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Religion and Society

The illusion of neutrality

‘I leave you my peace’: the quotation from the gospels, spelt out in gigantic letters on the entry arch to the Beirut Waterfront was more or less ever-present on the posters and banners which bedecked the capital during the days of Benedict XVI’s visit.



The saying, immensely appropriate, gave perfect expression to the profound significance of the papal journey and the aspirations of many in the Middle East. Aspirations however that must come to terms with a reality which is increasingly marked by conflict. The Apostolic Exhortation Ecclesia in Medio Oriente both calls on the Catholic Church in the region, with all the multiplicity of its rites, to embark on a serious self-examination, and at the same time suggests some steps to be taken towards making a journey together with other Christians, with Jews, and with Muslims. In the civil sphere the document condemns two opposite evils, ‘secularization, with its occasionally extreme consequences, and a violent fundamentalism’, while it proposes as a solution, for the Middle East too, a ‘healthy secularity’.



The theme of the correct ordering of the relations between religion and politics is certainly one that is very dear to the Pope. Secularity is however a bone of contention, given the history of a term that frequently appears ambiguous. An aid to grasping the substance of the idea can be found in the thought of the French philosopher Jacques Maritain (1882-1973). From a Protestant family, a convert to Catholicism after a period of scientism, he lived from within the travails of the French Church which, under the threat of Marxism, was tempted by an alliance with right-wing movements. The intervention of the Vatican, which in 1926 warned against the dangers of this drift, was the occasion for Maritain to rethink his position comprehensively. Exiled to North America for the duration of World War II, Maritain pondered the possibility of a reconciliation between Christianity and the best of the liberal tradition. The illusion of the ‘neutrality” of the state – observed Maritain – was destroyed by the experience of Nazi-Fascism, which came to power by formally democratic means, but which was a mortal enemy of them. It was therefore necessary to formulate a strong vision of democracy, which could envisage the exclusion from political life of those who refuse to recognise it. In fact ‘a renewed democracy will have its own concept of man and society, and its own philosophy, its own faith, enabling it to educate people for freedom and to defend itself against those who would use democratic liberties to destroy freedom and human rights’.



A conception of this kind can accommodate to a variety of speculative foundations, since it is the object of a practical accord rather than a theoretical one. Men with different affiliations can thus collaborate without having to go through a preliminary renunciation of their own vision of the world and their own convictions.



Maritain observes that organising elections is not sufficient of itself to create a democratic order. It is necessary to have a firm conception of the practical conditions for human sociality and of the way the freedoms in them are to be used and respected. Here lies a challenge that is deeply relevant for the West as it grapples with its current economic crisis and faces the temptation to take the technocratic shortcut, and equally for the countries of the Arab uprisings, exposed as they are to the danger of a theocratic hegemony.