British Embassy and Fondazione Corriere della Sera,
Milan, 23rd May, 2005,

Title: Religious identity, national identity: citizens or believers?

Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

In his poem, The Republic of Conscience, the Irish Poet Laureate Seamus Heaney reflects on his status as a ‘dual citizen’ of a place where, in his words, ‘no ambassador would ever be relieved.’ As we gather in this beautiful city of Milan, and as I remember with deep gratitude my many happy years as a student and later rector of the Irish College in Rome, I would like to echo Heaney’s sentiment. To be in Italy is always a joy, a pleasure from which no guest and no ambassador would ever wish to be relieved. I would also like to take this opportunity to thank Sir Ivor, his staff at the British Embassy in Rome, and the members of Fondazione Corriere della Sera, for affording me the opportunity to return to this magnificent country, which with great affection, I have come to know as my second home.

Heaney’s poem also touches on the theme which I have been asked to address: Religious identity, national identity: citizens or believers? The title, which I have been given, hints at a ‘dual citizenship’. It suggests a double claim on our conscience and on our identity. It alludes, on the one hand, to the legitimate claims of the state to which we belong, and for which we have a responsibility with others. And on the other, to the legitimate claims of divine revelation, which, if we are faithful to the human search for truth, once discovered, require the full assent of our conscience.

The question also hints at the possibility of conflict between these two critical sources of our identity. What do we do when our religious conscience conflicts with the claims of our nation, or vice versa? To which do we owe our principal allegiance and to what degree? It was precisely this issue which absorbed the attention of the Emperor Constantine Augustus in the Edict of Milan in 313 AD. After Constantine had originally persecuted Christians for refusing to offer their allegiance to the gods of the State, his victory in battle at the Milvian Bridge, under the sign of the cross, changed everything. It was sufficient to bring him to an understanding of the necessary interdependence of peace, respect for the freedom of religion and the demands of the common good, in a society of diverse beliefs. As he explains:

When I, Constantine Augustus, as well as I, Licinius Augustus, fortunately met near Mediolanurm (Milan), and were considering everything that pertained to the public welfare and security, we thought, among other things which we saw would be for the good of many, those regulations pertaining to the reverence of the Divinity ought certainly to be made first, so that we might grant to the Christians and others full authority to observe that religion which each preferred.

Critically, in the Milan of diverse identities in the 4th century, Constantine came to realize something, which holds true to this very day. That the ‘good of many’, what we might call today the ‘common good’, in a diverse, or what we might call today, a ‘pluralist’ society, is best secured when the state, through ‘regulations pertaining to the reverence of the Divinity’, protects the principle of freedom of religion. As Pope John Paul II repeated on several occasions, no doubt mindful of his experience of two totalitarian regimes, “Religious freedom, is an essential requirement of the dignity of every person. It is a cornerstone of the structure of human rights, and for this reason an irreplaceable factor in the good of individuals and of the whole of society.”

It is a lack of acknowledgement of this intimate connection between freedom of religion and the very structure of human rights, which has left many in Europe today feeling uneasy. They are uneasy about the disproportionate influence of what is often presented as secular ‘neutrality’. Yet there is no such thing as a neutral philosophy of life, death and the human person. While there may be degrees of commonality between religious and non-religious views of life, it is difficult to see how secularism can claim this commonality for itself, not least when the philosophical commonality of Europe manifestly remains one of belief in God. As the Edict of Milan reminds us, authentic pluralism requires active tolerance of religious expression and the protection of religious freedom within the limits of morality and the common good.

This means that the state has a profound obligation to respect and protect the rights of the believer. The believer in turn, where the authority of the State is exercised within the limits of morality and according to a juridical order enjoying legal status, has a duty in conscience to obey. However, in the words of the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, ‘citizens are not obliged in conscience to follow the prescriptions of civil authorities if their precepts are contrary to the demands of the moral order, to the fundamental rights of persons or to the teachings of the Gospel.’ (#399)

In other words, when it comes to a clear choice between being a citizen and being a believer, the civil authority ‘must enact just laws, laws that correspond to the dignity of the human person and to what is required by right reason.’ (#398) Where this is not the case, ‘it is a grave duty of conscience [for the believer] not to cooperate, not even formally, in practices which, although permitted by civil legislation, are contrary to the Law of God.’ (#399)

In the end, therefore, whatever their level of involvement in the authority of the State, citizens who are believers, as well as those who are not, are obliged to the final authority of conscience, as determined by the objective moral law. In this sense, the believer will always have recourse to a final authority beyond his or her earthly citizenship. As St. Paul says, ‘for here we have no lasting city, rather we seek the one to come.’ Of course this conviction is not unique to Christians.

This then leads us to another dimension of the relationship between national and religious identity. That is the complex relationship between religious, cultural, historical, political identity as played out in situations of violent conflict.

Indeed, a quick glance at the global scene suggests that this is the one key fault lines in many of the violent conflicts in our world at this time. One only has to consider the complex interaction between religion, history, politics and power at work in the conflict in the Middle East, or in the neighbouring area here of the Balkans, or that which underlies the current tensions between Islam and the West on the world stage, to realise how potent this mix between political and religious identity can be.

This is not to suggest, however, that religion of itself is an inevitable source of conflict in our world. Indeed, quite the opposite. More people have been killed, more rights have been and continue to be suppressed in the name of non-religious ideology than in those conflicts which have a religious dimension.

And despite the common assumption that the conflict in Northern Ireland is primarily about religious identity, I am happy to be able to explain to you that it is not. It has a religious dimension, though less and less so as time goes by. It is also generally agreed that the influence of the main Churches over recent years has been to restrain conflict and to play a critical part in promoting reconciliation, mutual understanding, forgiveness and peace. Indeed, a quick survey of the joint statements of the four main Churches in Northern Ireland in the 1970’s and 80’s would suggest that they contain the very concepts and vocabulary which became the building blocks of the Good Friday or Belfast Agreement, reached between our politicians in 1998.

Shortly after the signing of that Good Friday Agreement, Senator George Mitchell, who had chaired the negotiations, wrote the following: ‘I recall on my first day in Northern Ireland, nearly four years ago, I saw for the first time the huge wall that physically separated the communities of Belfast. Thirty feet high, topped in places with barbed wire, it is an ugly reminder of the intensity and duration of the conflict.

Ironically it is called the ‘Peace Line’. On that first morning I met with Catholics on their side of the wall and in the afternoon with the Protestants on their side. The messages had not been co-ordinated, but they were the same. They said that where men and women have no opportunity or hope, they are more likely to take the path to violence. As I sat and listened to them I thought I could just as easily be in Chicago or Calcutta. Despair is the fuel for instability and conflict everywhere…’.

Senator Mitchell’s graphic description of two communities, divided by 30 foot walls, caught in a spiral of economic despair, is a powerful symbol of the ability of political and religious identity to become a potent source of mutual fear and threat between ordinary, good hearted people, with essentially the same human needs and aspirations.

In this context, Churches and people of faith can either become chaplains to the collective despair or prophets of new possibilities and opportunity. As an Inter-Church group, which meets regularly to discuss issues of faith and politics in Northern Ireland has said, and I believe you could substitute the word Church here with the place of worship of any faith community which is working in a situation of conflict:

Churches are part of communities; they cannot be other… They are places where the ‘specialness’ and stories of communities and nations can be celebrated. Much of this is necessary and good, but there is another side. ‘Specialness’ can lead to exclusivity and a sense of superiority. Churches [and other places of worship] can be places where we are told – implicitly and explicitly – who does not belong to our community; by the contents of sermons, and by the symbols displayed or not displayed, by those included or not in the prayers of intercession.

The key words here are ‘exclusivity and a sense of superiority’. Both can be generated or sustained by a number of powerful sources, including religion, politics, history, wealth or physical power. From the time of Cain and Abel to the present, these basic dynamics of conflict based on superiority and the desire to dominate have always been the same.

In the Genesis story, Cain and Abel are first presented as equals. They are two brothers, born of the same parents; they engage in two equally respectable occupations, the complementary vocations of a keeper of sheep and a tiller of the ground; they offer two equally appropriate sacrifices to God, an animal offering and a fruit offering. Into this God-given opportunity for mutual co-operation and success, comes the envy of Cain when his brother’s gift is accepted and his is not. Cain, though the older, the richer and the more highly regarded by dint of birth and profession, cannot cope with God’s inversion of his natural superiority. Envy leads to anger, which in turn leads to exclusion, which in turn leads to murder among brothers.

An interesting dimension to the story is Cain’s reply to God. After the murder, when God asks him ‘Where is your brother Abel?’, Cain tells a blatant lie, indicating further moral disintegration. He says ‘I do not know’, and then goes on to ask a critical question, ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’. The suggestion here is that the sense of responsibility for the other has collapsed into a preoccupation with self. Exclusion has now become self absorption and an inability to take responsibility with or for the other. The sense of interdependence has been lost. This is why structures which rebuild a sense of interdependence, at a local or international level, are one of the surest bulwarks against further conflict. We see this at work, for example, in the concept of the European Union, following the tragedy of the Second World War.

Breaking the cycle of exclusion and rebuilding the sense of mutual responsibility for each other’s success is a critical dimension to building peace. A critical moment in the search for peace in Northern Ireland, for example, was the realisation by all the armed protagonists that no military solution was possible, and by the two communities themselves, that there was no future possible which would exclude the culture, identity and aspirations of the other. Our future was inextricably linked to our willingness to take responsibility for the other as well as for ourselves. It involved recognising that the only future which was available was one that was shared.

To arrive at this point however involved creating porous boundaries of encounter and dialogue across the social, religious, cultural and psychological barriers between the two communities. It is what the Croatian theologian, Miroslav Volf has described as making the move from exclusion to embrace. As he explains;
In an embrace I open my arms to create space in myself for the other. Open arms are a sign that I do not want to be by myself only, an invitation for the other to come in and feel at home with me. In a mutual embrace none remains the same because each enriches the other, yet both remain themselves.

I am happy to say that the Churches were often at the forefront of this activity in Northern Ireland. Many individual ministers and believers sought to create safe spaces where such dialogue and encounter could take place, often at great risk to themselves. The real heroes, however, were those many extraordinary people who, in spite of suffering the most terrible atrocities and loss, issued heroic words of forgiveness to those who had hurt them so badly. It was here that I encountered the real dividing line between the citizen and the religious believer.

The state cannot oblige the citizen to forgive, or to engage with one’s enemy yet both engagement and forgiveness are necessary if the cycle of violence and revenge is to be broken. By doing both, the believer unleashes whole new horizons of hope and possibility to communities, which are searching for the way of peace.

But this requires a change of attitude to what can often become our exclusive and excluding religious, political or cultural identities. As one commentator has said, we are not just citizens of one country, members of one religion, members of one family, and members of one race and gender. We are citizens of the whole world, one with all who believe, brothers and sisters with all who are sincere, and part of the one family of humanity.

Jesus said as much: “Who is my mother? Who are my brothers and sisters? Those who hear and keep the word of God are mother, brother and sister to me!”. In saying this, Jesus redefined both our citizenship and our loyalties. Real family, real country, real religion, and real identity are not based upon blood relationship, skin colour, gender, church affiliation, or shared geography. What makes real family, country, religion, or identity is a shared spirit, the Holy Spirit of love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, perseverance, faith, fidelity, gentleness and purity. These transcend all other boundaries of country, religion, family, race and gender. They are what ultimately ask for our loyalty.

This in turn makes great demands on the believing politician. To have this broader horizon of identity and allegiance, arising from Christian faith, requires politicians who:

Are involved in politics primarily out of a commitment to the service of others, who seek the genuine good of the community rather than personal advantage;
Who pay particular attention to situations of poverty and suffering;
Who respect the autonomy of earthly realities, who knows that these have their own laws and values, which must be respected and properly regulated;

Who do their utmost to promote dialogue and peace in the furtherance of solidarity and do not use religion for political ends.

This last point is of particular importance. The Catholic Church believes in the mutual autonomy of Church and State in the democratic order. This doesn’t exclude the possibility that a particular religious community might be given special recognition. That recognition must in no way create discrimination within the civil or social order against other religious groups. In Northern Ireland one of the contributing factors to the conflict was the presence of discrimination on specifically religious grounds.

Happily, in both parts of the island, significant improvements have been made in this regard. In the north, comprehensive legislation and the support of both Governments for the power sharing arrangements enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement, mean that the prospect of policies of inequality or dominance are now unlikely. Yet it is true to say that following the recent Westminster elections, many Catholics now anxiously await signs that both their religious convictions and their political aspirations, in as much as these may differ from that of the unionist tradition, will be treated with respect and parity of esteem.

This includes the need to be reassured about the willingness of all parties to share power. Anything less would be extremely problematic and would ignore the fact that Northern Ireland, unlike other parts of the United Kingdom, continues to be a contested space. As such it requires unique structures which acknowledge both the identity and the aspirations of the two largest sections of the community and the interdependence of our shared future.

For my part I look forward to the prospect of engaging with Ministers from all parties in the exercise of the civic, social and educational responsibilities of the Catholic Church in a modern, pluralist democracy. Such engagement would be an important signal to the whole community that the normal standards of decency, respect and tolerance associated with a modern democracy have become the new backdrop to a more mature and confident Northern Ireland. Such engagement on matters of mutual responsibility in the civic domain does not compromise the sincerely held religious convictions of anyone. Indeed, there are many aspects of public policy and social concern, including the defence of religious liberty and certain fundamental moral values about which we could all agree.

I am optimistic that progress on all of these matters will be made and that in coming months, significant, at one time unthinkable developments, will emerge which have the potential to unlock the last doors to a stable peace and the sharing of power at a local level in Northern Ireland. At the end of the day, Northern Ireland is a story of immense progress which should be a source of hope to other places in the world.

In conclusion then, let me end where I began, by quoting another poem of my fellow countryman, Seamus Heaney. In concluding with this particular poem, I wish to pay tribute to those Christian believers who, in my country, did much more than mere citizenship can ever demand. They issued words of heroic forgiveness and embrace. It is only this willingness to go beyond what national or cultural or religions identity demands, which can bring whole societies closer to what Heaney describes so eloquently, as the far side of revenge.

History says, Don’t hope
On this side of the grave,
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.
So hope for a great sea-change
On the far side of revenge.
Believe that farther shore
Is reachable from here.

Thank you.