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Cardinal addresses Christian dialogue with non-believers

posted on 11 March 2004
Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, the Archbishop of Westminster addressed fellow Cardinals on 11 March 2004 at the Plenary Assembly of the Pontifical Council for Culture in Rome. His short address on his personal experience of dialogue with people who profess to have no faith focused on three areas: ethical goodness, aesthetic beauty and the role of community leadership.

'Within these three areas [aesthetics, ethics and leadership] we find aspects of human life which touch everyone, and which in my experience open up, rather than close down, our dialogue with non-believers.'

'Art, architecture and beauty, can also act as a bridge in our conversation with unbelievers. For many people aesthetics can act as a kind of pre-evangelisation that may lead them in time to a more profound engagement with eternal truths and the discovery of God.'

'A concern with moral goodness is common to the whole human family, even if the principles which we apply in order to differentiate that which is good from that which is wrong vary considerably. There is a sense in which our Western culture, for example, is on its own ethical journey. This is most apparent in the younger generation. While so many have lost their bearings, as far as an explicitly Christian morality is concerned, nevertheless they are often conscientiously searching for goodness, for beauty and for truth. We are back to possibilities for pre-evangelisation.'

'In increasingly plural and multi-cultural societies, and in institutions which find themselves the subject of increasingly intense scrutiny or suspicion, leaders are faced with a common challenge: how to motivate and inspire people to work together with a common sense of purpose, united by common values. Defining mission, values and purpose in an increasingly diverse world, has become more challenging.'

'It is in exchanging views openly and respectfully that caricatures fall away, and new connections and interest can spark. Difficult though it is we should always try to resist the temptation to defensiveness. In my experience people remain open to dialogue so long as difference is respected, and affection and humour are part of the conversation.'


FULL TEXT:


Plenary Assembly of the Pontifical Council for Culture, Rome: 11 March 2004

Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor
Archbishop of Westminster


There is a magnificent passage in Pope John Paul's encyclical, Redemptor Hominis, where he speaks about man, humankind, as the primary and fundamental way for the Church. He says Man, in the full truth of his existence, of his personal being, and also of his community and social being, in the sphere of his own family, in the sphere of society and very diverse contexts, in the sphere of his own nation or people, and in the sphere of the whole of mankind, this man is the primary route that the Church must travel in fulfilling her mission. He is the primary and fundamental way for the Church, the way traced out by Christ Himself.

In my personal dealings with people who are 'non-believers', which I take to include people who do not openly profess any religious belief, I have found that the most natural and fruitful way to engage is in discussion of the things that interest and concern all of us, whatever our background or circumstances. I propose, in the next few minutes to talk about three aspects of human life which touch people whether they are believers or not. Let us see how they might illustrate indirectly the values of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The three areas are: beauty, goodness and leadership, or as the title of my talk puts it: aesthetics, ethics and leadership. Within these three areas we find aspects of human life which touch everyone, and which in my experience open up, rather than close down, our dialogue with non-believers.

I begin with 'beauty'. Recently, I was invited to talk to a distinguished group of architects and designers, most of whom I suspect were not believers. I found that fact challenging - I had to discover the common ground on which we might engage. Reactions to my talk suggested that with a little imagination we had indeed found more common ground than might have been expected. I told them that when I was a young student in Rome I was taught that being is one, true, good and beautiful: ens est unum, verum, bonum et pulchrum. It was the pulchrum, the beautiful, that fired my imagination. There is beauty in the world and the best way to delight in that truth is to experience it. Plato said, The power of the good has taken shape in the nature of the beautiful. One of the Church Fathers, St. Maximus, said that The created world had within itself a meaning, its own significance. So the world is orientated towards humanity, so even matter is orientated towards us - or rather us and God.

Architecture has its own particular and very important part to play in creating a space for meeting, a space for humanity, a space for the sacred. Buildings are never just functional; they always have something to say about the complexities of life in community, and the humanisation of space. Of course buildings from beautiful Cathedrals, like St. Peters to bridges, galleries and business schools have to be designed and constructed so that they serve a practical purpose. But art and architecture also have something to do with civilta - civilization, civility, and must never be enclosed within their own world. They should raise the human heart to the Creator of all things, namely God. Our artistic and aesthetic imaginations are a bridge to the transcendent and eternal. Art and architecture, music and literature are means to raise hearts and minds to God.

This implies, and my experience bears this out, that art, architecture and beauty, can also act as a bridge in our conversation with unbelievers. For many people aesthetics can act as a kind of pre-evangelisation that may lead them in time to a more profound engagement with eternal truths and the discovery of God. Pope John Paul, in his letter to artists says, Beauty is a key to the mystery and call to transcendence. It is an invitation to savour life and to dream of the future. That is why the beauty in created things can never fully satisfy. It stirs that hidden nostalgia for God which a love of beauty, like St. Augustine could express in incomparable terms, 'Late have I loved You, Beauty so old and so new, late have I loved You. So my first point is that the beauty, goodness and glory of creation offer real substance for our dialogue with unbelievers, dialogue which may lead some to the discovery of the truth of God.

A second area of common ground between Christians, and indeed people of the other main faiths, and those who do not profess any faith, is ethics. A concern with moral goodness is common to the whole human family, even if the principles which we apply in order to differentiate that which is good from that which is wrong vary considerably. There is a sense in which our Western culture, for example, is on its own ethical journey. This is most apparent in the younger generation. While so many have lost their bearings, as far as an explicitly Christian morality is concerned, nevertheless they are often conscientiously searching for goodness, for beauty and for truth. We are back to possibilities for pre-evangelisation.

I gave a talk two weeks ago to students at the University of Wales on the topic of Christianity, culture and human flourishing. Only three paragraphs of that talk referred to a troublesome aspect of our culture which is the apparent trivialisation of sex, particularly in the media. Perhaps unsurprisingly it was those paragraphs which attracted the attention of the national media the next day. I said that too often the sex which we see on our television screens, and which dominates so much modern advertising, is devoid of any real context. Sex is presented a
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posted on 11 March 2004

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