By Bishop Joseph Toal

POPE Francis released a new Encyclical or teaching document last week called Fratelli Tutti; the encyclical is subtitled “on fraternity and social friendship” and is a plea for peace in the world. The title draws its inspiration from the words of St Francis and the life that he proposed for those who followed him. In the document, the Pope encourages us all to find bonds that will unite us in solidarity, fraternity and support for one another, especially as we face the continuing rigours and dangers of the pandemic.

He affirms the simple truth that we are brothers and sisters, living in a common home and sharing a common humanity and reminds us that dialogue should be respectful and strive for consensus, which leads to a culture of encounter. In the Pope’s words, “a country flourishes when constructive dialogue occurs between its many rich cultural components: popular culture, university culture, youth culture, artistic culture, technological culture, economic culture, family culture and media culture.”

The Pope devotes an entire chapter of his document to “A better kind of Politics”, which he describes as striving for “the common and universal good; it is politics for and with the people.” To create an open world with an open heart, it is necessary to engage in politics, which is a noble calling, in which our politicians should always try to achieve the common and universal good.

“Politicians are called to tend to the needs of individuals,” the Pope writes and in a statement which could be addressed to our own Scottish Government, he adds: “They are called to make sacrifices that foster encounter and to seek convergence on at least some issues.” I hope the Government will continue to do exactly that by listening to concerns raised by many about a piece of proposed legislation.

Scotland’s Justice Secretary recently confirmed that the Government will amend the Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill raising the criminal threshold of the controversial stirring up offences from a “likelihood” to stir up hatred to “intent” to stir up hatred. The low threshold was heavily criticised when the bill was first published and the Bishops’ Conference of Scotland welcome the Government’s decision to remove it. It is a step in the right direction towards addressing serious concerns around free speech.

In the hope that we will remain a country, where constructive dialogue flourishes, the Catholic Church will continue to argue for further change to this legislation to include more equitable and robust freedom of expression provisions; greater clarity around the definitions of “hatred”, “abusive” and “insulting”, which remain precariously vague and urge consideration be given to appropriate defences which reflect the change to intent only.

Pope Francis invites us to build a culture of encounter capable of transcending our differences and divisions. Ultimately, we can only truly respect other people’s point of view if we first allow them to express it.

I hope the Scottish Government will address the outstanding concerns of many, that religious texts, books and social media messages expressing certain views could be considered “abusive” under the proposed law and act to protect freedom of expression and people’s right to be themselves and to be different. In doing so they would promote what the Pope describes as a “cultural covenant”, one that respects and acknowledges the different worldviews, cultures and lifestyles that coexist in our society.

Bishop Joseph Toal is Bishop of Motherwell