The Place of Religion in the Public Sphere: Speaking the Unspeakable

Andrea Pin is Associate Professor of Comparative Public Law, University of Padua,and Senior Fellow at the Center for the Study of Law & Religion Emory University

[S]ecular societies …, when confronted by the tragedies related to the mortal condition of human life, open public spaces for religious celebrations and the symbolic expression of truths. In the face of disasters that wound the civil community, the steadfastness of religious resistance to the nihilism of death appears to all as a fortress protecting the irreplaceable nature of humanity. Those affected in families and communities where justice seems inaccessible and human resources impotent do not lose hope. It is a hope that can only be assured by the justice and the love of the Creator. In such cases, the theme of man’s final destiny becomes also a public question.

Above is an excerpt from paragraph 47 of Religious Freedom for the Good of All – Theological Approaches and Contemporary Challenges, a document issued by the International Theological Commission of the Catholic Church in April 2019. It gets as close to prophesy as anything can.

The Church released it almost one year before the pandemic hit the world, and it deals with a wide array of topics ranging from religious freedom to secularism. But in the concept of human dignity, and the theological foundations of legal orders, this Italian Catholic scholar can not help but read the lines cited above and think of Pope Francis on March 27, 2020, when he delivered a solitary prayer on St. Peter’s Square in Rome while Italy was in lockdown, churches were closed, and the whole world was having a first-hand experience of its own vulnerability. The pandemic was peaking, hospitals’ intensive therapies were crowded, and the vaccines were a mere hope when the Pope brought everyone two thousand years back in history. He cited Mark’s Gospel history of when Jesus and his disciples were on the Genezareth’s lake and a storm was about to turn their small boat upside down (in Christian symbolism, the boat represents the Church itself). “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?” (Mk 4:38). “We find ourselves afraid and lost,” doubled down the Pope on a spectral, rainy night.

The document helps explain what happened on that night, and why it was so important, and not just for Catholics or Italians. What took place in St. Peter’s Square challenged the attempts to sideline religion and spirituality from social and institutional life. Something knocked on the door of obsessive desires “for a perfectly neutral value system (bordering on agnosticism) regarding the place of religion” (para. 45), as the document puts it. Many heard knocking and opened the door, as approximately 64% of Italian TVs connected to the event. What glued people to the screen was not an obsessive desire for a religious society, and even less for a religious order. No political, cultural, or even religious force was calling for the restoration of religion at the center of the public square. Nor was it an intellectual statement that religious identities be cherished, “respected and judged as vital components of the person, duly valued in the richness of their concrete contributions to the vitality of the public sphere” (para. 86), that made people watch the Pope. Something else, something much more urgent and irresistible, placed Francis’s prayer at the center stage on that very day.

What drew people was the incommensurability of human pain and death—the ultimate question that haunts every human being and humanity as a whole. Contemporary culture may try to uproot such questions from the fabric of human societies and their institutional settings, but the pandemic has disproved this attempt, showing how such questions are steeped in human nature.

The document shows how the Pope’s appearance responded to the challenge of the pandemic that threw the world into a panic. Much of the Theological Commission’s reflections are centered around the idea of “personalism,” a holistic understanding of the human being as an inextricable mixture of liberty and longing for truth, that mainly developed between the end of the nineteenth century and early twentieth, inspiring the post-World War II Catholic insistence on “human dignity.” Personalism understands people as naturally immersed within a web of social relationships that cut across time and space, social relationships such as family, nation, and religion. Religious traditions “precede the individual by welcoming and assisting him in the great anthropological adventure of his integral personalization” (para. 43). Religious entities do not seal the identity of any individual; but provide humans with invaluable tools, as they enable them to confront their biggest needs and questions regarding “love and death, truth and justice, incomprehension and hope” (para. 46). This is what they do in day-to-day life. Pope Francis’s response just showcased their role.

To perform such duties, religion seeks not just protection, but also public recognition. It wants a place in the public forum because of the unique role it discharges. It benefits people by reminding them of ”the transcendent ethical and affective foundations of man”—and by giving such foundations a voice when this is needed. “Religious witness protects the mystery of life in all its profundity” (para. 46). By allowing religions to speak the unspeakable—to remind people of their biggest questions—legal orders respect human beings for what they are. The privatization of religion—and spiritual traditions at large, of course—impoverishes our societies and deprives ourselves and our fellow citizens of the powerful tools needed to deal with the most intricate aspects of life.

Religious freedom is good for everyone. This is not just because religions can nurture a sense of morality, respect, decency, or honesty. Their deepest meaning does not lie in the civic virtues they foster, although religious traditions have played a crucial role in developing them. Their greatest, own virtue lies in their capacity to deal with things that human beings are afraid to handle: to speak the unspeakable. The capacity to deal with the most challenging aspects of life is a sign of maturity and civilization, not of infancy. Why be afraid of what makes us less afraid?

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