Institute Supports Catholic Politicians in the Trenches
Promotes Human Dignity, Christian Voice in Public Square
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By Edward Pentin
ROME, MARCH 31, 2011 (Zenit.org).- As Christianophobia continues to spread and Church teaching threatens to become taboo in Western politics, how can Christian politicians best be encouraged to speak out in defense of the faith?
The answer may lie in the Dignitatis Humanae Institute. Founded exactly two years ago by a small group of Catholic European parliamentarians and politicians, the body is made up of working groups in several parliaments with a view to spreading worldwide.
Its aim, according to Benjamin Harnwell, the institute's founding chairman, is to be a platform through which Christian politicians can better present coherent, moderate and mainstream responses to the growing number of radical and extremist secularists in public life.
"The association between these working groups isn't a federation or confederation, but more of a convoy or flotilla," says Harnwell. "The way militant secularists work is by picking off key people through a mixture of character assassination, intimidation and bullying, so we're bringing together people who feel self-consciously part of this convoy, in order not to leave them so isolated and open to such sniper attacks."
The institute is currently setting up an international office in Rome -- in addition to its base in the European Parliament -- which will help coordinate these working groups. The basic principles of the institute are set out in its "Universal Declaration of Human Dignity," originally devised by Harnwell, and Irish Member of Parliament Gay Mitchell, and British Member of Parliament Nirj Deva.
The declaration is made up of three main principles: that man is made in the image and likeness of God; that this image and likeness proceeds in every single human being without exception from conception until natural death; and that the most effective means of safeguarding this recognition is through the active participation of the Christian faith in the public square.
A key motivating factor for the institute is that Christians in the public square are now expected to keep their faith private and yet this isn't expected of anyone else. "No one would suggest to an atheist, Freemason, socialist or capitalist that they should put the principles most important to them behind them," says Harnwell, "but unlike Christians, these -- and other belief communities -- are not expected to become 'neutral actors.'"
The institute's chairman also laments that governments are, for instance, at pains to speak about the positive contribution Muslims make to society, but rarely the good that Christians have to offer. And he argues that this huge degree of ideological intolerance, explicitly against Christians, is growing. He cited in particular the recent prosecution of two Christian owners of a Bed and Breakfast business who declined to give a room to a homosexual couple. "That would never have happened 10 years ago," says Harnwell, a native of Leicestershire, England. "These test cases start off being on the periphery of a bell curve and within a generation, they are within its very center."
Believers need not apply
Harnwell originally came up with the idea of creating the institute after the Italian politician Rocco Buttiglione was forced in 2004 to withdraw his nomination as the European Union's new commissioner for Justice, Freedom and Security because of his Catholic views on homosexuality and women.
"He was rejected, in the words of one socialist British Member of Parliament, not for anything he had ever said but for what, as a Catholic, he might think," says Harnwell. "For the first time, I appreciated the extent to which a requirement was being placed on public figures to divest themselves of their Christianity in order to be acceptable to a militant secular environment."
Harnwell kept this thought in the back of his mind while working as an assistant to Deva in the United Kingdom. "When after a few years I relocated to Brussels, I felt I was in a position to try and do something about this, but I didn't know what," he recalls. Deva's wife, Indra, then encouraged him to do something in relation to the Church and Christianity.
He then set about establishing a kind of forum that was "actively Christian in the public sphere," and one that would ensure that the Buttiglione affair wouldn't happen again. "This is when my boss, Nirj Deva, suggested I go to speak to Gay Mitchell, former Europe Minister and hugely respected Irish Member of Parliament, with whom we had both worked on the Development Committee, to ask him to take political leadership of this concept," he says. Together with Mitchell and Deva, he formulated a charter for the European Parliament's working group on human dignity that would later become the institute's declaration.
Nirj Deva, who is the president of the Institute's International Committee on Human Dignity, has high hopes for the new body. "I formed my political philosophy whilst the Cold War was very much still being fought, and I continue to be struck by the inhumanity of ideological regimes that deny human dignity in the individual, in favour of the collective," he says, "It's no accident that all the totalitarian experiments of the 20th century were determinedly and single mindedly opposed to the Christian faith. I therefore see the Universal Declaration of Human Dignity as essential to the promotion of peace and prosperity into the 21st century."
So far, the institute has received positive feedback, but its founders are under no illusion that the road will be long and challenging. "It will take a generation and we're only into our second year," says Harnwell. But he's confident that as the parliamentary groups are launched in legislatures around the world, its effectiveness will increase.
A number of senior Christian politicians have been happy to put their name to the new venture: Cardinal Renato Martino, retired president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, is the institute's honorary president. Rocco Buttiglione and Otto von Habsburg are patrons.
Meanwhile, working groups are already under way in several countries and institutions including Italy and the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly. The respected pro-life campaigner Lord Alton of Liverpool launched the UK working group, at which Alveda King was guest speaker, and the British Catholic politician Iain Duncan Smith was guest of honor. The body also hopes to launch a working group in the United States later this year, under the leadership of Congressman Chris Smith.
Age of skeptics
Speaking to ZENIT, Cardinal Martino said he was "very much looking forward" to the impending opening of the institute's new international office in Rome.
"It is important -- in fact, I would say necessary -- to promote a recognition of man's infinite dignity based on the fact that human beings are made in the image and likeness of God," he said. "This is what the Universal Declaration of Human Dignity, the intellectual basis of all our work, sets out so well. I have said elsewhere that we must thank God for this gift, for making us in his image and likeness. Because it is a great gift that goes to the heart of our faith."
But the cardinal said it is also important, if Catholics in public life are to have credibility in a skeptical age, "to produce as much fruit in accordance with this principle as possible." Therefore, he said he hopes to spend his retirement and his energies as honorary president "concentrating on the humanitarian side of promoting human dignity, and especially the rights of children in the developing world."
The institute's founders are keen to stress that it is not aimed at proselytism, nor is it in any way subversive, but that it is being set up because of growing secularist intolerance to Christians of all confessions. "We just ask for a greater spirit of respect and tolerance as that which is given to those with radically different views to us," says Harnwell.
But although fearless Christian politicians will be important in stemming the tide of Christianophobia, the institute is well aware of the bigger picture. "The culture needs to become Christian again because then it will be the culture itself which will limit society's own extremisms," says Harnwell. "A small group of members of Parliament can't do that, and if we tried to do that, it would be counterproductive. What is needed more is a re-evangelization of culture."
Anyone can help the Institute by signing the Universal Declaration on the institute's Web site (www.dignitatishumanae.com).
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Edward Pentin is a freelance writer living in Rome. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org