Freedom without the underpinning of clear and absolute values is not freedom at all

The Guardian has a leader on the role of Christianity in contemporary British society, which makes curious reading. If it were an undergraduate essay, I would be tempted to give it a rather low mark, for it lacks clarity and is full of assertions that are not backed up by any hard evidence.

Perhaps the piece itself is a symptom of the problem that most British people have when dealing with religion: they find it hard to express themselves as they have failed to master the technical language needed to do so. This is in turn a problem for religion itself: it has not developed a language in which it can make itself intelligible to people. That is a very serious predicament.

The Guardian has this to say, as it surveys the religious landscape:

Britain is a country with an established church in England and another national church in Scotland, a secular ruling class, and a population largely indifferent to distinctively Christian beliefs and overwhelmingly reluctant to go to church, which displays a growing hostility to the notion of ‘religion’ at all. There are also significant religious minorities, primarily Muslim, who have their own arguments with secularism as well as with Christianity.

Some of this is sort of correct, and some of it is deeply misleading. A “secular ruling class”? Both the head of state and the head of government are deeply religious women, who show it too, as deeply as Anglicans can. Indeed, Theresa May is nothing unusual in this – Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Margaret Thatcher were avowedly religious too. There are lots of other people in public life in the same category.

As for the general population being hostile to the notion of religion, this is true, but only when it suits them. They like to pick and choose. They may well cheer on Professor Dawkins and other members of the commentariat who take a similar line, but in certain matters they show an attachment to explicitly Christian ideas, such as charity to the poor, and in some cases, an open door to refugees. And yes, this is distinctively Christian: just consider the popular understanding of the phrase “no room at the inn”; though this is not to say that non-Christians cannot share these feelings. Again, just who are these other religious minorities who have arguments with Christianity? The vast majority of religious people in this country and religious communities at an institutional level get on very well together.

The Guardian also brings up the question of the Asher’s Bakery saga. It tells us “Christians are not being persecuted if they are prevented from exercising their beliefs in ways that harm others”. If one refuses to bake a cake which bears a political slogan of which you disapprove for someone, does this constitute doing them harm? Actually, we all need to realise that some things will offend us, and toughen up accordingly. By accusing Asher’s Bakery of doing harm, the Guardian is standing on the side of the tyranny of political correctness.

But one thing the editorial gets right. It concludes: “The nervousness over Christmas, or even over expressing religious belief, is an absurd expression of a real void at the heart of soulless technocracy.” That last phrase could have been written by a Catholic, and indeed it is that last phrase that effectively undermines the entire article, indeed, perhaps the premise of every article that ever appears in the Guardian (a paper I read with great enjoyment, by the way.)

The essential idea behind liberalism is that freedom of choice is good, indeed the highest good. If people are given a choice, they will opt to choose the greatest degree of freedom. (One great proponent of this idea, which is not entirely wrong, is the late John Rawls, about whom I know a little, having written a doctoral thesis about him and others.)

Nowadays, we are all supposed to enjoy this freedom to the full, whoever we are, and no one can interfere with our freedom to, for example, buy gay cakes from Christian bakeries or whatever else takes our fancy. So why aren’t we living the dream? Why instead are we feeling the void at the heart of soulless technocracy?

The answer is to be found in the teaching of St John Paul II, in particular his great encyclical Veritatis Splendor. Freedom of its nature is oriented to truth; freedom without truth leads to slavery and is not worth having. Values do not detract from freedom, they invest it. There is no point to liberty without it being freedom to do good. It is all there in the great pope’s writings. This is why the Guardian gets it wrong: it wants freedom, but it is wary of values; you can’t have one without the other; and values are absolute.

On the idea of absolute values, and on the subject of Veritatis Splendor in general, we should all be grateful to the ‘four cardinals’ who remind us of these very matters in their excellent letter about the dubia addressed to the Holy Father.