Austen Ivereigh: Message was a powerful one: remember our spiritual history

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Pope Benedict could not have been clearer about why he is here. May Britain "always maintain its respect for those traditional values and cultural expressions that more aggressive forms of secularism no longer value or even tolerate," he said, before reminding the nation of "the Christian foundation that underpins its freedoms," citing William Wilberforce and Florence Nightingale, and Britain's sacrifice in standing against Nazism.

Why does this history lesson matter? Because of a narrative that pits human rights against religion, freedom against faith, justice against the Church. In this narrative, societies broke free from the shackles of their inheritance somewhere in the 18th century and ushered in a glorious epoch of emancipation and liberty, leaving the Church seething in the wings.

It is, of course, a false narrative. But it is particularly appealing to Peter Tatchell and other human rights campaigners, who roll out a list of charges against the Church – as homophobic, sexist, authoritarian, and illiberal – in order to prepare the stage for the next step, an ambition long nurtured by dictators of all stripes: the exclusion of faith-based organisations from the public sphere and public money.

Once religion is back in its box marked "private" – something society tolerates as a matter for consenting adults behind closed doors – the way is clear for an individualist utopia in which people are left naked before market and state.

In a diverse society the Catholic narrative, of course, is one among many, and cannot demand special privileges. Nor does it seek to. But it does seek expression, not just in newspaper columns or on airwaves, but in schools, charities, and homes for the elderly; and it asks for the right for these organisations to witness to the beliefs which drive and inspire those who run them and work for them, even when these appear to contradict contemporary mores.

An authentically pluralist society allows for this diversity – and the state encourages and protects it, balancing the various rights involved. To take a recent example, Catholic adoption agencies should have the right not to consider same-sex couples as adoptive parents if they believe (because of what they understand to be God's vision for humanity) that the man-woman binary model is in the best interests of children.

The writer is co-ordinator of Catholic Voices

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