Master & Commander


There's a recurring line in Patrick O'Brien's Aubrey-Maturin series, in which Capt. Aubrey explains his military strategy, which he claims to have gotten from Lord Nelson. "Go straight at 'em."

That is what I adore about Benedict's preaching. He is of course gentle and respectful, but he zeros in like a laser on the heart of the matter --because if we're not going to talk about what matters, why waste our time? I was listening to commentary on EWTN radio in preparation for the papal trip to the UK, and everyone was agreed that the Pope would not discuss Thomas More so as not to antagonize the Anglicans, focusing on what Christians have in common rather than the...unpleasantness.

It sounded reasonable at the time, though I'm not sure how uncontroversial a trip to beatify the most famous convert from Anglicanism to Catholicism could have been. But anyway, it explains why I burst out laughing reading the Pope's meeting with diplomats, businessmen and politicians at Westminster Hall. Here is the opening, after the thanks and acknowledgments:
As I speak to you in this historic setting, I think of the countless men and women down the centuries who have played their part in the momentous events that have taken place within these walls and have shaped the lives of many generations of Britons, and others besides. In particular, I recall the figure of Saint Thomas More, the great English scholar and statesman, who is admired by believers and non-believers alike for the integrity with which he followed his conscience, even at the cost of displeasing the sovereign whose “good servant” he was, because he chose to serve God first. The dilemma which faced More in those difficult times, the perennial question of the relationship between what is owed to Caesar and what is owed to God, allows me the opportunity to reflect with you briefly on the proper place of religious belief within the political process. 
Second sentence! He went straight at 'em.

There's a lovely bit on what Britannia has given the world, and he makes explicit the connection between the British common law's search for a right understanding of the dignity of the individual and the same principles in Catholic social teaching:
This country’s Parliamentary tradition owes much to the national instinct for moderation, to the desire to achieve a genuine balance between the legitimate claims of government and the rights of those subject to it. While decisive steps have been taken at several points in your history to place limits on the exercise of power, the nation’s political institutions have been able to evolve with a remarkable degree of stability. In the process, Britain has emerged as a pluralist democracy which places great value on freedom of speech, freedom of political affiliation and respect for the rule of law, with a strong sense of the individual’s rights and duties, and of the equality of all citizens before the law. While couched in different language, Catholic social teaching has much in common with this approach, in its overriding concern to safeguard the unique dignity of every human person, created in the image and likeness of God, and in its emphasis on the duty of civil authority to foster the common good. 
So far, so good, but of course it's not easy to know where to draw the line between the common good and individual liberty, which is why More's problem, whichever side you happen to be on, is all of our problem, always:
the fundamental questions at stake in Thomas More’s trial continue to present themselves in ever-changing terms as new social conditions emerge. Each generation, as it seeks to advance the common good, must ask anew: what are the requirements that governments may reasonably impose upon citizens, and how far do they extend? By appeal to what authority can moral dilemmas be resolved? These questions take us directly to the ethical foundations of civil discourse. If the moral principles underpinning the democratic process are themselves determined by nothing more solid than social consensus, then the fragility of the process becomes all too evident - herein lies the real challenge for democracy.
Here he gets to the nub: "tolerance" by itself --looking away from moral questions so as not to make anyone uncomfortable-- is inadequate for solving these questions, and rather makes a muddle of them, becoming a form of tyranny itself:
The inadequacy of pragmatic, short-term solutions to complex social and ethical problems has been illustrated all too clearly by the recent global financial crisis. There is widespread agreement that the lack of a solid ethical foundation for economic activity has contributed to the grave difficulties now being experienced by millions of people throughout the world. Just as “every economic decision has a moral consequence” (Caritas in Veritate, 37), so too in the political field, the ethical dimension of policy has far-reaching consequences that no government can afford to ignore. A positive illustration of this is found in one of the British Parliament’s particularly notable achievements – the abolition of the slave trade. The campaign that led to this landmark legislation was built upon firm ethical principles, rooted in the natural law, and it has made a contribution to civilization of which this nation may be justly proud.
A little more:
The central question at issue, then, is this: where is the ethical foundation for political choices to be found? 
Here he lays out his now familiar teaching on the relation between religion and politics. No one is asking for a confessional state or the imposition of religion --religion without reason is subject to its own predations-- but merely the application of right reason -- for which religion, properly understod, is a help not a hindrance.
the objective norms governing right action are accessible to reason, prescinding from the content of revelation. According to this understanding, the role of religion in political debate is not so much to supply these norms, as if they could not be known by non-believers – still less to propose concrete political solutions, which would lie altogether outside the competence of religion – but rather to help purify and shed light upon the application of reason to the discovery of objective moral principles. This “corrective” role of religion vis-à-vis reason is not always welcomed, though, partly because distorted forms of religion, such as sectarianism and fundamentalism, can be seen to create serious social problems themselves. And in their turn, these distortions of religion arise when insufficient attention is given to the purifying and structuring role of reason within religion. It is a two-way process. Without the corrective supplied by religion, though, reason too can fall prey to distortions, as when it is manipulated by ideology, or applied in a partial way that fails to take full account of the dignity of the human person. Such misuse of reason, after all, was what gave rise to the slave trade in the first place and to many other social evils, not least the totalitarian ideologies of the twentieth century. This is why I would suggest that the world of reason and the world of faith – the world of secular rationality and the world of religious belief – need one another and should not be afraid to enter into a profound and ongoing dialogue, for the good of our civilization.
That's a masterful stroke, there -- bringing things back to slavery. How did we justify slavery in the first place, lads? Answer that and you see the problem.
Religion, in other words, is not a problem for legislators to solve, but a vital contributor to the national conversation. 
In that light, there's good news and bad news, first the bad news:
I cannot but voice my concern at the increasing marginalization of religion, particularly of Christianity, that is taking place in some quarters, even in nations which place a great emphasis on tolerance. There are those who would advocate that the voice of religion be silenced, or at least relegated to the purely private sphere. There are those who argue that the public celebration of festivals such as Christmas should be discouraged, in the questionable belief that it might somehow offend those of other religions or none. And there are those who argue – paradoxically with the intention of eliminating discrimination – that Christians in public roles should be required at times to act against their conscience. These are worrying signs of a failure to appreciate not only the rights of believers to freedom of conscience and freedom of religion, but also the legitimate role of religion in the public square. 
This is clearly a reference to the recent closing of Catholic adoption services, etc.  The good news includes the very fact of the Pope of Rome being invited on a state visit to the UK, entering Westminster Hall (and later Westminster Cathedral), and various international aid and trade efforts he enumerates.

Then this lovely close, invoking the longstanding tradition of the hall:
I am convinced that, within this country too, there are many areas in which the Church and the public authorities can work together for the good of citizens, in harmony with this Parliament’s historic practice of invoking the Spirit’s guidance upon those who seek to improve the conditions of all mankind. For such cooperation to be possible, religious bodies – including institutions linked to the Catholic Church – need to be free to act in accordance with their own principles and specific convictions based upon the faith and the official teaching of the Church. In this way, such basic rights as religious freedom, freedom of conscience and freedom of association are guaranteed. The angels looking down on us from the magnificent ceiling of this ancient Hall remind us of the long tradition from which British Parliamentary democracy has evolved. They remind us that God is constantly watching over us to guide and protect us. And they summon us to acknowledge the vital contribution that religious belief has made and can continue to make to the life of the nation.
Later at Westminster Abbey, he was likewise respectful, acknowledging that modern ecumenism began as an initiative of the Edinburgh Conference, but again he goes straight at 'em. What is the source of our hope for unity?
Our commitment to Christian unity is born of nothing less than our faith in Christ, in this Christ, risen from the dead and seated at the right hand of the Father, who will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead. It is the reality of Christ’s person, his saving work and above all the historical fact of his resurrection, which is the content of the apostolic kerygma and those credal formulas which, beginning in the New Testament itself, have guaranteed the integrity of its transmission. The Church’s unity, in a word, can never be other than a unity in the apostolic faith, in the faith entrusted to each new member of the Body of Christ during the rite of Baptism. It is this faith which unites us to the Lord, makes us sharers in his Holy Spirit, and thus, even now, sharers in the life of the Blessed Trinity, the model of the Church’s koinonia here below.
Again, if it's not about that, why bother? This next bit is incredible. He speaks to these separated bishops precisely as Peter, whose authority they may not recognize, but whose primacy they do, at least in theory:
with evangelical realism, we must also recognize the challenges which confront us, not only along the path of Christian unity, but also in our task of proclaiming Christ in our day. Fidelity to the word of God, precisely because it is a true word, demands of us an obedience which leads us together to a deeper understanding of the Lord’s will, an obedience which must be free of intellectual conformism or facile accommodation to the spirit of the age. This is the word of encouragement which I wish to leave with you this evening, and I do so in fidelity to my ministry as the Bishop of Rome and the Successor of Saint Peter, charged with a particular care for the unity of Christ’s flock. 
He claimed all present as his flock. 

Straight at 'em!

Update: drawing on B16's address to Catholic bishops, Raymond Arroyo completes the circle on what the Pope was doing in the UK.
Then came the last speech of the Pope's visit, a meeting with his Bishops of England, Scotland and Wales. Near the end of the address, Pope Benedict made his intentions plain, and cast new light on all that he had said and done since his arrival in Britain. He told his bishops:
“I asked you to be generous in implementing the Apostolic Constitution Anglicanorum Coetibus. This should be seen as a prophetic gesture that can contribute positively to the developing relations between Anglicans and Catholics. It helps us to set our sights on the ultimate goal of all ecumenical activity: the restoration of full ecclesial communion in the context of which the mutual exchange of gifts from our respective spiritual patrimonies serves as an enrichment to us all. Let us continue to pray and work unceasingly in order to hasten the joyful day when that goal can be accomplished.”
In other words, the Pope sees his Anglican"fast pass" into the Catholic Church as the fruit of ecumenism—a chance for Anglicans to return to the faith of their fathers before the Reformation and to protect themselves from an insidious secularism that is plaguing society at large and their communion in particular.
With this understanding, the symbolic and stated message of Pope Benedict during his British sojourn comes into stark relief.