persecution. He condemned acts of terror against Christians at worship in Alexandria, Egypt. He decried laws against blasphemy in Pakistan that virtually prevent Christian utterances. Nor did the pope spare China some pointed criticism, and neither did the Pope neglect abuses toward religion in the Western world.
The Holy Father is concerned with “countries which accord great importance to pluralism and tolerance, but where religion is increasingly being marginalized.” In the West, that is, Europe and America, religion is considered insignificant, alien or even destabilizing to modern society. The banning of religious feasts and symbols from civic life under the guise of respect for the members of other religions and non-believers was lamented by the pope. Believers are thus denied the public expression of their faith through this attack on the cultural roots which nourish the traditions of so many nations. Pope Benedict insisted that the right to religious freedom does not mean simply freedom of worship. Religious freedom also means guaranteeing that religious communities can operate freely in society through initiatives in the social, charitable or educational sectors. Authentic religion is not intended to be restricted to the family home or to the church sanctuary. Religion in Western history has always been integral to a fruitful civic, economic and political life as well as to works of charity and compassion. Clearly the Holy Father does not envision the separation between religion and society which Western secular nations are lately espousing.
Religion as the soul of society is, of course, nothing new. All great world cultures have some kind of religion as their base. And the New Testament, specifically the words of Jesus Christ which form this coming Sunday’s Gospel, indicates that the role of religion is to permeate, invigorate and transform society. Jesus famously reminds his disciples that they are called to be “the salt of the earth” and “the light of the world”. Salt is rarely if ever consumed by itself. Rather salt is added to soups, sauces, vegetables and meats to make them more appealing and appetizing. Salt brings out the best in whatever food it enhances. Authentic religion similarly brings out the best in society. Peace, justice, faith and charity flourish in a society that is permeated by sincere religion.
In the ancient world a candle was not lit for its own sake and in the modern world a light bulb is not illuminated just to be observed. Light allows individuals to better appreciate their surroundings. A light reveals the furniture, fixtures and figures previously obscured by the dark. Light, like authentic religion, transforms its environment. True religion, like light, makes the world come fully alive.
The biblical city set on a mountaintop sends out its beams of hopeful light on the darkest night guiding travelers and strangers toward its welcoming walls. Religion, too, is meant to be a beam of guidance and direction for wayward mankind on the universal human journey toward man’s heavenly destiny. Our own New England forefathers clearly understood themselves to be a city set on a mountaintop and a light shining in the darkness in the hope of transforming the primitive society that they found here in the new world. Their musing would be considered politically incorrect nowadays but frankly their goal was not far off the mark. Religion is the leaven of society, to borrow another of Jesus’ metaphors. Religion should transform, enhance, and develop the world. Religion is not an eccentricity to be tolerated by the secular community. Rather religion is the catalyst of a renewed society.