On Conscience and Conformity

Oswald von  Nell-Breuning was furious.

The rage of the then 90-year old former architect of the papal encyclical of Pope Pius Xl written in 1931 was amply and not without a touch of humour, demonstrated to the assembled audience by Fr Patrick Riordan.

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In 1931 Pope Pius discussed the ethical implications of the social and economic order and described the major dangers for human freedom and dignity arising from unrestrained capitalism and totalitarianism under the communist regimes, calling with urgency for the reconstruction of a social order based on the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity. Von Nell-Bruening thus raged at relative lack of progress made by politicians of whom he was critical for having failed not only in their duty to inform society or persuade us with reasoned argument but instead choose to ignore our reasoned argument while placating us with sound bytes, as it were.

Fr Riordan went on the explore the relationship between faith and politics, returning to the Catholic position of a long-held belief of separation of church and state. If the concept of separation did truly exist, would faith then be subservient to politics? In respect of this, the question for Christians is what our faith requires of us in relation to politics. How should we react when faced with choices?

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In developing the discussion, Fr Riordan drew on various writings by the leaders of the church, not least Mit Brennender Sorgean encyclical of Pope Pius XI which was published in 1937. Smuggled into Germany and read out at mass on Palm Sunday, it was highly critical of Nazism and the manner by which it elevated one race above others and raised the notions of their perceived values to an idolatrous level, concluding that in the face of spiritual loss, the only alternative available was that of heroism. Pope Pius’s call to Christian witness was clearly answered by the Austrian Franz Jägerstätter who in turn refused the call-up into the Austrian army referring to the war and the conduct of it as unjust.

More recently Pope John Paul II writing with respect of the collapse of the Soviet Union, cited the events of 1989 as a warning to those who would see political realism as outweighing law and morality in the political arena. He spoke as events would show, of the success of the gospel spirit  over an adversary determined not to be bound by moral principles. Pope John Paul II spoke of intrinsic evils, calling on us to stand up against them, not unlike a call to heroism as suggested by Pope Pius Xl and heeded by Franz Jaggerstatter and his wife, Franziska both of whom were persecuted for their beliefs.

In conclusion Fr Riordan investigated the role of evangelisation today and in reflecting on Pope Paul VI’s writings on the subject, looked to the challenges faced by Christians as they  question the norms of  conformity urged by the changing values and judgment of an increasingly secular and at times, unjust world when these are in contrast to the Word of God. Being true to the faith does also mean that we are not like sheep.

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I have to confess that writing the blog on this lecture took me far longer than usual. It would indeed have taken even longer without the advantage of watching the splendid video of the lecture produced by the Communications Office of the Diocese of Westminster and the Agency for Evangelisation at Vaughan House which was the venue for these lectures.

Images from the lecture


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