Cardinal: Religion Treated as 'Private Eccentricity' in Britain

The head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales expressed frustration this week that religion is seen as a "private eccentricity" in Britain, where it is increasingly treated with hostility.

Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, Archbishop of Westminster, criticized what he sees as growing intolerance towards those with religious beliefs, especially people who maintain pro-life and pro-family values.

"The progressive secularization of the cultural environment and the accompanying decline in religious practice means that religious belief of any kind tends now to be treated more as a private eccentricity than as the central and formative element in British society that it is," Murphy-O'Connor wrote in an editorial this week in U.K.'s The Independent newspaper.

He went on to write that atheists have become "more vocal and aggressive" against people of faith, while an "unfriendly climate" exists for people of all religions in Britain.

However, there is one positive result from secularization, the Cardinal offered - more tolerance for Catholics.

"Over the past 40 years, social prejudice against Catholics has largely disappeared, and Catholics have been fully assimilated into the mainstream of British life," he said.

But this acceptance is only in the religious realm, and does not extend to intellectual and cultural acceptance.

With the culture, Catholicism and other religion have a conflict because modern British society has a "dislike of absolutes," which he suggested stems from a "revulsion for totalitarianism."

The conflict is most apparent for Catholics and other faiths when it comes to issues like "the absolute value of every human life" and "the central importance of the family and the institution of marriage" to a "rightly ordered society."

"Catholics are not alone in watching with dismay as the liberal society shows signs of degenerating into the libertine society," the Cardinal said, noting Catholic positions are shared by other Christians, Jews, and Muslims.

The Catholic Church welcomes diversity and pluralism just like secular society, the Archbishop said, but when they undermine the institutions of marriage and family then they will be harmful to society.

"The vocal minority who argue that religion has no role in modern British society portray Catholic teaching on the family as prejudiced and intolerant to those pursuing alternatives," he wrote in his editorial. "Catholic teaching is clear that all unjust discrimination is wrong, but this teaching cannot accept the relativistic acceptance that all approaches are equivalent. British society champions tolerance and freedom, but that freedom is dependent on responsibility."

"A simplistic belief that right or wrong is an individualistic construct denies our responsibilities to neighbor and wider society," Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor added.

The Cardinal concluded by calling for an "open, tolerant and vibrant public square" where individuals of different opinions and beliefs can have their voices heard. He urged people of all faiths to not sit out of the debate, but to engage in them and to live exemplary lives to correct the parts of British society they believe is wrong.